Language and Political Science in Canada

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[Note to readers: Not long ago, I was asked to contribute a post to Praxis: The Canadian Political Science Association Career Blog, which aims to “provide practical career advice for emerging and established political scientists in Canada.” I wrote something that essentially contains two pieces of advice: (i) that francophone political scientists need to watch out for the CPSA; and (ii) that anglophone political scientists need to reform it – if, that is, they want to be good colleagues. Admittedly, these two are more polemical than, say, suggestions about how to format one’s CV, but then I am a political philosopher. When the blog’s editors received my post, they asked for changes. I made the changes, but now they’re asking for more and so I’ve decided to give up on them and publish it here instead.]

C’est donc en anglais, la langue réelle de
l’Association canadienne de science
politique, et la langue du voyage, que
j’ai “choisi” de présenter cette allocution
            Alain Noël, 28 May 2014

I’ve been asked to offer some career advice about working in political science in Canada. The question led me to recall, of all things, the uproar this past summer over that float at the Fête nationale parade here in Quebec, the one pushed by four black men wearing colonial khaki outfits and followed by a parading chorus of white people dressed, alas, all in white. Why did I think of the parade? Bear with me. Someone, a colleague, raised the question on Facebook as to whether it was possible – no more than this – that the four men were happy to participate in the parade. The question seems to me to reveal a failure to grasp the sometimes intricate workings of systemic racism. Which brings me to the case of the political scientists over at the Canadian Political Science Association.

I’m referring to the time a few years back in which I found myself resigning in protest from the jury of one of the association’s prizes. The C.B. Macpherson Prize is awarded bi-annually to “the best book published in English or in French in the field of political theory.” In my year, however, all but one of the 25 submissions were in English; and, to make matters worse, the French book was a biography rather than a work of political theory. I did a little research and found that this sort of thing had been going on for quite some time. Since the prize’s inception in 1994, every winner has been in English, including, if you can believe it, all of the books on all of the shortlists. So it came as less of a surprise when I learned that there were occasions when not all of the jurors could read French. One former juror informed me that he could do so, but only very, very slowly – and yet, when he expressed his concern to that year’s CPSA president, he was told not to worry as there would be few, if any, French submissions. (Sure enough, all 30 of that year’s submissions were in English.) It struck me that continuing to declare the winner to be “the best book published in English or in French” was an insult to our francophone colleagues. So when someone proposed a solution – that the lone French book be withdrawn and then resubmitted for a different prize, and that the winner of our prize be described as the best book in English alone – I of course jumped at the opportunity to be as Canadian as possible under the circumstances. But the powers-that-be did what powers-that-be so often do: they declined. So I resigned. It must have been a slow news day, because the story made the front page of the National Post.

Since then, what I consider a ghetto prize has been created for francophones (I gather I’m not the only one with this opinion, for there were zero eligible submissions last year) and the Macpherson Prize has been awarded twice. True, one of the winners was in French, but I see this as merely a case of the exception proving the rule. No, I’m kidding; both winners were in English. So, it appears that we anglo political philosophers have managed to maintain our perfect record. Does this mean I should admit that I was wrong all along, that we really are that much better than our francophone colleagues?

No, of course not, but I will admit to feeling very frustrated. You see, these are “my people” (I was born and raised in Toronto) and I know that, just like the organizers of the Fête nationale parade, their intentions are good. They’re trying to be inclusive. Unfortunately, they’re going about it in a monistic and so counter-productive way. They act as if we – a multicultural, anglophone community – don’t constitute a nation, one which is perhaps best called “Canuck.” (This is one of the main themes of a novel I published a few years ago.) The effect of pretending this nation doesn’t exist is much like that of the English in Britain, the Spanish in Spain, the Jews in Israel – or the Franco-Québécois in Quebec for that matter: dominance over minority nations. That is what happens whenever the majority nation in a multinational democracy identifies itself with the civic or political community as a whole.

You can see the same pattern at work in such ongoing charades as the Polaris Music Prize, which continues to claim that it’s awarded to “the best full-length Canadian album based on artistic merit,” even though most of its jurors are unilingual anglophones. Surely they would agree that lyrics are important to a song, whether it is sung in English, French or an Aboriginal language? Another glaring example is Universal Music Canada’s Canada 150: A Celebration Of Music, a six-CD box set which outraged many for “offering something for all Canadian music fans to celebrate” while only including songs sung in English. Unfortunately, the C.B. Macpherson Prize is a victim of the same syndrome.

The solution to all of this is not, as the Prime Minister has done, to declare Canada a “post-national” country – a statement that must have dismayed many Franco-Québécois and First Nations. We need, instead, to fully embrace Canada’s multinationality. This means distinguishing between the civic or political community that is Canada, and all of the other communities, including the national ones, within it. It means rejecting altogether the blood-soaked legacy of Westphalianism, the nation-state model of what a country is or should be. And it means that professional associations within civil society, such as the CPSA, should stop perpetuating the myth that they’re bilingual and start identifying themselves with the nation to which most of their members belong rather than with the country as a whole. This is not to say that Franco-Québécois, other francophone Canadians, or Aboriginal Canadians shouldn’t feel welcome to join and participate in the Canuck Political Science Association; on the contrary. But as things now stand, when they see that almost all of its proceedings, including the papers delivered at its annual conferences, are in English, they are naturally struck by the implication that English is the one and only language of political science in the country.

Given my position on these matters, you can imagine my surprise when I received an invitation to contribute to the CPSA’s new blog – especially since it was suggested that I write something about language. But by this was meant no more than, for example, describing what it’s like to work in French when one is an anglophone. Well, I have to say that it’s hard to do so, now, without feeling a little ashamed. Hopefully no one will read this post as some kind of misguided, ISSSC report by a Toronto anglo who has “gone native” in Quebec. Because that would be a mistake. Rather, the take-away should simply be that there’s a lesson here, at least for all those who are genuinely concerned about assuming the responsibilities of collegiality. After all, we’re all marching in the same parade.


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