After the chaos of a summer filled with travelling, working, family visits and July 1st “déménagement”, I was grateful to barbecue with good friends in my new backyard. We
reconnected over food, stories and laughter, updating each other on our summer adventures. The stories were told in a variety of languages too, showing off the multilingual competencies of my friends. English seemed to be the common language, but at a few different moments throughout the evening, some groups formed to share and laugh in Arabic or Spanish, neither of which I speak or understand. I observed these small groups admiringly…but with the distinct feeling that I was an observer, an outsider.
I grew up in Ontario surrounded by monolingual English speakers, and most of my friends here in Montreal speak English with me, so I have rarely felt excluded or linguistically incapable of participating in a conversation. I started to think about how languages have the power to include and exclude people from certain spaces. Knowing a language doesn’t mean that you can automatically participate in a space or culture (for example, I am a competent French speaker but even after 6 years of living in Quebec, I still don’t fully understand or participate in Quebec culture), but at least there is some degree of access. I had thought about this before, especially in the context of migrant workers, newcomers to Canada or speakers of other varieties of French or English who are trying to access support from and do daily business with government services, schools, grocery stores, retailers, etc. However, this recent experience of being among friends but no longer able to understand everything made me reflect more deeply about what it’s like to be excluded or included, about my assumptions around my ‘right to understand’, and about how language transforms space. What I appreciated about the Arabic and Spanish conversations was their power to disrupt my (and maybe other anglo friends’) assumptions about belonging to and owning the space. When you can communicate freely and with confidence in a language you are very comfortable with, this can give you power to direct and control the conversation, what topics are broached, and what needs, opinions and ideas are given airtime and value.
My BBQ experience made me think back to a film screening series called Tillutarniit that was held earlier this summer in the FOFA gallery courtyard, just off of busy St. Catherine street. The films were all made by Inuit, and many were in Inuktitut, with English subtitles. They were funny, disturbing, thought-provoking, heartwarming and entertaining. As a non-indigenous person who has received very little education about Inuit, I was very thankful to be able to hear their stories. It was my first glimpse into life in the north. The space was transformed not only by the country food and games before the films, but by the language; specifically, the stories and community carried by the language. Some Inuit women in the audience were making comments on the films: “I miss that”, “I miss that language”, as well as comments in Inuktitut. As I listened to the language and watched stories unfold on the outdoor screen, I suddenly realized that – yes – we were sitting outside! By a major street in downtown Montreal! Inuktitut was being broadcast out onto the sidewalk! Settlers in the audience and people walking by were being thrown into a space where Inuktitut ruled, not ‘official’ and majority French or English. The needs, opinions and ideas of Inuit were being articulated powerfully, eloquently, hilariously – in Inuktitut. Inuktitut language worked to create an inclusive space for Inuit experiences, to prioritize those over the analysis and ideas of majority language speakers.
I wonder how other non-Inuktitut speakers and settlers felt about the space being handed over to Inuktitut and speakers of Inuktitut. I wonder if it went beyond being entertained and into reflection – which was one goal of the film screening. I wonder what steps settlers and majority language speakers can take in our daily lives to make space for other languages, to relinquish power, to experience exclusion.
What do you think? Can transforming a space by ceding power to Indigenous or minority languages lead to the transformation of culture and of people?