I didn’t really mean it. Honest I didn’t. I was only fooling when I suggested that Canada make aboriginal languages official. I never dreamt that anyone would take seriously what I wrote in The Great Canadian Comedy, a 2008 collection of essays. If not the book, I thought that at least the title betrayed a humorous intent.
Nevertheless, seven years later, Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called for the same thing, and he wasn’t fooling. I hope nobody thinks he got the idea from me, because he didn’t. In 1988, the AFN adopted a resolution that indigenous languages receive official status in the Constitution.
The AFN and Chief Bellegarde are thinking culturally. They want to rescue aboriginal languages from extinction. I was thinking economically. I noted that the duplication of services from making both English and French official has produced one of our most enduring job creation programs. Therefore, I wrote, the solution to unemployment is to do the same for other minority languages, beginning with the 50 or so that aboriginals speak.
In a Globe and Mail interview, Chief Bellegarde proposed that we proceed incrementally. He recognized that it would be difficult to put all indigenous languages on the sides of cereal boxes and milk cartons. But this would be the ultimate goal, he is quoted as saying.
I don’t know why he stopped at cereal boxes and milk cartons. Once languages become official, they appear on all packaged and tinned products, as well as in directions and warnings for other goods or services. That’s what happened with English and French, and that’s why shopping can be full of surprises for unilingual speakers of both languages. How can they not be surprised when they discover that what they bought is not what they intended to buy?
The reason, thanks to the grocery grinch, is that tins, boxes and cartons routinely display French in English speaking areas and vice versa. I don’t suggest that perverse product placement is a marketing tool. I just can’t help noticing that because of it you shop longer than you otherwise might.
If you go home with diced tomatoes, tomates endés, when your wife has ordered crushed, tomates broyées, the experience is not only surprising, but risky. I don’t deny that it can be amusing. But like most jokes, it ceases to entertain when repeated.
Although unilingual, I have no difficulty translating tomates. It’s broyées and endés than bedevil me, especially when I’m in a hurry, shy about turning tins around in public, or confused by the collage of labels on high or low shelves.
One of my favourite dishes is pork and beans seasoned with molasses. When a helpful grocery worker discovered a tin inches from where I’d been searching, I was overjoyed. But only until I read the label: fèves au lard à la mélasse. “I refuse to eat lard,” I told her.
As you may have noticed, some food producers decrease container sizes rather than increase prices. Apparently, they think we’re less likely to notice smaller portions than higher costs. I can’t imagine this devious option surviving Chief Bellegarde’s dream. To accommodate another 50 or so languages, containers would outgrow their shelves and all but the largest megastores.
Oh, I suppose producers could inscribe the information in microdots or something like them. But we would need a specialized instrument to read it, perhaps some kind of microscope, telescope, stethoscope, endoscope – I leave it to the specialists to decide.
When I unwrapped a new CO detector, the directions and warnings were in English, French, German, and Spanish. The typeface was so small, even the English looked foreign. If, like food producers, manufacturers have to include 50 or so aboriginal tongues, the consumption of trees for the added paper may be unsustainable; and I haven’t even mentioned the trees consumed to translate old and new legislation. I thought aboriginals liked forests.
When I discussed the Bellegarde proposal with my friend Dingwall, I said it could turn Parliament into a Tower of Babel and slow government to a crawl. “Can you imagine translators trying to cope with more than 50 languages on the fly?” I asked him. “Can you visualize the paper work?”
“Parliament is already a Tower of Babel,” he replied, “and government is insensitive to the passage of time. The most noticeable change would be an increase in hot air during debates and question period.”
“I thought politicians didn’t like global warming.”