Winter semester, 1990

Touch wood
The alloyed coin
No exit
No-name society
To purposes fickly faithed
Interlude: Lesson from Leo
Pulex in the rapids
In the brass's spittoon
The whited sepulchre
All-terrain vehicles
Salomé in the buff


Thirteen weekly letters written in 1990 reflect personal observations and feelings about Dawson College at that time. They are reproduced here in the autumn of 2017—with a few editing touches and footnotes for clarity.  0

Dear Colleague:  2

The Secretary, Monsieur G., was very forthcoming. What he could not come forth with, however, were pages 2 to 4 of my letter to his superior, The Hon. Claude Ryan, member of Québec's National Assembly for the County of Argenteuil and the province's Minister of Education and Sciences. They had been lost in the mountains of paper that daily arrive in massive doses at M Ryan's riding office on the second floor of that stately, old house in the quiet center of Lachute, on a corner where Bishop crosses Grace.  3

That letter had been written months ago and I had made it a habit of enquiring about progress at ever shorter intervals. By the time I had my appointment with Monsieur G., early in December of 1987, I was not about to make much of a minor detail like a few lost pages. Besides, we all have our mishaps. I got another appointment, two days later, then drove home to get my own copy, and back to Lachute to have it reproduced at he shopping center and drop off the fresh copies with my M.N.A.'s kind receptionist.  4

On that next appointment, Mr. G. was not stingy with his time. He took me to the Minister's private office, a small corner room , simply furnished with a medium-sized desk, the Minister's desk chair, which the Secretary presently occupied, another one for visitors, and a small table. A T.V. set on a shelf allowed the Minister a convenient view on the world.  5

The room was painted white, a fresh coat on top of many others. The work had been done after M Ryan's election, the Secretary confided. It was badly needed, but there never was enough money until then. Evidentily, M Ryan is not a big spender, a refreshing quality in a public person of his stature, but well in keeping with my image of a conscientious, ascetic person affectionally known by some as "the bishop."  6

After enumerating the main points of my letter, I gave a brief demonstration of a Radio Shack PC-6 pocket computer, expanded to 16 kilobytes, and explained in what ways one could envisage it as a useful tool for education and for work after school. He seemed genuinly interested for a couple of minutes. Then he changed the conversation to cover his life as a Minister's Secretary and that, although he had a quiet moment now, he was expected to be in on those Sundays M Ryan worked in his riding office. A word half uttered and a fleeting expresson on his face told me that his principal could be rather demanding. He would bring my letter to the Minister's attention the coming Sunday.  7

* * *

When at long last I got my reply (March 16, 1988) I was shocked:  8

"I recently received from the competent authorities of my ministry their comments" ... "I cannot conclude that the issue of language was a factor in this case. The committee ... in fact accepted seven (7) projects originating from anglophone institutions and which were submitted and presented in English." ... "May I suggest that you consider the critique developed by the ministerial committee as a basis for modifying your project" ... "best wished for continued success ...."  9

The response made me feel that my complaint had been taken to reflect linguistic bigotry and not a communication problem—not altogether surprising with the way things now are in Québec. I was disappointed and I was also quite disturbed about that comment of considering the critique. The advisor who had prepared the response for the Minister's signature, political attaché P., had also missed my point that the committee's critique was useless because it concerned the price of pocket computers, expense to students, project being ahead of its time, need for students to learn how to use the device, and so on. There was nothing in the committee's critique I could sink my teeth in. Maybe I am wrong, but I felt then, and I still do, that I had been done in. Were the boys around the Minister covering for one another?  10

"Now what do you think of your friend Ryan?" tartly inquired an acquaintance who clings to a somewhat Francophobe view of things.  11

* * *

Three spoken languages are important to me. Dutch, because I was born into it, English because I use it daily, and French because it bothers me to not speak the tongue of the majority. Thus I am made out to be an irritant to those fellow citizens who, without knowing much about immigrants, feel that French ought to be used by everyone living here. But if a fair and unbiased view were to prevail, it would be understood that I, as well as many others, have not had a normal opportunity to use French regularly and by its use become proficient at it.  12

One harsh verdict goes like this, "They have lived here for many years and they don't show us respect by learning our language." It is a remark that either twists facts deliberately or betrays ignorance of a true state of affairs. I wish young people were taught about Québecois born outside of this province. After all, we are not an insignificant fraction of the population.  13

Immigration held in an unsigned contract by which one agrees to adapt to the new country, I came to Québec in 1953 and I was quite surprised to learn that at my work and throughout my community the language was English, not French. So, I learned English,which was used by French as well as by other Canadians. I was not aware of any rights or wrongs in this and I do not wish to be faulted for facts that existed when I came here.  14

That is not to say that I am not sensitive to feelings of fellow Québecois who fight to retain their language and thereby also the linguistic aspect of a home culture. Don't say that I don't grasp their frustration about all sorts of social insults. Don't say that I don't see he vital point for a need to have—and rightly so when on native turf—a wide choice of employment in the mother tongue. Take for granted that immigrants are sensitive about language; about a fading aspect of culture; about social insults; about making a go of life.  15

The threat to linguistic security must have been felt by many. Dutch, English, French—all languages have eclipsed other languages by all sorts of pressure, benign or malign. It has often been a grim process which, it would seem, can only be ended by embracing a more universal language (e.g. in the Muslim world, in India, in the European Economic Community), perhaps at an initially high psychological and social cost, and which is an essential step in a widening struggle against discrimination. Fortunately, even though the history of linguistic behemoths suggests localized decays, these may well be kept in check by today's global communications and a strong support from the written form of language. And beyond that, we may reasonably expect some extra support from another branch of language, still evolving, but likely to be sparse and precise, a lingua franca publicis. Whereas the grapholect lets us make stills of products of thought, a programming language parallels cinematography by imaging stylized processes of thought, reflecting thinking itself.  16

Listening and speaking, reading and writing, comprehension of algorithms and expressing oneself through them, all of these must become fundamental skills.  17

* * *

Back to Monsieur G.  18

I wrote a draft for another letter to M Ryan, as polite as I culd make it, and sent a copy of it to the Secretary in Lachute. I got a nice response, too (March 31, 1988):  19

"I wish to thank you ... I very much apprciated your diplomatic way of proceeding. In order to dissipate any misunderstanding, ... it would be preferable for you to explain your project, in person, to Mr. Claude Ryan ...."  20

Unfortunately, his response came too late. On the advice of a friend to make my letters to busy people short, I had already mailed a to-the-point missive to M Ryan with a lead summary stating in crisp language the two errors in the Minister's reply, presumably caused by his political attaché P. When I wrote this, I may not have given sufficient thought that my letter might become a source of friction between the Minister's underlings if G. were to bring it to his attention. One never knows who may influence whom's promotion at some future time. Politicians come and go, but the civil service and its networks are forever.  21

At any rate, whatever the reason, the Secretary must have become quite upset for he henceforth refused to return my phone calls about the promised interview with M Ryan. Even after I contacted the Minster by another route and he promised (August 1, 1988) an interview in case I couldn't settle things with Messrs P. and/or G., the Secretary was not about to keep his own word nor, I found to my great surprise, was he about to keep that of his boss, the Minister himself. I commented on this in a later letter to M Ryan, but whoever pepared the reply to that one for his signature ignored this detail. Amazing what anonymous bureaucrats can get away with.  22

For many years I have heard stories about the delibertions of advisory committees being ignored by functionnaires in the Department of Education. But in this instance I encountered a Secretary in some riding office who subversily eclipsed one of the most respected and powerful men in Québec's political life.  23

Even if you consider that fundamental safeguard of a democratic system, a citizen seeking redress through his M.N.A., an insignificant event on the scale of M Ryan's responsibilities, it still was an experience worthy of note. It was an experience that gave me some insight into who is who in public life and it made me wonder also where exactly lies the ultimate responsibility for anything at all that does not hit the front pages or the tube. Not only within that little whited sepulchre in Lachute, but in all those edifices where people's elected representatives labor, labor diligently, without being in full command.  24

Henry K van Eyken  25

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"Oh! but grandmother, what terrible big mouth you have!"
"The better to eat you with."

— from Grimm's Little Red-Cap  00