Quebecers are somewhat disconnected from the rest of Canada and can be more interested in the rest of the world than in the rest of their own country. That's what Governor-General Michaelle Jean asserted the other day, and somehow it has landed her in hot water.
Arbiters of proper thought in the sovereignty movement, those easily bruised souls, find themselves shocked, appalled and horrified at the notion the governor-general should stick up for national unity. They are insulted that she should suggest Quebecers don't know much about the rest of Canada. They are alarmed she should have promoted the idea of travel subsidies to get Canadians of all ages to see more of their own country.
In fact, the only real problem with what the G-G said is that she didn't go far enough in her original comments. She did expand on them later, citing a lack of connectedness among all regions of Canada. The people of British Columbia, for example, should take more interest in Newfoundland, she suggested.
Yes, indeed. And she could with equal justice have said that Canadians outside Quebec are all too disconnected from this province, don't know much about it, and sometimes don't seem to care.
And while Bonavista and Vancouver Island are far apart on the map, at least they share a language. The old issue of two solitudes makes the gap between Quebecers and rest-of Canadians deeper than other such gaps. It has always served the separatist purpose to depict "English" Canadians as aloof, disdainful and wilfully ignorant about Quebec; that depiction is unfair, but the word "ignorant" is sometimes not altogether wrong.
Along with second-language education, it's hard to think of a better way to reduce our mutual ignorances than through exchange programs. Every time a teenager spends a week visiting the other solitude, a tiny step is taken toward mutual understanding. If the hundreds of millions squandered and stolen on the sponsorship scandal had instead been invested in more exchanges and travel subsidies, everyone except some crooked marketing people would be better off today.
The federal government does have a program, Exchanges Canada, which pays travel bills and some other costs for teens to visit another part of the country for a week or two. Exchanges Canada, part of the Heritage Department, works with "service providers" that organize groups: 4-H, YMCA, the Society for Educational Visits and Exchanges in Canada (SEVEC), and others. But the total numbers are small. With a budget under $15 million, Exchanges Canada helped 17,800 teens to travel in 2005-06. Clearly, much more could be done.
Another idea for mutual comprehension through tourism, floated from time to time, involves some kind of tax break for vacation expenses in another region. This has some obvious problems and more thinking will be needed. But the idea of encouraging Canadians to get to know their whole country - and each other - better is an altogether healthy and sensible one, and fully appropriate for the governor-general.
For more information about existing exchange programs:
Exchanges Canada: www.exchanges.gc.ca
_ SEVEC: www.sevec.ca