Yes + No

Letters from post-referendum Montréal.
By Nilambri Ghai and Molly Shinhat

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On October 26, 1992, a national referendum was held in Canada. The referendum question asked the electorate to vote yes or no to a document called the Charlottetown Accord. The Accord challenged the notion of the two 'founding cultures' of Canada—the English and the French, and outlined a new framework within which the Canadian federation of provinces would operate. The following letters offer a personal perspective on the referendum from two English-speaking South Asian women living in Francophone Canada.

Dear Sarah,

When I walked in, I thought I'd be directed to the voting booth—just like everyone else. Instead, I waited. And waited. Men and women, ahead and behind me, all of whom were white, stood patiently. I don't even know if they were all francophones. People behind me were being directed where to vote. I think that the 'usher' (for want of a better word) had decided that a voting booth for South Asians had yet to be constructed because I was directed nowhere. I guess he figured I didn't have a vote or that I shouldn't—I don't know which is worse. I was shocked. I shouldn't be shocked any more by the latest bullshit these fuckers come up with, but I was shocked. After about ten minutes of just standing there, like a cheeky mis-read brown street sign, fixed as if in cement, I managed to open my mouth just as he was about to direct yet another person standing behind me. "So where do I vote?" I asked him loudly, in English. I felt like asking him in Punjabi and throwing in a few haram zhadas to spice it up a bit.

When I walked into the polling station, I had no idea as to how I was going to vote. This usher-type sure helped me make up my mind fast. For once, there was something I could do about being treated as if I don't even exist. I could vote YES. And I did. For a few minutes, that felt like some kind of victory, an empty one at that since I figured la belle province would reject the (Charlottetown) Accord. After that it felt pathetic. Was this the best I could do?

Nothing was as clear as in 1980, and yet the dreaded stakes still loomed in the same shadowy spaces. This time around, however, the stakes seemed bigger and weightier; having grown in the intervening decade.This was the result ten years later No matter what else had shifted and been irrevocably altered, the 'usher' and his attitudes had not. I for one didn't need to vote in a referendum to find that out.

A friend of mine once told me that the sweetest revenge is to ensure that the abuse never happens again. Within whose reach is that revenge waiting—mine or the 'usher's'? And what form will it take?

Molly A.K. Shinhat
Montreal, PQ

Dear Sona,

The referendum is over, and we can go back to our normal everyday lives. I am going to miss the intense discussions we used to have across dining tables and in classrooms. For once, we felt intensely about federal and provincial politics: there was a fear over what could happen.

Since most of the the people in the country voted NO, the Charlottetown Accord didn't go through. It's good that it has happened this way. Even though the reasons for voting NO were never the same from province to province, from group to group, or even from person to person, one thing came out loud and clear: the majority of the people didn't like the Accord. At least there was this common ground to stand on.

I wonder what would have happened had Quebec voted NO against the rest of the country. That would have left us indisputably divided. It's ironic nevertheless that the radical differences that divide us finally resulted in one resounding voice—the voice of NO! Alors on commence encore!

Where do I stand in all this? I don't know. I have yet to build my history here. How do I feel? Numb and displaced. Also I feel tired, tired of the debate. Jobs are scarce. I see frustration written over so many faces. Those of us who have jobs feel, in a way, guilty of being lucky ones. When I think of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on commissions, ad campaigns, publicity, and all that it took to get this referendum going, it makes me very tired. How will we stand accountable to the future generations? People ask for bread, they are being given alternatives for a constitution! No wonder many decided not to vote at all or to spoil their ballots in protest.

One is satisfied that at least for now there is welfare and Medicare for survival. But if this recession continues, tax payers may not be able to afford the basic social benefits we take for granted today. The day after the referendum, when ad campaigns were suggesting that a NO vote would change the entire face of the country, we woke up to a mere nothing.The referendum is over! The Accord is dead! Let's go on with it! Let's find the jobs! The referendum is over! Who cares anyway?

Of course the leaders are aware of what people want. For everyone today, the word is economy. But we are waiting. Thousands of jobs are going to be lost at CN and Pratt and Whitney. We are scared. "Am I going to be next?" is the question most of us ask ourselves. The referendum is over. Welcome to the real world!

Nilambri Ghai
Montreal, PQ

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Molly Shinhat
Molly Shinhat contributed to Rungh Volume 1, Number 4.
Nilambri Ghai
Nilambri Ghai contributed to Rungh Volume 1, Number 4.
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