Power and Privilege: My Heritage is Bigger than Yours



Acts of dispossession, ethnic cleansing, genocide, discrimination, erasure of cultures and languages go back to time immemorial. But the backdrop of events of the past two decades, looming catastrophic climate crisis, Trumpism and the rise of the “alt-right” across the global North seems to give the theme of this issue (coined somewhat tongue-in-cheek as ‘My Heritage is Bigger than Yours’) current pertinence. Close to home, an astute quote from Donna Patrick’s paper “Canada” aptly launches our musings:

One way to embark on an examination of language and ethnic identities in Canada is to observe particular sites of ongoing political and cultural conflict. In general, these revolve around the dominant national ideology that the French and the English in Canada are its “two founding people” or “nations” (or “races,” as the term was used historically). Significantly, this ideology interacts, on the one hand, with the claim by Aboriginal people that they should also be regarded as “founding people” and, on the other, with the growing multiculturalism and multilingualism that call into question the idea of Canada as basically bilingual and bicultural.[1]

The issue of heritage, present from the moment the first settlers arrived and laid claim to the land that was not theirs for the taking, remains substantially unresolved almost 500 years later. The concept of cultural heritage pervades many aspects of life – cultural, artistic, and economic – and I am honoured to have been invited to write this guest editorial.

As the title of the theme highlights, the concept of heritage is most often not seen as something universal, but as cultural spheres that exist in comparison and competition, vying for influence, size and power. Typically this occurs when cultural heritages clash. To cite an extreme example from home, we have a nature-loving, matriarchal and pacific culture coming into contact with a patriarchal one that honours greed over respect for all beings, including animals and plants. History is full of cultural or ethnic identities being erased or decimated, but it is also full of harmonious coexistence between diverse peoples.

Our world is one of identities. We do like to label, categorize, classify, and box things and people. But taxonomy, even in natural science, is an ill-begotten practice that more often serves to obscure similarities and highlight differences. Is it human nature, or have we been trained to do this?

More often than not, the practice of division serves the flourishing of cultural hegemony: to separate, divide, break up has benefitted the powerful in their quest to attain acquiescence for their wars of greed, as well as to undermine true class struggle against the neo-con and neo-liberal policies of looting the 99% for the benefit of the 1%. The right-wing approach favours unscrupulous overt scapegoating of ethnic and cultural minorities, refugees and immigrants. Non-rightwingers are more nuanced about it. They admit a small number of minorities into the circle of elites, provided they take on the modus operandi of the existing elite. The others are often only superficially graced as “visible minorities” and diverse identities. This approach has worked well for the privileged class, whose goal is to maintain their privilege. But for the disenfranchised of the dominant class (i.e., white working class), the liberal approach has been failing miserably, hence the rise of populism, both on the left (e.g. Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn) and on the right with the alt-right flourishing across North America and Europe.

Many involved in the various movements of ethnic and social equality and environmental justice recognize the importance of uniting to a joint class struggle, but there is a long way ahead to break free from the shackles of identity politics.


This issue

True to its tradition, Montréal Serai once again brings together an extremely diverse range of writers whose short stories, poetry, essays and interviews explore the rocky paths of cultural identity. Quality food for thought shapes the interview with Alexa Conradi, whose new book of essays, Les angles morts, Perspectives sur le Québec actuel, interweaves the personal and the political as she invites her fellow Quebeckers to take a good hard look at their blind spots.

Shanti Kumari’s interview with Helen Cote Quewezance addresses the attempts at erasure of Indigenous identity by Canada’s colonial settlers. This Clan Mother settles the spurious concept of English and French as “founding fathers” by correctly referring to them as immigrants or newcomers, and calls for a profound rethinking of policy-making by returning to the ways of the Indigenous peoples to save this country – and ultimately our planet.

In “Don’t Fence Me In,” we travel with Sujata Dey on her adventures and collisions with mirrored ethnicity. Andrés Castro’s chilling short story “Intersections” highly contemporary, goes right under the skin.

Catherine Watson’s The Marquis explores irredeemable human self-interest by those whose social position permits them to pursue it. In an intricate way she connects Marquis de Sade’s short stories in Les Crimes de l’amour, written in prison over 200 years ago, with the unresolvable dilemmas of her neighbour Diane in the face of her insensitive landlord.

Issues around religious minorities and segregation are explored by Sivan Slapak in her affectionate piece, “Dear Hasidic Girls,” where she invites us to experience interactions of Hasidic girls with each other and with their teacher, whose life is outside their Hasidic community.

We are furthermore treated to three beautifully poignant poems by Nada El-Omari and an evocative short story by Ehab Lotayef, “White-Yellow,” which will ring a bell with Montrealers. New York performance artist Kayhan Irani offers us a sketch of her new work, There is a Portal, probing the post 9/11 rise of Islamophobia and its impact on Arab, South Asian and Muslim Americans.

As a new Cold War against Russia is looming over us, Nilambri Ghai shares an interview with a young Canadian named Serena Sial, whose travels in Russia have forged lasting relationships that keep drawing her back.  And I share some personal reflections on “outsiderhood.”

Veena Gokhale’s new novel, Land for Fatimah, and Lee Maracle’s Conversations with Canadians, both reviewed in this issue, land squarely on target with our theme.

And there will be more to look forward to in the coming weeks. Enjoy!


[1] Patrick, Donna. 2010. “Canada.” In Joshua Fishman and Ofelia Garcia (eds.), the Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity, 2nd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 286-301.

Máire Noonan writes as a guest editor for this issue of Montréal Serai.  Born and raised in Germany, Máire Noonan emigrated in her early 20s, first to the US, and then to Montréal, where she completed a PhD in generative linguistics. She then lived and worked in Dublin, Montréal, Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto. In 2003 she settled permanently in Montréal, where she has since been working in a variety of academic contractually-limited teaching and research positions at McGill University, Université du Québec à Montréal, and Université de Montréal.