I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a kid. My mother’s father raised a family of five during the Great Depression by working as a door-to-door salesman – Fuller Brushes mostly, but they say Alfred could sell anything. Perhaps it was this experience of traveling far and wide and meeting so many different people that gave Alfred his unique perspective. Like most men in our family, Alfred was pretty circumspect. At family gatherings you wouldn’t even know he was in the room. But he could surprise you. Alfred was very firm in his belief about certain things. Like how you should treat people.
Montreal in the 1920s and 30s was a multicultural stew, particularly in the neighborhood where my mother grew up. Immigrants were pouring in – mostly Italians and Eastern Europeans. Newcomers to Canada who choose Quebec get a double dose of xenophobia – first, the generic white people kind, then the specialized and excruciating French form. Alfred would have none of it.
“Never make fun of a man who’s willing to work,” he would say. “You ask a Frenchman or an Englishman to dig a ditch and he’ll say it’s below him. But give the job to an Italian or a Polish man and he’ll dig the best ditch you’ve ever seen and be glad for the opportunity.”
Having been an immigrant myself, I understand the difficulty of trying to fit in where you’re not welcome. On some level, Grandpa did, too, rejecting the heraldry of even the most obvious differences of religion or appearance.
“They’re not n*****s They’re Negroes.” He was firm on this. “That’s the respectful way to refer to those folks. They’re no different from us.”
An antique term by today’s standards – and an objectionable one to some of my African-American friends – but Alfred’s heart was in the right place. He was trying, in his way, to manifest a primitive form of political correctness. He believed that it was up to individuals to take responsibility for making a fairer and more just world and that task begins with each of us.
I’m surprised by some of the attitudes I’m encountering with regards to the Syrian refugees in our midst. Both in live conversations and on-line, I have encountered opinions ranging from reluctant to resistive to downright hostile. Relatively few folks are accepting, and there seems to be real objections to the notion of extending a hand of welcome. Here on Vancouver Island, home to one of the most inhospitable demographics in North America, Middle Easterners will encounter a double dose, like the Italians of yore. This will play out in the dynamic of locals and newcomers interacting and finding – or not finding – a way to get along. Hopefully people will overcome their fear of the unknown and manifest some of the kindness and generosity for which Canadians are – justly, or unjustly – renowned. We will see.
As for me and my house, we will follow Alfred’s way.