Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Lost in Translation: Maple Spring, Montreal, Night 63

If it’s not self-evident from my writing over these past few weeks — for those who have been following it — I’m not Canadian, and I don’t call Montreal my home, much as I’m increasingly falling in love with this city-island and wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time here on a regular basis. Nor do I speak, read, write, or understand (save for a rudimentary understanding) the French language. For that matter, because my home base is in the United States, like most “Americans,” I have only the most rudimentary understanding of Canada and its history, economics, politics, culture, and so on, not to mention that of the various provinces. That means I’m on this accelerated learning curve here on multiple fronts — accelerated thanks to the longest student strike in North American history. Each day, thanks to the wisdom and sharing of the accelerated amounts of people I’m getting closer to and also newly meeting, I discover new extraordinary pieces of an ever-enlarging puzzle.

Increasingly, that means I’m able to see the trees for the forest. Because when one first arrives here from the United States, especially with the hindsight of occupy participation, the forest is mesmerizing, like peak-foliage weekend in Vermont’s Green Mountains, which are suddenly blazing with near-hallucinatory reds. But a hike through that autumn splendor reveals infinite variety on a branch-by-branch basis, until one is dizzy with the confusion of which leaf should be saved and pressed, enjoyed for the moment, has a blight, isn’t quite as stunning on closer look, or exhibits promise for further coloration — meaning more hikes.

With each step on the illegal hikes I’ve been taking here through maple spring, literally and figuratively, a new vista unfolds ahead, and often a thunderstorm or two. If I thought anything seemed “simply beautiful” on arrival — like the deceptively simple phrase “maple spring” — walking deeper into understanding with each day and night pretty much means finding out I’m always wrong. Nearly everything is far more complex and, often, far more nuanced. And in many cases, contrary to my experience of wandering ever deeper into occupy, that complexity and subtlety (or frequently, double or triple meanings, particular in relation to the French language) only makes maple spring all that more remarkable.

Thus, if it’s also not self-evident from my writings, I’m on a journey of discovery here — as an “American” anarchist in a Francophone-driven (actual) social movement in Quebec Province (details that all matter). I’m hoping that my words, from that vantage point — like autumn leaves raked into a higher and higher pile — are offering a better view of what’s going on, as I get better and richer understandings of it. All of it, from its history and context, to its organizational keys and dilemmas, to (perhaps most important of all for those of us who want to see wholesale liberatory social transformation) what’s “translatable” or what will get “lost in translation” if tried elsewhere — or lost in translation from me, as I try to translate its meaning to you via these blog posts.

There’s much I’d like to explore in that regard — what can and can’t be shared — but that’s too big a topic for one night. So I’ll focus on a single red leaf: the maple.

Months ago, via Facebook, I read that longtime Montreal organizer and anarchist Jaggi Singh had come up a simple though sweet phrase to describe the already-powerful student strike: “maple spring.” Jaggi has been (and still is) involved in so many innovative moments within the recent past of antiauthoritarian struggles in Canada that I didn’t initially doubt that claim — made not by Jaggi, but rather sourced by me from a Facebook “Friend” I don’t even know. I actually still have zero idea who came up with that phrase, but I tend to suspect it’s one of those things that no one will, or should, be able to copyright or assert authorship over.

About five weeks ago, when I first stepped foot into maple spring — happily, I’ve been to Montreal many times before this — that term seemed so apt, in large part, through my starstruck eyes, because it seemed so clear and unambiguous.

That view really was in the simplistic spring, for me, of this maple spring. As May turned to June, and I stuck around to start experiencing and writing about what’s becoming a stickier and likely hotter maple summer, I’ve realized how much more is bundled up in those two words. In fact, I discovered yet another bit of depth only yesterday — from a real-life Montreal friend (who is, not surprisingly, also a Facebook friend) while we were hanging out on a leisurely Sunday morning at a leftie neighborhood cafe whose staff was alternately cooking us yummy breakfasts and setting up an indoor yard sale of their old stuff for cheap. Just one more reason that I’m falling in love with Montreal, if you’ll pardon the digression.

So here’s what I learned yesterday.

Even though I was a Vermonter for years and always will be, whether there in person or spirit, I never heard the phrase “maple spring,” but my friend said that it refers to a spring in which the sap is running well. That is, a good maple season, when things maple or movement are pouring out in abundance.

My friend also mentioned, however, that the initial use of the “maple leaf” symbol, literally or figuratively, in the phrase “maple spring” felt for some like a clear reference to Canada.

Two “lessons” here for those U.S. folks in particular who may not know much about things Canada.

First, maybe this goes without saying, but the maple leaf is the symbol on the Canada flag. The flag is, in fact, known as the “Maple Leaf,” in the same way that people in the United States say “Stars and Stripes” as a name for the U.S. flag. Furthermore, the color of that maple leaf on the Maple Leaf flag is red. Red as in the Canadian state’s maple leaf; red, now in the context of the student strike, as in red square, meaning “squarely in the red” (in debt).

Second, and again maybe this is common knowledge, but Quebec Province has a troubled relation to Canada. There is the related troubled relations between First Nations peoples and Canada along with its various provinces. But for the purposes of this “lost in translation” tale on the “maple spring” term (until I’m corrected or learn more!), the crucial point here is, a maple leaf signals the Canadian nation; this student strike evolved from and is evoking struggles over, questions about, and aspirations for sovereignty — that is, Quebec secession. That takes many flavors, and has a much more complex history than a simple “antistatism” covers. It can carry everything from racist and xenophobic overtones all the way to liberation struggle, with many shades of tensions and complexities, too, between “British” and “French,” or Anglophone and Francophone.

So as my friend was explaining, the image of a pretty little red maple leaf within the “maple spring” phraseology conjured up, for some, battles between national and provincial, not to mention the sovereignty question. Those aren’t merely word games; this all underlines the intricate fabric and conundrums of this growing social movement/strike/crisis.

My friend also noted that any major worry that “maple spring” would read as Canadian nationalism were quieted with the reminder that Quebec Province is far and away the premier (only?) maple producer across Canada. So the term for this uprising suddenly took a positive spin, stressing what’s exceptional about Quebec, not what’s statist about Canada. Nearly everyone I talk to, no matter what their stance on the sovereignty question, observes that Quebec is a distinctly different province from all the rest. Indeed, part of the mainstream media’s, politicians’, and other detractors’ trope against the student strike has been: Quebec “kids” are spoiled because they already have vastly cheaper tuition than any other province, so why complain. That’s a whole other blog piece, but the rejoinder, as 18- and 20-year-old students keep reminding me, is: “This isn’t about us. The hikes won’t even apply for a few years, and we’ll have graduated. It’s about free education as a promise of the Quiet Revolution of forty years ago. It’s about future generations.” And many add: “Everyone all across Canada and elsewhere should get free [or cheap] education too.” Yet equally, every student and every other actor in this grand social grievance mentions, also, that Quebec isn’t like the rest of Canada.

As yet another aside before I move into the last bit of depth, so far, on the deceptively simple “maple spring” phrase is this: Canada’s flag is made up of two colors: red and white. Many here are adding other squares of colors to the red squares, to signal particular political stances. For example, some add a blue square, referencing the blue of the Quebec provincial flag (i.e., sovereignty). Since special law 78 passed, many have added a blue square, signaling the end of a democracy society because the law basically criminalizes dissent, free speech, and free assembly. Anarchists turn their red and black into their own version of that combo: the end of statist politics. A white square often gets added to the red square to signal “pacificism.” No one has mentioned this to me, but after my real-life friend noted that tension of nationalism versus sovereignty, I started thinking about how the national red-white national flag’s color combination has been thwarted (or maybe not?) by the tiny red-white squares on people’s shirts here.

Finally, at least for this evening, night 63 of rebellious Montrealers defying the emergency law to take to the streets, or until I learn more, there’s something I think I mentioned in an early blog post, but regardless, bears repeating here. I thoroughly missed the lovely wordplay — or rather pronunciation play — in the French-language version of “maple spring” (probably the first version, since Francophone students are at the forefront of this movement): Printemps Érable.

The first word means “spring”; the second means “maple.” Clearly enough, I thought, when I ran it through an online French-English translator program soon after my arrival, after seeing the two words on lots of posters and T-shirts, and wondering what the hell it meant. Duh, I thought. How could I have not known that?

But the École de la Montagne Rouge (School of the Red Mountain) artist collective, when I first toured their studio probably almost a month ago, pronounced it for me — twice: one way of stressing the “É” means “maple”; the other means “Arab.”

As divisions, debates, and dilemmas rage over the sovereignty question in this maplest of springs into summer, and hopefully on into autumn, the way “maple spring” slips off the tongue sends solidarity outward. This maple spring is bound to the Arab spring, which in turn bound itself to the Capitol building occupation in Madison, which harkened soon to “occupy fall” and then back around the world again to Spain, Greece, and so many other places. It is a solidarity that doesn’t know borders; it acknowledges instead our sense of deliciously sweet interconnectedness, mutual inspiration, and the shared project — notwithstanding all the very real contextual differences that make each uprising translatable and yet not translatable — of not only desiring but self-organizing toward new forms and contents of freedom.

It’s like hanging around the sugar shack, after the sap has run and been collected in buckets, after it’s been boiled down into a thick maple syrup, when people gather together to hold maple festivals and share treats like “sugar on snow” or maple candy. They get this collective high — the fruits of their labor suddenly tasting extra poignant.

Even though I know it’s not, as day after day here makes evident, maybe “maple spring” is pretty damned simple after all.

* * *

If you stumbled across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, please excuse the typos/grammatical errors (it’s a blog, after all), and note that you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/. Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photos: Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken in Montreal, summer 2012, by Cindy Milstein)

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One comment on “Lost in Translation: Maple Spring, Montreal, Night 63

  1. Pingback: A Sticky “Maple Spring,” Montreal, Night 103 « Outside the Circle

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2012 by in Dispatches from Quebec Spring.
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