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'National' short-listers need to mind their language

On Monday, the $20,000 Polaris Prize will be awarded for "a full-length Canadian album, judged solely on artistic merit, without regard to genre or record sales." While the prize is certainly laudable, its self-description commits a serious injustice. Let me explain.

Of the 10 albums that made up last year's Polaris short-list, only one was non-anglophone. And as a glance at the prize's English-only website reveals, all 10 of this year's albums are anglophone. I should emphasize that I have no problem with this fact. My complaint is with the prize's self-description, for it is clear that the prize is not Canadian but English Canadian. Of course, English Canada is a part of Canada, but other, non-anglophone cultures make up important parts of the country as well.

In describing itself as a "Canadian" prize, then, the Polaris implies one of two things: either that non-anglophone music is inherently inferior or that non-anglophone Canadians are somehow not really Canadian. The latter, in fact, was precisely the message sent by Jian Ghomeshi's 2005 CBC Radio One show 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version. The show was designed to recognize "the 50 most essential songs in Canadian pop music history," yet since only one of the 50 was sung in a language other than English, it ended up suggesting that non-anglophone cultures are somehow not "essential" to Canada.

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The solution is simple: The Polaris Prize should change its self-definition so that it acknowledges its specific focus on English-Canadian music. This would not only be more accurate, it would also be more just. In multinational countries throughout the world, there has been a tendency for the majority nations to dominate the minorities. Some examples: in Britain, the English over the Scots, Welsh and Irish; in Israel, the Jews over the Arabs; in Spain, the Spaniards over the Basque and Catalonians; and in Canada, the English Canadians over the Québécois and first nations.

One of the main expressions of this domination has consisted of the majority nation virtually equating its culture with that of the country as a whole, leaving no room for the minority cultures. Thus was England for many years equated with Britain (of 112 Victorian textbooks on Britain's past, 108 referred to themselves as histories of England), and thus is English Canada today equated with Canada. But in so doing, we English Canadians serve only to alienate non-anglophone Canadians. This is wrong.

There is also an issue of fairness. A glance at the Polaris Prize's list of 170 judges suggests that the vast majority are anglophones. Given, as Statistics Canada tells us, that only about 9 per cent of anglophone Canadians are bilingual, and given that lyrics are an important part of contemporary music, one can only wonder how these individuals can be considered competent to judge non-anglophone Canadian albums. I suggest that they cannot. The solution, again, is to declare that the prize is a specifically English-Canadian one.

One might worry that doing so could encourage a conception of English Canada as somehow separate from the other communities within Canada. But on the contrary, English Canada not only contains large parts of numerous ethnic, regional, political and religious communities within it, but the recognition of its distinctiveness can only help to make room for Canada's minority nations. It encourages them to see that they are as essential as English Canada to the country we share. Otherwise put, when done properly, recognizing our differences reconciles, rather than divides. That is why the time has come for English Canadians to stop hiding from the truth: that we indeed form a nation within Canada.

Charles Blattberg's books include Shall We Dance? A Patriotic Politics for Canada (2003).

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