Eastern door opening

If everyone showed up, our daily, hour long French conversation class at McGill University had only eight people and the instructor around the table.

If everyone showed up, our daily, hour long French conversation class at McGill University had only eight people and the instructor around the table. The small class size insured maximum attention to our common task of listening to and speaking the Gallic language. Nobody could hide in that class. A head buried in a book or a pen in hand rapidly taking notes wouldn’t save you from your turn at struggling with a verb ending or a trying to piece together a coherent response to the question of the day.

This class in the fall of 1973, one of many similar sections of the course, had one claim to fame. We counted among our small band the first two students on campus from the People’s Republic of China. This was one of the early concrete manifestations of the Canadian government’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with China in October of 1970. Led by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, a door to the world’s most populous country had opened.

Studying French at McGill rather than the Universite de Montreal or other worthy Francophone institutions may have seemed odd until one recognized the dual Chinese purpose it accomplished. The Chinese simultaneously offered a bow towards Doctor Norman Bethune, its Canadian hero who taught medicine and developed his innovative thoracic surgical practices at McGill University from 1928 to 1936, and Quebec’s culture.

Our fellow Chinese students always seemed to be together in class. In fact, you never ever saw one of these Chinese young ladies in their requisite Maoist garb alone. Even when I came across members of their consular delegation shopping back then at the famous Warshaw’s grocery store on the Main, you saw them make their purchases by committee. One Saturday, I recall witnessing their collective decision-making in front of a bin of fruit. The first person would select a piece of fruit then pass it along to the next comrade who I suppose had the right to accept or reject the item. The second would then hand it over to the next person in line and so on to the last who would have the final veto or drop it into their bag.

In our class both Chinese students often needed, as well, to consult with the other before answering the question of the day. One day our French Canadian instructor proposed the topic of intramural sports as our discussion theme. We took our turns telling others how we kept ourselves active on campus. This subject baffled our Chinese peers but they refused to pass when it came their turn.

After an obviously intense whispered exchange, one of them provided a response for us. They indeed had intramural sports at their home Chinese university, she explained. At an appointed hour, students would gather at a field near their classroom building to practice “lancer la grenade,” or grenade throwing. Our instructor tried to explain that this ‘sport’ was not quite what she had in mind.

Could we have possibly imagined back then the global changes four decades had in store for all of us? From a handful of Chinese students then to over 40,000 now taking courses here each year is only one of many signs of this Asian country’s impact in our world today. The next 40 years will undoubtedly hold even more dramatic changes as we struggle towards a socially just, environmentally sustainable world. It likely will somehow effectively blend the collective rights of those Maoist days with the individual rights focus which we shared with them back then.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.

Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Local poet Joanna Lilley is photographed at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse on Jan. 20, where she will be hosting a poetry workshop on Jan. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Poetry for the ages

Workshop set for the Yukon Beringia Centre

President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris in the State Dinning Room of the White House on Jan. 21, in Washington, D.C. The administration announced plans Jan. 20 for a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after the Trump administration issued leases in a part of the refuge considered sacred by the Gwich’in. (Alex Brandon/AP)
U.S. President Joe Biden halts oil and gas lease sales in ANWR

“Its great to have an ally in the White House”


Wyatt’s World for Jan. 22, 2021

Children’s performer Claire Ness poses for a photo for the upcoming annual Pivot Festival. “Claire Ness Morning” will be a kid-friendly performance streamed on the morning of Jan. 30. (Photo courtesy Erik Pinkerton Photography)
Pivot Festival provides ‘delight and light’ to a pandemic January

The festival runs Jan. 20 to 30 with virtual and physically distant events

The Boulevard of Hope was launched by the Yukon T1D Support Network and will be lit up throughout January. It is aimed at raising awareness about Yukoners living with Type 1 diabetes. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Boulevard of Hope sheds light on Type 1 diabetes

Organizers hope to make it an annual event

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Yukon Energy, Solvest Inc. and Chu Níikwän Development Corporation are calling on the city for a meeting to look at possibilities for separate tax rates or incentives for renewable energy projects. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tax changes sought for Whitehorse energy projects

Delegates call for separate property tax category for renewable energy projects

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Most Read