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Good roommates are hard to find

By - September 21, 2007 (Updated: November 28, 2014)


Should Belgium remain a country? Unless you live in a cave, it’s a question you can’t avoid these days. As a Canadian, it’s a question that brings forth a strong wave of déjà vu.

One of the things I first noticed when I arrived in Belgium was that there are more similarities to my home country than I first expected. Not only do both countries have more than one national language, but there are multiple cultures attempting to live together under one roof. And like roommates squabbling over who left the dirty dishes in the sink, they didn’t always get along.

In fact, living on the language border, outside of Brussels, felt a little bit like living in my home province of New Brunswick – the only officially bilingual province in Canada.

Walking through a crowded shopping mall in central NB, you are equally likely to hear Acadian French as you are English. In NB, the two languages, and cultures tend to co-exist pretty happily.

This has not always been the case for our neighbours to the west. In the 80s and 90s, when I was in school, it seemed like everywhere you turned, someone was talking about Quebec separating from the rest of Canada.

Rivalries between Quebec and English-speaking Canada date back to the founding of our country when France and Brittan squabbled over who would get what bits of The New World. Once things finally settled down and we got on with being a country, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that Quebec’s separation from Canada became a national political issue again.

In 1980 Quebec held a referendum and asked its electorate if they wished to separate from the country. 60% of Quebecois voted no. Unfortunately the situation was not laid to rest then and there.

In 1995, just as I was graduating High School and setting out into the world of University life, Quebec was in the midst of another referendum. What I remember most were the rallies across the country asking Quebec to stay and keep Canada unified. Separation was the lead story in every newspaper; it was the topic on everyone’s lips – much like it is here in Belgium these days.

The referendum was once again voted down (although only by a tiny margin). Everyone expected the battle to rage on. But the strange thing was, after about a year or so, all of the fuss died down. That’s not to say there are no separatists in Quebec. On the contrary, they have a very strong political party. But somewhere along the line, people realised that economically, separation just isn’t a viable option for Canada.

When I look around Belgium these days, I wonder how many people are thinking about the long term realities of separation. Although it’s easy for both sides to come to an impasse, it’s not like both sides can just pack up their toys and go home. Separation is an expensive and complicated proposition.

Just like that messy roommate you’d love to kick to the curb along with his dirty dishes, it’s a lot harder to pay the rent all by yourself… and who will get custody of all of that great furniture you bought together?

I don’t claim to know what the answer is for Belgium’s future. But as someone who has come from a country that has held this debate and managed to stay together despite the differences, I can only hope that both sides are thinking about the long-term repercussions of whatever decision they make.

Good roommates are hard to find. Before we saw the sofa in half and go our separate ways, maybe we should consider the alternatives … and buy some paper plates.

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