Toula Drimonis We the others interview

We spoke to Toula Drimonis about why her book “We, the Others” is striking a chord in Quebec

“With this current provincial government, it feels like if you don’t check enough boxes — if you’re not this, if you’re not that, if you don’t support Bill 21, if you’re not francophone, if you don’t speak French at home — then you’re not the ‘right’ type of Quebecer.”

It is the hallmark of an excellent writer that a reader with no obvious connection to the source material or subject at hand be made to feel not only welcomed by the text, but almost immediately absorbed by perspectives and life experiences wholly different from my own. Such was my experience reading Toula Drimonis’s We, the Others.

I am not “the other” Drimonis speaks of in her book, though I immediately found myself identifying with the growing segment of the national population that falls outside the false English/French dichotomy. The two ‘official’ founding peoples concept is a myth, a total fabrication, ironically woven deep into a national psyche ostensibly oriented towards multiculturalism that’s supposed to constitute both the nation’s inherent essence as well as its ultimate goal and aspiration. 

As Drimonis points out early on, this myth ignores the multicultural Indigenous reality that preceded European colonization and settlement, as much as it obliterates the often painful memories of so many peoples who were just as foundational and yet who remain almost permanently ‘othered.’

This isn’t an abstract problem from Canada’s past either. Just the other day, a Globe and Mail editorial mentioned the fact “the transcontinental railway was built in only five years,” without mentioning the thousands of Chinese labourers who were paid far less than their white counterparts, given only the most dangerous jobs and without whom accomplishing the goal would have been impossible. Are they any less foundational? 

This is some of the territory Drimonis covers in a book that defies commonly accepted boundaries as well as expectations. It is open and accessible, largely a consequence of Drimonis weaving aspects of a personal memoir with a history of immigration (and more specifically, the historical treatment of immigrants, right up to the present), along with a journalist’s analysis of sociological, demographic and political trends. It’s not an academic book — which is good — but I could see it, or portions of it, as required reading in any number of university courses.  

Toula Drimonis on her book We, the Others

In a recent interview, Toula Drimonis told me that the idea for this book had been percolating in her mind for nearly a decade. She had initially wanted to pay tribute to immigrants like her parents, but growing xenophobia and generalized anti-immigrant sentiment — in Quebec as much as practically anywhere else in so-called western civilization right now — shifted the tone and ultimately led to the final product: a book that shifts between memoir and ode to the immigrant experience, commentary on contemporary social, cultural and political issues and a highly accessible history of the immigrant experience in Canada.

“You would be surprised how many people have come up to me saying ‘I had zero clue about any of this.’ We’re just not teaching this. People seem completely oblivious to a lot of this stuff. They just don’t pay attention,” said Drimonis, referring to Canada’s long history of anti-immigrant policies, institutionalized racism and generalized xenophobia. “All of this nonsense that we’re hearing from so many people today is eerily similar to stuff that we’ve heard from previous waves of immigration. It’s not new. There’s nothing new here.”

Though Drimonis began writing the book over two years ago, the importance and relevance of the subject matter makes it feel like it could have been written last week. Given the glacial pace of social change in Canada, not to mention how ingrained toxic xenophobia is in our culture (as evidenced by the radical increase in anti-Asian and anti-Semitic hate in particular in just the last two years), I suspect the book will continue to feel relevant for quite some time to come.

I asked Drimonis who this book was written for, and whether she had a specific audience in mind when writing it. While, as any good author, she would like everyone to read it, her answer actually surprised me: “I hope that it resonates with everyone, but I definitely wrote it for allophones because I feel like there’s this frustration. When I speak to allophones or immigrants, whether they’re first, second or third generation, there’s this feeling of ‘When will we feel like we belong?’ ‘When will we be accepted?’ ‘Why is there this constant need to check enough boxes?’

“Especially with this current (provincial) government, which has really ramped up identity politics, it feels like they’re trying to limit the definition of what a Quebecer is. It’s like if you don’t check these boxes, if you’re not this, if you’re not that, if you don’t support Bill 21, if you’re not francophone, if you don’t speak French at home… then you’re not the ‘right’ type of Quebecer or you haven’t integrated enough. So I definitely wrote it for immigrants and kids of immigrants who feel othered and who feel like they are somehow failing to live up to this definition of what it is to be a real Quebecer.”

Drimonis said that a translated version of her book will be coming out next year, though that hasn’t stopped francophones, in surprising numbers, from reading her book. “It has so far received a very positive reaction from francophones who read it in English, and I do hope more francophones read it, even those who support the CAQ government or Bill 21… I want them to see another perspective and understand how counterproductive it is because, at the end of the day, I think everyone, all Quebecers, want successful integration and social cohesion. I mean, isn’t that what everybody wants?”

The frustration of being sidelined, ignored or (worse) othered and considered suspect, despite the ample and on-going contributions of immigrants and allophones to Canadian society, is palpable throughout the book. While present and unavoidable, Drimonis strikes a balance and avoids the pitfall of bitterness (which, given recent events in Canada and Quebec, would be understandable). There’s joy here, and the deep love and commitment to Canada and Quebec that all too often requires an immigrant or allophone’s perspective and worldview to eloquently express. It shouldn’t surprise people to learn that the most ardent defenders of Canada and what Canada might become are those who have often sacrificed everything to get here and have to fight tooth and nail to succeed here. 

And while the book is not focused exclusively on Quebec, this province, being the place most different from all others yet paradoxically the laboratory of the grand national experiment, receives the added attention it deserves. “Quebecers have been othered by the rest of Canada, by the English elite,” said Drimonis, “but we don’t seem to understand that here we have an oppressed minority that’s oppressing other minorities.” 

We, the Others is an easy read that will give you plenty to think about, and I think Drimonis achieved her goal of creating something that’s simultaneously accessible and impactful. As I finished the book I turned it over to consider the summary and what others had to say about it, and noticed two words in the top lefthand corner to help booksellers categorize it: non-fiction/immigrants.

I rolled the words around a few times. Separately they seemed out of place and a poor description of what I had just read, non-fiction being too generic, too obvious, too imprecise. Using the word “immigrants” seemed almost like the book was othering itself… Drimonis may have been inspired to write this in tribute to her immigrant parents and all the allophones out there, but it’s also very clearly intended for everyone who doesn’t fall into that category too. Labeling it ‘immigrants’ almost feels like the person who comes across a difficult to pronounce ethnic name and gives up before they try. File it under ‘immigrants’ and move along. Evidently none of this was deliberately intended to malign, offend or marginalize, but it made me think that we perhaps still have a way to go in adjusting our language — and how we think — to be more accommodating. Combining the words seemed like a far better description of the book’s ultimate statement: despite the many prevalent myths about immigrants in our society, immigrants and their children are in fact not the common fictions invented to assist in their othering. 

I cannot recommend this book enough. If you don’t think there’s anything in it for you, you’re most likely in for a surprise. Buy it for that backwards uncle that makes family dinners awkward — he likely needs it most of all. ■

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on We, the Others by Toula Drimonis, please visit the Linda Leith Publishing website.

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