The Agenda For Tonight: Making Accents Boring

by Sam Tecle

Recently, The Agenda with Steve Paikin—that old reliable Ontario current events show—recently had an entire episode devoted to ‘Speaking with Accents.’  The question that underpinned the episode: “How does it feel to live in a multicultural society speaking in a way that betrays the fact that one is not born in Canada? I cannot help but think that conversations like these that seem to have the potential to go bad. Real bad.

Consider: The conversation that took place in this episode centred on the niceties and pleasantry associated with an encounter with “accented English.” Do we ask “them” to repeat the question? Do we hang up on the customer service rep that is being outsourced from “some Asian country” that took our call? Is there such a thing as “proper” pronunciation and should we adjust accordingly. Modes of accent regulation, heavy accents and light accents…and more of the same fills the rest of the episode.

Where does this conversation get us? How does this help us better understand the experience of living in Toronto with “accented English” when the conversation is shaped by such banal questions and predictably dull conversation? The answer is not much. The norm on The Agenda: many guests are white males, but every once in a while they will invite guests who are meant to represent, contain and deploy diversity. And they seem to find a way of putting all these guests in one episode—a most efficient way to check a box!

As much as The Agenda might hope, this is not a discussion about language, or about difference – if at all, it is a conversation about difference-lite. This is what happens when power is not part of the conversation. When it comes to race and difference, this is the type of pseudo-intellectual debate that dominates not only The Agenda but much of popular mainstream Canadian press. Why throw power and opportunity into the mix, those ideas that are the heart of Canada’s imaginary? It would make this conversation messy—and just might make it a serious one, too.

Talking about accents the way The Agenda did is like talking about food-as-multiculturalism: the conversation ceases to be interesting, very quickly. Angela Davis once said multiculturalism is like a salad, and conversations tend to centre around who gets to consume the salad.

The Agenda, shot in Toronto and is, dare I say it, Canada’s flagship daily intellectual news show revealed how banal such a conversation can be. Should we not expect or rather demand more of our premiere daily? Accents are echoes of the diasporic experience. They are the first sign of an experience of elsewhere, of displacement, of travel, of love and ultimately of loss—what Paul Gilroy called that “special stress” always involved with having to look both ways at the same time. There is so much pulling to a past that cannot be anymore but does not allow itself to be forgotten, an accent is one type of reminder.

There are ways that the accents people carry and bring to Toronto is on the cusp of an interesting conversation and there are ways it is not. Accents and their reception is not a productive conversation about difference or the struggles and troubles, pleasures and terrors of making a life for oneself, elsewhere. There are much more substantive conversations to be had and accents can mark the entry into rich and layered conversation, so they should always be discussed – but the questions have to be good ones. And we cannot start with the notion that accents and Toronto, even Canada, are a novelty. There is a diversity of accents across Canada - this is fact. Canadians and Canadian mainstream press would do well to rather than exoticize and marvel over them, deal with the reality that this is what Canada sounds and speaks like, and it isn’t changing. Now can we move on to more interesting conversation?

Full disclosure, I tune in to The Agenda daily despite its chronic misses in areas of race and difference, why? Because it is one of the rare places for sustained debate on both Canadian and international politics, but the potential I have marked with The Agenda is wearing thin when this is what is being called smart debate – especially when the show’s tag line is ‘makes you think.’ Unless something changes quickly, I’ll have to make an adjustment in my nighttime viewing habits. My ears won’t be able to take much more of this, no matter the accent.