Coming to Terms: Custodians of Culture

by Catherine Fournier

As a wife and mother, a convert to my husband's religion, an almost pure Scot married into a French-Canadian Irish Ukrainian family, I am perpetually aware that I am a curator and custodian of the family culture.

It's like a modern interactive museum around here most times, a gallery of permanent and seasonal displays, modified and adapted to meet the changing needs and interests of the family. The underlying theme (the name of the institution you might say) is "The Fournier Domestic Church" but the contents are as individual and as idiosyncratic as we are. The creation of culture in this family has been similar to the creation of a museum collection.

Man is a reasoning, social being. We organize ourselves into cooperative groups, create languages and dialects, develop customs and dress, share patterns of behaviour and belief. In other words, we create culture as a natural human activity, just as we create families. Culture is family in action. Culture is also the common repository of concepts, language and history of a larger group. It's a kind of shorthand; a shared idea, word or understanding of history doesn't need to be defined. Women, at the heart of the family, play an essential and irreplaceable role in the creation and preservation of culture. We have the honor and responsibility to defend and preserve the beliefs, concepts, history, traditions, practices, recipes and customs that we consider important.

What many people seem not to understand is that we never have no culture. There is culture by design, or culture by default. Culture is either created consciously by people intending to build an ethical society, develop lasting institutions, and raise children, or it develops higgledy piggledy on its own out of shared experience. That a group develops a culture doesn't mean they or it is right - it only means that they have followed the natural human impulse. Time and a culture's survival through successive generations is a better indicator of a culture's moral value. The so-called 'drug culture' or the camaraderie among skilled laborers are both examples of culture by default.

Here in Canada, pondering the question of culture is a national pastime second only to complaining about the weather. Our relatively peaceful history and constitutional policy of preserving at least the two founding cultures has lead to a mosaic of cultural traditions in sharp contrast to the melting pot model to our south.

Of course, some cultures have not survived well and the resultant tragedies contribute to the nation's continuing discussion. The best known example is that of residential schools. Briefly, Native American children were taken, by law, at the age of six away from their villages and families to spend years in residential schools. There they were beaten for speaking their language, forced to submit and convert to Christianity, and told that Indians were dirty and evil. They were also taught to read and write, instructed in math, history, geography and trade skills. When they graduated, they were returned to their by then foreign families.

There is endless debate about whether these schools were run by well meaning church personnel intending to help and save the Indians, or to whether it was government approved ethnic cleansing without the murder. What is clear is that thousands of native Americans - entire generations - are now lost in the modern world.

Heirs to neither Indian or Caucasian culture, with only a shared experience of loss, Native American Indians have succumbed by default to a culture of despair. Having lost the essential connections with the culture of their birth, they couldn't absorb the Caucasian culture intended to replace it within the loveless environment of a residential school.

This is what gives the example of Native Americans in residential schools its significance. What was done to a minority is now being done to the majority.

In churches stripped of icon, statue and liturgy, preaching banal messages of love without responsibility and forgiveness without reparation; in schools teaching process without content and tolerance without judgement; and in nuclear family homes of absent parents and abandoned children, the connections to our traditional culture are being severed.

Left behind in a movement towards 'renewal and reform', the former repository of tradition, language, idea and experience is now utterly foreign to our children. Yet presented in the earnest but sterile environment of a classroom, church basement or educational TV program, without connection to their family life, the 'new culture' is inaccessible, incomprehensible. It is increasingly obvious that lost between the untaught old and the loveless new, our secular society is sliding by default towards a culture of despair.

As the custodians of culture, either by design or default, women have played a role in this slide towards despair. Women can also play a role in the restoration of culture. When we teach and correct our children about our faith and history, we transmit culture. When we choose and reject literature, movies, associations or slang, or supplement the school's work with teaching at home, we defend culture. When we encourage modest dress, traditional foods and collect statues and icons for our walls, we preserve culture. It is our duty and responsibility to do so.

We need to be aware of the influence and authority we hold, and use it deliberately. We have a vast repository of time proven cultural tools at hand, and a central influential position at the heart of each family ready made for the job.

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