In praise of “y’all”

I wrote an email recently that went to a number of people. It started “Dear y’all,” and I was struck anew by how glad I am to have absorbed this word into my vocabulary. When you live away from your home country, it’s always interesting to note the ways it changes you as time goes on: the foods you eat, the way your accent shifts (or doesn’t), words that enter or leave your vocabulary. I would never have imagined myself as someone who uses y’all, frequently and sincerely — but I do. And I think it’s one of the most useful words I’ve picked up in a long time.

Canadian English doesn’t have a lot of great options for addressing groups of people. There’s “you guys”, which is serviceable, but which is informal and somewhat clunky — and anyway, some women don’t like being called “guys” and so you run a risk of low-key offending. There’s “folks,” which my husband uses sometimes,  but again, it’s pretty informal and doesn’t always suit. “People” sounds bossy. “Youse guys” sounds ridiculous (sorry, New York). “Ye” sounds very strange if you’re not a Newfoundler or Quaker. “You” is ambigious because it can be either singular or plural. And don’t even get me started on “yinz,” which is — amazingly — even more ridiculous than “youse guys” (sorry, Pittsburgh; I speak this truth in love).

Enter y’all, which might be the perfect second-person plural.

Y’all is adaptable: neither formal nor informal. Y’all is gender neutral. Y’all refers to two people with as much ease as it does to two thousand or two million. Y’all carries warm natural overtones of Southern hospitality. What a useful word!

We don’t plan on staying in the United States forever. At some point we’ll return to the Great White North with our American children, our relentlessly flattening/flattened vowels (cuppah cahffee, anyone?), the freedom of not using pennies, and the anticipatory joy of finally being able to find decent tea at any grocery store. And, of course, with the word y’all. It’s just so convenient; I hope y’all understand.

Explore more: Y’all, You’uns, Yinz, Youse: How regional dialects are filling a void in standard English for a plural pronoun | Florence Y’all Water Tower | America Needs Y’all

In which I come out of a particularly Canadian closet

Although my husband and I have been living in the United States for about five years now, we are Canadian, and occasionally manage to get back home to Ontario to see family and all that jazz. We just got back from a lovely week-long visit, seeing various people in various cities, and it’s given me some things to mull over.

I had forgotten the strong undercurrent of anti-American sentiment that runs through Canadian culture. Or not forgotten, exactly, but I had been able to put it aside for a time while living in this country that, for all its faults and for all that I remain exquisitely conscious of being foreign, I do very much enjoy. But when people found out that we live in the US, the questions immediately followed as to why we were living there and what we thought of the current president — mostly from strangers, and seeming less from curiosity than with an interest in having us prove our credentials. (I was also reminded that geographical ignorance runs both ways, when a parking lot attendant in a border city asked us where our State is located, while completely butchering its pronunciation.) Strangers felt comfortable saying things about America and Americans to us because those things are generally comfortable to say in Canada. We can rattle off the stereotypes pretty easily: Americans are loud, boorish, arrogant, jingoistic, outrageously fat, ignorant, racist, monolingual, radically capitalist gun nuts.

It’s amazing to me both how pervasive and how subtle this can be. When we moved to the US five years ago, one of the things that surprised me was how nice everyone was. The Americans we were running into were, on the whole, pretty kind people. They were easygoing, open, and friendly. Many of them have been extraordinarily generous to us. Are there Americans who display some of the stereotypical qualities outlined above? Of course there are. But in my experience, they’re not the majority, not by a long shot. I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was running into pleasant Americans. I should probably have been more surprised at my surprise.

It’s not like I hadn’t had contact with the United States before coming to live here. Good grief, half my family is American. My mother was born in Maryland; surely that means I am partly American myself, by heritage if not by citizenship. But it’s something I’ve tended to downplay, because admitting that you like Americans or that you are one is often met in Canada, if not with hostility, at least with a certain degree of suspicion. My mother, emigrating with her parents in the early 1970s, was met by her classmates with cries of “Yankee go home!” In forty or so years, I’m not sure how much has changed.

But this is where I live if not for the long term, then at least for now. Some of our dearest friends are American, as our three quarters of our children’s godparents. I have a Canadian brother-in-law who took American citizenship. Half my extended family lives here or is from here — and of course, our children were born Stateside and so are dual citizens (Canadian through us, American by birth). I like America. I like Americans. There, I said it.

This is not to say that I think the United States is problem-free. Do I think that a two-party system of government is completely bananas? Do I think that American healthcare is deeply broken ? Are America’s lingering racial wounds sometimes all too obvious? Yes, yes, and yes. We have run into our fair share of cultural differences here, some of which have been truly head-scratching. But just like you can love a family member without loving all of the decisions they make, you can love a people without loving all of the institutions under which they abide. I don’t think there is any inherent conflict there (after all, many Americans don’t love all of the institutions that shape their country either). Liking Americans shouldn’t have to mean approving of everything about America. Similarly, disapproving of certain things about America shouldn’t have to mean automatically disliking Americans.

And so I’m coming out of this particular Maple-emblazoned closet: My name is Christine. I am Canadian. And I think that Americans are pretty ok.

Fact Check: Pensioners vs. Refugees

This graphic crossed my facebook feed recently:

This sounds alarming, as it’s designed to. But before we forward, let’s stop and ask ourselves: is it true? (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)

First, let’s look at the money available for refugees.

I went digging a bit to see where these numbers came from. This is an interesting one in that we can actually pinpoint exactly where the misunderstanding starts (with thanks to the fine investigative team at Snopes): a Toronto Star article back in 2004 profiling the government’s plan to re-settle Somali refugees referenced an “$1,890 start-up allowance” as part of that plan. The wording there was unclear; the “allowance” is not a monthly payment, but a one-time start-up payment meant to cover things like very basic (used) furnishings: pots and pans, linens, and the like. But a reader wrote back to the author of the piece expressing indignation at the idea that refugees would be receiving over $2,000 in support per month — and also sent a similar email to about a hundred other people. There was also a letter to the editor expressing similar outrage published in the Star. From there, the misinformation ball was rolling.

So, this misunderstanding has been circulating for nearly fifteen years now. It’s bad enough that Citizenship and Immigration Canada has a statement addressing it on their website:

Do government-assisted refugees get more income support and benefits than Canadian pensioners do?

No. Refugees do not get more financial help from the federal government than Canadian pensioners.

A commonly shared email makes this false claim. The email falsely includes the one-time start-up payment as part of the monthly payment.

The amount of monthly financial support that government-assisted refugees gets is based on social assistance rates in each province and territory. It is the minimum amount needed to cover only the most basic food and shelter needs.

You know a rumour has unfortunate staying power when a government entity has to leave up a permanent corrective notice.

So the big number is wrong: refugees aren’t receiving over two grand a month. They are eligible for a few hundred dollars of government support on a monthly basis — which provides an income that is well below the poverty line. I couldn’t find precise numbers for this because it varies slightly by province, but in any case, refugees aren’t exactly pulling in the big bucks here. Furthermore, refugees often arrive in Canada already in debt to the Canadian government for their travel and medical expenses — which they must repay, with interest.

But what about that monthly support? Is it permanent? Not at all — according to the CIC website, government-sponsored refugees receive support for 12 months or until they find employment, whichever comes first. If we assume that the $580/mo. referenced in the graphic is accurate and that a refugee remains eligible for the full twelve months, that still brings them to a yearly income of only $6,960. That’s not milking the system. That’s desperate poverty.

What about benefits for pensioners?

Canadian seniors are eligible for something called the Old Age Security (OAS) payment after they turn 65, and low-income seniors are also eligible for a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). The amount received for these depend on income and marital status, but let’s use as our example our closest analogue to a refugee. We’ll call him George. George is a Canadian citizen who has lived in Canada all of his life. He is not married and he has no other income. When George turned 65 he applied for the OAS and he is eligible to receive $589.59 a month from that. (All figures taken from the government benefits table provided online.) George is already doing very marginally better than our refugee — but since George has no income, he is also eligible for the GIS. George will receive $880.61 from the GIS every month, which brings him to a total monthly benefit of $1,470.20, or $17,642.40 per year. Now, this isn’t break-the-bank money. But it’s still 2.5x the amount available to a refugee, and it’s not going to cut off after a year; it will last until George dies.

Remember, too, that George is an outlier, since I’ve arbitrarily decided that he has somehow never contributed to the Canada Pension Plan (which would otherwise provide him with an additional average income of $691.93 monthly and perhaps quite a bit more) and doesn’t have a Registered Retirement Savings Plan or any investments. Yes, there are definitely seniors who live in poverty in Canada — but most are going to be better off than our poor friend George, who is himself, let us remind ourselves, still significantly better off than a refugee.

Now — what about the moral claims?

We’ve sorted out the money. Now let’s look at the moral argument our graphic makes. To sum it up:

  1. Canadian seniors have contributed to Canada for decades
  2. Canadian seniors therefore deserve government benefits
  3. Refugees have not contributed to Canada and therefore do not deserve (as many / any) government benefits
  4. Canada should strip refugees of their benefits in order to redistribute them to pensioners

I mean… yikes. Now, I have no problem with senior citizens collecting old age supplements. In thirty or forty years I will likely be doing that myself. Let’s allow assertions one and two to stand. But that’s where the reasonableness ends.

First of all, if we think that the government of Canada should be providing more benefits and income supplements for senior citizens, there are surely other places to find those funds. There is zero reason to pit two vulnerable groups against each other.

Secondly, though, if the government gave refugees $50,000 a year I still wouldn’t envy them because being a refugee is terrible. Nobody wants to be a refugee. If someone is a refugee that means they are fleeing extremely traumatic circumstances, have more than likely spent some years living in tent shanties in a refugee camp, and that they now have to try and rebuild their lives from nothing in a country where they’re simultaneously trying to cope with a new language, culture, government, and climate. Oh, and let’s throw in some probable PTSD on top of that. People don’t become refugees so that the government will throw them some of that sweet benefit cash. People become refugees so that they can live and not die. If we’re going to bring in the language of “deserving” here, then surely refugees deserve our compassion and aid.

So if you chance to run across the same graphic I did making the rounds on social media, remember that it is (to use its own words) “AN INCREDIBLE NONSENSE !!!” and consider sharing this post or the graphic I found below as a response.