I had an unsettling visit from an elderly Quebecois woman the other day.
She was a small woman with very practical winter clothes, and her hands and skin were very dry, like her frizzed out hair that was tied back in a strict bun.
I could tell she was a practical woman who believed being super clean was more important than moisturizers or wrinkles. She was perfectly pleasant but I felt that she was proud to be controlling her normally judgmental nature.
I had invited her to come to my house, but with some reservation. She said it would take 2 hours, ‘2 hours!’ I exclaimed, to fill in the long form census. She had already been at my house twice, leaving notes from Statistics Canada. I called her back and made an appointment to see her.
Even then I thought, what is this, is this really less intrusive than filing out a form? She told me it was important for the government to have this information in order to make decisions about funding. I knew that. I never felt that the form was an invasion of privacy.
I decided to do the interview although generally I don’t give strangers two hours of my time.
The morning of her visit I forgot she was coming. It was 9 am and I had just poured a bath with lavender oil in it and was heading up to the bathroom when I saw a car pull up. I was filled with chagrin but tried to pull it together. I invited her in and explained that I had forgotten she was coming and she started to pull out her computer and explain, again, the benefits of the long form census data collection.
When she began to read from the computer, having trouble pronouncing the words because of her strong French, and I could smell my bath and also my underarms, I said gently but firmly, “Please do not read all the information, just assume that I understand”.
Then she asked me the names of the people in the house and began to pick out the letters on the keyboard one by one. I took some very deep breaths and said, in a quiet voice, ‘Isn’t this a bit ridiculous, compared to me just filling out the form myself?’ She explained that they picked the houses randomly so that they had no information about the inhabitants and had to actually physically visit the house.
It took her an hour to drive to my house and I realized now, by the speed of her speech and her typing, why the form took two hours. I knew that I had invited her and I knew I had to pull it together and be more pleasant.
I made a pot of tea and then I excused myself as best as I could. I explained that I had to go to the bath that I had just poured and I would be right back. I justified this by acknowledging that I would be better tempered if I followed this plan, and I knew that she was already out on a day’s pay and had no other place to go that day.
I ran upstairs, had a quick bath, pulled my hair back, put on some proper clothes and whipped back. The ordeal was far from over, for both of us.
I did manage to convince her to just ask the questions without the preamble, but when it came to the relationships within the family I became short tempered again. Is Frank the son of Joe, yes, is Rose the daughter of Joe. Just assume we are one nuclear family, I said, with only one father and one mother, and answer all the questions with that in mind. Are you the mother of Maude?
Then we moved on to my education and things deteriorated even further. In answering what level of education you have, you can’t say just tell her, you have to look up a list of options in another pamphlet and say, for example, D.
Then I had to explain that I was getting more education and she said, “Yes, lots of education, but no job”. She dipped her head after that, in an involuntary shudder, realizing that she was not supposed to chide the suckers who actually agree to fill in the form.
Part of me wanted to defend myself, ‘but I only just lost my job last spring, and I may get a new job soon, I am waiting to hear…’ But another part of me wanted to throw her tiny ass out in the snow so I just looked at her. “Have you worked for the government for long”, I asked. She said she had come from Quebec so that she could be nearer her daughter and her grandchildren. “That’s nice”, I said. The English/French divide had hit the moment she walked in, with the natural superiority that many French hold for the English.
The census continued inexorably. What came next was how much money I had made in the previous year, which turned out to be absolutely nothing. I felt like telling her how she had caught me just after I lost my writing job, but I didn’t. I felt like telling her that in the last year so much more had developed in my head and in my writing than money, but I couldn’t.
I was beginning to get a feeling of my worthlessness, which was seeping into my bones while my head intellectually denied any part of it. How many hours did I spend on my work? That is hard to say considering it was after caring for my family but also a huge part of my day. How would I describe my work, what was the most important element of my work, or what part of my work was the most important?
I said, after a pause to think, “Looking after my children”. She paused, hesitated, made a sound as if to argue with me, and then said, “Oui, d’accord”. At least on that we could agree.
Then she left for a snowy drive back to Moncton and a pat on the back from her boss for getting one more person on her list, and I worked on my essay for my last class in Library Studies and cleaned and made food and prepared for hungry kids and their many stories when they returned from school.
To be quite honest, the experience left me a bit depressed but writing about it has helped.