I'm a lifelong Montrealer who from two to 23 years old spent his life living in a home in Pierrefonds. I went to school there, learned French there, watched TV there.
It's only in the past few years that I've really started paying attention to Quebec's francophone culture. It's not so much that I didn't understand the language, although that certainly turned me off when I was younger. But it's hard to just pick up a different culture, especially when you don't understand its cultural references.
The fact that I was educated in an English public school also contributed. One of the unintended consequences of Quebec's French language charter (Bill 101) is that it separates English and French-speaking children socially by having them go to different schools. Children whose parents were educated in French and not English were prohibited by law from going to school with me.
Maybe it was anglo guilt, or a desire to understand what was going on in francophone media, or perhaps just wanting to see, hear or read something that was produced close to home, I've started consuming Québécois popular culture. (Notice here I say "popular" - I'm a very uncultured person in either language.)
Among the cultural icons I consume is Tout le monde en parle, the Sunday night talk show hosted by Guy A. Lepage that regularly attracts more than a million viewers (despite being almost two and a half hours long) and some of the most high-profile guests you'll see in Montreal.
Sunday's episode was, for the most part, like any other. A mix of politics and culture, high brow and low brow, serious and funny. Discussions of autism and Libya, but also of filmmaking and comedy.
And Epic Meal Time.
In case you haven't heard of them, this group of anglo Montrealers posts YouTube videos of massive meals they create, made up for the most part of meat (particularly bacon) and other fatty substances that send the calorie count into the stratosphere. They do this in character, for some reason thinking that having personalities that take themselves too seriously will improve the quality of their videos.
The Epic Meal Time videos have gone crazy viral, and have been watched tens of millions of times. Among those viewers, apparently, was Mr. Lepage's son, who suggested his dad invite them to his talk show.
The viewers found out as Lepage introduced them to the plateau that Morenstein and Toth spoke very little French and so the interview was conducted in English. The two even had earpieces installed so the questions could be translated into English for them.
Montreal anglos unable to talk in French on a talk show with a huge audience. You bet that provoked a reaction.
I've rounded up some of the tweets I found on the subject.
Those who think two anglos on a talk show shows some serious flaw in Quebec society:
- mariezor: Epic Meal Time à #TLMEP : Une autre preuve que notre merveilleuse langue se meurt. Québécois, 0 connaissance du français. FAIL.
- MaudeLaRouquine: Ça m'insulte des gens qui ont grandi au Qc et qui ne sont même pas donné la peine d'apprendre le français. Je le prends personnel... #tlmep
- tachouan: A voir les 2 gars de EpicMealTime à TLMEP, ça me convainc encore plus de voter Bloc et pour Gilles Duceppe. Yeurk !
- joeston: #tlmep on dirait que PERSONNE savait que 98,4% des gens du west island parle pas français, sortez de chez vous un peu...
- Normand55: @Lwwwi Les 2 épais a TLMEP du west island pas un mot francais un air de cochon et de la bouffe beurkkkkk
- JoseeLegault: Et quelqu'un pourrait-il dire aux 2«cooks» que parler des «French Canadians» en 2011, ça fait pas mal Elvis Gratton ds l'avion? #tlmep
- MathieuMD: Hum des montréalais qui ne parlent pas un mot de français, vous ne trouvez pas ça insultant ? #tlmep
- mcgilles: Rumeur: les 2 gars de #EpicMealTime ont convaincu plus de monde à voter Bloc que Gilles Duceppe. :)) #Tlmep [Retweeted by Guy A. Lepage]
- danyturcotte: On aime bien se le faire dire en français;-)@EpicMealTime: #tlmep MUCH love to our French-Canadian fans and supporters!!!
- Outsider32: Je veux me séparer du Canada, 2 twits du West Island ne parlent pas Français! à #tlmep
- PatWhite70: Epic Meal Time : How come you don't speak French after almost 35 years in Montreal ? #tlmep #donottgetit
- delmarhasissues: Best of luck to @EpicMealTime & stuff, but what a sad sign for English Montreal that they can't answer soft questions in French on #TLMEP!
- JosianeGosselin: Pas parler français alors que t'as grandi dans le West Island, ça fait crissement dur. Bon, c'est dit. #epicmealtime #tlmep
- malussier: Y a des enfants de la loi 101 qui ont visiblement séché une couple de cours on dirait... #EpicmealTime #tlmep
- AAT19: Les gars #EpicMealTime parlent pas français et sont nés où déjà?? Ah oui Montréal #tlmep #fail
- CODeux: Dégueulasse.... vraiment #tlmep #EpicMealTime comment peut-on vivre dans le #WESTISLAND et ne pas parler français ça me sidère à tout coup
- furgen1289: Je ne comprends pas comment on peut vivre à Montreal toute sa vie et ne pas parler un mot de français #tlmep #jeViensDeLaCôteNord
- CODeux: Dégueulasse.... vraiment #tlmep #EpicMealTime comment peut-on vivre dans le #WESTISLAND et ne pas parler français ça me sidère à tout coup
- MC_Bonneau: WTF ? Ça se peut ça, avoir 30 ans, avoir grandi au Québec et pas parler français ? #tlmep
- lebloguedediane: 2 anglos unilingues de Mtl. dommage que M, Duceppe ait dû quitter #EpicMealTime #tlmep
- patybeetles: Je trouves dommage que des gars qui ont vécu au Qc ne parle pas français #EpicMealTime #tlmep
- michel_20_100: #tlmep epicmealtime: j'espère que certains gens de Qc vont mieux comprendre la réalité montréalaise
- eloizeb: Je comprends pas comment ça des Montréalais d'origine de westmount ne parle pas français. #epicmealtime #tlmep
- etiennelj: Pour ceux qui pensent que toute la jeune génération québécoise parle français, #epicmealtime #tlmep
- hugodumas: On dirait que ça m'énerve un peu que deux jeunes Montréalais du West Island ne parlent pas un traître mot de français. #bilinguisme
- guyalepage: @hugodumas ça m'énerve grandement mais y en a un méchant paquet d'unilingue à Mtl totalement désintéressé par la culture québécoise. Réalité
- guyalepage: Je comprend pas non plus mais c'est un pays bilingue ! RT @chantalsto @guyalepage j'comprends pas qu'on parle pas français à Montréal #TLMEP
- MarcCassivi: Conclusion: on parle français au Liban; on ne parle pas beaucoup français dans le West-Island. #tlmep
- gencotefrilance: 1 libanaise qui répond dans un français impec et 2 québécois qui répondent en anglais... Trouvez l'erreur! #tlmep
Those who call the above "racist":
- JeanAymeri: C'est donc correct d'être un peu raciste vu qu'ils parlent pas super bien français? #EpicMealTime #TLMEP
- terraindejeux: Salutations aux RACISTES qui sont pas fiers du succès des deux QUÉBÉCOIS de #EpicMealTime, parce qu'ils sont unilingues. #tlmep #montreal
- lyne_ouellette: #tlmep chialer contre les anglais, c'est du racisme, pur et simple...
Those who play the "if the situation was reversed" game:
- KatrineBeau: Je pense pas que les commentaires seraient mieux chez les anglos face a un unilingue franco dans un talk show anglo #tlmep
- Dr_AlexKing: Je ne connais pas beaucoup de Québécois, francophones ou non, qui seraient à l'aise de faire une entrevue télé dans les deux langues. #TLMEP
- TVQC: Un québécois qui vie en anglais à Montréal c'est comme un québécois qui vie en français en Floride :) #tlmep
- delmarhasissues: Nous sommes pas tous des caves unilingue, quand même. Est-ce que @guyalepage pourrait se débrouiller a #CJAD? Je m'en doute. #TLMEP
- StephanieBaron: Au Québec, selon les chiffres les + récents de StatCan, 66% des anglos parlent français, 33% des franco parlent anglais.... #tlmep
- MacphersonGaz: Comme ça deux chefs cuisiniers du West Island ne sont pas bilingues. Puis après? La chef du PQ ne l'est pas non plus. #tlmep #EpicMealTime
- missmanera: Si les gars d'Epic Meal Time étaient francos, certains trouveraient soudainement qu'ils sont moins cons. #TLMEP
- JeanAymeri: Et les québécois qui parlent pas anglais a Montreal? #TLMEP #epicmealtime #doublestandard
- lemportepiece: Préfère voir deux Anglo-mtlais parler en anglais dans une entrevue que des milliers de franco-québécois s'exprimer en anglais sur fb #TLMEP
- Pat_Moreau: Pourquoi est-ce bien d'être unilingue français mais un sacrilège d'être unilingue anglais? 2 poids 2 mesure... #tlmep
Those who find other hypocrisies to point out:
- Antagoniste_net: À #tlmep Duceppe a dit que le Qc respectait la minorité anglo. 1h plus tard on blast des montréalais parce qu'ils ne parlent pas français.
Anglophones and West Islanders who are embarrassed that one of their kind couldn't string a few words together in French:
- ToulasTake: Way to go, @EpicMealTime, for proving the stereotype of the unilingual West Island anglo true to French Quebecers. #TLMEP #embarassing
- celesteparr: Bon, il me faut pratiquer mon français afin de ne pas finir la maudite anglaise montréalaise avec une traduction à l'oreille ;) #tlmep
- TousNadine: Nous ne sommes pas tous comme eux dans l'ouest de Mtl! Mais y'en a pas mal... #tlmep #epicmealtime
- alexxventura: Je connais des tonnes d'anglos bilingues qui ont grandi ds les quartiers anglo de MTL et qui parlent très bien FR #fail #EpicMealTime #tlmep
- soupnancy: Not in the mood to defend Anglo Montealers or Anglo 'chefs' after Epic Meal Time on TLMEP
Those who apologize to Epic Meal Time on behalf of Quebec:
- levraifrenchy: @EpicMealTime I am a fan and I'm not really happy with most of the reaction on twitter #tlmep but its not all quebecois who think like this!
Those who are just tired of the debate:
- nickmorel: J'ai un peu honte que l'entrevue avec #Epicmeal donne lieu à une querelle Anglos vs Francos...on en est encore là? Vraiment? #tlmep
- AndreanneS: Je suis tannée des débats sur la langue. Il y a aussi bcp de franco qui parlent pas un mot anglais. Dans un pays bilingue. Pas mieux #tlmep
- Antagoniste_net: Transformer le phénomène @EpicMealTime en controverse linguistique. Il faut vraiment être loser/obsédé. Bacon=universal language! #tlmep
- BasemBoshra: Re: Epic Meal Time on #TLMEP : if it wasn't official before, it is now: ANYTHING can be turned into a Twitter debate on language in QC.
Those who think it's all a conspiracy (okay, it was just one):
- JulieClochette: J'ai bizarrement l'impression que ces deux la parle Francais autant qu'anglais... c'est juste pour la contreverse... sont pas fou... #tlmep
and those who have no idea what everyone is talking about:
- ecalof: Ok guys...what does #tlmep stand for? Seen the @EpicMealTime guys using it.
There's even some YouTube reaction:
and at least one blog post, which provoked a response from (someone claiming to be) Morenstein. The journalists who summarized the show glossed over the issue. (The silliness of this-is-what-was-shown-on-TV-last-night journalism is the subject of another post.)
You're all wrong
It's so easy to generalize based on two guys appearing (in character) on a TV show. It's a sign that Quebec's status as a French-language nation is fading. This is why we need Bill 101. This is why we need to close loopholes that allow immigrants to get into English public schools. This is what people from the West Island are like.
And yet, the peanut gallery doesn't know all the facts. Were they really unable to utter a single word in French? Or were they just not comfortable enough to converse in their second language on a talk show where everyone at home would be judging them mercilessly? Are they victims of Quebec's education system? (Were they even educated in Quebec?)
I don't have the answers. I put in a request with Epic Meal Time's agent (yes, they have one), but have heard nothing yet. For the sake of argument, let's assume they're like me and many others from the West Island and that they went to English public school. Let's also assume they know some French but not enough to have an in-depth conversation.
It makes me wonder if I would have been judged so harshly if I had been on the Plateau of this show, and with a mix of nervousness and a desire to be clear I had asked that the interview be done in English. My conversational French is okay, but my grammar is awful. There's a reason I don't blog in French often. I have too much respect for the language to expose people to my destruction of it.
That in mind, it seems perfectly understandable that two guys from the West Island who make Internet videos aren't the best French speakers and prefer to express themselves in the language they're most comfortable in.
And yet, it bothered me.
It wasn't so much that they were talking in English. But they had earpieces during the interview, which means they needed the questions to be translated. That's kind of a depressing statement about the state of French-language education in English schools in Quebec (again, assuming that's how they were educated).
But even that didn't bug me as much as this: They didn't even try.
One thing I've learned about Quebec's French language protectors (at least the reasonable moderate ones) is that they appreciate effort. It's the thought that counts.
When Brian Gionta introduced the Canadiens at the beginning of the season in quite possibly the most atrocious French anyone has ever heard this side of an Alberta public school, the fans appreciated it. It didn't matter that he couldn't pronounce the numbers right or that he called Maxim Lapierre "Maxim Laperrière". He acknowledged that French is the language spoken here and he wanted to make an effort, if only a tiny one, to speak to them in that language.
But Morenstein and Toth couldn't manage even a "bonsoir" or a "merci", perhaps because they were playing their tough-guy characters, or perhaps because they just didn't care and had no respect for the show, the host or the audience they were addressing.
The language of poutine
It's funny because Epic Meal Time has probably been one of the best ambassadors for Quebec cuisine of the past decade. Just two days before taping TLMEP, they released this video of them heading into the woods and preparing a meal that included tourtière and tire sur la neige (words that Morenstein utters in slightly accented but perfectly understandable French).
One of their earliest videos was of the Angry French Canadian, a "meal" that included poutine, steamés and maple syrup on a baguette.
They're not exactly promoting Quebec as the healthiest place in the world to eat, but they're not hiding where they come from either. If it wasn't for the language thing, you'd think they were the most proud Quebecers you'd ever seen.
Except that in Quebec, everything is a language thing.
I conclude you can't draw conclusions
It's easy to judge so many things based on a short interview on a talk show.
The West Island is an anglo ghetto. That part is obvious. Just like there are ghettos for other cultures, there are spots - mostly on the island of Montreal - where English speakers tend to clump together. These communities find themselves with a population that is for the most part bilingual, but perhaps with a slight preference for English. Elsewhere in Montreal, it's bilingual with a preference for French. And outside of the city, in Quebec's "regions" (except perhaps some Eastern Townships), it's a huge predominance of French.
Even in the most anglo part of the West Island, children learn French. It's part of the curriculum. For some it's a substantial part. For many, half their day is spent in French. It's not a perfect system, and I'm not an education expert, but students come out of public schools with at least a basic knowledge of Quebec's primary language.
One of the comments I've heard about this case is that it shows the need for Bill 101, or why we need to close that "école passerelle" loophole that allows students to get into English public schools. Of course, neither of those things apply in this case, or mine, because children of anglophones get access to English public schools. Unless the plan is to ban English schools (which would require Quebec sovereignty because the Canadian charter doesn't allow it), no new language law is going to make a difference in cases like this.
And let's be honest here, the cases like this are a minority. Statistics show that bilingualism among anglophones in Quebec is much higher than bilingualism among francophones. Most children, even in the West Island, know French well enough to carry on a conversation, and many of them are fluently bilingual. (StatsCan's criteria for bilingualism isn't precisely set at "comfortable enough to be interviewed in French on Tout le monde en parle", but we can make inferences here.)
There are those who say that there are many francophones who don't speak English, and that's also a problem. But to really make this analogy work, the francophones would have to be in another province, and most francophones outside Quebec speak English pretty well. They have to, because despite Canada's desire to be a bilingual country, few places outside Quebec, eastern Ontario and New Brunswick are really accommodating to francophones.
But I digress. We can discuss the state of English and French in Canada for years. This isn't about that. This is about two guys who acted bizarrely during an interview on national television, and who for whatever reason didn't want to be interviewed in French on a French talk show.
It's a sad statement, not about the linguistic situation of Quebec, but about the linguistic situation of Harley Morenstein and Sterling Toth.
Let's not tar and feather an entire community just because Guy A. Lepage managed to find two Quebec anglos who either didn't have the proper skills to have a conversation in French or who just wanted to be dicks about it.
UPDATE (April 21): More discussion at Metafilter, which links to this post.