Tag Archives: language


The resistance has begun...

So last week, the Liberal-controlled provincial government rammed through Bill 115, née Bill 103, which sets rules whereby students in English-language private schools not otherwise eligible for public English education can acquire such a privilege.

And if you believe Pauline Marois, Pierre Curzi and others with similar mindsets, the French language and Quebec society are one step closer to extinction thanks to the evil anglophone invader.


And yet, the public outrage about this law isn’t what they expected. In fact, many politicians and pundits are downright shocked that there hasn’t been some sort of mass uprising about Bill 115.

As an anglophone, I’ll admit that I’m hard-wired to be against whatever the leader of the Parti Québécois is for when it comes to language policy. It’s instinctual more than it is reflective.

But I agree with them that this is a bad law and creates a system where the rich have more rights than the poor.

Where we disagree is our alternatives. The PQ would rather deny rights to more people than have the rich be able to buy it. I think we need to look at whether denying English education does more harm than good to the future of Quebec.

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Let’s give Tierney’s comments some thought

In case you haven’t been keeping up with Quebec movie news (or haven’t been around Brendan Kelly for the past two weeks), there’s been a bit of a media dust-up over comments made by director Jacob Tierney to La Presse’s Nicolas Bérubé, complaining that Quebec cinema is too francophone and too white:

«La société québécoise est extrêmement tournée sur elle-même, dit Tierney. Notre art et notre culture ne présentent que des Blancs francophones. Les anglophones et les immigrants sont ignorés. Ils n’ont aucune place dans le rêve québécois. C’est honteux.»

Since Tierney, who’s behind that new movie The Trotsky, decided to touch on that Two Solitudes button, you can imagine there was a lot of reaction (they’re even talking about it on those social media things). And most of the reaction takes one of three predictable sides:

  1. Agreeing with Tierney: Quebec cinema is too white, too francophone, and needs to better reflect its multicultural reality – and those who battle Tierney’s arguments are intolerant
  2. Lashing out at Tierney, putting together a list of black Quebec actors (Normand Brathwaite, Gregory Charles, Boucar Diouf and Dany Laferrière will feature prominently in such lists) and Quebec films that have languages other than French (those lists tend to include Bon Cop Bad Cop, their makers apparently unaware that the box-office smash was made by Tierney’s father), and saying that because there are black people or anglos in Quebec cinema Tierney must be wrong and hate Quebec
  3. Defend the whiteness and Frenchness of Quebec cinema, because Quebec is a small island in a sea of English, because Canadian films don’t feature francophones and because Quebec culture needs to assert itself

The problem with each of these responses is that it takes a black or white view on an issue that is hardly so clear-cut, and only serves to further divide the two solitudes.

Reality isn’t quite so simple.

Argue now, think later

I’m not a film buff, nor am I an expert in Quebec culture. In fact, I’m probably the most uncultured person I know. The last anglo film I saw in an actual movie theatre was, I think, Star Trek. The last franco film? Dans une galaxie près de chez vous 2. This means I haven’t seen J’ai tué ma mère or Avatar or De père en flic or The Hurt Locker or Polytechnique or any of the Twilight movies or … well, you get the picture. I want to see them eventually (well, not the Twilight movies), but I don’t have much free time and it’s rare I’ll find something so interesting I’ll want to pay $12 to watch it in a theatre rather than wait a couple of years and see it on cable.

Anyway, so I’m no expert, and I have no figures to point to in my analysis. If you want an expert’s opinion, I’d read this piece by Marc Cassivi, who takes a detached view of the matter.

But reading the comments, particularly at Cyberpresse but also elsewhere, it’s as if we’re still battling for the Plains of Abraham, only this time the army on both sides is comprised of Internet trolls.

Some people have suggested that Tierney doesn’t know what he’s talking about because, like all anglophones, he’s never actually seen a Quebec-made movie and hates French – both suggestions are preposterous. Some have said he’s a hypocrite for taking advantage of tax credits and other government financial incentives for creating home-grown movies, as if taking money from the government (which every filmmaker does here) somehow removes him of his right to criticize Quebec cinema. Many have accused him of outright Quebec-bashing.

And there are those who argue that Quebec films shouldn’t be more multicultural or include more anglophones, because those people are not true Quebecers.

He’s right…

Speaking strictly from the perspective of an uncultured consumer, I think Tierney has a point. There are a lot of white faces out there, even when you include Brathwaite, Charles, Diouf and others. And while there are examples of bits of English in Quebec cinema, it’s not at the kind of level one would find during a normal day in Montreal.

The other day, I watched Bon Cop Bad Cop on TV. It was on an English-language Canadian movie channel, so the French bits were subtitled (when Patrick Huard says “En tout cas, y’a un bon coup de patin!” – a pun that doesn’t translate into English – you see the value in knowing the language instead of relying on those subtitles). Seeing people interact in two languages at the same time – even switching between the two in mid-sentence – just seems so rare these days on screen, even though it happens so often in real life.

I’ll let one of the Cyberpresse commenters explain:

Le problème, c’est qu’il n’y a jamais de mélange. Les deux solitudes comme on dit. La télé francophone d’un côté, la télé anglophone de l’autre. Et jamais on invite un anglophone dans une émission sur la télé francophone, et inversement. C’est pareil dans le cinéma. En plus de ça, les gens sont allergiques aux sous-titres dans les films, il faut dire qu’on ne leur donne pas trop le choix, vu la programmation 100% doublé de la plupart des cinémas, quel que soit le film.

Even with the huge numbers of bilingual people in Montreal, Quebec and places near Quebec borders, there’s a resistance to bilingualism in our culture. Television, radio, newspapers, even most websites have to choose one or the other. Anything said or written in the other language has to be subtitled, dubbed or translated so that the audience can understand. There are no bilingual television stations or cable channels (besides CPAC), no bilingual radio stations (at least no commercial ones), and only a single bilingual newspaper.

Some angry online commenters will say that the problem isn’t Quebec, it’s the Rest of Canada that doesn’t feature francophones. In fact, it’s both. Which is odd because Bon Cop Bad Cop was one of the highest-grossing films in both Canadian and Quebec history (even though it was much more popular in Quebec than in the rest of Canada). You’d think both sides would catch on to that and start taking advantage of the power of language unity.

One movie in production seems to be. Funkytown also stars Patrick Huard, and is slated for release in December:


… but he’s also wrong

Where Tierney is off the mark is in making it seem (whether intentionally or not) that this is all Quebec’s fault. The tone of the criticism has forced people to become defensive about the Quebec film industry instead of giving his two cents some thought.

It’s funny because this industry needs so little defence. It’s incredible how successful home-grown cinema is here, particularly when compared to English Canada. A modest showing in Quebec would be considered a mega hit if it made the same amount at the box office in English Canada.

Some of the other points Tierney brings up also don’t convince me. I don’t think Quebec is too concerned with the past or with its own majority culture (these themes are strong here, but shouldn’t they be?). I don’t think cinema here is racist. I don’t think the Jutras are unrepresentative of Quebec society, which outside of Montreal is very francophone and very white. And while I think there’s room for more multiculturalism and more languages in Quebec cinema, I don’t say so with nearly the same accusatory style as Tierney’s comments.

And there are a lot of things he’s missing, too. For one thing, Tierney seems to be arguing that Quebec cinema isn’t Montreal-centric enough, which might cause those living in small towns to laugh out loud. Quebec culture is far too Montreal-centric, even if about half of Quebecers live within 50km of the city’s centre. The clique du Plateau should be replaced with more of a focus on Gaspé, Trois-Rivières, Baie-Comeau, Alma, Nunavik, Kahnawake and, yes, the West Island.

If that happens, Canadian cinema would be embarrassed, not having nearly the same kind of regional diversity as Quebec cinema would have.

But unlike some online commenters, I don’t believe that the failures of others should give us justification to drag our feet. It’s time for more Tierneys to enter the scene and create a cultural landscape that everyone in Quebec can feel they’re a part of.

UPDATE (Aug. 9): Though a few weeks late to the table, the Gazette’s Don Macpherson shares some thoughts about Tierney’s comments and how anglo Quebecers are still not considered true Quebecers.

Francofolies: Missing the point a bit?

Maybe I’m being a bit too sensitive. Maybe I’m nit-picking and missing the big picture here. But it’s a bit odd to listen to anglo music during a sound check for Les Francofolies. Surely there’s an Isabelle Boulay or Marie-Mai CD they could stick in instead?

UPDATE (July 20): From an actual performance at the FrancoFolies, Seven Nation Army (or “Seven Army Nation,” as it’s introduced):

More commercing en français

Quebec government ad at Peel metro

Remember that “Ici on commerce en français” campaign from the Office québecois de la langue française, that thought it could get businesses across the province to put little stickers in their windows to make non-francophones feel unwelcome?

Well, it’s back, and either because it was unsuccessful or because it was, the office is taking a different approach this time, targeting the consumers instead of the businesses. They’re handing out reusable bags this weekend with the goal that everyone will use one when they go to a business and the business owners will realize that it’s a good idea to serve them in French.

(They promote the bags as “un moyen … écologique”, which might carry more weight if those same bags weren’t being advertised using a giant ad trailer being hauled through the streets by a gas-guzzling SUV)

My point about how this is a waste of our taxpayer dollars remains – businesses in Quebec still have to provide customer service in French, and the number that refuse or are unable to do so won’t be swayed by this campaign. But, fortunately, I’m a bit less peeved about this idea than the last one.

The right to be served in French is one that I support. It is just common sense to speak the same language as your clientele (which also means being bilingual in heavily anglophone areas like the West Island or Hampstead). And it makes sense to codify this right into law, because there are assholes out there who think they should be able to live here without communicating at all with French Canada.

But what I actually like about this campaign is that it will facilitate communication between businesses and customers. I recall a while back I was in a store, giving short or non-verbal answers to the person serving me, and after a few exchanges the person got frustrated because he (or she, I don’t remember) couldn’t figure out what my preferred language is.

This bag, while intended to satisfy the small part of the Quebec population who feel that anglos are constantly planning an invasion and will wipe the French language off the face of the Earth at any moment, makes that uncertainty go away. If someone walks into my store with that bag around his or her shoulder, I’m going to speak to that person in French.

The next logical step is to start producing similar bags that indicate the wearer’s preferred language is English.

But somehow I don’t think the OQLF would go for that. After all, bags that identify someone as an anglophone might offend francophones and make them feel unwelcome.

UPDATE: Kristian Gravenor has his own take on this at Coolopolis.

What part of “terre de nos aïeux” don’t you understand?


Remember a couple of weeks ago, just after the opening ceremony to your great Olympic Winter Games, when there were complaints from around here that there wasn’t enough space given to Canada’s other official language?

I defended you back then, downplaying the seriousness of your transgression, deflecting some attention to the media, and criticizing those who criticized you. I said there should have been more French, but I wasn’t going to make a federal case out of it.

After watching the closing ceremony, I’m reconsidering that.

Outside of a few “bonjour”s and “merci”s, introductions and a speech by Jacques Rogge, the ceremonies seemed devoid of French. In the concert that came after, I kept waiting for some good French Canadian artists, but was disappointed when among the dozen or so English acts, all there was in French was a song by Marie-Mai (or as the Globe and Mail called her, “Marie-Maiv”*).

I’m not the kind of person who will sit with a stopwatch and complain when something’s not exactly 50-50. Even 75-25, reflecting the approximate ratio of English to French speakers in Canada, would have been fine by me. But it wasn’t even that.

When combined with the opening ceremonies, which included a single performance by Garou, it’s really hard not to see this as tokenism of one of Canada’s founding peoples.

But unlike some of the newspaper columnists you’ll no doubt be hearing from over the next couple of days, I’m not mad.

I’m disappointed.

It’s not like you weren’t aware of the problem. You knew about it months ago. Both the federal and Quebec governments made sure you knew about it. You made efforts elsewhere in the organization of these Games to ensure bilingualism (which apparently took a lot of work), and I commend you for that.

And even if you didn’t realize before these complaints how little attention you gave to the French language, you made plenty of changes to the closing ceremonies after the opening ones were over (including adding a very cute bit about relighting a defective column for the Olympic flame). You could have added some more French Canadian artists, maybe even a speech or two in French.

Those who want to justify this slight can come up with all sorts of reasons why. It’s Vancouver’s games, not Quebec’s. These ceremonies are for the world, which for the most part speaks English as either a first or second language. Some might even argue that you just don’t care about French, that Canada should let Quebec separate and become an English-speaking country.

None of those explanations work for me. The ceremony was all about Canada, not Vancouver or British Columbia. Hell, French Canadians didn’t even represent the majority of the acts you brought in from Montreal (William Shatner and Simple Plan were the others). And though the world speaks English, I’d like to think they’d want to be exposed to different cultures, even if they don’t understand the language. Some Americans appreciated Marie-Mai even if they had no idea what she was singing about. And not knowing Russian didn’t take away from enjoying the Russian national anthem as performed live.

The third explanation, that you just don’t care, is something I have no rebuttal for. It’s just something I’d like not to believe. Because even though I’m an anglophone, I live in Quebec, I have friends and relatives who are part of this culture, who speak this language as their mother tongue, and who hoped that maybe, just maybe, they could spend a couple of hours believing that the Vancouver Olympics were their Olympics too, not just those of English Canada. The opening ceremony brought on doubts that this could be achieved, and the closing ceremony confirmed them.

I love this country, but I love Quebec too, and Montreal. I’m a federalist, and even facing what some might think are overwhelming practical arguments against it, I believe that a Canada that has two languages makes us all better. It’s not something I have a rational reasons for, or scientific data to support, it’s just something I feel.

What you’ve done has made justifying this belief more difficult. A few people on Twitter half-joked that you’d done more for the cause of Quebec sovereignty than the PQ has in decades. It’s easy to dismiss that as the close-minded ravings of a die-hard separatist, but I’m understanding where they’re coming from. You’ve made these people seem like a minor part of your country, confined to a single province out of 10. You’ve made them feel excluded from their own Olympics.

A people, I’ll remind you, that contributed greatly to the Vancouver Games as athletes, including the one who gave Canada its first Olympic gold medal at home, the one who stole your hearts this week with a spectacular performance, and three of Canada’s four double medallists. (I’m not usually one of those people who will separate Quebec athletes from Canadian ones for the sake of argument, but this point needs to be made.)

And yet, all of these athletes were proud to contribute to Canada’s historic medal count, proud to drape the Canadian flag around their shoulders as they celebrated their Olympic medals, proud to look up as the Canadian flag was raised and the crowd sang their anthem in English, proud to have the word “Canada” across their chests and backs during the two memorable weeks they spent in Vancouver.

Those athletes have too much class to complain about the closing ceremony. Most of the rest of us don’t care enough to make a case out of it. Even some of those in the media who calculate how many of Canada’s medals came from Quebecers will take away good memories of these Olympics. Which leaves people like Réjean Tremblay, whose words can be so easily dismissed because they’ve been heard so often before.

So I’m speaking up. As a Canadian, as an anglophone, as someone who’s not a separatist or hyper-sensitive to every perceived slight against French Canada. As someone who believes that francophones, whether they’re in Quebec or elsewhere, are part of Canada too. Not just an interest group, but an equal partner in the creation of this great country. One that has as much right to speak and hear their language and live their lives in French as we do in English.

I speak as someone who believes that the French language is as much a part of Canada as the beavers, Mounties, self-deprecating humour and endearing politeness that you so proudly showcased during these ceremonies.

You may think this is minor, and in the grand scheme of things it probably is, but in what is supposed to be an event that brings the entire country together and serves as a shining moment of national pride, even a slight movement in another direction makes a big difference.

VANOC, you disappointed many Canadians. And even if every French speaker in this country comes on this blog and says it didn’t matter, what’s important is that you disappointed me.

And now that the Games are over, you’ve lost your chance to make up for it.

*UPDATE: A Globe and Mail insider tells me this wasn’t actually a spelling mistake but a coding error. The “v”, which also appears after other names in the piece, is actually an internal-use checkmark used by Globe editors – ironically to verify the spelling of a name – and was improperly translated into a printable character on the CTV Olympics website.

French at the Olympics: Unsatisfied below 50%+1

You might think there are more important things to discuss, but to Quebec media, there’s nothing more important than condemning the Vancouver Olympic Committee for having banned the French language from the opening ceremonies.

Sure, they had Garou (unless you were watching on NBC – they cut to commercial when the francophone singer came on stage), and every announcement was in both languages (French first)*, and referee Michel Verrault read the officials’ oath in French, and IOC president Jacques Rogge read part of his statement in French, and Nikki Yanofsky performed the national anthem in both languages. But only one of the half-dozen songs of the ceremony were sung in French, narration by Donald Sutherland and slam poetry by Shane Koyczan weren’t translated into the langue de Molière, and VANOC chair John Furlong spoke with a thick anglo accent in the few words he spoke in French.

Réjean TremblayJean-Guy Fugère, Caroline Touzin, Rino Morin Rossignol, even Jean Charest and the Conservative government complained that there wasn’t enough French (though Michel David suggests the government didn’t complain enough).  Jean-François Bégin wonders why Wayne Gretzky was picked over Gaetan Boucher to be the one to light the flame. Patrick Lagacé sighs that we should have expected this insult to Quebec’s position in Canada’s heritage. Touzin says most of the volunteers there don’t speak French (many of the ones who do come from Quebec). Radio-Canada has a whole dossier on the topic.

The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste expressed condemnation, according to a story that Associated Press decided was worth writing.

The Globe and Mail also editorialized in favour of more French, The Gazette devoted an editorial and two columns to the subject, and Paul Wells also chimed in, proving it’s not just francophones that noticed. (Though the National Post was lukewarm in its endorsement of the outrage, and the Vancouver Sun calls it “tedious regional whining” that is “best ignored for now”.) André Pratte and Guillaume Bourgault-Côté took notice of this.

Hell, even Richard Therrien complained about how commentators in France were pronouncing the city’s name in the anglo way. And Chantal Hébert complains about ignorant comments posted to news stories online (while asking for comment from her own ignorant online commentators).

And Ted Bird makes a funny. So did Andy Riga.

You know it’s gotten bad when even the Angry French Guy comes to the anglos’ defence.

Insufficient, but not insultingly so

My first reaction was to think, as Francis Vachon did, that we should give them a bit of a break because this was in Vancouver, not Quebec City. But I’m not going to defend the organizers – these are Canada’s games, not those of British Columbia, and French should have been more prominent. Hopefully they’ll improve things a bit for the closing ceremonies, if only by including an extra song in Canada’s other official language.

But the reaction from Quebec media – particularly Tremblay’s bitter sarcasm (he suggests it was insulting to Quebecers that First Nations were given such a large role) – is over the top. There was plenty of French at the ceremony (especially when you consider that most of it didn’t involve anyone talking at all), and the fact there wasn’t enough to satisfy some people doesn’t negate the effort made.

To me, the biggest language failure came not from VANOC or the IOC, but from the television media covering the ceremony. None of the Canadian networks provided any translation for those few parts that were only in one language. RDS and V (which basically just took the RDS feed and slapped its logo on it) didn’t translate speeches and narration into French. CTV, TSN and Rogers Sportsnet didn’t return the favour for speeches in French (and when those speeches came up, the closed captioning read the very helpful “[SPEAKING FRENCH]”). This despite the fact that speech text and translation were provided on giant screens at BC Place.

The closest thing to translation was NBC, which summarized the officials’ oath with a “basically what he’s saying here is…”

Meanwhile, during competitions, official on-screen graphics (provided by VANOC) are English-only, which astonishes me not only for the sake of Canadian bilingualism, but for every other country in the world that doesn’t speak English. Having English graphics on RDS and V is insulting, moreso to me than Garou singing off-key of Furlong’s pronunciation of “bienvenue”.

Suddenly, we care

What got to me most about this media overhyping was that suddenly Quebec seems to care about French outside of Quebec. Tremblay lamented the plight of the Acadian people, without mentioning that Quebec and its nationalist zealots are as responsible as the rest of the country for throwing them under the bus.

I’ve been of the view for a long time that the battle for the survival of the French language shouldn’t be fought in Quebec – where it is already dominant – but in the rest of Canada, where it is truly endangered. But Quebec sovereignists don’t care about the rest of Canada because they know Quebec will eventually separate and there will be no reason to protect the language outside its borders.

At least we can hope that this so-called controversy will help people understand that this country has a serious problem with language, and that nobody seems serious about fixing it.

UPDATE: Patrick Lagacé responds to this post, saying that the battle for French outside Quebec has already been lost. Even though he says I’m “dans le champ”, I actually agree with most of what he writes.

*It’s been pointed out that French is an official language of the Olympics and that official announcements are always in French. I know this. I’d like to think the announcements would be in both English and French regardless. But the fact remains that French was there. It’s not like they’re going to give the announcement in French twice (or once in French and once in Québécois joual).

Future Shop fails again at service in French

Two years ago, blogger François Rodrigue noticed a page on Future Shop’s website with absolutely atrocious French. I blogged about it, some other people did too, and Future Shop responded by taking the page down and blaming it on a U.S.-based subcontractor.

In not-entirely-apologizing for the transgression, and reasserting the priority they place on communicating in a proper language in Quebec, spokesperson Thierry Lopez promised that “nous faisons évidemment tout notre possible pour que des erreurs telles que celle-ci ne se reproduisent pas.”

Flash-forward to a few days ago, while I’m on Future Shop’s website looking through the Boxing Day sales. A window pops up asking if I want to be part of a customer service survey, produced by a Michigan-based company called ForeSee Results.

For fun, I decided to choose French as my language. I got a window similar to this that popped up, and a survey in adequate enough French (though half the accents didn’t work). I clicked on the bottom where it said “politique de confidentialité”, wanting to know what this information would be used for.

Imagine my surprise when “politique de confidentialité”, as well as all the other links on the bottom of that survey, led to an English-only page.

Another U.S.-based subcontractor, another translation fail. You’d think they’d start learning from this.

I asked for comment from Lopez concerning this latest gaffe. Haven’t heard anything yet, but will update if there is a response.

Le reste du Canada

This post discusses language politics. Enter at your own risk.

This post discusses language politics. Enter at your own risk.

To me, it sounded like the kind of story that would tickle the news whiskers of Quebec’s francophone media: the government of Quebec publishing a document entirely in English and sending it to a francophone.

Except there was one problem: the francophone didn’t live in Quebec. He lived in Ontario.

When Radio-Canada’s Ottawa bureau came out with the news that Tourisme Québec had sent unilingual anglophone marketing material to surrounding regions, and that this happened to include some franco-Ontarians, it caused a stir … among anglophone media in Montreal. CBC Montreal picked up the story, and The Gazette ran an editorial denouncing the decision.

In the French media, the reaction was minimal. An entry on Chantal Hébert’s blog, a by-the-way mention by Pierre Jury at Le Droit (the French-language paper in Ottawa). Its biggest exposure probably came from a post by Patrick Lagacé, though even then it only received a handful of comments.

Despite RadCan’s use of the term “choquante”, the scandal is fairly minor. The brochure in question was meant for audiences in New England and Ontario, and Tourisme Québec is right that most of that audience is anglophone. The diminishing budget of Quebec’s tourism agency means that they can’t please everyone.

But, as the Gazette editorial says, it fits in with this idea that hard-line language zealots in Quebec care only about the status of French on one side of the Outaouais. Even though the rest of Canada is where French is most at risk, there’s little outrage when stuff like this happens. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it’s because language extremists are also militant separatists, and what happens outside Quebec’s borders is of no concern to them. When sovereignty finally comes, the border will protect les Québécois, and on s’en crisse du reste.

Or perhaps Quebec anglophones like me are overcompensating for their guilt about fighting for anglo rights by pretending to care about other linguistic minorities.

Are the English media paying too much attention to this story, or are the French media paying too little?

Louise … umm …. uhh … umm … how you say … Harel

It was a train wreck, but we all knew it would be.

A few days after declining to participate in an English-language debate hosted by CTV, Louise Harel willingly subjected herself to a one-hour interview on CJAD on Saturday afternoon.

CJAD hasn’t posted audio of it online, but I recorded it and compiled the best of its unquotable moments. You can listen to it here: Louise Harel on CJAD (edited, MP3)

Her English wasn’t just bad, it was atrocious. During the 30 minutes of interview, I counted a total of 19 times that host Anne Lagacé-Dowson suggested words that Harel was struggling to find. (In one case, it was the word “expensive”.) At one point, Harel gave up entirely and gave an answer in French for the host to translate.

Perhaps Harel and her handlers never listened to the station, but I can think of no worse platform for a unilingual francophone ex-PQ minister and municipal merger advocate than the last great bastion of angryphonism.

It’s noteworthy that Harel chose to come on the Saturday afternoon show of Lagacé-Dowson, the former CBC radio host who left the Corp to unsuccessfully bid for a seat in the House of Commons for the NDP. (She’s now the permanent host 1-4pm on Saturdays.) Normally, high-profile guests sit with Tommy Schnurmacher on weekday mornings or Ric Peterson during the drive-home hours.

Stories about Harel’s genuine but failed attempt to reach out to anglos appear in The Gazette and on CJAD’s website. CTV’s cameras were also in the studio. French media seems to have ignored the gesture entirely. The Gazette has some fun at Harel’s expense, but even that is downright laudatory compared to some of the comments made by CJAD listeners who called in. One said she “exemplified hatred for the English-speaking community” and was “trying to destroy our community,” while another used the word “racist” in describing PQ language policy. No wonder Harel said she was “afraid to speak in English” for fear of committing a major political faux pas and being branded something worse than a green-skinned witch.

All three stories about the discussion also mention the fact that she was 25 minutes late to the interview. (Her explanation was that she was giving another interview to a community radio station and couldn’t get to the studio on time.) It was 1:21pm by my watch when she got in the studio, and she was at the microphone a minute later. She missed about 11 minutes of actual talk time, during which Lagacé-Dowson filled otherwise dead air with a biography of the Vision Montreal leader and took a couple of calls. Cutting out the ads, traffic and news breaks, Lagacé-Dowson and Harel talked for 30 minutes after she finally arrived.

Why bother?

I’m not quite sure why Harel decided to be interviewed on CJAD. Perhaps it was to prove a point that she doesn’t hate anglophones. Perhaps it was just to get it over with. Or perhaps she lost a bet.

But listening to the interview, it becomes clear why Harel chose not to participate in an anglo television debate. She has literally nothing to gain from such an embarrassment. Her approval among anglophones according to the latest La Presse poll is an astonishingly low 6%, way below Gérald Tremblay and Richard Bergeron. I think George W. Bush has better support from anglo Montrealers. Stumbling through severe language difficulties to give un-nuanced explanations of why she supports policies that anglophones are most opposed to is an exercise in futility. “For Harel to try to debate in a language she doesn’t really speak would have been an excruciating waste of time for both her and any listener who isn’t a masochist,” says Gazette columnist Don Macpherson.

CTV offered simultaneous translation, which would have given us something similar to what we had in the 1997 French leaders’ debate where Preston Manning spoke in English to a French audience. That might have been easier for everyone involved, but it’s easier still to simply write off a segment of the population you have no chance of winning anyway. The BQ and PQ don’t campaign for anglo votes, so why should Harel?

Irrelevant? I think not

I don’t think that mastery of the English language should be a requirement for being mayor of Montreal. The city has had mayors in the past whose English skills have been sorely lacking, and so far no civil wars have erupted. Richard Bergeron’s English isn’t all that much better.

But there’s this talking point circulating among Harel supporters (and militant sovereignists) that the ability to speak English is completely irrelevant to the job of mayor.

Sorry, but it’s not. No matter what the law or the city’s constitution says, Montreal is a bilingual city. The national anthem at Canadiens games is sung in two languages, we pay for our shish taouk with bilingual money, and panhandlers start off their begging with “anglais/français?”

Harel herself is the first to admit that this lack of skill is a strike against her. The job of mayor isn’t simply about creating legislation and voting in city hall meetings, it’s about being a leader, about representing Montreal on the national and international stage, and (for better or for worse) about giving speeches, cutting ribbons and writing those letters you see on Page 2 of municipal newsletters and festival programs. And like it or not, these things require the use of English.

This same irrelevance argument is made about Harel’s views on Quebec sovereignty. Even asking the question is considered “totally out of line.” Since when is someone’s political views irrelevant to politics? Sure, Montreal’s mayor doesn’t have the power to make a unilateral declaration of independence, but identity politics have defined political discourse here for decades, and there are plenty of related issues (language, for example) that do have an impact at the municipal level. Playing this not-my-jurisdiction game seems ludicrous to me. If Stephen Harper were asked a question about his views on health care or education during a campaign, would those too be considered “totally out of line” because those things are provincial jurisdiction? Of course not.

No platform

I get the point: We know she’s a sovereignist, we know she can’t speak English very well, and we know she brought in those forced municipal mergers (which, despite the stereotype, didn’t just piss off anglophones in Montreal). We should be debating the “issues” instead. Looking forward, you know.

But we can’t. Because over a week into the campaign, Vision Montreal hasn’t released its platform yet. Neither has Tremblay’s Union Montreal, although one can extrapolate their policies from the past eight years of governance.

And because Vision Montreal is a shell of a party that really has nothing to define itself by other than its revolving-door leadership post, we have to wait until a platfom is released to debate the issues. (Though apparently Harel and Trembaly don’t – they already had a debate, with Jean-Luc Mongrain on LCN, before releasing any platforms.)

If Harel wants to move on and keep the momentum she’s built up, and maybe even attract a few anglo votes on the issues that really matter, that platform needs to be released soon. And it better have some good ideas.

Union Montreal’s new website

Union Montreal's "English" website

Union Montreal's "English" website

I got an email Friday morning, just as the municipal election campaign officially began, informing me that Union Montreal has redesigned its website.

So, of course, I checked it out with my usual critical eye. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The design was clean and simple, the page looked fine even with the style sheet turned off. They’ve got the usual Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Flickr accounts. They’re even releasing their content under a Creative Commons license.

Great, I thought. So where’s the English version?

After a bit of searching, I could find some pages that had a link at the bottom that said “English”. That would bring me to an English version of those pages. But then I’d click somewhere and it would bring me back to the French website. Or it would be the English page and all the navigational text would be in French.

I asked the guy who emailed me, Marc Snyder, what’s up with all that. He said they’re working on it:

We’re progressing in the right direction: I think this is what a work-in-progress is all about ;-)

Building a website that’s bilingual isn’t easy. Most cool content management systems don’t think of building in support for bilingual websites. So many do so through third-party plugins. In this case, the website is WordPress based and they’re using the Qtranslate plugin.

But to launch a website so publicly without even basic information in English (at first, there wasn’t even an English bio for the mayor) seems a fairly major gaffe. Even now, most of its content isn’t accessible in English. Instead, you get a short apology with a link to the French version.

Remember, this is supposed to be the anglo party, embracing both languages of this diverse metropolis. Vision Montreal, with ex-PQer Louise Harel who speaks little English, and Projet Montréal, which doesn’t even translate its name into our language, both have better English versions of their websites.

Maybe next time someone from Union Montreal criticizes Louise Harel for alienating anglophones, she can point out the fact that people don’t need to look up what “Arrondissement de militantisme” is before they can donate to her party.

Oh wait, she can’t. Neither can Michel Richard Bergeron. Because both Vision Montreal’s donation form and Projet Montréal’s donation form have random untranslated bits of French on them.

I realize this is small-time politics and we’re not dealing with real big budgets here, but these are forms people fill out to give you money. If you’re so careless about translation, I can only imagine what kind of controls you have on the $100 I’d be putting in your campaign fund.

Colour me pas impressionné.

Montreal Geography Trivia No. 49

(Updated with more hints)

This historical figure has his name everywhere. A major thoroughfare and small street in the city (with a park by the same name nearby), a street in Pointe Claire and another in Ste. Geneviève, plus dozens of streets across Quebec. His name also used to be on something that’s been in the news lately.

Who is he?

UPDATE: Dave gets it close enough below, though St. John and St. John the Baptist are two different people. It’s the latter, St. Jean Baptiste, who is the subject of this quiz. It’s the name of a boulevard in the east end (which turns into a short street near the shore), a park, and tiny streets in Ste. Geneviève and Pointe-Claire.

It’s also, according to the Commission de toponymie du Québec, the former name of Amherst St., which a city councillor has proposed be changed because Jeffery Amherst had this thing about being OK with genocide through biological warfare. Amherst and the street names are the subjects of this week’s bluffer’s guide, which points out some of the silliness of the current debate: Amherst never actually used smallpox to kill Indians, and the Jeunes Patriotes are in favour of renaming Amherst but steadfast against renaming the anti-semitic Lionel Groulx.

One factoid that was left out of the article: there are also 14 other geographic entities in Quebec that carry Amherst’s name.

Chris DeWolf also has some thoughts on this subject, and Josianne Massé points to some other reaction in the blogosphere.

Transcon makes bilingual papers French-only

CTV seems to be the only outlet so far to note that five Transcontinental community weeklies in Montreal have given up on trying to be bilingual and have switched to French-only publication.

The papers in question are:

Transcontinental says they’ll keep some English content online (and by that I assume they mean they’ll link to stories from the anglo papers like the West Island Chronicle and Westmount Examiner).

The anglos CTV talked to complained about the lack of news about their community as a result of this change, but when we’re talking about 12-page issues that contain maybe a page and a half of editorial content (most of which is fluff pieces or borough announcements), I think it’s a bit too late to complain about the loss of community news.

Go fuck yourself Eric Amber (UPDATED)

      The shows listed were in english and therefore so is the message.
      You obviously can't read in english because you are an
      uneducated bigot.

      estce que vous comprenez l'expression anglophone: Go Fuck Yourself?

On behalf of the local news industry, I’d like to offer my thanks to Eric Amber of Théâtre Ste. Catherine, which despite its name is an anglo venue.

You see, despite the people in space, the huge investment scandals and the giant rocks falling on people’s heads, it’s kind of a slow news period right now. Hockey is in the offseason, politicians are on vacation, and most of the people who would make serious news are instead outside enjoying the summer.

Perhaps subconsciously sensing this, Amber decided to do the following things to ensure coverage in the local media:

  • Be an asshole
  • Be an asshole on a language issue
  • Be an asshole on a language issue in writing
  • Be an asshole to someone who didn’t provoke him
  • Create a PR crisis for one of the city’s biggest festivals right in the middle of it
  • React childishly when called on about his behaviour
  • Refuse to apologize

For those who haven’t seen the news in La Presse, the Journal, Le Devoir, The Gazette and elsewhere, francophone group Les Sages Fous was receiving English-only messages on TSC’s mailing list about Zoofest shows related to the Just for Laughs festival. They sent a rather matter-of-fact email asking that they be removed from that list unless the messages are sent in French. A bit snarky, but not unreasonable. Amber responded by calling the guy an uneducated bigot and telling him to “go fuck yourself”.

Louis Préfontaine was the first to break the email on Wednesday, and it spread from there (including the requisite Facebook group). Préfontaine also has a follow-up and the raw text of the back-and-forth.

It’s happened to everyone. Maybe you’ve just been dumped, fired or made to wait on the phone with Bell to fix a billing issue. You’re frustrated and tired, and someone sends you an email that sounds snarky. It’s the last straw and you let them have it. Realizing your mistake, you later apologize.

Amber, unfortunately, didn’t do this. Instead, he told Le Devoir and the Journal about other emails he got from francophones which relentlessly attacked him. The emails weren’t from Les Sages Fous, but Amber made the mistake that far too many make in this unending language debate and painted everyone on the other solitude with the same brush, as if one is responsible for the actions of everyone who speaks the same language.

Which brings me to this: On behalf of the anglo community, go fuck yourself Eric Amber. You’re the last thing we need right now. Because those idiots who comment on Patrick Lagacé and Richard Martineau’s blogs will start painting all of us with the same brush, and that makes us responsible for your behaviour.

To bring this drama to an even higher level of absurd assholity, Amber has been sending the following message to those emailing him to condemn his comments or ask what the hell he was thinking:

Due to the overwhelming racism and bigotry in French society toward minorities and non-french cultures, Theatre Ste-Catherine will be closing in protest. Effective immediately TSC will no longer be accepting bookings and will closed permanently Dec. 21, 2009.

I’ll assume you mean francophone Quebec society and not the society of France (though you could make such an argument about racism in the motherland). But let me get this straight: you’re going to shut down the venue over this? Either TSC has been on the financial ropes for some time (which is certainly plausible) or you have the thinnest skin on the planet.

I don’t agree with some who say that TSC should be sending emails in French. I don’t see why, any more than I would see why The Gazette would advertise in French (except when it wants to, like it’s been doing the past few Sundays). But that’s irrelevant now, because you had to be an asshole.

No matter how long this goes, it’s going to end eventually by you eating a truck full of crow. Better start now before more has to be shovelled onto your plate.

Somewhat sincerely,


UPDATE: Just when you thought this ridiculousness couldn’t get any worse, it seems the Jeunes Patriotes and their ilk are doing their best to prove Amber right about bigotry in Quebec. Amber says he has been receiving death threats, and the JPQ are organizing had a protest at 4pm Sunday30 people showed up. Josée Legault also turns this into a language issue, painting all anglos with the Eric Amber brush.

And apparently someone has setup a Twitter account for the sole purpose of calling me an asswipe fascist.

Patrick Lagacé has a follow-up on his blog. Hour complains how this is unworthy of newspaper coverage … with an article in its newspaper.

UPDATE (July 22): Crow special, Table 1! Amber also speaks to The Gazette’s Pat Donnelly where he takes great pains to prove he’s not a bigot. He also does an interview with Radio-Canada where he says he never expected to start up such a shitstorm.

His apology (also on Donnelly’s blog), which you’ll note is in both languages:

To whom it concerns,

There has been much media activity in recent days that began with an email that I sent to the theatre’s mailing list. Les Sages Fous were upset after receiving an all-english message regarding Zoofest programming as part of the Just For Laughs festival.

I reacted inappropriately to their request to receive emails only in French and for this I would like to apologize. However, I would like to explain that I did so not simply due to this one response, but rather because I often receive a disproportionate amount of negative feedback whenever I promote English events that are hosted at Theatre Ste Catherine.

Although it is true that I lost my temper, it must be said that it was in no way an attack on Quebec or French-speaking Canadians as was implied by some of the media covering this story. As I myself am French Canadian and a francophone from La Beauce region of southern Quebec, to hate French culture would be to hate myself.

I truly regret offending any of my French brothers and sisters, however I do not believe this would have become an issue if certain media had not sought to create discontent. As such, this situation has been blown out of proportion to the point where it now stands. Unfortunately, not only has this resulted in negative publicity for both Theatre Ste-Catherine, Zoofest and the Just For Laughs Festival, but as my personal information has since been released, I have received hundreds of hate letters including several death threats.

Due to the actions of certain individuals who fanned the flames of hate within a community of extremists, a great hurt was inflicted upon me personally that I fear could threaten the harmony of Montreal. I am upset with the intolerance that I receive on a daily basis as displayed by the many hateful emails that have been written. I also believe that the French language and culture is alive and strong, and need not be afraid of others.

When I first opened the theatre five years ago, which I myself built in what was a very troubled neighbourhood, my intention was to create a venue for people of every culture to come together for the celebration of art and unity. It would be regretful to have to shut the doors to those who have come to make Theatre Ste-Catherine their home and meeting place.

Again, I would like to sincerely apologize to Les Sages Fous, The Just For Laughs Festival, Zoofest, all of Theatre Ste Catherine’s company members as well as anyone who has been affected by this situation.

I wish I had addressed this issue sooner because of the hurt it has caused.


Eric Amber

Theatre Ste. Catherine

À qui de droit,

Depuis quelques jours, bien des médias et sites Internet s’attardent sur un courriel envoyé récemment par moi-même à un inscrit de la liste d’envois électronique générale du Théâtre Ste Catherine. Je répondais alors à un message provenant de la troupe Les Sages Fous, qui protestait avoir reçu un courriel en anglais concernant la programmation anglophone du Zoofest dans le câdre du Festival Juste Pour Rire.

Ma réaction face à leur demande, de recevoir une version française de ce même courriel, fut inflammatoire et non justifiée et pour cela je voudrais sincèrement m’excuser. Ma réplique très agressive s’explique en partie par le fait que Le Théâtre Sainte Catherine est toujours ciblé par des messages francophones très négatifs et diffamatoires concernant nos évènements anglophones et ce, tout au long de l’année.

Malgré l’important manque de jugement dont j’ai fait preuve, il se doit aussi d’être clarifié qu’en aucune façon, mes remarques visaient le Québec ou la Francophonie, tel que certains médias l’ont laissés entendre cette semaine. Étant moi-même francophone ayant grandit et provenant de la région de La Beauce, dans le sud du Québec, d’émettre de pareilles insultes envers la Francophonie serait contradictoire et impensable.

Je regrette sincèrement avoir offensé mes propres frères et soeurs Francophones, mais suis tout à fait convaincu qu’une couverture médiatique alarmiste et sensationnaliste n’a fait qu’aggraver la situation. Cette réaction incroyable de la part des médias provoque non seulement une publicité extrêmement négative pour Le Théâtre Ste-Catherine, mais engendre également une campagne négative envers le Zoofest et le festival Juste Pour Rire. Il est aussi important de noter que je fais personnellement maintenant face à des menaces de mort et insultes personnelles très inquiétantes.

Il m’attriste donc de constater que suite aux actions marquées de quelques individus qui avaient pour but précis d’encourager la haine et l’extrémisme, l’harmonie culturelle de notre ville de Montréal est affectée. Je suis déçu par le niveau d’intolérance présent dans les centaines de courriels et de lettres que nous avons reçus cette semaine, surtout parce que je suis profondément convaincu que malgré ces incidents isolés, la culture Française est essentiellement forte et inclusive au Québec.

Lorsque le Théâtre Ste Catherine a ouvert ses portes, il y a cinq ans, un théâtre que j’ai moi-même fondé et bâti dans un quartier très désavoué de Montréal, mon rêve était de créer une scène, un endroit où tout le monde pourrait se réunir, quelle que soit leur culture, pour célébrer l’art et la communauté. Aujourd’hui, ce théâtre est bel et bien vibrant et il serait dommage de devoir fermer ses portes au public et aux artistes qui le fréquentent maintenant en si grand nombre.

Je souligne donc à nouveau mes excuses sincères envers Les Sages Fous, Le festival Juste Pour Rire, Zoofest ainsi qu’envers tous les membres de la communauté du Théâtre Ste Catherine et tous ceux et celles qui sont affectés par cette situation.

En regrettant de ne pas m’être prononcé plus tôt sur ces évènements importants,


Eric Amber

Théâtre Ste. Catherine

UPDATE (July 23): Amber just couldn’t keep his bloody mouth shut. He sends another email to Les Sages Fous taunting them.

UPDATE (Aug. 4): The Mirror weighs in.

Don’t forget the apostrophe

The mythical flag of Anglophonia

The mythical flag of Anglophonia

You may not be aware of this, but there’s a scandal – no, a SCANDALE! – involving Gazette humour columnist Josh Freed.

I know what you’re thinking: Josh Freed is still alive? He still has a pulse? Someone’s still reading him?

Apparently so. He writes weekly on Saturdays on Page A2, usually about some issue of the week and relating it to how he can’t figure out his microwave. This past Saturday, he wrote about the Fête nationale craziness, and praised how it was francophones who lobbied to get two anglo bands reinstated for a concert tonight.

He also discusses Quebec’s flag:

Maybe we could find a new apolitical flag for Quebec’s national day that speaks to all modern Quebecers who live in our city. How about a fleur-de-lys in one corner, with a snowmobile, a jazz saxophone, and some Cirque de Soleil stilts in the others? Or what about a Bixi bike stuck in a snowbank? Our licence plate is another relic of the political past that could use a facelift. It says “Je me souviens” – or “I remember” – but what do I remember? It’s certainly not my own license plate number, which I keep forgetting as I get older. In fact, given Quebec’s aging boomer society, our license should probably say “J’oublie – I forget.” Or, “Ou sont mes clefs d’auto?” Maybe we could put something practical on the license plate – like a warning for the driver behind you: “LOOK OUT! POTHOLE AHEAD!”

It’s fairly clear here, or should be, that Freed is a satirist and isn’t actually seriously suggesting these things.

But apparently a sentence earlier in his story raised an eyebrow or two:

The dinosaurs of nationalism like the St. Jean organizers who tried to stop two local bands from singing in a foreign dialect called English – a move reminiscent of the old days of the Apostrophe SS.

Somehow, despite only printing about 150,000 copies, one of them was leaked to one of Montreal’s million or so francophones, who passed it on to Gilles Rhéaume. He’s now hopping mad and has filed a complaint with the Quebec Press Council (via Montreal City Weblog).

It was only on Sunday that someone thought to talk to Freed about it, and he took the time to explain to La Presse’s Patrick Lagacé what “Apostrophe SS” means. Yeah, it’s a Nazi reference, which are almost always crude, but it’s also decades old (he even uses it in referring to the past), and it’s a play on words (or, rather, letter). He’s even used it before.

Some francophones might not get it. Or they might take it too seriously. But, of course, Freed wrote this in The Gazette, and he wasn’t writing for a francophone audience.

Considering all that was lost in translation, perhaps one should be provided next time.

A footnote: I edited this piece on Friday night, and wrote the headline “Politics ruin the party”. Had I known it would get disseminated so much (and misunderstood), I might have tried for a more absurd, more memorable headline at least.

UPDATE (June 27): Freed uses his next column to explain himself. In a nutshell, the Apostrophe SS went all Nazi death-camp on apostrophe-S-es, not people.