It’s not easy to capture the essence of Janette Bertrand’s place in pop-culture. There’s a great deal of historical subtext. She’s more than just a C.V. or the sum of her appearances before the public. It’s more about what she stands for in the eyes of the public, what she stands for as an individual, and where she stood during the history and the making of a modern Québec. In many ways, she is a living relic of history – a living legend.
To start, Janette, with three great-grandchildren, will soon be 90 years old (but she looks like she’s in her 60’s, and continues to have the energy of someone in her 50’s). Not only is she one of the best known personalities in Québec, but she may be better recognized and better known than the likes of the Prime Minister of Canada (I say this tongue-in-cheek, but if Québec were to have its own currency, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her face on one if its bills – an example of the power pop-culture can have over society).
I suppose she would mean different things to different generations. Through radio and television, she was there as Québec was coming out of the Grande Noirceur of the Duplessis years – with her public début on radio in the early 1950’s. She was up front and centre on television, pushing the envelope of change and social dialogue, during (and in the wake of) the Quiet Revolution, in addition to being a well known 1960’s and 70’s television personality. She continued to be omnipresent on television in the 1980’s and 1990’s. She all the while penned several well-known books and has engaged in various other forms of the arts (theatre, song).
During a Parti Québécois rally for the 2014 provincial election, she appeared on stage and publicly declared (quote) “for the first time, I’m speaking of my political allegiances”. With that, she became a high profile PQ activist, with much focus on her support for limitations of certain accommodations for religious minorities in Québec, as proposed by the Parti Québécois’ Charte des Valeurs. However, despite the highly public condemnations and accolades she attracted (and there were lots on both sides), I would say that her recent political activism has been of much less relevance to the public – especially in light of the PQ’s recent defeat – than her life-long contribution to Québec society.
She would likely be seen as a societal peer or sister-figure to the oldest generations in Québec (those in their late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s), a mother-like figure to those in their 50’s and 60’s, a figurative grandmother to those in their 30’s and 40’s, and for those in their 20’s or younger, she’s likely a curiosity – someone who has just always existed, and who is now adding her political opinions to the foray.
Much as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz incarnated the lighter side of the 1950’s couple through their comedy “I Love Lucy”, Janette Bertrand and her husband appeared together in their own comedy show in the 1950’s (Toi et Moi), incarnating couples during that period in Québec. Family and its importance has always been central in Bertrand’s eyes, and she and her husband later hosted a 1960’s husband/wife game show. But times were changing quickly in Québec – and the Quiet Revolution was redefining the family’s role.
Bertrand embarked on a new mission in the early 1960’s, setting foot where no one has gone before… to sexually empower youth under 21 by answering, on television, their letters written to her asking sex-related questions (to the extent that the subject could be discussed on television in that era). Picture it this way… Imagine sweet, innocent June Cleaver, or funny, light-hearted Lucille Ball all of a sudden transforming overnight into Sue Johanson on live black-and-white early 1960’s TV — just for the kiddies – and then imagine how well that would go over! Well… actually… for a good part of society, it didn’t! (the press condemned Bertrand for perverting the youth, and even the Archbishop of Montréal wrote her to stop) – But as Bertrand herself said, the viewer numbers were there! And she came to personify much of what was happening with the Quiet Revolution (but if parents ever did feel left out of the party, Bertrand had a newspaper column, similar to a Dear Abby, to whom they could write their own curious questions).
Her devotion to family roles nonetheless stood strong, and she continued her path with family based sitcoms in the 1960’s and 70’s, featuring her own family members. Her shows were as popular as “The Brady Bunch”, “All in the Family”, and “Diff’rent Strokes” were to Anglophone audiences. One such show, Les Tremblay, became popular in France – and quite possibly was the first time France was introduced as a nation to the modern Québec family, or any family from Québec for that matter.
It’s fitting to her played roles as a mother that she published an extremely popular cookbook in 1968 – Les Racettes de Janette – earning her place as a Québec pseudo-Betty Crocker (a highly successful revised edition was published in 2005, but this time without alcoholic ingredients – somewhat of a controversy in itself!).
As Québec matured as a society, so did Bertrand’s shows. Two TV shows in the 1980’s and early 1990’s (Parler pour parler and L’Amour avec un grand A) took an interview format unique to Bertrand (no audiences – just Bertrand sitting with guests on couches, at tables, or hosting role plays). She asked them questions which people in general wondered about others, but wouldn’t dare to ask a stranger – with the goal of uncovering what makes different people tick. It was all in a serious, non-judgmental and open environment. It might be considered an evolved version of her earlier sex-ed show of the 1950’s, but with a greater scope. This time it was Bertrand asking the questions – and others letting her into their minds. Her guests were as varied as absent fathers, abused wives, practitioners of S&M, those who enjoy the quirkier side of gay sex, advocates for feminist issues, etc. She entered into uncharted territory for Francophone television, and in this regard, could be considered a ground-breaking Donahue-like figure for Québec.
She has written numerous best-selling books. The first to come to mind is her famous autobiography Ma vie en trois actes. She’s been featured and parodied in numerous comedies (RBO was one such comedy which took her on from time-to-time – remember RBO from the post on Guy Lepage?). She has written for the stage, and even wrote a song for Celine Dion to sing.
It came as a surprise for many that she chose to become an active political advocate at 89 years old, advocating for Québec indepedence, the Parti Québécois, and more so for the PQ’s controversial Charte des valeurs (pro-Charte advocates felt it showed her continued openness towards societal and social evolution, and anti-Charte advocates felt it was uncharacteristically narrow-minded of her, taking Québec backwards — two very different interpretations of what is progressive – the dichotomy and often complicated irony of Québec politics). But then again, she has never been one to shy away from controversy, and she has earned society’s respect through the ages for staying true to her principles during decades of uncertainty. With all said and done, her foray into politics at the age of 90, and her advocacy for a very controversial aspect of it, maybe should not be so surprising after all.
For further information: Typing her name online will reveal a lot of information. When viewing videos or images, please only access officially approved footage or photos. You might wish to try out some of her recipes with friends and family, especially for special occasions such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any holiday of your liking.