You’re going to get quite a dose of insight with this post. But I’m going to keep this one pretty informal and I’m going to shoot from the hip.
I knew I was going to get to Sugar Sammy sooner or later – but considering what has been happening since around June, I’m going to do this post now instead of later.
No matter where you turn, all you hear is the Sugar Sammy controversy – and, under most circumstances, you wouldn’t think it should be a controversy — but here’s where language politics come into to play. For many readers who do not have much interaction with French on the ground, this might be your first insight into language politics. It’s something that comes up once in a while, usually in flare-ups, with this being the latest one (the prior bout was during the debate surrounding la Charte des valeurs québécoises – which spawned loosely-unrelated discussions trailing off in all directions, such as proposals to force Federal institutions, CEGEPS and small companies to adhere to la loi 101). I’ll try to be as general as I can in this post to give you a sense of what is happening in this latest bout involving Sugar Sammy. I will say upfront that I can see both sides of the fence — there are always two ways to look at something — so read this post with an open mind.
So here’s the story…
Sugar Sammy is the story of the remnants of what is left of Language Politics in Montréal. I’ll give you a bit of background on what Language Politics are, because Sugar Sammy is being associated with it at the moment. In large part, Language politics is a notion I think people are getting tired of, and they just want to move on (I’m not speaking for myself – I’m speaking about what I’m seeing and hearing)..
Language politics is a term for the supposed tensions between Anglophones and Francophones – over the use of English in Québec as a lingua franca in public, sometimes in private, sometimes in school, and also sometimes in business. It used to be a major issue. Up until the 1960s, Québec was a very unequal society – Anglophones controlled the business spheres and lived in their own world, imposing English on Francophones in any business interactions. Francophones were agrarian, labourers and elected officials, dominant in other occupations (such as law & accounting, as well as education via the church), and had little opportunity to change their lot. If you economically wanted to get ahead, you couldn’t do it in French (you had to speak English) despite Francophones being a majority in Québec. Even though the governments were Francophone dominant, there was little desire to upset this strange balance. They would rather grant large influence to the Church to care for many day-to-day ground level programs, and simply bring in the resulting tax money. Occupations such as modern-style farming and many blue-collar jobs were out of the question for anglophones, even if they wanted them. The Two Solitudes were alive and well. If people wanted to mix (as some dared to do on both sides), society didn’t take kindly to the idea. It was very strange: it wasn’t forced segregation in the sense that we know the word today (it perhaps was a type of self-imposed segregation of the willing on both sides), nor was it an inferiority/superiority complex (both sides felt superior on their own side of the linguistic lines), and it really wasn’t a caste system. It was just that people didn’t mix on the streets, and they fell back into comfortable zone, demarcated by positions and occupations in life which fell along linguistic lines. But such a societal structure could not last forever, and as the world changed, things were bound to reach a breaking point when change must occur.
It was such a different place. I think if any of us were to travel back in time to that period, nobody would recognize it – the way of life and the people of the period would be as foreign as alians. I know we all learned about it in school across Canada, and we’ve all seen the videos from the period, but I’m not sure that truly gives an idea just how much both sides kept to themselves and kept themselves self-segregated on the home front. It’s amazing to think how much the country has changed and moved forward since that period, both Anglophone and Francophones, both Quebec and all other provinces. This transformation, too, has shaped out collective values as a nation – and these values never seem to get enough attention. It was a tremendous change we underwent, as all people on both sides, in all parts of the country. It should be talked about and celebrated.
Legal advances and rapid changes in attitudes brought changes to this equation during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a period of rebalancing (Francophones were the majority, and thus French became the legal and public language – enforced by law). It was a very difficult transition on both Anglophones and Francophones, and lots of sour politics and bitterness were involved. However, the heat of it occurred a couple of generations ago — which, actually was a long time ago, considering the pace of change today.
In today’s modern society, French and English has achieved a balance point and people have moved on. For the most part, language politics (in the sense of how it used to be known) has been reduced to the odd isolated flare-up. Sometimes the flare-ups can be a bit “larger”, even artificially created for the purpose of scoring political points. But for the most part, society has achieved a happy balance, and language politics have been mostly relegated to the past.
French is healthy and secure as society’s lingua-franca – and people don’t feel threatened anymore by English.
Here is some context from the ground on how we’ve moved beyond language politics… There are still some sensitivities, and I am conscious of it. I suppose if you can speak French, but (heaven forbid) you ardently refuse to and you obstentiously demand service in English, yah, that could get someone’s nose out of joint… just as it could get anybody’s nose out of joint in any part of Canada. (Imagine if someone demanded service in German in Kamloops, BC, and then had a fit or became even more demanding if they didn’t get that service in German … what would you think if you were the employee having to deal with that person?). So yah, I try to use tact and politeness in public, and I speak French when I’m in Québec – that’s reasonable and normal. I’ve accompanied visiting friends in Québec on numerous occasions; friends who don’t speak French, and I’m not always acting as their translator. But I don’t need to be their translator because when those friends approach someone in English in a restaurant or store or elsewhere, my friends are polite and considerate, and staff are very polite, open, and helpful when they realize these are visitors who don’t speak French – again a very reasonable situation. And most people I know, when they reach the end of their trip, leave with a feeling that Québécois are some of the nicest, most polite, most sympathetic people. There you go! So you know what? If someone in the service or transportation industry in Québec cannot speak English (and that definitely does happen ), they’ll simply tell you, just like that person in Kamloops would tell you they can’t speak German. There’s nothing unreasonable or unfriendly about it – it’s just a fact. You just use common sense, empathy and manners, and you won’t have any problems. People are nice if you’re nice.
I am going somewhere with this, so just bear with me for an instant – and I’ll tie this into Sugar Sammy in a few moments…
For the most part, the modern way Québec treats and views language seems to be along two lines:
- Owing to the success of language laws and a rebalancing of society over the last 50 years, Francophones regard English more as an international tool than as an adversarial threat, and
- Québec Anglophones, for the most part, tend to be very bilingual and don’t hesitate to use French as one of their two lingua-francas when going about their daily lives in public.
However… there are rare exceptions to both of the above (ie: there are a few Anglophones who live in Québec who refuse to speak or learn French… and there are a few Francophones in Québec who do view anything English as the ultimate threat, either to French, or to certain political aspirations – it’s the old Two Solitudes, but a highly politicized one). It’s when these two “small” worlds meet that we see the odd flare-up of language politics. By “flare-ups”, I mostly mean certain political commentators and specific politicians – usually the same very vocal ones – tend to have super-sensitive nerves when it comes to language. If language laws are not followed to the letter, of if language and nationalistic politics are even joked about, you would think it’s the end of the world for these few people. Even though these types of people are few in numbers, every society, every country, every province has these types of people (I’m sure you can think of some who live in your backyard, regardless where you live in the world). The issues may be different, the context may be different, but you know the type of person I’m talking about (they’re sensitive and they easily make a mountain out of a mole hill). In Québec, however, due to the insular structure of media, these very sensitive people have a disproportionately large, easily accessible microphone (sometimes through networks and talk shows friendly to their cause, sometimes through newspaper columns, other times as lime-light politicians) – and you hear them, even you if you don’t want to. Where you notice that times have really changed in Québec is how the public is reacting to them; most people seem to just tune them out. If this was 50, 40 or 30 years ago (or even 1995), the public would probably be taking up the banner of this very vocal group. But they’re not anymore. So the public hears them, but just takes it with a grain of salt.
So how does this all fit in with Sugar Sammy?
Sugar Sammy is a widly popular comedian. His stage name is Sugar Sammy (a nickname from university), but his real name is Samir Khullar. The closest, best known Anglophone comedian who I think best fits his style of humour would be the stand-up comedian Margaret Cho, and the type of acts she performed 15 to 20 years ago (perhaps you can you already guess where I’m going with this and why I’m talking about “Margaret Cho“ and “certain sensitivities”??). Don’t get me wrong, Sugar Sammy is very much his own man, but there are similarities with Cho – and this kind of self-depricating, figer-pointing, un-PC humour is making him widly popular. Yet there is a small, but extremely vocal group of people, those who I described above, who have their shorts in a knot about his comedy acts.
It’s important to understand the context of Sugar Sammy’s background and humour in order for this whole post to come together. He was born in Montréal in 1976 to Indian immigrants. This was right about the time that the children of immigrants in Québec had to start attending school only in French (Bill 101, or la Loi 101, made it mandatory that the children of immigrants could NOT attend school in English – it was viewed as a question of rebalancing society). Apart from a brief time when he took his comedy acts to the Middle-East, he has lived his entire life in Montréal.
He grew up in the Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood, which is one of the major immigrant-receiving neighbourhoods. This is significant to the overall context of this post. There are various neighbourhoods in Montréal which receive immigrants, and there are three types of overall immigrants which Québec attracts:
- Immigrants who already know French (ie: from Francophone countries, or countries with populations that have French speakers, such as many Maghreb, Middle-Eastern, Caribbean or African nations)
- Immigrants who know English, but not French (South Asia, East Asia, the US and UK),
- And Immigrants who know neither French nor English (often East European or Latin American countries).
Various neighbourhoods in Montréal attract immigrants along the above three lines. Côte-des-Neiges attracts many immigrants who do not have a prior knowledge of French, but who often have a knowledge of English. Therefore, despite the fact that Sugar Sammy grew up in the French education system, and grew up fully integrated into Francophone society, his friends and family, and many of the people in his neighbourhood spoke English when he grew up.
Therefore, he’s fully bilingual, he feels Québécois, and he IS Québécois (I mean, if he isn’t, then who is?). But… he has an English accent (which plays into this overall story, because this small vocal group, the one who has it out for him, is labeling him as a troublemaking outsider… hence the “sigh” in the title of this post).
Now back to his humour… He does stand-up comedy. Most recently, he’s been doing stand-up in French for Francophone audiences all over Québec. It’s self deprecating humour (making fun of oneself and one’s own society). He “plays the role” of the “outsider” Anglophone (he purposely accentuates the notion of Two Solitudes for comedic effect), and then cracks political jokes at the expense of mostly sovereignist Francophones. He also cracks jokes at Québec’s language laws, and at his own ethnic background. He’ll sometimes do it in an accent, either English or Indian, just as Margaret Cho does her Korean accent. His jokes are very un-PC. Basically, he doesn’t spare anybody – his jokes are at his own expense just as much as they are at others.
Francophones and Anglophones alike can’t get enough of him and they are flocking to his shows… thousands and thousands of people. His fans (which is by far much of Francophone Québec) adore him, and they consider him to be one of their own (just as Sugar Sammy seems to adore them) — he’s really the talk of the town right now. They’re going to his shows because they want to hear him laugh at Québec’s politics. They want to hear him poke fun of Language Politics. It really is a reflection of how society has moved so far forward compared to even 20 years ago. People can, and DO WANT to laugh about these things. It’s almost like we’re living in, and seeing a new relaxed Québec… one that has been waiting for some breathing space for a long long time. I don’t know what it is or how to describe it, but things just seem different – like a content balance has been achieved.
But Sugar Sammy’s humour has not gone unnoticed by an ultra-sensitive group (those who I described earlier)… and some them are (figuratively) out for blood.
Sugar Sammy knows this, and has exploited it to attract even larger audiences. When this small ultra-sensitive group barks and complains that he’s bashing Francophones and Québec society, the complaints backfire and the public comes out in droves to Sammy’s shows. They want to see what all this rigmarole is about – and they don’t want to miss out on the laughs.
So then guess what did Sugar Sammy did… he upped the ante! This summer he decided to pull a few stunts to get a bit more attention. He flaunted the language laws (a very sore topic for this small vocal ultra-sensitive group) and published his advertisements in English only (which is against language laws in Québec… you can publish in English and French together, but not English alone). That infuriated the vocal few. And I mean really infuriated them. But Sammy’s audience numbers then shot through the roof!! He became the hottest thing of the entire summer and fall.
When I’m at work, I sometimes stream radio stations from Vancouver to Halifax. The other day I tuned into a French-language radio talk show in Québec City. I won’t name names, but a very famous, very nationalist, very sovereignist political guest commentator was invited onto a radio show to give his views of Sugar Sammy. I thought he was going to have a heart-attack… really. He couldn’t control himself. He was yelling… I think he was having an emotional breakdown at the same time, he lost coherence in what was saying… basically, he couldn’t take Sugar Sammy’s humour. In his eyes, it would be fine to joke about Federalist Anglophones or Federalists in general, but for him, French language laws, and Sovereignist politics were off the table and a hands-off no-go zone. The host tried to calm him down and bring some reason to the issues by pointing out that Sugar Sammy is as Québécois as they come. The host pointed out that the shows are self-depricating humour by a fellow Québécois and that there are very sovereignist comedians who make similar jokes about Anglophones and Ottawa politics (Yvon Deschamps is one I can think of off the top of my head — but I think he’s absolutely hilarious!! A joke is a joke when it’s in the right context). The radio host was making the argument (in line with the thoughts of the majority of society) that we need to distinguish a joke as being just that, and that we sometimes need to just laugh at ourselves, otherwise we risk taking ourselves too seriously – and that can cause problems (hey!! That’s why we have places like Théatre St-Denis… It’s not like Sugar Sammy was randomly going up to strangers on the street, poking fun of them and making jokes in their faces). But this guest wouldn’t have any of it, and viewed Sugar Sammy as public enemy #1. In the end, the host (who I think is actually a friend of the guest, because I’ve heard the guest reguarly appear on this particular radio show quite often over the past few years) pretty much had to tell the guest to start breathing again, try to control his blood pressure — and then guess what happened — the host actually hung up because it was getting too much out of hand (I had never ever heard the host hang up, mid-sentence, on anyone before, after years of listening to this particular radio show!)
I was shocked. I was not shocked that there are those vocal few who seem to get upset about this stuff (after all, we’re used to seeing these same few people all the time, being recycled as guests from one talk show to another, from one blog to another, from one newspaper to another). But I was shocked at the degree to which these few people are getting upset.
On the flip side (and this will put things into perspective… It did for me)… a good number of high-profile sovereignsts came out and defended Sugar Sammy, telling this other group to take a chill pill and cool it! They can see comedy for comedy, and they know how to separate it from reality – just like the rest of the public. Denise Bombardier was one who came out against what could be considered the unreasonableness of these vocal few. She defended Sugar Sammy – and yet she is considered very nationalist (but now you can see why I mentioned a couple of times in earlier posts that I respect and like her… she keeps things in perspective – even if you don’t agree with the end means of her politics). My respect level for her shot up by 50 points right then and there.
So, that my friends, is Sugar Sammy and the hoopla that’s currently surrounding him. He’s hilarious. He makes us laugh at ourselves. And he gives everyone breathing space. Tension is released when you can laugh, and it really is the best medicine. He’s doing something very good.
In the end, the public bashing of Sugar Sammy by a vocal, ultra-nationalist, super-sensitive few is allowing the public to see that politics and extreme emotions and extreme viewpoints do not mix – and the public has been turned off because of it. It’s good to see that people just want to chill.
Now you have a little bit more knowledge on how society is dealing with, and viewing a whole a host of issues — stuff you can’t get from textbooks. Hopefully you’re finding it insightful and interesting.
Something important which I neglected to mention… Sugar Sammy, for the most part, has been doing his comedy acts in French (only on rare occasions, such as annual comedy festivals, and trips outside Québec does he do his shows in English). Thus his shows mostly attract Francophone audiences, for shows done in French. I’m not sure that the same jokes would go over as well if they were done in English (which is probably why Mike Ward also does his acts in French). I’m not sure I would even find the same jokes funny if many were done in English (the audience would be different, and at that point, yeah, the jokes would have a different meaning).