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I have have it in the back of my mind for quite some time to write a post on Denise Bombardier. But I’ve been at a loss on how to describe her. In a nutshell, she’s complex because of her varied interests and varied background. Yet everyone seems to know and understand her in a simple kind of way. They know who she is as a person and what can be expected from her. In that sense, I can probably capture who she is in a few paragraphs if I just shoot from the hip.
She is in her mid-70’s, but has the energy of someone in their mid 30s. She has had a 40 year career in the public light and media – with much of her career as a current affairs, societal, and commentary talk-show host. Year after year she has published books on societal topics from A to Z, and she remains a high-profile columnist.
Through her publicly expressed opinions, she has become very influential in political circles by way of attracting public attention to various issues of societal concern. She has never been a politician, but she is almost like the elder statesman/stateswoman who never was.
She does not shy away from controversial issues – which I suppose is her hallmark. When she talks, people tune in and listen.
Bombardier has not hosted her own television talk show for a number of years, but that does not mean we see her any less (she does have a column in Le journal de Montréal… and considering the nature of the newspaper, I think it may have taken many by surprise – considering I and many other would probably have pegged her as a Le Devoir type of person).
Apart from being known for her strong views, she is also well known for publicly maintaining a “high-level” of French. If you’re learning French (and many of the readers of this blog are learning French at a basic or elementary level), Mme. Bombardier may be someone who you would like to follow. She speaks in standard Quebecois and International French, but she is known to incorporate an expanded and well-enunciated vocabulary into her speech — sometime with a more complex grammar (basically, she speaks “literary” French, which is the type of French Anglophones learn in school). In this sense, she is to Francophone Canada what Conrad Black might be to Anglophone Canada when it comes to how she speaks.
Here is a video of an interview with Denise Bombardier (in French) made by program “Carte de visite” of TFO (Ontario’s public French-language broadcaster. This is one of the better (and more enlightening) works I have seen on the subject of Denise Bombardier.
Denise Bombardier holds a Ph.D in sociology and a degree in political science. In this context, she`s also an accomplished author on subjects as diverse as relationships, the role of French in society, societal morals, how society (especially Québec’s) should be viewed, and its current evolution. Her views are strong, and very nationalistic.
She is particularly known for her on-air debates and exchange of opinions with some of the widest swaths of society, both influential figures, and experts alike.
One of the things which strikes me is just how much media attention she attracts, and the scale of her media presence. It’s no exaggeration to say that she shows up everywhere. In the span my entire life, whenever I have tuned into any francophone media, it would be rare to have not seen her, or to have not heard of her at least once every few days (a minimum of once a week). It baffles me to think that someone can possibly be everywhere, all the time. In this sense, I “grew up” with her in the background (like the family member who never was).
You could sometimes easily get the impression she is doing an interview in Montréal one morning, then seemingly attends a sit-down interview in Paris later that evening, an appearance the next day on a morning radio interview show in Québec City, then magically appears as an audience member at a gala awards event in Montréal the following day – I mean… seriously, holy crap! It has been like this for as long as I can remember — and I’m in my late 30s..
She speaks her opinion and can be a passionate, emotional, and determined debater. Only those who have very honed and strong debating skills seem to be able to hold their own against her. However, her objectivity comes through in her ability to place her opinions it in the context of an overall opinion scale.
She’s very sure of herself and knows exactly where she stands with respect to others and societal issues. But she has been known to vehemently shoot the arguments of others down if they can’t hold their own when they debate against her. That’s perhaps why she attracts such a wide audience (of both like-minded people, and those with different views from her’s). Tongue in cheek – If she were still a student at university, she would not be the head of the debating team, but rather she would be the head of the entire provincial debating association 😉 .
With that being said, I have seen many many instances where she holds an admirably cool-head, proving she knows there’s a proper time and place for debate, as well as a proper time and place for balanced, paced discussion (she has a keen sense of what others think, and she can objectively evaluate other’s opinions – before adding her own comments).
She’s often solicited as a commentator by right wing media, left wing media, sovereignist slanted media personalities, and federalist media personalities.
Unfortunately, I’ve never seen her appear in cross-Canada Anglophone media, which is a shame (a crime, really). She could add a completely different perspective to many issues Anglophones would be interested in hearing about (many many issues which Francophones and Anglophones across Canada share and live with on a daily basis). Interestingly, despite her assertive/aggressive debating style and nationalistic inclinations, I believe she would have the tact, and above all, the patience with which to wander through the murky waters of the Two Solitudes.
But it’s because of her accentuated criticism of all political stripes (she can be very critical of the sovereignist movement despite her own affirmations), that I would love to see her regularly appear in Anglophone media. I assume she speaks English, but I don’t know for sure. (Her husband is British, but I assume he speaks French owing to his professional background).
Her passion is for Quebec’s society. She often relates her passion in the context of eras she grew up and worked in (although younger generations do know her, they may not follow her as much). Because of her generational stance on many issues, I have heard her be referred to as a lightning rod for criticism (ie: she may view something one way, but younger generations may view in another light).
Nonetheless, she’s is granted a forum for debate because of the importance placed on her views and because she defends them so well.
Regardless if you do or do not agree with her views, I get the impression that her views are listened to, weighed and considered by those who are making decisions (administrators, elected government officials, organizations, the media, etc.).
If I could chose how best to describe Denise Bombardier’s public nature, they would be “pragmatic” and “a caring nationalist” (She is “pro-Québec, has traditionally been sovereignist, has always deeply cared for society’s welfare, and she does not become involved in the dirty side of politics which otherwise comes with these sorts of topics), Her social opinions are very strong, and could be considered both progressive and conservative — depending on how you look at them (and depending on the issue being discussed).
There certainly are areas where I do not agree with her, but she has other many other views which I do agree with. And then there are other instances which she simply makes me (and many others) think. That’s why she gets my attention (and respect). She helps to round out one’s views, and especially gives people a better awareness of where they personally stand on issues — regardless if their views are opposed or in line with Bombardier’s. She strikes a chord – sometimes a sensitive one – but that’s her nature, and one of her numerous valued contributions to society.
Addendum 2014-11-28:. Yesterday I tuned into “C’est la vie” and found they did an interview with Denise Bombardier later in the same day as my post. Her interview was given in English — a very interesting interview. I’d encourage you to check it out on “C’est la vie’s” website. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/cestlavie
Addenedum 2015-04-11: A week ago I found out that Denise Bombardier would be signing her most recent book at the international book fair in Québec City. I was grateful she took a few moments to chat and sign her book for me. 🙂
You may recall a few weeks ago I wrote a post which provided some old black & white and early colour footage of Québec; Old video footage of Québec in the 1930s, 40s & 50s (#199)
In that post I pointed out that rural Québec farms used to have outdoor stone and earthen ovens for cooking bread. Such ovens were used from the 1600s until the 1940s). I wondered out loud if any such ovens (or their ruins) might still exist in the countryside. Well, I answered my question. I found some in the countryside not far from Québec City. Photos below.
Unfortunately I did not have time to look around very much (my main reason for going was to get a book signed), but I saw that several famous people were present (Dany Laferière walked in the entrance right beside me, Denise Bombardier was there, as was Bernard Pivot — all of whom are very famous people in all Francophone countries for their written works and television careers).
Yesterday, during the Parti Québécois debates, Pierre Karl Péladeau (PKP), the most likely contender to be the next head of the PQ, stated (and I’m quoting as accurately from French as possible, with context being provided in square brackets):
“We will not have [another] 25 years to achieve [Québec independence]. With [Québec’s] demographic [changes], with its immigration [rates], it is a sure thing that we are losing [the support of the equivalent of] one riding every year. We wish we could better control [this situation], but let us not hold any illusions [about it]”
“Who is in charge of the immigrants who come to settle in Québec? It is the Federal government. Of course, there is shared jurisdiction [in immigration between the provincial and federal governments], but [immigrants] still pledge an oath to the Queen [to become citizens, and thus are eligible to vote in any referendum]. Therefore, we don’t have another 25 years ahead of us. It is now that we must work [on this problem].”
Reactions to PKP’s statement have so far boiled down to two camps:
- One camp believes immigrants are “not” the problem. Rather this camp believes the issue is with either sovereignist ideology (which is what federalists argue), or the successful communication of this ideology to all sectors of Québec’s society (both federalists and sovereignist can share point of view, as did Alexandre Cloutier, another contender for the leadership of the PQ). What they mean by this is that rather than (a) turning off the immigration tap, or (b) choosing only immigrants who would be demographically “more apt to support sovereignty”, the PQ should instead concentrate more on getting their argument to resonate with all immigrants. Federalists will argue that in the end, if immigrants will not support their proposal, then the PQ should question the validity of their own proposal rather than the intelligence of immigrants. To do otherwise creates a “them-and-us” society (A similar analogy would almost be as if the Federal government were to restrict immigration numbers so as to garner enough votes in the off-ball chance they were running on a platform that was about… I don’t know… ceasing subsidization of education [I just chose this completely at random]). This means Québec has to determine if it wants a globalized, cosmopolitan (ie: all inclusive, multi-ethnic/racial, we’re-all-in-this-together) society, or if we want a “them-and-us” society, with a sovereignty debate axed on ethnic nationalism. This camp believes that you can’t just turn immigration on and off depending on how you think this segment of the population will vote (otherwise it becomes a question of ethnically rigging our entire system and population — very dangerous!).
- Another camp believes that immigrants are the roadblock to sovereignty because they are statistically less apt to vote for sovereignty in any referendum. This camp argues that a referendum should be held as quickly as possible to beat a demographic time bomb against sovereignty as Québec continues down the road to becoming more cosmopolitan (some veteran, high-profile sovereignists, such as Denise Bombardier, argue Québec is already past this point and will never achieve sovereignty). This camp believes part of “beating the demographic time-bomb would involve controlling immigration levels so that, in the eyes of supporters of this camp, no more “damage” could be done. This argument can be summed up in the following statement: Québec sovereignty should be decided by those of New France origins, and also by those who are allied with citizens of New France origins and culture, and to hell with the rest. (harsh, but that’s kind of where this camp stands). This argument advocates that, if at all possible, “the rest” should be prevented from coming to Québec, for fear that they may influence any referendum’s outcome. It also insinuates that those of Non-New France origins would never support sovereignty (yet, interestingly, 20% of visible minorities did support the “yes” side in 1995). It is interesting to see that there are are people who advocate this view — and based on what was said at a number of pro-Charte des valeurs rallies in 2012, perhaps there are more people who support these views than what one may think (it is a view which very much echoes the 1995 Parizeau statement).
One little factoid I wish to explain, one which is not very well understood in Québec or elsewhere in English Canada: Under the constitution, Québec and all provinces have sole jurisdiction to decide which immigrants can settle in their respective provinces. However, Québec is the only province which has opted to exercise this jurisdiction (all other provinces, with the exception of some limited immigration categories, have “voluntarily decided” to let the Federal government handle selecting their immigrants for them). What this means is that in Québec’s case, Québec has provincial immigration officers, posted abroad in Québec immigration bureaus, who receive applications from foreigners to “immigrate to Québec”. These provincial immigration officers then decide which immigration applications will be approved (it is not Ottawa who chooses the immigrants to Québec, unless they fall under certain categories of refugees. However Ottawa conducts the police and health checks on all immigrants before the permanent resident card is granted — but this has nothing to do with choosing the “person” who is about to immigrate). In this sense, all immigrants in Québec have been chosen by Québec, for Québec (including by the Parti Québécois when they were in power). That’s why I find PKP’s statement quite curious – (in many, many respects) – as well as misleading, ill-informed, and frankly ignorant.
The intention of this post is not to report the news. Believe me when I say this story has already become one of the most reported individual stories of 2015 (and it has only been news for 24 hours). We have not seen this sort of political statement since Parizeau cried foul of the “ethnic vote” on referendum night in 1995.
Nor is the intention of this post to analyze the validity or invalidity of PKP’s statement (the above is more of a backgrounder, than anything else). Again, reporters, columnists, other bloggers, and political circles are covering this topic like oil takes to the sands in Fort McMurray.
The intention of this post is to question “why” PKP made such a statement “now” – at this point of time. This is a question I have heard absolutely nobody talk about. I have some initial thoughts, and it’s worth pondering aloud.
In English Canada, the whole debate of reasonable accommodations (mostly orbiting around headscarf & facial-veil issues), and the political capitalization of religious tolerance issues (in light of recent jihadist-related events) has only become acute in the last few weeks (with the introduction of Bill C-51, recent court decisions, questions of extensions of military action in the Middle-East, homegrown terrorism issues, etc.).
Whereas this debate is relatively new news in English Canada, in Québec this debate has already been going on for the better part of three years — starting with the PQ’s initial proposal of the Charter of Values, and subsequent arguments for codifications and limitations of reasonable accommodations (within the framework of a debate surrounding multiculturalism and interculturalism).
This has allowed more than enough time for segments of Québec’s population to become quite galvanized along certain views in this debate – much more galvanized that in English Canada, which is still doing a lot of soul-searching. In many respects, such soul-searching is already “finished” in Québec, and we see clear lines of public opinion already being drawn in the sand; “for” and “against” various degrees of accommodation, “for” and “against” measures such as bill C-51, “for” and “against” increased or decreased levels of immigration, etc, etc.
Over the past year, many in our media in Québec have been stating that PKP’s manner of frank speech and political naïveté are a mix which makes him prone to severe verbal gaffs. More than a handful of veteran reporters have been predicting for months that it would only be a matter of time before PKP says something which would land him in very hot water – to the point that it could jeopardize any public support he has garnered (be it for his run at the PQ leadership, or his status as the leader of the PQ after the leadership race). Today, the vast majority of the media establishment have been citing yesterday’s statement as one such gaff.
However, I’m not so sure they are right. PKP is an extremely intelligent individual, surrounded and counseled by skilled, veteran political warriors. I actually have the funny feeling PKP knew exactly what he was saying when he made the above statements. I would venture to bet that he was fully aware of the type of public attention such statements would garner. It could very well have been part of his strategy.
Over the past months, even over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a stark galvanization of Québec’s population around issues of immigration, and how immigration touches upon matters involving integration and accommodation. In part, this galvanization has garnered unprecedented, historic support for “post-Alliance party” Conservatives in Québec — to the extent that they are for the first time leading in some polls of some regions in Québec, such as in Québec City.
The PQ has had a very difficult time attracting support over the past three years. I have a hunch that PKP saw how the Conservatives were able to capitalize on immigration & integration issues (as well as related security issues) to gain support in Québec – and I’m almost lead to believe that PKP is trying his hand at the same antics.
If this truly is part of his strategy, of course it is not without risk to PKP (and I’m sure he would be aware of that). Having one’s remarks labelled in the same breath as those of Parizeau’s 1995 remarks comes with the risk of a heavy political price. But unlike Parizeau’s remarks which we pronounced on a stage at the “end” of a highly emotional political process, PKP’s remarks came during a time when “other coincidental public debate” on related issues could provide him with a wider, more receptive audience towards yesterday’s remarks. In addition, unlike Parizeau’s remarks which went down in the history books as “closing” remarks at the “end” of the referendum process, PKP’s remarks yesterday are coming at the “beginning” of several political processes which will be debated for quite some time (such as the PQ’s leadership race, the 2015 Federal election, the 2018 provincial election, and a possible future referendum).
For a couple of reasons, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that his remarks are coming at the “beginning” of a whole set of political events (rather than at the end). In Canadian & Québec politics, the longer the time-frame that issues are debated, and the more certain issues are debated, the more our population has a tendency to become “numb” towards what is being debated. Parizeau’s remarks did not come at a time when sovereignty was still being debated (the debate was finished) — and thus the population did not have the opportunity to become “numb” towards them, or to “rally” around them as part of a campaign. Perhaps PKP is hoping the population, over time, will become “numb” towards the controversial aspects of his words, and that he may eventually succeed in rallying a segment of the population which perhaps would have otherwise lent its support to other parties (or did in fact lend its support to other parties in the last provincial election).
Perhaps PKP is willing to risk a few weeks of “uproar”, believing that criticism of his statements may eventually die down at some point — and in the meantime he may be hoping to pick up some of the same support that the Conservatives have managed to garner.
I’m sure there are people who agree with PKP, but to what extent they may be close to (or far from) a majority (even within the Parti Québécois) is a whole other question.
I suppose only time will tell.
Update 2015-03-20, 18:00pm: This is quickly becoming a very fluid topic. As of this evening (26 hours after first making his statements), it is being reported that PKP has apologized. I’m going to try to catch 24/60 in a few minutes to find out what is happening.
Public condemnation of PKP has been swift, hard, and virulent from the full range of the political spectrum, from friend and foe alike (even from some of his closest allies). It is rare to see such across-the-board condemnation of a Canadian political figure (at least without them resigning – which he likely will not). If you wish to read the full-range of condemnations he has attracted, you can view them here in the Radio-Canada article, PKP présente ses excuses. (sorry, no time to translate the article — but “google translate” works great!).
Regardless, I’m not sure what is going to hurt him more; having made the above statements in the first place, or having retracted them and now coming across as completely incoherent and incompetent, especially as the aspiring head of a major political party.
Update 20:00pm: Evening news & talk shows, their guests (from all political streams) and the windows they’re giving into the public’s perception is unanimous condemnation of PKP’s statements. People are still questioning whether his apology is sincere or not, or if it is a mere reflex after he realized it did not have the desired effect (he was sure sticking by his remarks earlier in the day). But frankly, at this point, I don’t care. What matters the most is that Québec, as one society, has dropped all political labels to says with one voice that this is not acceptable. That’s worth more than anything else – and really sums up what we’re all about as a society, in Québec and coast-to-coast across Canada!
Update 20:30pm: Oh, and in case anyone is wondering how PKP’s own television network, TVA, covered this story today (considering it was the top news event on every other network, on the radio, and in the newspapers), well, TVA’s main evening newscast in Québec City, the capital city of Québec (Le TVA Nouvelles 18h de Québec) buried it behind 7 other stories in their major evening news broadcast, behind
- A funding story about a skating rink in Québec City,
- A union dispute at Olymel,
- A loud city counsel session in a small city near Québec City,
- A court case regarding students who want to attend university when other students are striking,
- A story about an ex-juge convicted of murder three years ago and who is now appealing,
- A story about Québec City’s airport terminal expansion
And PKP and the PQ want to have us believe there is no conflict of interest between his position as a politician and that of a media mogul. I just shake my head. As we say… “mon oeil!”
And on top of it, TVA was the only network which did NOT broadcast video of his apology. They only broadcast a short, face-paced clip of him saying “It was only my intention to say that we need to act faster than taking 25 years”. I can tell you one thing, if this is the tone they’re setting for themselves in front of the public, things ain’t gonna go very far for ’em. Unbelievable… absolutely unreal.
ADDENDUM 2014-03-15: Radio-Canada knocks down PKP’s argument (bluntly saying PKP was wrong) that the Federal government is responsible for what PKP perceives to be Québec’s immigration woes (I’m still shaking my head with it buried in my hands after what he said yesterday).
Here’s Radio-Canada’s article: http://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/politique/2015/03/19/005-parti-quebecois-pkp-peladeau-immigrants-vote.shtml
It basically says the same thing that I said above with respect to how immigrants are chosen (by Québec, for Québec). They go a bit further by stating that
- Ottawa takes Québec’s advice into consideration when deciding immigration numbers
- Québec looks after integrating and allowing immigrants to learn French
- That Ottawa gives Québec $320 million annual for the above integration and “Frenchisization” process.
It has been over two months since PKP has made the above statements. Four days ago he became the head of the PQ. There has been no more talk of the subject since the statements were made last March.
I’m left wondering:
- if this means the PQ believed the initial virulent reaction to the statements were so strong that it remains too dangerous to evoke the immigration card any further?
- if this means that the PQ continues to let Québec’s population quietly ponder the who question of immigration? (after all, the seed was planted, but will it sprout into something in favour of PKP’s initial arguments at a later time?). Like I said earlier, Canada’s and Québec’s population often changes their minds on issues of a social and societal nature if slowly eased into the idea (we’ve seen this many times over the past 50 years… think of how many subjects used to be taboo in the past, but are no longer taboo now). Far-right wing parties in Europe have played their immigration cards in this way.
- if PKP may try to reinvoke this same argument in the run-up to the 2018 election, but in a re-packaged format – perhaps in a different format? He perhaps may try to invoke an “immigration crisis” on another issue. Perhaps he will try to make an argument that temporary foreign workers are taking jobs (the Couillard government has been bucking Ottawa’s bid to quell temporary foreign worker numbers). Perhaps he will try to invoke an argument that massive immigrant investment in the real-estate sector is driving up prices. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… Regardless, such arguments (even if incorrect) have the potential to diminish public appetite towards immigration. I would hedge my bets that we’ll see something of the making of this 3rd point in the run-up to the 2018 election. But as always, who knows. Only time will tell.
The Sugar Sammy post which I wrote more than a week ago has garnered some of the highest viewership of all the posts I’ve written. It took me a little by surprise. The interest probably stems from a desire to better understand on-the-ground issues and how those issues are communicated when opinions come into play.
I think the interest generated in that post also shows there a significant segment of Anglophone Canada which cares about what is happening in Québec and what people in Québec are feeling towards issues.
How opinions are publicly communicated in Québec is a little complicated and different than in the rest of Canada. I’ll use this post to lay a bit of groundwork upon which I can build later posts when discussing the above matters in more in depth. So let’s dive into it…
When we use the word “opinion-maker” (in French, faiseur d’opinion), in the widest context it includes anyone who uses a public platform with which to try to influence public opinion. In Anglophone Canada, when we hear this word, our thoughts most quickly turn towards politicians.
However, in Québec, it becomes a bit more complicated – this is one of the least-understood aspects of Québec society on the part of Anglophone Canada, but one of the most important and influential aspects of Québec society. There is an entire media industry which employs and works in synergy with a group of “independent” opinion makers (independent in the sense that they express individual opinions, rather than corporate opinions). Most often they take the form of
- editors (through editorials),
- bloggers who are financially supported and publicized by the media industry
- personal opinion television programs, their hosts and their regular signed guests
- radio programs, their hosts and their regular signed guests.
When I refer to opinion-makers in this post, I am referring to those described above (to the exclusion of current sitting politicians, and regular news programs and journalists).
Anglophone Canada also has columnists, editorials, and opinion radio programs. There are similarities between these Anglophone and Francophone opinion-makers in the sense that those who are featured on TV & Radio tend to garner more attention (such as Tasha Kheirridin, Ezra Levant, Rex Murphy, Dave Rutherford and John Gormley in English Canada, or Richard Martineau, Guy A. Lepage, Benoît Dutrizac, and Marie-France Bazzo in Québec). But in many ways, that is where the similarities end.
In Anglophone Canada, these types of opinion-makers are known much more in a regional context than a national context (such as Adam Radwanski better known in Ontario for his political columns, Haroon Siddiqui better known in Toronto through the Toronto Star, and Licia Corbella being better known in Calgary through the Calgary Herald, and so on). And those opinion-marker outlets which do have a wider reach (such as Sun News TV) generally have very low viewer ratings, in fact some of the lowest ratings in Canadian broadcasting.
But in Québec, there are some major differences from Anglophone opinion-makers:
- the reach of Francophone opinion-makers is province-wide,
- they are much more concentrated,
- they are much more visible (the public in Québec can name opinion-maker individuals much more readily, whereas average Anglophone Canadians are often hard-pressed to name 3 or 4 opinion-makers who would be known to all Anglophone Canadians, irrespective of their region),
- In Québec, opinion-makers have higher audience numbers.
- One of the biggest differences between such Anglophone and Francophone opinion-makers is that in Québec, the same personalities are regularly circulated between numerous TV and radio interview, opinion and news programs. They also provide cross-print opinions (meaning their opinon pieces may be published in more than one newspaper). This contributes to the public being more familiar with them.
- Québec opinion-makers are often former newsmakers and activists (example: Martine Desjardins), politicians (examples: Nathalie Normandeau, Jacques Brassard or Gilles Duceppe), business people with influence (example: Jean-Marc Léger), moonlighting reporters (examples: Marie-France Bazzo, Francine Pelletier), and former television hosts (example: Denise Bombardier) – which gives them an added degree of notoriety and attention.
If you really want to understand the issues – and you truly want to understand what opinions and views are being projected to Québec’s public on a mass scale on almost every topic, then it’s important to know who these opinion makers are (in a general sense), and what relationship-networks they operate in. It’s also important to understand individual opinion-makers’ overall personal views (after all, they convey their personal views, as well as their societal and political objectives when they discuss individual topics of the day).
You might recall in the post entitled “Evening News Programs”, I mentioned that the internet age has made it so the major networks and news industry (including newspapers) have had to redefine themselves to remain relevant. To remain relevant, the media industry has maintained public interest by greatly supplementing their news with analysis and commentaries (by opinon-makers). This has reinforced the star-appeal Québec’s opinion-makers have in society, and the public attention they garner.
For the sake of ratings, it’s in the interest of the television networks and newspapers to promote the star-power of these people, or attract already existing star opinion-makers: Guy A. Lepage in Radio-Canada’s “Tout le monde en parle”, Marie-France Bazzo in Télé-Québec’s “Bazzo.tv”, Richard Martineau in LCN’s “Richard Martineau”, Le Journal de Montréal’s star columnists like Martine Desjardin, Le Devoir’s star columnists like Lise Payette, La Presse’s start columnists like Patrick Lagacé, etc. etc. And then there are the radio stations which have their own start-studded programs, such as Radio-X’s run-away ratings morning show with Jérôme Landry and Denis Gravel, Radio 9 with star radio host Dominic Maurais, 98,5 with stars such as Pierre Curzi and Jean Lapierre, and 93FM with Nathalie Normandeau. If you want sparks, sensationalism, and ratings, you make sure you have people like this on the air and in print – and then sit back and watch the $$$ come in. This is how the networks and papers are distinguishing themselves from one another and remaining relevant in the age when their audiences could otherwise turn to other entertainment and news venues with the click of a mouse.
The popularity of these opinion-makers has some additional spin-off side-effects, which further amplifies Québec’s opinion-maker voices in the internet age. Some of these effects are as follows:
- As one network or newspaper gets a leg-up over another, the competition feels they’re being outdone and they then seek to attract an even greater number of star personalities. Personalities with more vocal and entrenched views are the ones who often attract the most attention – and thus you see the makings of a larger, very vocal, very militant opinion-maker line-up with hard-line political opinions.
Below is a chart showing Québec’s most prominent opinion-makers, classified by media venue. I colour-coded it to denote how prominent and well known the personalities in question are to the general public. Those in red are the best known personalities across all segments of society. Those in green are fairly well-known, and those in white still have a relatively strong and opinionated voice in the public sphere (otherwise they wouldn’t be hired).
- This next graph is very interesting (and perhaps the most telling). It maps some of the interconnected networks. I’ve taken 22 of some of the best known opinion-maker personalities (columnists, opinion TV show hosts, radio-show hosts, regular TV and radio guest commentators), and mapped where they are most often seen and read. This list is not exhaustive, which is why I included another box on the far right and left sides stating these same people are also seen in other media venues (which may be various shows, magazines, conferences, etc.). If it looks complex, it’s because it is… but the point isn’t to understand all the connections, but rather to be able to see that Québec’s opinion-makers are very interconnected on many levels. Click the diagram to enlarge.
- I’m mentioning this Sovereignist / Federalist ratio because these statistics are pretty much in line with the overall opinion-maker ratio on the excel document. In light of Québec polls pegging sovereignty support at around 35% (rarely having exceeded 40% in the past 20 years), why would most opinion-makers be sovereignist? There may be a few reasons. But rather than speculating on what many of the reasons may be, I will say that one of the reasons is probably because Sovereignist opinion-makers can be much more vocally passionate about their convictions, and thus tend to find a place on the public stage much easier. This passion also makes for great ratings for those who employ them.
What I find troubling, however, is that because there is such a high concentration of Sovereignist opinion-makers, it risks disproportionately influencing public opinion.
- As you can imagine from the graph denoting the interconnectedness of opinion-makers, it is very difficult in Québec to turn on any media source and not see, hear or read at least one of the major opinion-maker personalities in a given day (perhaps several personalities in the same day). Little by little, over time, their opinions are bound to have an effect on peoples attitudes towards issues (be it sovereignty, legislation, economics, provincial budgets, federal, provincial, and municipal politics, left vs. centre vs. right viewpoints, how people view their place in the world, etc.).
One thing you may have noticed is that Radio-Canada and TVA both have relatively few opinion-maker programs and personalities listed in the excel document.
One major opinion-maker program which Radio-Canada does have is Tout le monde en parle. This also happens to be the highest rated TV program in Québec. But on balance, Radio-Canada does a very good job of balancing view points and not tending to be very political. I’ve also noticed a positive difference in the last several years in the amount of coverage they accord to the rest of Canada, as well as a greater presence on the web (a very good presence on the web in fact). In light of the cuts they have gone through over the past 20 year, my hat truly goes off to Radio-Canada for a job well done.
TVA’s main network also has a program line-up which does not lean heavily on opinion-maker programs However, their pan-Canadian coverage is not very good (it is a very Québec-centric network), but it’s a Québecor private network, and that is how it is was set up. It is what it is. That being said, I can easily argue that much of Anglophone Canadian television often ignores things East of Ottawa (there is often very little coverage in Anglophone Canada of events on the ground in Francophone Québec – especially from a cultural and day-to-day living point of view). Thus, TVA is far from being the only guilty party in this realm. I even hear people in the Anglophone regions of the Atlantic Provinces complain that they’re given little media coverage in the rest of Anglophone Canada.
I can offer you a concrete example of where opinion-maker programming risks unjustly influencing public opinions. This risk is greater in the case of programs with higher ratings or where personalities are regularly recycled through interconnected media venues. In my view, the following example embodies the risks a lop-sided and/or biased opinion-maker industry can have when it creates an element of spin, angling, persuasion through omission (ie: by omitting the other side of the coin or by not providing opposing or more rounded views), etc. It basically is an example of “the politics of opinion”. Here’s the example…
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To set the scene, Richard Martineau is one of Québec’s best known opinion makers. He is a very well known columnist, blogger, he has his own opinion TV show on Québecor’s LCN 24-hour news TV network, he is a frequent commentary guest on radio stations, and he is often sought as a guest commentator on many other programs. He’s recognizable to most people in Québec. His views and thoughts are also well thought out. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t, but he’s always able to professionally rationalize his thoughts – which I respect, and I think most people in Québec respect him for the same reasons as me.
In 2006, he was interviewed on Tout le monde en parle. Up until that point it was unclear if he was Sovereignist or Federalist. But during his Tout le monde en parle interview, he was asked point-blank if he is for or against sovereignty. Back in 2006, there was a lot of discussion on how best to integrate and deal with immigrant cultural differences in Québec society (whereas Canada has a federal multicultural official policy and legislation, Québec has an official provincial integration policy and legislation – which is sometimes as odds with Federal official policy). There was a Québec government commission relating to this question – so keep this context in mind as you read on. Here is a translated synopse of Tout le monde en parle’s 2006 question and Martineau’s response:
Question, Guy A. Lepage :
- Are you for or against Sovereignty for Québec?
Response, Richard Martineau :
- (Long hesitation…). I would say… listen, honestly, I’ve been asking myself this question for 20 years. But I think I’m representative of Québec, and I’m extremely divided on this point myself. But during this time [ie: in light of the immigrant commission], I would say that with everything going on regarding “reasonable accomodations”, and amongst others, I find that the Canadian Charter of Rights, and that Canadian multiculturalism is not the right response [to the questions Québec is facing right now]. So, the way to protect Québec values and to affirm them maybe would be, perhaps, to separate, and to have all the tools available in our own tool chest.
Fair enough. I can live with this answer. It was well thought out, it was not aggressive, it was not extremist, and it was reasonable in Martineau’s mind. Martineau is a pretty open, level-headed guy, and it would be easy to have a discussion with him. I would have given a different answer myself, but Martineau obviously was a torn guy on the issue and had given it profound thought. I respect that. His response still had an element of nuance to it, and I kind of felt bad that it was an issue he was struggling with.
Fast forward now by six year, to September, 2013.
Bazzo.tv is one of Télé-Québec’s two most popular programs (the other being Les Francs-Tireurs, the subject of an earlier post). Both are opinion-maker programs, and Bazzo.tv can be very political. It’s guests are often pro-sovereignty, and its host, Marie-France Bazzo has very entrenched political views – portrayed through her interview style and guest line-ups.
In September, 2013, Bazzo had a segment on her show asking if Québec does or does not have a good image in the eyes of people outside Québec. You can view the entirety of the segment on Télé-Québec’s website here (in French): http://video.telequebec.tv/shadowbox/?fn=1176&tc=5&src=2&sec=1
Marie-France Bazzo Invited Barbara Kay, a columnist from the National Post, to present Anglophone Canada’s views on Québec.
Generally, across Canada, Barbara Kay is not well known. If you were to ask anybody on the street who she is, in any given part of the country – I will bet you that the vast majority of Anglophone Canadians, coast-to-coast, would not know who she is. After seeing this Bazzo.tv interview in 2013, I asked a good number of people if they ever heard of her, and I have yet to find one person who can tell me who Barbara Kay is. But everyone is entitled to their opinion, and so the National Post gives her print-space (keep in mind, that even though the National Post is a newspaper with national distribution, as is the Globe & Mail, these two papers routinely lose out in readership numbers because Anglophones spread across such as vast country would much rather pay for a local paper than a “national” paper from Toronto – it’s a fact with the published readership numbers out there for you to see yourself).
So, with that context behind us, Barbara Kay was to explain on Bazzo.tv how English Canada viewed Québec, as well as English Canada’s views on the Parti Québécois’ proposed Charte des values (Charter of values) – a charter which was to increase the secularism of the state by disallowing overly religious symbols to be worn by provincial civil servants.
As I describe to you the following events, keep in mind that this program was being watched live by viewers across Québec. Also, try to put yourself in the shoes of viewers, as if someone from another part of Canada was talking about you and your province. What would you feel? What would you think? Now, let’s continue…
In the segment’s introduction, the host, Marie-France Bazzo, stated that from BC to Newfoundland, critics were “bashing the Québec nation” for proposing the Charter. She said it “was not the first time Canada pounded Québec: the referendums, bill 101, corruption, and “pastagate” were targeted by the Anglophone media”. She then went on to state that Québec’s student and cree nation protests caught the world’s attention. But despite these negative views, there is an opposite, better image of Québec in the world – Québec’s Latin blood, fine dining and Montréal’s night life are the envy of the world. Bazzo stated Québec’s artistic industry is also well known. She concluded her introduction by asking “Does Québec have reason to believe it has a good image?”
With this question, the discussion then began. The guests were Barbara Kay (columnist at the National Post), Richard Martineau (mentioned above), Guy Lachapelle (Political science professor at Concordia University), Josée Boileau (Editor at Le Devoir newspaper), and Paul St-Pierre (Lawyer, political activist).
Barbara Kay, invited as the “spokesperson” to give Canada’s views, began by stating the following (the following is a translated synopsis of what you will see in the above video link in French):
- Québec has a bad image, and Canada considers Québec and the government of Québec “the laughing stock (la risée) of the world. She then stated, “…and absolutely the laughing stock of Canada”. Bazzo took her word at face value – with no challenge to it.
- Kay continued by stating Québec’s image, within the rest of Canada, is that Québec’s recent “plans” (regarding secularization) make it so Montréal is suffering economically, that Québec is too preoccupied with culture, language – and that Montréal just keeps going downhill.
- Kay said her own Editorial team (at the National Post) did two articles on Québec stating the people of Québec are better than Québec’s government.
- During these statements, you could see Richard Martineau’s face drop. He looked less than pleased, and hurt. Kay’s last comment lead to Martineau’s emotional response “We voted for them. They weren’t imposed on us.” In response to Martineau, Kay repeated “The government of Québec is the laughing stock of the world.” (Almost as if she were egging him on, and almost as if there was little regard for sensitivities for the topics being discussed or respect for who the audience was. Kay was to represent English Canada’s views, but she quickly made me feel she was twisting things for her own agenda and this went way too far – and that Bazzo was giving her this forum knowing full-well the type of things Kay would say).
- Marie-France Bazzo then stated to Barbara Kay, “In 2006, you called us ‘Québecistan’ because so many people were sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinian people. It looks like you people (Anglophone Canadians) have been doing a lot of Québec-bashing”. To this Kay responded, “No No, It was a ‘bashing’ of your leaders”. Kay tried to justify her words by saying Québec leaders should not support terrorists because no other Canadian leaders support terrorists. Kay then stated “And I am right!”. (I was in disbelief… Kay was calling Palestinians terrorists? And then trying to associate that to Québec’s government somehow?)
- Bazzo asked “Who then is at fault for this bad image of Québec in Canada? The economy? The Parti Québécois?” Kay answered “It’s the Parti Québécois – those people who are so obsessed with sovereignty, those who appeal to a sector which is also obsessed with sovereignty, and they are xenophobic and Anglophobic”.
- This last comment, accusing those with sovereignist beliefs of being xenophobic and Anglophobic really made the guests take offense. The guest were generally sovereignist — and Martineau was a “soft sovereignist”. But I can safely say, after having watched some of these guests over the years, I know they are not xenophobic, nor Anglophobic (I might disagree with them, but that does not mean these are bad people – and they are still our compatriots). Kay’s words went too far. They were insensitive and disproportionate. I know the guests have friends and family of all sorts of backgrounds. Kay had no right to paint everyone with the same brush like. Yes, the guests may have had sovereignist leanings, but to basically call them racists, and to do so in the name of Canada, was unacceptable. The other guests tried to defend themselves against Kay’s attack by stating that xenophobic and Anglophobic incidents in Québec are isolated incidents (which they are – just as such incidents are isolated in the rest of Canada). They told Kay she shouldn’t be painting everyone with the same brush.
- One of the guests, Paul St-Pierre, said that Québec didn’t criticize all of Ontario’s population along racist lines when Toronto was having economic woes or had issues surrounding its mayor, so it wasn’t fair that Québec as a whole should be receiving such accusations from English Canada (remember… Kay was invited to tell Québec what English Canada thought of Québec).
- By this point, you could see the anxiety and emotion (even pain) in the faces of the guest and the audience. It all began to fall apart and go downhill before our eyes, and before a province-wide television audience.
- Richard Martineau then jumped in and stated: “I’d like to thank you, Mrs. Kay, you and your colleagues from English Canada. My sovereignist feelings were dormant, they were weak, they were soft. But you just made them come alive! For the last month (I assume the time that Kay has been writing Québec-related articles in The National), I’ve been asking myself what are we going to do with this country, Canada, which is looking at us with so much disdain and so much condescension! (at this point the audience went wild with cheers and applause)… and this colonialist, colonialist reflex!”. (Kay just sat there and smiled). Martineau then continued by saying “The Parti Québecois created a trap, a hole, and all the English Canadian columnists just fell into it – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees this.”
- Another guest, Guy Lachapelle, said that he believed the Charter proposal was to bring a higher degree of secularism to Québec, to try to end racism, and that Kay simply showed Canada’s racist side – he said that Canada thinks that everyone at Radio-Canada are all sovereignists (to which Marie-France Bazzo, who doubles as a Radio-Canada reporter, could be heard in the background saying “Uh huh” or “Yup” – I was surprised that she would intervene on air with her own affirmation to this statement, considering her links to Radio-Canada). Lachapelle then tried to bring some balance to the conversation by saying people have to be careful what they say, that there is freedom of expression in English Canada, but that people sometimes say things they shouldn’t. He said that as a professor at Concordia (an English university in Montréal), his students are from all over Canada, and they feel Québec’s reputation is good…
- But by this point Kay had caused emotions to run so high, that Martineau cut Lachapelle off and said, while pointing at Kay, “This is what English Canada thinks of Québec… Really, this is what English Canada thinks of Québec, and this is what’s interesting in this debate, because the masks have fallen.” By this point, my face must have had an expression of complete disbelief – watching Barbara Kay, someone purporting to speak for me, my family, my friends, my peers, my city, my province (Alberta), and all of Anglophone Canada – portray us in a horrible light, and turning mass audiences in Québec against us, on live TV. Martineau was a rational man, a man of great influence, and he was so vexed by Kay, that he openly declared a new-found die-hard sovereignist conviction to all of Québec — much much different than the nuanced one he declared six years earlier on Tout le monde en parle.
- Josée Boileau, editor at Le Devoir newspaper then jumped in saying that any time there’s a question of the Parti Québecois, Canadian columnists are all over Québec, attacking it. She then said even the Gazette (Montréal’s English newspaper) will come out with a nice article, but then at the end of the article they will say “but Québec people are really not nice people”. She said “You (English Canada), really must hate us.” (You can certainly see that emotions were running sky high from Kay’s provocation and very insensitive remarks… and Kay just sat there, and continued to laugh). You can see how this continued to unravel and just became plain emotional.
- Marie-France Bazzo said “One last question… are we Québécois too obsessed by what people think of us?” Kay again piped up and said “Yes you are… and it gives the image you’re a ‘little / insignificant’ people, obsessed by image.” This concluded the discussion, and Marie-France Bazzo thanked everyone with a smile.
Whoa!! (deep deep breath!).
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If you’re Anglophone, and you’re reading this from somewhere in Canada, I’m sure you find the above event as unrepresentative of Anglophone Canada, and as disconcerting as I did.
I have never seen Richard Martineau as upset as he was here – and can you blame him?
Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but if I were on this show, and if I were facing everyone in this room, I would have voiced my opposition in four ways:
- I would have made it clear Canada does not consider Québec racist, nor have I ever heard regular people ever make the assertion that any whole region of our country, or of our own people are racists (Xenophobes and linguiphobes).
- I would have made it clear that columnists do not speak for the population as a whole. They seek ratings and accompanying $$$ through sensational opinions, but they are not to be confused for “us”, the people.
- I would have made it more than clear to Barbara Kay that she does not speak for us – Anglophone Canada; neither me, my family, my friends, my peers, my community, my province (Alberta or any other), or my linguistic group – period. She has no right, and her views are not representative of us – Anglophone Canadians.
- I would have made it perfectly clear to Marie-France Bazzo that it is not ok to invite someone like Kay to speak for all Anglophone Canada (at least not in that context) – it is not ok to hold that person up as an example of all of us. I would have also said that if she does host a guest like Kay, she should stand up and challenge such a person when they present incorrect views of what Canada thinks — especially considering who the other guests are to whom Kay is presenting her views. In this respect, I would have expressed my view that Marie-France Bazzo was just as wrong as Barbara Kay. Ratings or achieving political goals are sometimes not as important as the truth. There are questions of professionalism and ethics in the balance – and the stakes were high.
These are dangers that come with having a very concentrated group of opinion-makers. Sensitive topics can become quite exacerbated in such a setting. If the opinion-makers then take their experiences and views (such as those stemming from this sad experience above), and re-transmit them through their columns, guest appearances, and programs to a mass audience, there is a real risk of damage– of people being influenced by it. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other people across Québec were influenced by this episode and by how Bazzo set this up.
It’s a very difficult situation – and I’m not sure what the answer is.
I suppose what I find the most disconcerting is that the rest of Canada has been shut out of such discussions. It’s a structural problem, more than anything. There are Federalist and pro-Canada personalities within the opinion-maker group, but they seem to be a minority, and they aren’t necessarily invited onto shows like Bazzo.tv.
Even though I see tremendous strides on the part of Anglophones across Canada, trying very hard to become bilingual and/or to understand and sympathize with the issues, I know that the average person who is making efforts in Sydney (Nova Scotia) or Thompson, (Manitoba) is not going to appear on Québec province-wide TV, and have the opportunity to stand up and say, “Look… look at what we’re trying to do… look how we’re trying to achieve a greater connection, and look how we want to understand” The structure and realities just won’t allow for it.
In a sense, it’s heartbreaking when you see many people make so many efforts and you see how far we’ve become as a society over the last 40 years, but yet a few individuals can sweep it all under the carpet in a heartbeat. It is disconcerting.
But on the whole, most of the opinion-makers in Québec are responsible, level-headed individuals (I grew up in Alberta watching many of them – and I have a lot of faith in a good number of them – even if they don’t share the same views). They may have a different opinion, but most take the time to research their point of view, and present their arguments in a logical fashion. Their opinions then become a reasonable viewpoint for discussion.
In the end though, I think most people in the public try to find reason in what is being presented to them. That’s one of the values which we share in Canada which transcend linguistic lines. From my own feelings on the ground, when people see things sometimes get a little out of hand (such as reactions to certain language politics which I explained in the Sugar Sammy post), I think people generally realize it’s not reflective of reality, and just tune it out — for the most part. But that doesn’t mean that damage still isn’t being done.
One thing I probably should have mentioned, because it does make a difference: There’s often a view in Québec that English Canada’s columnist and commentary industry is very “in tune” with, and closely followed by the English Canadian public at large (Québec’s columnist and commentary industry holds a large place in Québec’s media – so it’s assumed in Québec that the same situation exists in English Canada). However, this is generally not the case. As I mentioned above, Anglophone Canadians have a very difficult time naming even two or three English-language columnists who would be known across Canada (a situation very different from Québec’s columnist industry). Thus, Québec often gives disproportionate attention to “rogue” or “unrepresentative” Anglophone columnists — taking them face-value as being representative of Anglophone Canada’s views. This causes serious problems, as we can see from the above example.
The earlier blog post, No way, Le Figaro, also speaks a bit more about this phenomena, but in the context of Québecor’s Sun TV. It’s quite, sad, really – because it has the potential to do real damage (and it has done real damage in the past).
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).