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Denise Bombardier (#94)

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.  🙂


La Poussière du temps (#37)

In the post Archambeault and Renaud-Bray, I touched upon literature being held up as one of the vanguards of French language and culture in Québec, and having been on the front-lines of social change during the Quiet Revolution.

The late author Michel David, wrote a fictional four-part novel series titled La Poussière du temps.

For those learning French, this novel may be just the right answer, since it is generally written in international French (Michel David was a linguist and French professor), but David mixed in ample amounts of colloquial French expressions and Joual which can help advance your understanding of Québec-specific French.

But apart from the language reasons for reading this novel series, I highly recommend it for it’s ability to help you understand Québec society, giving you a societal perspective as if having grown up in a Québec family.

Here is my reasoning why this series is above historical events, and gives more a grass-roots perspective of how society in Québec “coped”, on an individual level, with changing historical events around them over a 50 year period.

Education in Canada is provincial responsibility (not Federal).  Although the provinces establish their own respective education curricula the provincial governments generally do a pretty good job in coordinating amongst themselves in order to exchange best-practices and to ensure that their respective curricula are relatively interchangeable with the same standards (especially between Anglophone provinces).   It’s been my personal experience that this constant exchange of ideas and standards make it so history classes throughout Anglophone Canada generally do a good job in covering Québec’s modern history.  Students across Canada spend time learning about Québec’s Grande noirceur, la Revolution tranquille, and subsequent events marking Québec all the way to present day (much more than what Québec’s education department teaches Québec students regarding the modern history of Anglophone provinces).

For lack of a better word, a good number of my Québécois friends have been completely “floored” and “dumbstruck” when I discuss with them how Alberta and Québec share, in many ways, an extremely similar and parallel modern history (some of those same friends feel it’s a bit unjust that Québec’s education system does not teach students that their own modern history is not so different from that of other provinces after all — but that’s a whole other can of worms, which I’m not prepared to get into here).

The histories are similar in the sense that Alberta exited from its own “Grande noirceur” of the 1930’s to 1960’s (at the end of the Social Credit movement, sharing many similar characteristics to Québec’s own Grande noirceur).  Then there was Alberta’s own 1970’s Revolution tranquille (a time of enormous social change in Alberta around the years when the PC’s took power– and like in Québec, was a period of shock secularization, large-scale middle-class enrichment, empowerment of huge sectors of society, large-scale urbanization, regulations for a renewed market liberalization, but along with unionization and nationalization of key state institutions;  state utilities, state investment institutions, etc.).   After Alberta’s own Revolution tranquille, its social welfare networks (in general terms, but of course with some differences), developed many of the same traits as Québec’s and other provinces.  Government finances (both the expansions of budgets and deficits – such as the Lougheed/Getty years in Alberta and Levesque/Bourassa years in Québec, as well as the contractions of budgets & programs – such as the Bouchard years in Québec and the Klein years in Alberta) also share many parallels between the two provinces.  Other provinces went through similar experiences, although there were variations with respect to context (such as Saskatchewan’s own transitions with the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor of today’s New Democratic Party, and what that meant to Saskatchewan’s own modern transformation).  Bottom line, the development of the modern history of all 10 provinces in Canada, including Québec, very much share the same traits and many of the same experiences – more so than they do with any other jurisdictions elsewhere in the world.  I suppose we could call it a true family transformation, with each member of the family coming into their own, independent of the Federal government.

All-in-all… these are things that can be read in history books.  So my point is this… if we want to know about these historical events, we have ready access to the facts (regardless if we were or were not taught these things in school).  They’re concrete, well researched, and well-documented economic and political events.

But what is more difficult to capture, research, and learn about is the mood on the street within any one province at a given moment during these years.  This is an area where we also find similarities and differences between the provinces.   It’s difficult to know about the day-to-day life of any one family or its individual family members during these transformations — including what transformations their routines and thoughts underwent over the course of 40 or 50 years.

Media-relayed culture is a reflection of current situations.  But current situations are the product of decades of transitions and transformations.   I’d argue that it’s difficult to truly understand and grasp what’s being relayed by the media and pop-culture in the present without first understanding:

(1) major historical events over the past few decades (the history side of things, to which we all have ready access if we wish to research it), and

(2) how families, individuals, their attitudes and values have gradually transformed over this same period.

It’s this latter transformation (family and individual change over the course of 30 to 50 years) which leads me to recommend you to read Michel David’s fictional novel series La Poussière du temps.   La Poussière du temps provides many snapshots of what typical Québécois and Québécois families experienced during the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (which of course lead to where we are today), and how they dealt with changing events around them.

Personally, I haven’t come across a fictional novel series of books quite like this before.  The 2000 pages, which constitute the four books, takes us through the life of a fictional Montréal family, les Dionne, during these 50 years.   Through them, we vicariously experience the economic changes, family transformations, changes in values, and overall societal changes that the average Québécois dealt with during these 50 years.   It’s loosely based on the authors own observations of what was happening where he grew up and lived until retirement – a true perspective of the modernization of Québécois society over five decades.  We’re faced with issues of urbanization, secularization, salary expansion, Québec politics, family budget issues, unwanted pregnancies, illness & deaths, empty nesters, career issues, changing job markets, families getting smaller, different phases of child rearing, etc. etc.

I admit the series of four books are rather long, and it’s not a sensational or adventurous novel leaving you on the edge of your seat – but real life rarely is.   The value of this novel series is that it captures real life.   What struck me is that the challenges and transformations the Dionne family went through is not unlike what many families went through across Canada, as their respective provinces went through similar momentous changes.   But along with so many similarities that all Canadian families can identify with, it also brings to light interesting aspects of society unique to Québec, and which influenced the formation of the psyche of today’s Québec.

In the end, I’m quite surprised this novel series has not won more awards or notable mentions (it has actually won very few).   In my opinion, the novel has uniquely captured an otherwise difficult-to-capture perspective of societal changes over time.   If you’d like to experience a bit more of where Québec has been, without the advantage of actually having grown up in a Québécois family, then this novel series might just be right for you.  When reading, you’ll feel you’ve actually been adopted into the Dionne family.

Renaud-Bray, Archambeault and other online venues sell this series of four books.   Google would be a good place to start your search.

Bonne Lecture!

“Archambeault”, “Renaud-Bray”, and Québec books (#35)

Wait a second… Archambeault and Renaud-Bray, are they not two well-known book store chains in Québec?   So why would I be featuring bookstore chains in a pop-culture-related blog?  Well, the reason is simple.  Literature in Québec and Francophone Canada takes on a very different role than in Anglophone Canada.   I get a feel that modern and popular literature is considered by much of the Québec public as being a cultural outlet equal to television, radio, and other arts.  Even if the public is not necessarily reading a different book every week, you’ll see Québécois with a book in hand far more often than you will Anglophones.

Book stores have been on the forefront of promoting Francophone literature.  The Salon du livre de Montréal is a giant French book fair held in Montréal once a year (this year 19-24 November) giving exposure through the media and directly to the public regarding what’s new in literature and authors (it’s attended by over 130,000 people each year… I’m not sure that could happen in Vancouver).   Francophone authors and new books regularly are discussed (even debated) on television and radio, and they are also promoted by the big book stores (likely as much to gain sales, as it is a cultural habit).

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg story, being tough to say which came first;  are the literary arts in Québec popular out of desire to protect and promote the French language?  Or is it popular because there’s much more respect for the literary arts in the Francophone world in general?  (it’s even strong in France, where support for the literary arts are not necessarily attributed to a need to protect the language).   Québec receives television programs from France which are dedicated to discussing books.

I personally tend to think it’s a bit of both.  Because French is a minority language in North America, Québécois view Francophone literature as a protective vanguard of Francophone culture, and they have traditionally thrown media and government financial support behind it in a way that’s a bit different than in Anglophone Canada (although that might change now with recently introduced austerity measures).   Canada, in general, has a strong literary history, with its citizens able to rattle off well-known its respective Anglophone and Francophone authors.  However, Québécois authors are considered by the public in Québec as the protectors and developers of the language (that’s how the Québec public is frankly taught to view it by many teachers in school – a very different view than how Anglophones view their authors elsewhere in Canada).   Québec authors have also played a major historical role in creating a modern Québécois identity, and instilling a sense of pride in how Québécois speak French, notably Joual (with the likes of Michel Tremblay leading the charge during the Révolution tranquille).

I think this all can translate into a special “soft-spot” for book stores in the hearts of Québécois. However, economic reality makes it so books in French tend to be much more expensive than in English (even translated versions of English books).  As such, a lot of the smaller independent book stores have gone bankrupt, leaving the big chains in their place (as well as discounted books at Costco, just like elsewhere in Canada).   Archambault (owned by Québecor) and Renaud-Bray (Canada’s second largest book chain after Chapters/Indigo) are the two larger and better known chains.   They’re viewed more as cultural icons, rather than just a book store.  Their concepts are similar to Chapters & Indigo in English Canada, but dedicated solely to French literature (with a variety mix of music and trinket sales), with a strong emphasis on Québec literature.  They’ll often feature book signings and book events, and they maintain a “best-seller” lists of what books are hot.

My personal reading tends to wander between English and French books (either from France or Québec).   But I’ve consulted the best-seller lists from Archambault and Renaud-Bray on more than one occasion to find out what might be worth buying (hey… I figure books are expensive, so better to be sure in advance that what you’re buying has already gone over well).

If you’re in an area of Canada where it might be difficult to purchase French books, you’re not sure what might be good, and you think you’ll have to order books online, I’d strongly recommend you go with the Palmères livres (top book countdown) put out by the big book chains:

  • Archambeault’s book count-down can be viewed on their website by clicking HERE.
  • Renaud-Bray’s book count-down can be viewed on their website by clicking HERE
  • You can also order books online through Amazon Canada’s French website HERE , and Chapters’ / Indigo’s French website HERE.

Bonne Lecture !!

Janette Bertrand (#12)

It’s not easy to capture the essence of Janette Bertrand’s place in pop-culture.   There’s a great deal of historical subtext.  She’s more than just a C.V. or the sum of her appearances before the public.  It’s more about what she stands for in the eyes of the public, what she stands for as an individual, and where she stood during the history and the making of a modern Québec.  In many ways, she is a living relic of history – a living legend.

To start, Janette, with three great-grandchildren, will soon be 90 years old (but she looks like she’s in her 60’s, and continues to have the energy of someone in her 50’s).  Not only is she one of the best known personalities in Québec, but she may be better recognized and better known than the likes of the Prime Minister of Canada (I say this tongue-in-cheek, but if Québec were to have its own currency, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her face on one if its bills – an example of the power pop-culture can have over society).

I suppose she would mean different things to different generations.   Through radio and television, she was there as Québec was coming out of the Grande Noirceur of the Duplessis years – with her public début on radio in the early 1950’s.  She was up front and centre on television, pushing the envelope of change and social dialogue, during (and in the wake of) the Quiet Revolution, in addition to being a well known 1960’s and 70’s television personality.  She continued to be omnipresent on television in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  She all the while penned several well-known books and has engaged in various other forms of the arts (theatre, song).

During a Parti Québécois rally for the 2014 provincial election, she appeared on stage and publicly declared (quote) “for the first time, I’m speaking of my political allegiances”.  With that, she became a high profile PQ activist, with much focus on her support for limitations of certain accommodations for religious minorities in Québec, as proposed by the Parti Québécois’ Charte des Valeurs. However, despite the highly public condemnations and accolades she attracted (and there were lots on both sides), I would say that her recent political activism has been of much less relevance to the public – especially in light of the PQ’s recent defeat – than her life-long contribution to Québec society.

She would likely be seen as a societal peer or sister-figure to the oldest generations in Québec (those in their late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s), a mother-like figure to those in their 50’s and 60’s, a figurative grandmother to those in their 30’s and 40’s, and for those in their 20’s or younger, she’s likely a curiosity – someone who has just always existed, and who is now adding her political opinions to the foray.

Much as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz incarnated the lighter side of the 1950’s couple through their comedy “I Love Lucy”, Janette Bertrand and her husband appeared together in their own comedy show in the 1950’s (Toi et Moi), incarnating couples during that period in Québec.  Family and its importance has always been central in Bertrand’s eyes, and she and her husband later hosted a 1960’s husband/wife game show.  But times were changing quickly in Québec – and the Quiet Revolution was redefining the family’s role.

Bertrand embarked on a new mission in the early 1960’s, setting foot where no one has gone before… to sexually empower youth under 21 by answering, on television, their letters written to her asking sex-related questions (to the extent that the subject could be discussed on television in that era).  Picture it this way… Imagine sweet, innocent June Cleaver, or funny, light-hearted Lucille Ball all of a sudden transforming overnight into Sue Johanson on live black-and-white early 1960’s TV — just for the kiddies – and then imagine how well that would go over!  Well… actually… for a good part of society, it didn’t! (the press condemned Bertrand for perverting the youth, and even the Archbishop of Montréal wrote her to stop) – But as Bertrand herself said, the viewer numbers were there!  And she came to personify much of what was happening with the Quiet Revolution (but if parents ever did feel left out of the party, Bertrand had a newspaper column, similar to a Dear Abby, to whom they could write their own curious questions).

Her devotion to family roles nonetheless stood strong, and she continued her path with family based sitcoms in the 1960’s and 70’s, featuring her own family members.  Her shows were as popular as “The Brady Bunch”, “All in the Family”, and “Diff’rent Strokes” were to Anglophone audiences.  One such show, Les Tremblay, became popular in France – and quite possibly was the first time France was introduced as a nation to the modern Québec family, or any family from Québec for that matter.

It’s fitting to her played roles as a mother that she published an extremely popular cookbook in 1968 – Les Racettes de Janette – earning her place as a Québec pseudo-Betty Crocker (a highly successful revised edition was published in 2005, but this time without alcoholic ingredients – somewhat of a controversy in itself!).

As Québec matured as a society, so did Bertrand’s shows.   Two TV shows in the 1980’s and early 1990’s (Parler pour parler and L’Amour avec un grand A) took an interview format unique to Bertrand (no audiences – just Bertrand sitting with guests on couches, at tables, or hosting role plays).  She asked them questions which people in general wondered about others, but wouldn’t dare to ask a stranger – with the goal of uncovering what makes different people tick.  It was all in a serious, non-judgmental and open environment.  It might be considered an evolved version of her earlier sex-ed show of the 1950’s, but with a greater scope.  This time it was Bertrand asking the questions – and others letting her into their minds.  Her guests were as varied as absent fathers, abused wives, practitioners of S&M, those who enjoy the quirkier side of gay sex, advocates for feminist issues, etc.   She entered into uncharted territory for Francophone television, and in this regard, could be considered a ground-breaking Donahue-like figure for Québec.

She has written numerous best-selling books.  The first to come to mind is her famous autobiography Ma vie en trois actes.  She’s been featured and parodied in numerous comedies (RBO was one such comedy which took her on from time-to-time – remember RBO from the post on Guy Lepage?).  She has written for the stage, and even wrote a song for Celine Dion to sing.

It came as a surprise for many that she chose to become an active political advocate at 89 years old, advocating for Québec indepedence, the Parti Québécois, and more so for the PQ’s controversial Charte des valeurs (pro-Charte advocates felt it showed her continued openness towards societal and social evolution, and anti-Charte advocates felt it was uncharacteristically narrow-minded of her, taking Québec backwards — two very different interpretations of what is progressive – the dichotomy and often complicated irony of Québec politics).  But then again, she has never been one to shy away from controversy, and she has earned society’s respect through the ages for staying true to her principles during decades of uncertainty.  With all said and done, her foray into politics at the age of 90, and her advocacy for a very controversial aspect of it, maybe should not be so surprising after all.

For further information:  Typing her name online will reveal a lot of information.  When viewing videos or images, please only access officially approved footage or photos.  You might wish to try out some of her recipes with friends and family, especially for special occasions such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any holiday of your liking.