North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Politics, hockey and the French Language

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No place in Canada takes the matter of language quite as seriously as Quebec. Go to Montreal and look around for some English. It’s generally not there and when it is, it’s buried under the French, smaller too.
That’s all part of the physical manifestation of Quebec’s ongoing culture wars, their attack on the English language. Bill 101, passed in 1977 made French the official language of La belle province. And everything in Quebec is French, Quebecois up the wazoo. The original intent of Bill 101 was to essentially banish English from the province: it banned English from commercial signs and restricted education in English to those who had siblings already in such programs.
It was later amended in the Henri Bourassa years, allowing some English signage, so long as the French was twice as large as the imposing, lesser language. Mordecai Richler once wrote of well-meaning citizens who would stalk the streets, tape measure in hand, photographing offending signs.
Make no mistake; French is an endangered species in Canada. With the vast majority of the country speaking English, with media from all sides coming into the province in English and with a slackening support for traditional powers like the Bloc, it’s not too hard to see Quebec changing. The actual impact of the silent revolution is something to argue over all day, but it’s intent was simple enough: protect the language of a loud, vocal minority.
The loud, vocal minority has a proud history of stirring up shit in Quebec. One of the first moments of the Silent Revolution was the Maurice Richard Riot, where a suspension led to an act of domestic terrorism. Indeed, between riots sometimes spring up during the playoffs, either on the street or on the ice. Arguably more than anywhere else in Canada, Quebec takes it’s hockey very seriously.
These two passions – protecting their language and winning hockey – have met occasionally in the past and flared up in recent weeks. In the midst of a rocky season, the Canadiens fired head coach Jaques Martin and replaced him with assistant Randy Cunneyworth.
The problem isn’t that the firing came too late, after the Canadiens found themselves in the cellar of the Northeast Division. It’s not that he has zero coaching experience in the NHL. It’s that he doesn’t speak French. It’s not an issue of speaking to his team – only three of their players are from Quebec – but one of fitting into a province that is predominantly French speaking.
Fittingly, it’s the media that keep banging this drum: the same media that is mostly French. There are five French newspapers, three French TV stations and a French talk radio station. Cunneyworth’s languages was been drummed by them, and amplified by the national media, into A Real Story, a news cycle of it’s own. Never mind that the Canadiens are winners of just three of their last 10 games, Cunneyworth should resign because he doesn’t speak French.
A French-language advocacy group, Mouvement Quebec francais, has taken Cunneyworth’s hiring personally, like a slap to the face, calling it the latest in a series of insults to the French language. According to a National Post story, their laundry list of complaints includes everything from ambient music to the team’s roster; not enough French players.
It’s reminiscent of Bill 101: they have a good idea – serve the French fans as you would the English ones – and they make an interesting points about post-game interviews. But they immediately go too far and all but call for blood. A comfortable medium – say, hiring someone from Berlitz for post-game media scrum translating – never comes up. The kneejerk reaction is the blunt one, a hammer to pound away any traces of anything that isn’t pure laine Quebecois.
And what would that solve? Would bringing in more French players – last I checked, Patrice Brisebois was available – bring more wins? Pounding the drum of Quebecois nationalism is an easy trick for the media (witness how it was pulled this spring) and it helps mask whatever problems beat reporters and columnists have with a person who can’t communicate with them.
Working a country away, in Philadelphia, Mark Bowden wrote a great book about the Eagles and explained how the pack makes coaches, and especially Buddy Ryan. “…he understood The Pack. You let them stand on the sidelines during practice and you feed them a steady line verbal stingers and you reminded them at least once a week that they really knew jackshit about football… and before long, they were eating out of your hand.”
That feeding, or rather the lack of it thanks to Cunneyworth’s language barrier, could end his coaching career before it even began. Is it right? Maybe not, but it’s certainly Quebecois.

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Written by M.

December 25, 2011 at 12:30 am

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