Monthly Archives: March 2013

Sugar Sammy: Quebec’s Multilingual Court Jester

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Susan Moss)

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Susan Moss)

Samir Khullar aka Sugar Sammy is the Quebec-born son of Indian immigrants. As a kid, he spoke Punjabi and Hindi at home and French at school. But he learned to tell jokes in English.

Sugar Sammy (Photo: Patrick Cox)

“I’d host all the talent shows at school,” he says. “I’d make all the announcements on the intercoms, and when we had school trips the teachers would let me go to the front of the bus to entertain the kids.” He did all that in French. He had to– those were the rules. But he’d switch to English whenever he could, “just because it wasn’t allowed. As soon as it’s not allowed, as a kid you want to do it.”

That sense of linguistic rebellion has stayed with Khullar as Sugar Sammy. For years, he did shows in French and shows in English. He wanted to do a bilingual show, but people told him it wouldn’t work, that the public wouldn’t want to see it. Last year, he finally started performing bilingually, flipping back and forth between French and English.

Traditionally, Quebec is viewed as consisting of ‘two solitudes,’ one Francophone or French-speaking, the other Anglophone or English-speaking. But Sugar Sammy says that’s no longer the case. “I knew here was a certain demographic in Montreal…who live in French and English on a daily basis without even thinking about it. So I decided to put this show together and try to mix both sides.”

Sugar Sammy’s bilingual show, You’re Gonna Rire, is a raging success. It’s the kind of mash-up that Quebec’s French language charter is supposed to guard against. So you might think that some Francophone politicians, especially from Quebec’s separatist ruling party, may not appreciate Sugar Sammy. But he has become so popular that politicians court him in public.

He appeared recently with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on French language TV. Quebec’s most powerful politician and its hottest comedian each used the occasion to prod each other linguistically. Smiles all round, of course.

Sugar Sammy now does four separate shows: in French (En français, svp!), in English (Illegal English Edition), the bilingual show (You’re Gonna rire) and a new show aimed at Quebec’s Indian immigrants and their offspring (Indian Edition). It’s mainly in English, with some French, Punjabi and Hindi thrown in.

The Indian connection has developed beyond that: Sugar Sammy just completed a series of sold-out shows in Indian cities. He told audiences there how surprised he was to find himself in a modern society, and how he’d have to tell his Canadian-based parents that they had misled him. “It’s no longer that pure India that they thought it was.”

You could go several ways with material like that. Sugar Sammy turns it into comedy.

There’s more on Sugar Sammy on his website and his YouTube channel. Also, check out this previous World in Words blog post and podcast on Quebec’s latest battles over language.



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“Amnesty”: Sensitive Word in the Immigration Debate

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City Hall, demanding general amnesty for all immigrants (Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City Hall, demanding general amnesty for all immigrants (Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Jason Margolis

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word amnesty as an act “by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Many immigrant rights activists argue: that’s not the right word for what’s being talked about today, with regards to the question of what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.

“Hmmm, amnesty, we don’t say amnesty cause it’s not amnesty,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, the executive director of the immigrant-rights organization LUPE in the Rio Grande Valley, a heavily Hispanic area in the southeast corner of Texas along the Mexican border. Valdez-Cox has been working with low income Mexican immigrants for three decades.

When President Reagan granted the last amnesty in 1986, 3 million undocumented immigrants were given legal status just by registering with the government.

“What is being talked about (today), is totally not amnesty,” she said. “When people have to pay so much money – because there’s going to be huge fees for having broken the law and coming in illegally – when you have to go to class, when you have to learn the language, that is fine, but the thing is don’t call it amnesty. It is not amnesty. It’s earned, you have to work for it, you have to pay for it. It’s an earned legalization program.”

Just down the road in Alamo, Texas, Michael Seifert, the coordinator of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, said the term amnesty is more commonly used for criminals and former dictators.

“And then we use that same word to talk about, oh we’re giving amnesty to the 11 million people who were brave enough, who were responsible enough, who were bright enough to come to this country and make a living, and create a living, and create neighborhoods.”

I asked Seifert what term he would prefer.

“I would say legalize them, yea. Regularize their status,” he said.

“‘Regularization, normalization,’ I mean it’s almost like you’re stretching not to say the obvious word that everybody uses,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors tighter controls on immigration.

Krikorian said those other other terms are fine to use as well. But, he said, “Amnesty was the word that was used for legalizing illegal immigrants for a long time and still is. It’s simply a standard word for the process of letting those who are out of legal immigration status get right with the law.”

Krikorian said surveys have found that the term amnesty has a negative connotation. It can sound like undocumented immigrants are getting something for nothing. And so, Krikorian said, those of in favor of an amnesty avoid using the word.

“People really, really didn’t like the word amnesty, and needed some euphemism in order to be fooled into to supporting it.”

A few weeks ago, President Obama delivered a 25-minute speech about comprehensive immigration reform. He never used the term amnesty or legalization.

Here’s how he spoke about the 11 million people living in the US illegally: “For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.”

But just because the president isn’t saying it, that doesn’t mean the word amnesty won’t be used a lot in the coming months.



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Hamas Puts Hebrew in the Curriculum

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show pal Matthew Bell

One place that was not on President Obama’s Middle East itinerary this week was the Gaza Strip. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton was the first sitting US president to visit Gaza. He even brought the first lady along. But with the Islamic militant group Hamas in firm control of the Palestinian territory, it’s tough to imagine a sitting US president setting foot there.

Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist. So, it might come as a surprise to hear that Hamas-run schools in Gaza have started offering Hebrew language classes. Government-run schools in Gaza put the main language of the Jewish State on the curriculum at the start of the school year.

In a spartan classroom of ninth-grade girls at the Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City, teacher and students begin what feels like a scripted routine for some visitors.

“What’s the capital of Palestine,” the teacher asks in Hebrew?

“Jerusalem,” the students respond in unison.

Thess are some of the first Gaza public school students to study Hebrew in nearly 20 years. Nadine al-Ashy is a 14 year-old with a knack for languages. She say Hebrew is, “easier than English.” And of course, “it’s the language of our enemy.”

“We must know how they think, how they talk about us.”

Almost everyone I speak with in Gaza gives me some version of a common Arabic expression that goes like this: learn to speak the language of your enemy, so you can protect yourself from his evil deeds.

Nadine’s Hebrew teacher, Maysam Sayyid il-Khatib says there was a lot of interest in signing up for Hebrew class. So, I ask, is there any chance this could somehow lead to better relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

“No,” she responds matter-of-factly. “We are not looking for developing things with the Israelis. We are learning Hebrew to protect ourselves and to defend our country from the Israeli occupation.”

On the streets of Gaza City, it’s easy to find people who speak good Hebrew.

Like most middle-aged men in Gaza, a 44 year-old taxi driver who gives his name as Saber speaks Hebrew fluently. He worked in Israel for 12 years, back in the days when tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza had jobs there. He says more young people in Gaza should be learning Hebrew.

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

“At home, I watch Israeli TV every day. Not just the news, but movies too and I read Israeli newspapers,” Saber says.

These sources in Hebrew offer insight and perspective that is missing from the Arabic language media. Saber says his kids don’t really understand Hebrew. But he wants them to start. Never mind the fact that few Palestinians from Gaza are allowed into Israel. Saber suggests that it is especially important to hear what Israelis are saying about the Gaza Strip during times of war.

There are 400 government-run schools in Gaza. Only 20 of them offer Hebrew as an elective for 9th graders. But Hamas officials want to expand the program. Mohamed Abu Shuqair is deputy minister of education.

“Why Hebrew,” the minister asks? “Even if we don’t agree with the Israelis on many things,” he says during an inteview at his office, “we are still living in the same region. Israel is more developed than Gaza. Palestinians can learn from Israeli TV and websites.”

There is another reason for putting Hebrew on the high school curriculum, Abu Shuqair says. “Many people say Hamas in Gaza is close-minded,” he says. “We are so open-minded, that we even teach the language of our enemy here.”

That might be debatable. But there does seems to be a tacit acknowledgement in this decision on teaching Hebrew. The Hamas leadership appears to be looking toward Israel, with its stronger economy – rather than Egypt, with its new Islamist-dominated government – for the sake of Gaza’s future.



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Is French Still Vulnerable in Quebec?

There had been an unofficial ceasefire in Quebec’s language wars for most of the past decade. But late last year, voters returned the separatist Parti Québécois to office. The PQ, which leads a coalition government, is pushing to tighten the province’s laws protecting the French language.

One episode has caught the public’s attention. Last month, inspectors from the government language agency, the Office québécois de la langue française, objected to the repeated use of the word “pasta,” instead of the French word “pâtes,” on a Montreal restaurant menu.

One global outcry and one universally-used catchphrase (“Pastagate”) later, Quebeckers of all linguistic stripes are wondering about the health of the French language, and of the government agency that promotes it.

Huntingdon, Quebec mayor Stéphane Gendron (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Huntingdon, Quebec is just a few miles north of the New York border. It’s a small mill town founded by the British. Well, it was a mill town; now all seven mills are closed. Huntingdon’s mayor, Stéphane Gendron oversees a mixed community of French and English speakers.

“When we have our meetings, we usually we switch from French to English in the same sentence,” said Gendron. “It’s like breathing air, we don’t care.”
Sounds reasonable, but that linguistic back-and-forth in Huntingdon is technically against Quebec’s law.

Gendron recalled receiving an email last year from the Office québécois de la langue française. He said the email informed him that he and his administration are “not authorized to communicate in English with our citizens.”

To communicate in English would be to violate the French language charter. The charter, which came into effect in 1977, made French the official language of Quebec.

The only municipalities exempt from using French are those with a majority of native English speakers. Huntingdon has a slight majority of French speakers. So, no official business can be conducted in English. No public meetings, no street signs, no notices about garbage collection.

Quebec’s assembly is holding hearings on Bill 14, a measure that would tighten the province’s language laws. The bill would strip dozens of cities of their bilingual status, and it would require businesses with 25 or more employees to communicate in French. Currently, only larger companies have to do that.

Quebec’s French Language Office initially objected to the word “pasta” on the menu of an Italian restaurant. Will they target other Montreal restaurants that use non-French words?


The bill has lost support since Pastagate. But the hearings will continue for six weeks, according to its sponsors—because they say they want to show that French remains vulnerable in Quebec, and should be further protected.
Among them is Jean-François Lisée, a prominent member of the ruling Parti Quebecois.

“People say ‘why do you need to do that? Let things go as they stand, go with the flow,’” said Lisée. “Well, in the rest of north America they let things go for French, and it didn’t go well for French.”

English has what Lisée calls a massive gravitational pull, which can only be countered with new regulations. The aim is to maintain Quebec’s “public face” as a French-speaking region.
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“If we hold this line, we’re going to stay distinct.,” said Lisée. That linguistic distinction—being Francophone in North America—is what gives Quebec its economic and creative edge, say French language protectionists. Lisée has little time for those don’t buy the argument: “If everybody else doesn’t understand it—well, that’s the price you pay for being original.”

But even among Quebeckers who do understand the need for language protection, there are some who question how it’s enforced. Many businesses have come forward saying they are being newly targeted by Office québécois de la langue française inspectors for using foreign words—like the words “on” and “off,” discovered on a restaurant microwave. The language agency went so far that the government was forced to rein in “overzealous” inspectors. Now the office has a new director, with orders to be more flexible. What’s more, support for Bill 14 has waned. The Parti Québécois’ coalition partners say they won’t vote for it without substantial rewriting.

Nothing, however, is simple in Quebec’s language politics. Not all Francophones support more protection for French. And not all Anglophones oppose it.

“I’m an English speaker and it’s not really what most English speakers in Quebec speakers feel,” said Montreal writer Julie Barlow. “But I’m entirely in favor of a certain control over language in Quebec because we are small population in a huge sea of English speakers.”

Barlow doesn’t understand why some municipalities want to hang onto their bilingual status. “I don’t have much sympathy for it.,” she said. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live in a tiny community of English speakers and live insulated and isolated from the rest of the province.”

The Montreal suburb of Cote Saint-Luc is one such place. It’s currently permitted to communicate bilingually with its residents. But it would stand to lose its bilingual status, should the Bill 14 become law. It also happens to be home to a large Jewish population. Among them, Shelley Rothman-Benhaim.

Rothman-Benhaim’s landlady is in her late 80s, and “she really needs the English communiqués.” The landlady’s native language is Yiddish. She also speaks English but not French—for good reason.

“When the Jews first came to Quebec,” said Rothman-Benhaim, “they weren’t allowed to go to the French schools because they were Catholic-based. So they had to go to Protestant schools and they were English based.”

Nowadays, most younger Jews are French/English bilingual. But not the elderly.

They need their bilingual notices in the mill town of Huntingdon too, according to mayor Stéphane Gendron. But he said what the people really need is jobs.

“This whole issue about language is ridiculous because we have a high rate of unemployed people,” said Gendron. “We’re broke. But we’re arguing [about] language.”



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