Tag Archives: Quebec

A Canadian journalist escapes detention in Ukraine by speaking French

Photo: Ashok666/Flickr

Photo: Ashok666/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague, Nina Porzucki.

It may not be quite an epidemic, but pro-Russia insurgents in Ukraine are increasingly turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping.

Many people have been held hostage in the eastern town of Slovyansk — including journalists, pro-Ukraine activists and military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

One person not caught up in the sweep is the Toronto Star’s reporter in Slovyansk, Mitch Potter.

And that’s not for lack of trying on the part of pro-Russia activists.

Last week, Potter and his interpreter were pulled over by a group of angry insurgents. It was a tense situation and the one thing that Potter knew he shouldn’t do was speak English.

“It was known, well-known for days, that it was trouble to speak English on the streets,” said Potter. “There are pamphlets circulating in that city warning that anyone who speaks English is a spy and turn them in.”

So what did the English-speaking Canadian do?

“My lips started moving and the French language came out,” said Potter.

“I’m French Canadian,” Potter told the angry insurgents. “I have nothing to do with the English language.”

That’s not true. Potter is not French Canadian. Yet, somehow his improvised French worked and the Pro-Russian activists let him and his interpreter leave Slovyansk.

“This was after a week on the ground. And it was clear that we’re all Americans now, when we go to that place. They make no distinction between Americans and Canadians,” said Potter.

So why did speaking French pacify the insurgents in eastern Ukraine? Potter doubts that it has anything to do with an affinity for the French-Canadian separatist movement.

“People there tend not to travel. It’s a very insular place. They don’t even travel to western Ukraine, let alone pay attention to language politics in Canada,” said Potter.


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English rules in America, except in a few French pockets of Maine

Le Rencontre, a French-speaking meetup at the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Le Rencontre, a French-speaking meetup at the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine (Annie Murphy)


Here’s a guest post from reporter Annie Murphy who divides her time between Peru and Maine.

On a Thursday afternoon at the Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine, a few hundred people fill an old church converted into a concert hall.

Musicians play guitar and accordion, and sing French-Canadian songs, while the crowd watches. It’s the last part of a monthly meetup – known as Le Rencontre – where locals gather together, and speak in French.

Most of the crowd grew up in Lewiston, or neighboring Auburn. They have French-speaking families, many of whom migrated from Quebec, and other parts of Canada. And even though, until a few decades ago, French speakers faced a lot of discrimination – including being punished in school for speaking French – the language has managed to hang on.

Louise Bolduc is a regular. She’s sixty-six, with long gray-blond hair, and a spotless white baseball hat that says C’est bon. I ask her if she speaks French a lot.

“Oui, c’est ma première langue,” she says. “That means it’s my first language. When I started school, I didn’t know any English.

The director of the center, Louis Morin, is standing beside her. His parents migrated from Canada shortly before he was born. He and Bolduc continue talking, in French.

“It was the same thing for me,” he says to her. “I didn’t start speaking English until I was six years old. Before, I spoke only French at home.”

Louise Bolduc adds that for her, it’s easy to keep up the language, because her family still speaks it. They’re actually waiting nearby, and she runs off to join her sister and cousins.

Today, Franco-Americans make up 20% of the population in Maine. In Lewiston-Auburn, some officials say it’s closer to 70%. And a lot of them still speak French, as Bowdoin College Professor Chris Potholm found when he was doing a study.

“28% of Franco Americans are fluent in French. Now, when you think about that, that wouldn’t be surprising if you were interviewing recent immigrants. But if you think of the Franco-Americans as being here for 250 years, that’s an astonishingly high number.”

But many Franco-Americans worry that that number is only going to decrease. And some are skeptical about kids picking up French once their families have stopped speaking it at home.

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, MaineAcross the river, in the city of Auburn, one after-school program is trying revive local French. In a space at Sherwood Heights Elementary School, over a dozen students repeat the class rules, in French. One of the teachers behind the program, Doris Bonneau, translates for me.

“Raise your hand to speak, to move from your space. Follow directions. Be polite. The golden rule, is do your best. And the last one was: pay attention!”

Bonneau – who seems both patient and enthusiastic, especially when it comes to French – says that program is part of an effort to bring the language to younger generations. And rather than focusing on so-called “classic” French from France, kids are exposed to all sorts of dialects, particularly local ones that make up the French specific to Maine.

One of Bonneau’s students is 10-year-old Lucas Pushard. He says his grandmother speaks French, and that now, he can actually talk to her a little bit. He also mentions picking up on more French being spoken around town.

“It’s kind of like a secret language,” he says. “You can finally find out what people are saying, you’re finally in on it. It’s kind of cool.”

Another teacher in the program, Jacynthe Jacques, came here from Quebec. She was surprised to meet so many local French speakers. And she also noticed that words and accents from different parts of Canada come together in Maine. For example, she says, some locals have an accent from a smaller region within Quebec, called La Beauce.

“A bench in French is a banc, and a bath is a bain. But if you’re from La BeauceFrench, you can sit on a banc and it’s almost the same pronunciation as a “bath,” says Jacques. “Little things like that.”

What’s also surprised Jacques since moving to Maine is the presence of French speakers from different parts of Africa, specifically in Lewiston-Auburn. She thinks that maybe with the new wave of immigration, French will be able to hang on here.

“I’ve noticed that, through this program, and other venues, there’s a lot of getting together between the French speaking communities in this area. And I think that’s great, because we meet in the language,” she says.

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of Maine (courtesy Pierrette Rukundo)

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of Maine (courtesy Pierrette Rukundo)

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of MaineBack in Lewiston, French speakers from places like Ivory Coast, Chad, and Togo have attended the monthly Le Rencontre meetup. At the one I go to, I talk to 21-year-old Pierrette Rukundo moved from Rwanda about a year ago, with her three brothers and her parents. Rukundo says she’s excited to find this community of French speakers, and that she plans on bringing her parents next time.

“They’ll be so excited. My mom will not stop talking,” says Rukundo. “I think she’ll be talking the whole time, because she’ll be with people speaking in French.”

Recent immigrants, like the Rukundo family, bring even more dialects into the mix of Maine French. They’re also likely to be key to the language staying alive.


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During the Olympics, Canadians are willing to drop their language arguments

Charles Hamelin kisses girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais after winning the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics (Francesco Cataldo/Flickr)

Charles Hamelin kisses girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais after winning the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics (Francesco Cataldo/Flickr)

Canada’s Sun News Network has been described as “Fox News North.”

Like Fox, it has its targets. It doesn’t like big government. It doesn’t like Canada’s promotion of the French language. And it really doesn’t like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Almost every Canadian is watching the CBC right now because it has the broadcast rights to the Sochi Olympics. So the people at Sun News decided they would make some news.

Host Brian Lilley brought “linguistics expert” Harley Sims onto his show to talk about how the CBC was pronouncing names — the names of Canadian medal winners: Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, Charles Hamelin and others.

Lilley and Sims didn’t like the French-sounding way that some CBC announcers were pronouncing these names. They had no objections to French-language TV using native French pronunciation. But on English-language TV, they said, the names should be anglicized. “Clo-AY” should become “CLO-ee,” and “Sharl” should become “Charls.”

“I’ll stick with the way we pronounce names in English,” said Lilley. “I will still say congratulations to Justine [pronounced the English way].”

The CBC’s overly-French pronunciations are “so selective and arbitrary of what’s politically correct and what isn’t,” said Sims.

It was classic Canadian button-pushing, like playing the race card in the US or playing the class card in the UK. In Canada, if you want to start a political fight — or if you just want attention — you play the language card.

Even though very few Canadians were watching, with the Olympics over on the CBC, word got out. By the next day, it was the talk of the talk shows.

The outrage quickly grew. People called Lilley a “redneck,” “mind-bogglingly stupid,” and worse. Much of the anger came from Quebec.

It proved too much for Lilley. He apologized.

This is the stage in the story when Canada’s Sun News stops behaving like America’s Fox News.

In his broadcast apology, Lilley said he worked in a bilingual newsroom, and his wife is from Quebec. He said some of his relatives are native French speakers.

“The focus should be on the [Olympic] athletes,” said Lilley. “It shouldn’t be on dividing Canadians, language by language, and trying to set French against English. It’s not what I intended. It is what happened, and therefore I apologize.”

Moral of the story: don’t play the language card during the Winter Olympics. It’s a time when Canadians of all stripes seem pretty happy about being Canadian.

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    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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    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.
    .
    “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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    Russia’s national lyricist, Canada’s language laws, and the rehabilitation of a code-breaker

    MikhalkovThis week, a look back at the career of the late Sergei Mikhalkov, who has died aged 96.  During World War Two, Mikhalkov wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem.  After Stalin died, he rewrote the lyrics, expunging all mention of  Stalin. Decades later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government adopted a new national anthem, but no-one particularly liked it: it just didn’t sound grand and powerful enough.  So in 2000, Vladimir Putin re-installed the old tune  by Alexander Alexandrov and had Mikhalkov re-write the lyrics yet again. This time round, instead of praising Stalin or Lenin, the anthem gave a nod to God. As someone who so readily held his finger to the political winds, it’s no surprise that Mikhalkov took part in smear campaigns against the likes Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Of course that was during Stalin’s rule, which means that not participating in such campaigns could have dire consequences.

    Next, a conversation with Keith Spicer on Canada’s 40-year-old language laws.  Spicer was the country’s first enforcer of bilingualism. Being Canadian, there wasn’t much enforcing– more like pusuading, cajoling and endless, endless debating. The way Spicer tells it, Canadians eventually embraced the law, with millions of English Canadians clamoring to learn French. He says that Quebec’s provincial language rules that outlawed signs in English and discouraged English-language expressions in French were silly but understandable, given the historical hostility to French in Anglophone Canada.

    turingFinally, this month the British government finally apologized for its treatment of Alan Turing, who helped break the Nazis’ war codes.  When Turing’s homosexuality was exposed, the British government stripped him of his security clearance and prosecuted him for gross indecency. Faced with a prison term, Turing agreed as an alternative to hormone treatment. The treatment drove him to suicide in 1954.

    Listen in iTunes or here.

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