Why Quebec Isn't Interested in Anglo Lectures About Cultural Appropriation

Why Quebec Isn't Interested in Anglo Lectures About Cultural Appropriation

François Cardinal
François Cardinal

What does Quebec want? It’s a question that has haunted the rest of Canada for decades—beginning with the birth of modern Québécois nationalism in the 1960s. The country’s English-speaking population has long endeavoured to understand Quebec’s “distinct society,” to solve the mystery of those peculiar Francophones who didn’t want to be relegated to the status of mere Canadiens Français.

More than a half century later, the context has changed completely. The sovereigntist political project has been put on hold. Constitutional challenges have disappeared from the headlines. And Quebec’s National Assembly is controlled by a federalist (i.e. against separation) government, and confronted by a federalist official opposition. The separatist Parti québécois, meanwhile, which gave the province its two separation referenda in 1980 and 1995, has been relegated to a more minor role.

And yet, Quebec continues to loudly tout its differences, even if this does not take place in the realm of politics. It could even be said that certain current discussions are bringing out Quebec’s truly distinct character even more forcefully—particularly the debate around the concept of cultural appropriation.

* * *

On the evening of December 31, during the final hours of 2018, Canadians were celebrating the imminent arrival of the new year in their own ways. In every corner of the country, there was the usual party music, dancing and singing of Auld Lang Syne—except in Quebec. Because at that moment, most of the province was quietly seated in front of a television. In fact, every year for half a century, Quebecers have marked year’s end by watching a humorous annual recap that enjoys the status of cultural institution: Bye Bye.

This is Quebec’s Super Bowl. It’s the time of the year when the population (or most of it, anyway) drops everything it’s doing in order to view the same TV event. For the past 50 years, the year-ending program aired on Radio-Canada (the French version of CBC) has been watched live by millions of viewers. This year, the viewership was 3.3-million. Add in the following day’s rebroadcast, and the figure exceeds 4.4-million—more than 50% of the province’s population of 8.4-million.

The first few days of January are traditionally full of critiques from television commentators as well as viewers, discussing the latest Bye Bye. Then a controversy normally erupts that lasts for a number of weeks. But for the latest Bye Bye, there was nothing of the sort: no arguments, no bickering, no controversy—except in English Canada.

That’s right: A show in French, seen and appreciated only by those who speak the language and are immersed in Québécois culture, sparked a controversy among English Canadians—both in Quebec (where mother-tongue Anglophones comprise less than 10% of the population) and in the Anglo-majority “ROC” (the Rest of Canada, as the expression goes). “Radio-Canada is facing a backlash,” one newspaper wrote. “The French arm of the CBC is on the defensive after a barrage of online criticism,” noted another.

To be specific: English-speaking members of Canada’s Indo-Canadian community found a sketch parodying Justin Trudeau’s (hilariously) disastrous 2018 trip to India hard to swallow. In that two-minute segment, an actor portraying the Canadian Prime Minister is shown smoking a joint (which is now legal in Canada) and drifting away to a psychedelic world full of clichés about India. He first turns into a Bollywood dancer and then into a snake charmer—with the reptiles in question turning out to be fuel nozzles (a reference to the ongoing controversy over pipeline construction in Western Canada).

Quebecers had a good laugh, just like they’d joined Anglo Canadians in poking fun at Mr. Trudeau’s real trip to India back in February. What Quebec viewers saw was a sketch that ridiculed how the prime minister had gone overboard in his embrace of traditional Indian clothing and dance. The joke was on the PM, not on India, on Indians or or Indo-Canadians. Yet that was not how some Anglophones saw it.

“This video is completely disrespectful to our cultures,” declared the founder and director of the Indian cultural troupe Bollywood Blast, Ina Bhowmick. “I won’t say that in itself it’s racism, but doesn’t it come from a racist way of thinking? Yes,” opined Rahul Varma, artistic director at the Teesri Duniya Theatre (my translation from the original French). “I’ve never in my life been as offended as I am after watching this video,” added another representative of the Indian community, Maaha Khan. “Congratulations, Radio-Canada, for creating the most disgusting video of all time.”

These two diametrically opposite interpretations of the same sketch present a modern take on the “Two Solitudes”—that famous metaphor of the English/French Canadian divide, embedded in the title of Hugh MacLennan’s famous 1945 book of the same name.

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Were there clichés and stereotypes in the Bye Bye sketch that turned Justin Trudeau into a Bollywood actor? Of course. The point of satire is to caricature a person or situation. And in Quebec, political parody (a subcategory of satire) is part of our own preciously preserved cultural traditions. This remains so even in 2019, a time in which the cultural-appropriation debate is curbing comedians just about everywhere in the Western world.

The producers of Bye Bye thus did not hesitate to festoon Indo-Canadian extras with golden jewelry and brightly-colored clothing—over-the-top details that are meant to satirize Trudeau’s own apparently Bollywood-influenced understanding of Indian culture. During a similar bit earlier in the show, Trudeau’s character had crooned that he “always sports the right attire when he travels abroad,” all the while wearing a Mao jacket and coolie hat, and then a poncho and a sombrero.

Francophone Quebecers, with few exceptions, didn’t bat an eye. What they saw was a send-up of a trip to India that had been mocked for many months—whereas outraged Anglos saw a lack of respect for an ethnic community, and even blatant “racism.” And while the number of legitimately outraged observers may have been small, the Anglo media seemed only too happy to amplify their voices.

This is a wonderful illustration of the culture gap separating French and English Canada—and even Francophone and Anglo Quebec. Since shedding their observant Catholicism during the so-called Quiet Revolution of the mid-20th Century, French Canadians generally have been more socially liberal and permissive. They are, culturally, more tolerant. It was in Quebec, for example, that the first homosexual civil union was celebrated. It also was in Quebec that the debate on medically assisted death began.

Similarly, it’s in Quebec that freedom of expression is most jealously guarded against the encroachments of political correctness.

One reason for this is that Quebec does not have the same historical relationship with domination, including cultural domination, as do the British descendants who populated the rest of Canada—since Quebecers historically have been the victims of such domination more than being its perpetrators. No matter how much French Quebecers assert themselves in their role as the majority population of Quebec, they still know themselves to be a small cultural and linguistic minority within the continent as a whole.

So it’s no accident that two of the biggest debates that shook Quebec in 2018 originated primarily within the Anglophone community. These involved the plays SLĀV by Betty Bonifassi and Kanata by Robert Lepage, whose themes were centred on African-American and Indigenous history, respectively. Most of the critics and demonstrators who decried the alleged cultural appropriation were English speakers (though some Francophones did join in the chorus).

Personally, I thought it was senseless for Bonifassi to present a play about black slavery that featured white singers—in the same way that Lepage’ piece on Indigenous history made me uncomfortable because it was created with no substantive input from Indigenous people. But I think that artists have every right to do that, as I have the right to criticize them in turn. And it should not have escaped the attention of anyone involved in the debate that many of the anti-SLĀV demonstrators’ signs that appeared in front of Théâtre du Nouveau Monde were written…in English.

* * *

One key to understanding Canada’s “two solitudes” lies in the different way that each community approaches and views diversity. Quebec opted to invent its own model of integration, which deviates from both Canadian multiculturalism on one hand, and the European French model of pure assimilation or the American-style melting pot on the other.

While Canada rejects the very idea of a single, predominant Canadian culture throughout the country that puts all minority groups on equal footing, Quebec emphasizes a “founding culture” and common language that are important to preserve. It’s what is called interculturalisme, a policy or model that doesn’t necessarily seek to abolish differences, but does promote a common identity that converges toward a shared cultural experience based on language, behaviours, social codes, institutions and, yes, even rules governing humour.

Therein lies Quebec’s distinctive character—an original, unique blend of Canadian, French and broader North American influences. Quebecers may be more similar to English Canadians than they like to admit. But they also have their own distinctive attitudes, sensitivities, debates and beliefs, particularly on the topic of diversity. The campaign against cultural appropriation (or even what some perceive as racism) in a comedy sketch is rooted in a model of integration and diversity that is alien to Quebec, and which has been rejected by Quebecers during past controversies of this type.

So what does Quebec want? It wants to be able to continue expressing its distinctive character—whether it be in the legislature, on the stage or on television. For it is principally when they are prevented from expressing their unique character that some Quebecers may be inclined to say “bye-bye” to the rest of Canada.

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François Cardinal

François Cardinal is Chief Editorial Writer for La Presse. Follow him on Twitter at @F_Cardinal.