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Higher, stronger, Frencher Add to ...

If there was one issue that could get my blood boiling throughout the Olympics, it was the tightrope we seemed to walk daily over the use of French.

During the run-up phase, we had received heaps of praise from Canada's Official Languages Commissioner, Graham Fraser, for ensuring that VANOC [the Vancouver Organizing Committee]was fully bilingual.

He applauded us for hiring bilingual staff in key positions. Almost a quarter of our staff spoke French. And when it came to the opening ceremonies, few knew that we had tried to have the famous Quebec anthem Mon Pays in the lineup, but were shot down by the song's author.

On the morning of the first Monday of the Games, Feb. 15, I was joined in the news conference by Quebec Premier Jean Charest. It was Quebec Day at the Games, something each province and territory was allocated as part of the partnership agreements we had signed with them earlier. He was still beaming from Alexandre Bilodeau's gold-medal victory of the night before. Then it was time for questions.

The first one was for me. It was posed by a burly guy sitting right at the front. He had a shock of white hair and a white beard to match. It was Réjean Tremblay, a popular and influential columnist with La Presse. As I recall, he asked a question of me in French and asked that I answer it in French as well, a cheap shot intended to put me off balance.

So this is how it's going to be, I thought.

Taking the high road

I had rarely faced a journalist who was as hostile and surgical as Réjean was that morning. He wanted to know why there wasn't more French content in the opening and wasn't satisfied with any answer that I gave.

Tempting as it was to take a run at the lack of co-operation we had received in Quebec trying to secure talent and music rights, I chose to take the high road instead.

It was a dead certainty that they were going to put Jean Charest on the spot and ask him what he thought of the opening. I knew what Jean was going to say: He loved the show but was disappointed and wished there had been more French throughout the production, though he was happy with VANOC's effort over all to promote and respect French Canada at the Olympics.

If he hadn't, he would have been fried by Réjean in his next widely read column. So I wasn't really upset that the Premier said what he said. He had little choice.

But the French journalists wanted me to apologize for the opening and I refused. I said we had nothing to apologize for and that I was proud of the measures we had taken both during the opening and throughout the organizing of the Games to promote Canada's other language. I sure wasn't going to say sorry.

Afterward, I was steaming at those who were attacking us about the French content for purely political reasons, including federal Heritage Minister James Moore. Canada's Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser, also jumped on the bandwagon, announcing he would investigate the complaints that there wasn't enough French content in the show.

An investigation? This had to be some kind of joke. The sum total of complaints Mr. Fraser had received, we were told, was about 30. Unlike his predecessor in the role, who had been a great collaborator and supporter of our efforts, Mr. Fraser pointed fingers from a distance but rarely pitched in with ideas or support.

Later that day, the Quebec government was hosting a reception at Quebec House, which was in a sparkling and innovative temporary building on the shores of False Creek, across from the Athletes' Village. Under the circumstances, it wasn't an event I was dying to attend. I knew it would be awkward from the moment I got there.

But I'd be damned if I was going to be intimidated into not going. I wasn't going to run from anybody. Quebec had been our first provincial partner. Jean Charest had been there for us from the beginning, his mild but reasoned criticism aside.

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