Slight and quiet, with silver-framed spectacles and a shock of brown hair, Paul Demers was such a good listener that he could make you feel that you were the only person in a crowded room. But with his song, Notre Place (Our Place), the listener gave voice to generations of Franco-Ontarians who consider the composition their own unofficial national anthem.
Written in 1986 to mark the passage of Ontario’s French Language Services Act, the song celebrated the entrenchment of power and pride in a community that the government had often marginalized. From Fauquier in the north of the province all the way to Pointe-aux-Roches, or Stoney Point, in the south, from North Bay to Lafontaine, the lyrics spoke of no longer having to hide one’s tongue, or language, in one’s pocket, with a joyous, hymn-like phrase, “Je vais chanter” (I will sing) repeated throughout.
“Where the United Kingdom has Paul McCartney and the United States, Paul Simon, he was the ‘Paul’ for Ontario francophones,” said journalist Éric Robitaille, the Sudbury-based host of Radio-Canada’s Grand Lacs café, who interviewed Mr. Demers last September in his home. The musician was bedridden while fighting terminal cancer.
“He really worked hard to give people a collective identity and mission,” Mr. Robitaille continued. “Even near the end, barely able to move, he was generous, speaking of his life and his love of the province.”
Mr. Demers died in an Ottawa hospital on Oct. 29 from mesothelioma, a rare cancer that usually affects people who have been exposed to the mineral asbestos. He was 60. When he was diagnosed in January, his immune system and organs had already been compromised by two previous battles with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for which the treatment included chemotherapy, radiation and a cutting-edge transplant of his own bone marrow.
In a way, “Je vais chanter” was the theme of his life, for he refused to let cancer define him.
“His courage was really exemplary, coping with what he did,” said his friend and former bandmate Robert Paquette. “Each time he had a new album, it would take everything out of him. [Cancer] never prevented him from making music and continuing on with his life.”
Mr. Demers was engaged in life, period, Mr. Paquette noted, able to find joy in small things and make the people around him laugh. While touring in the early 1990s with his group Paquette-Aymar-Demers (PAD), he was the entertainer and joker, who could turn anything, even broken guitars, into something positive.
“He may have been from Quebec,but Paul found his place within the tight-knit Franco-Ontarian community,” Mr. Paquette continued. “He loved us and we loved him back.”
Paul Demers was born in Gatineau, Que., on March 9, 1956, the older of Noël and Gisèle Demers’s two children. His father worked at the time as a public affairs representative for Molson Breweries, while his mother was a housewife. Theirs was a musical home, especially on Sundays, recalled his sister, Paulette Evraire, younger than her brother by 364 days.
“Our father had a very good stereo system and he loved all kinds of music – Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, big band, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and Québécois songs,” she said. “The music would be on from morning until night.”
Young Paul got his first acoustic guitar as a gift from his father when he was a young adolescent and he took up the harmonica when his uncle, a musician, showed him his own. He soaked up everything musical, and he honed his English by listening to groups such as The Beatles, whom he loved throughout his life.
The English he learned from John, Paul, George and Ringo helped immeasurably after his family moved to Ottawa when he was 16. His father took a job working for a school board there. Although Paul’s high school in the west end of the city was supposed to be half French and half English, the latter language dominated in the hallways and classrooms.
“Paul was quite proficient,” Ms. Evraire said. “For me, we might as well have moved to China.”
He caught the performing bug in high school. During a wide-ranging interview last year on the TFO program Carte de Visite, he described the moment he sang for the first time in public, part of his school’s Remembrance Day program before a capacity audience of 400 people. There was C’était Mon Copain, by Gilbert Bécaud, about the death of a friend, and then Jean-Pierre Ferland’s Si On S’y Mettait, where everyone joined in on the chorus while waving their arms in unison.
“It was a We Are the World for the time,” he said, referring to the 1985 charity song for famine relief in Africa. “There was a standing ovation.”
Soon, the kid from Quebec was being invited to perform at francophone festivals throughout Ontario. He loved the language, the landscape and the sense of everyone being in it together. As the Parti Québécois took power next door, he began to form an identity that was firmly rooted in “nouvel Ontario,” especially the communities in the north.
In his early 20s, his world was rocked by the death of his mother at the age of 45 from lung disease. The loss made him push himself even further and in 1979, he founded musical group Purlaine, which toured through French Canada, giving him a crash course in everything from sound systems to stage lighting.
His first Hodgkins diagnosis in the early 1980s brought a swift end to that world as he endured what he called the “shake and bake” of chemo and radiation, which weakened his system for the rest of his life.
“Paul was always a morning person,” Mr. Paquette says. “On tour, he’d go play golf with Marcel while the rest of us slept. Although he loved to party, he knew his limits.”
In September, 1986, he was at home recuperating from the bone marrow transplant when he got a call from his friend François Dubé, whom he knew from St. Boniface, Man. Mr. Dubé spoke of the French Language Services Act and a gala show in Toronto to celebrate its passage. All the Franco-Ontarian bigwigs, from artists to business people and politicians, were going and the show was to be broadcast on television. But the producer, who was from Quebec, didn’t know the Franco-Ontarian community and he wanted to commission a song that people would remember, not with their heads, but with their hearts and guts.
“Are you interested?” Mr. Dubé asked.
“Yes,” Mr. Demers replied. After spending the summer isolated in a little hospital room, after losing too much weight and all his hair, after surviving the depression that came with forced inactivity, he was ready.
“In a way, this was a blessing because it gave me a challenge, one that I couldn’t refuse,” he told Carte de Visite. “It was my comeback.”
Mr. Demers subsequently released three albums with songs that echoed the Louisiana zydeco of Zachary Richard (with whom he performed), folk and a little bit of rock. He worked as a producer and director, and he helped found the Association des professionnels de la chanson et de la musique franco-ontarienne to support and promote artists in the province that became his home.
There were two daughters, Magali and Sophie, with his first wife, Jeanne Gagnon. And though he’d been with his current wife, Sylvie Demers, since September 2010, the couple only married last May.
“We always thought we’d marry when we retired and had time to organize things,” Ms. Demers said. “The diagnosis in January changed things.”
Upon his death, Franco-Ontarian flags were flown at half-mast. And Marie-France Lalonde, the MPP for Ottawa–Orléans and the minister responsible for francophone affairs, tweeted in French: “A great francophone is no more. My deepest sympathies and thoughts are with the family and friends of Paul Demers. Let’s continue to take Our Place.”
Mr. Demers leaves his sister, his wife and his two daughters.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: