Patrick Lagacé is a columnist for Montreal's La Presse.
The band's name is Groenland and no, they don't actually sing in Kalaallisut, the most common language heard on that frozen island. Its members are francophones from Montreal who sing in English.
Groenland is one of those indie bands that I'm always among the last people to find out about. They're young, they're hip and young, hip people seem to have known about them forever.
Anyhow, on Jan. 31, they were marquee guests of the Festival de musique émergente in Rouyn-Noranda. At some point in their act, someone in the crowd shouted – four times – at them: "En français, s'il vous plaît!"
The person asking for Groenland to sing in French was Pierre Karl Péladeau, the former Quebecor CEO who is now a provincial MLA and front-runner in the Parti Québécois leadership race. Mr. Péladeau's outburst was caught on tape.
In Quebec, Mr. Péladeau's shouts were met with a lot of surprise and a bit of mockery. Don't get me wrong – yes, people have very strong feelings about French in Quebec. It is very much a French province. But to many Québécois, Mr. Péladeau's words came across as being culturally aloof.
Twenty or 25 years ago, a band of French kids with surnames like Halde, Girard-Charest and Lévesque doing their music in English, that would have stood out. Not today. It's not the norm, but a lot of Quebec singers and bands sing in English, at least part of the time.
Mr. Péladeau's spokesman has since declared that his boss didn't know anything about the band and that his demands for a song in French were made in the same spirit of promoting the language as his political involvement.
Fine by me. Promoting French, asking for service in French, legislating to maintain French as Quebec's first and main language – I'm all for that. But I do think it's worth noting how French Quebec's relationship with English has changed.
Until the 1960s, English was not commonly spoken by French people in Quebec. It was the language of the people holding the keys to economic freedom. In 1962, Canadian National Railway co-president Donald Gordon stated before a parliamentary committee that he could not find any competent French Canadians qualified enough for executive positions. My parents' generation still reel about being told to "Speak white" by clerks at Eaton's on rue Sainte-Catherine.
But this relationship with English has greatly changed in the past generation. It is no longer only "la langue du boss," as we used to say. For those under 30, this relationship is not fraught with resentment and anger. English is just a tool to use in the world. This has social and political repercussions.
Take my beloved Montreal Canadiens. I grew up in a time when the team's Stanley Cup wins were a spring fixture and Montreal's anglo players spoke French: Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson and Ken Dryden, (to name a few) could all sustain a conversation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it would have been unthinkable to have a team captain who could not utter a word in French, but those days are long gone. The past two Canadiens captains, Saku Koivu and Brian Gionta, could hardly say bonjour in public.
This saddens me. I think the players could make an effort to say at least a few words in the language of the majority of their fans. The old Canadiens stars could do it. European soccer stars, highly moveable assets, do it.
But I have to admit: The fact that none of the anglo players on the Canadiens' roster can describe their exploits in French says more about modern Montreal and Quebec than it does about the individuals wearing the jersey.