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Lysiane Gagnon
Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon

The big snub tarnishes Quebec gold Add to ...

Two things are missing from the Winter Games: snow (a useful ingredient for winter sports) and French (the other language of an officially bilingual country).

No one expected Vancouver, where French is far less spoken than, say, Mandarin, Punjabi or even Tagalog, to put on a bilingual face. But the city and local organizers of the Games made a tremendous effort to accommodate French speakers. Quebec reporters were happily surprised to be greeted in French at the airport.

"I don't remember another Olympics where French was as prominent," wrote La Presse columnist Pierre Foglia. "The biographies of the athletes, the schedule of the events and explanations about them, everything is in excellent French. In fact, at the two sites [I went to] we've had more French than English."

It went wrong with the opening ceremonies, which were a blatant insult to francophones - the first people of Canada of European origin whose descendants still form a quarter of the Canadian population. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper likes to say, Canada as we know it was born in French.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee, which had more than six years to prepare for the Games, subcontracted the conception of the opening ceremonies to an Australian artistic director. And no one at VANOC seemed to notice that the show virtually excluded any reference to Canada's French culture, even though VANOC had been criticized a year ago for having mounted a basically unilingual event to mark the beginning of the countdown to the Games.

Not a word of French was spoken apart from a song written years ago by Jean-Pierre Ferland. The organizers tried to hire Céline Dion, who was not available; but there are many other high-profile Quebec artists who would have been thrilled to participate. VANOC also tried to buy the rights to Gilles Vigneault's famous song, Mon pays - Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver (My country is not a country, it's winter) - but Mr. Vigneault has always refused, on principle, to cede his rights.

But again, it would have been easy to find a replacement in the rich world of French-Canadian culture. What the organizers did, instead, was to feature an English translation of a poem by François-Xavier Garneau. The worst part of the story is that, not only didn't VANOC apologize, it didn't even seem to realize it had made an error.

As if this weren't enough, there was not a single French Canadian in the five-person team of athletes chosen to carry the Olympic flame to the cauldron. Quebeckers, as well as many scandalized anglophone athletes, were quick to notice the absence of speed skater Gaétan Boucher. Mr. Boucher won three medals (two gold and one bronze) at the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984 at a time when Canadian athletes were finding it excruciatingly difficult to compete against what one sportswriter called "the pre-programmed machines built in the sport labs of the USSR and East Germany." Mr. Boucher's triple victory provided a much-needed boost to Canada's athletic world, and he's a living legend for younger skaters.

Quebeckers continue to do Canada proud. Shortly after the opening ceremonies in which French had been snubbed, Alexandre Bilodeau, of Rosemère, won the country's first gold medal on Canadian soil. Before these Games, Quebec athletes had won a third of the individual medals won by Canada at previous Winter Olympics, even though Quebeckers make up only 23 per cent of the Canadian population. As Montreal Gazette columnist Don Macpherson wrote, "French-speaking Quebeckers are fully embraced as full-fledged Canadians at the Vancouver Olympics. It appears that all they have to do is win a gold medal …"

Quebeckers avidly follow the Olympics. Many watched the opening ceremonies with anticipation and pride as Canadians and Quebeckers. And then they realized they weren't invited to the party.

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