The recent success of Montréal band Arcade Fire at the Grammys, BRIT awards and Shockwaves NME Awards has given exposure to a sensitive issue in Québec. How do English-speaking musicians fit in the cultural landscape of the province?
In an unusual move, the Canadian Press called the organizers of the Fête nationale du Québec and asked if they would welcome the recent Grammy winners. The answer to this hypothetical question was short: "Yes, if they sing in French." It inspired several reactions.
In an opinion piece, The Gazette stresses that "Arcade Fire gets warm welcome in Quebec only after Grammy win" and asks the question: "How do English-speaking Quebecers become Québécois overnight?" Much of the text builds on the premise that the Québécois aren't really interested in their Anglo scene. As if it could have been any other way, it stresses that the high priest of Québec popular culture, Guy A. Lepage [Google translation], tweeted "Bravo Arcade Fire!!!!" and promised to try to book the group for his popular television talk show, Tout le monde en parle.
Of course, the Québécois don't know the Anglo scene as well as the Franco one, but they still give plenty of room to English singing artists. Guy A. Lepage hosted Montréal band Simple Plan on his show many times. Patrick Watson hit the number six spot on Canadian charts with his 2009 album Wooden Arms in good part because of the Québécois. It reached number two in Montréal and number three in Québec City. In contrast, the album reached the top twenty in only three other major cities, Vancouver (#17), Toronto (#13) and Ottawa (#19).
As for Arcade Fire... they ignited Longueuil and created a stir in Sherbrooke last summer in preparation for the release of their recent album. These crowds certainly didn't wait for the opinion of others to enjoy the band.
So... can English be part of the Fête nationale? It's interesting to note that it was on the advice of René Lévesque (then at the helm of the Parti Québécois), that June 24 was declared the Fête national du Québec in 1977. The intent was to encompass Québécois of all origins and backgrounds.
Ok... so... can English be part of the Fête nationale or not? Well... actually... the question misses the point. You see... the Fête nationale has a lot more to do with identity than language. And because language is very much a part of our identity, it's kind of hard to tell them apart. Honestly, I think artists like Arcade Fire should be thoroughly embraced as they are, but that doesn't mean I'm all for French-speaking Québécois artists, like Céline Dion, performing in English. There's a difference between welcoming an Anglo artist and cheering to an English song.
What's that difference you wonder? Perhaps an analogy using the Canadian identity would put feelings to what I'm trying to illustrate.
Envision yourself in Ottawa for Canada Day. Kingston's own The Tragically Hip are in the lineup for the celebrations. Now... imagine them getting on stage and opening up the show with a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA"... I know... it's not the same... it won't happen... etc. So, what's my point?
My point is that the Fête nationale is about identity. My point is that a French-speaking Québécois singing in English has more to do with the lost of an identity than celebrating it, but that an Anglo artist singing in his mother tongue is a given. My point is that this blurry distinction remains to be made for a majority of people.