Face-off in the language wars

March 12th, 2009
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Somehow, almost every issue in Quebec manages to come down to language in some way or another. Or, to paraphrase Clausewitz, X (pick your subject) becomes a way of fighting the language/culture war by other means.

No surprise that with this week’s firing of Montreal Canadiens’ head coach Guy Carbonneau speculation galore has started regarding his successor. But only in Montreal would the speculation immediately segue into a heated language debate.

The crux of the argument is whether the Canadiens should hire the best coach or the best bilingual coach. The hardest hard-liners on RDS, like “Le Baron” (kind of a Quebecois Don Cherry; see him mentioned in this on-line discussion) insists that the next head coach of Les Glorieux must at least bilingual, preferably a Francophone. The problem is that the list of competent Francophone coaches, particularly those with NHL experience is pretty short.

An RDS colleague challenged “Le Baron”, remarking that a “Francophone first” hiring policy had placed a series of relatively inexperienced coaches behind the Canadiens’ bench (Tremblay, Vigneault, Therrien, Julien…) with noticeably mediocre results. When asked about coaching in Montreal, GM Bob Gainey mentioned that “this is not a training ground for coaches”, alluding to the fact that his stint in Minnesota allowed him to “learn on the job”. There is no such luxury in Montreal. Ironically, many of the inexperienced coaches mentioned above gained enough knowledge in Montreal to make them successful elsewhere.

Commentators have also been asking the rhetorical question, “what’s more important, that the Habs win another Stanley Cup, or that the coach speak French?” I know what my answer would be, but what about those that think blood is thicker than melted ice?

The bottom line is that the available pool of top coaches is small, and top level bilingual coaches even smaller. The nativists have argued that there are top Francophone coaches, and there are, but would you – even theoretically – exclude the best because of language?

This is unfortunately a typical Quebec teapot tempest, pumped up the demands of 24 hour sports news networks. All that said, I was impressed that there were some eloquent protagonists of merit for merit’s sake on RDS – which there may not have been a few years ago. One commentator reminded viewers that the coach of the English national soccer team is an Italian who barely speaks English. Their previous coach was a Swede. The point is that the Brits have chosen, and they want the best, regardless of nationality.

It remains to be seen if Quebec is there yet. “Le Baron” seemed barely to tolerate the idea of an Anglo with only passing French coaching Canadiens, and likely many of his viewers agree. There were gratuitous shots thrown at team captain Saku Koivu for not having learned French over his many years in Montreal. With the team about to close its first decade ever without hoisting hockey’s holy grail I think the price of particularism is too high.

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By John Weissenberger