Fight over French sours Quebec Day at Games

FILE-- Canadian singer Garou reacts after receiving an award in Paris in this March 9, 2002 file photo. Garou said he had to struggle with Olympic Opening ceremonies organizers to keep a French song included in the program. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Jacques Brinon

VANCOUVER - With glowering looks, not with glowing hearts, is how Quebec appears to be welcoming the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Monday was "Quebec Day" at the Vancouver Games, part of a $5-million contribution the province made almost five years ago in exchange for a stage to celebrate their heritage.

But what was supposed to be a day of celebration was marred by controversy over a perception that the province which gave Canada its first gold medal hasn't seen its mother tongue make it onto the podium.

A two-page spread in Monday's La Presse newspaper had headlines like: French as Rare as Snow in Vancouver; and Only 15 Per Cent of 25,000 Volunteers Speak French.

A reporter at a daily briefing sarcastically referred to Games CEO John Furlong as the "poster boy" of the Games and asked him to answer the critics, while another wanted to know whether Furlong felt the ceremonies represented the place of Quebec and the French language in Canada.

Sitting next to Furlong, Quebec Premier Jean Charest lauded the organizing committee and the Games but reiterated his disappointment that there wasn't as much French as he'd expected in the opening ceremonies.

"It wasn't sufficient," he said.

Visibly frustrated, Furlong, head of the Vancouver organizing committee known as VANOC, defended the ceremony and the Games overall.

"We're putting on the Olympic Games. It's a 17-day project and there's multiple, multiple layers," he said. "I think VANOC has worked tirelessly to present bilingual Canada at every level, every venue, every facility, everything we're doing."

He said there are thousands of volunteers from French Canada in Vancouver to deliver bilingual services, and feedback has been very positive.

"At every venue you'll see the fact that we have treated this as a completely bilingual exercise. All of the signage, everything has been produced that way - the look of the Games, sport production, if you were in the Richmond Oval yesterday, for example, and listened to the event beginning to end it was delivered completely in both languages."

The Quebec premier did say he was impressed with the work organizers have done in including French into the running of the Games.

"I've seen the effort that's been made," he told reporters.

The commitments VANOC has to bilingualism at the Games don't just come from Canada's status as an officially bilingual country.

French and English are also the official languages of the Olympic movement. The International Olympic Committee mandates that public communications be in both.

For their part, the IOC was quite happy with the level of French at the ceremonies, said Rene Fasel, the IOC member who oversees the Games.

"The images were there and images say more than a thousand words," Fasel said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"I saw an extraordinary show and I didn't have the impression that there wasn't a place for French. My perception was quite positive."

He called the performance by Quebec singer Garou in the moments before the Olympic flame entered the stadium as being "exceptional."

But Garou later said he struggled with organizers to keep a French song included in the program.

Only IOC President Jacques Rogge spoke in French at length during the ceremonies.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean declared the Games open in both official languages, while the Irish-born Furlong opened his remarks with his trademark "bienvenue," delivered with his Celtic lilt.

The rest of the spoken program at the ceremonies, which included poems and passages from Canadian literature and songs, was in English, though Quebecois performers were involved in the aerial acrobatics, choreography and overall design of the show.

A roster of high-profile Quebec performers had been invited to participate, organizers said, but declined. They included icon Celine Dion who declined.

The culmination of the province's "day" at the Games will be the presentation of the gold medal to moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, a native of Rosemère, Que.

The extent to which organizers could implement a fully bilingual Games has been complicated by the fact they're being hosted in a province where only about seven per cent of people report they have knowledge of both official languages.

They have struggled to recruit bilingual volunteers and, at one point, told the federal government that if they wanted every piece of material produced at the Games written in both English and French, they were going to have to help pay for it. The government ended up contributing $7.7 million for translation services.

On Quebec's TV talk shows, questions are being raised about whether official bilingualism in Canada is just a facade.

Denis Coderre, the federal Liberal critic for official languages, said francophone concerns were being ignored in English Canada.

He said John Furlong could have bothered, over the last several years, to learn a few phrases of French — other than tossing out a token, mispronounced, "bienvenue."

"It's all about being treated as first-class citizens," he said in an interview Monday.

Coderre also suggested that officials from the Heritage Department should have been present at rehearsals to prevent a French snub.

The federal government contributed $20 million to the $38 million budget for the opening and closing ceremonies of theGames.

Coderre said the ceremonies were an opportunity to show how proud we are.

"It takes more than a canoe and a song."

Another former cabinet minister said she watched the opening ceremonies with a group of pro-Canadian friends.

"We were really disappointed on the one hand, and hurt on the other," said Liza Frulla, who was once minister responsible for sports.

Quebec nationalist groups pounced on the issue.

"It seems like the atmosphere of indifference, if not intolerance, of French has reached the point where there wasn't even an effort to save the appearance of bilingualism," said Mario Beaulieu, president of the Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montreal.

"It's deplorable, but we're not surprised."

On the flip side, some readers of The Canadian Press weighed in with emails expressing anger at the fuss.

- With files from Jonathan Montpetit in Montreal