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Game 34: Habs/Blackhawks – Strong Language

  • The Montreal Canadiens are a special case.

    I’m not talking about a history that spans more than a century. I’m not talking about championships or glorious moments in time.

    I’m talking about the fact that the Canadiens are the only team in the NHL that faces the circumstance of having a fan base that is for the most part linguistically different from the rest of the league. Until the NHL returns a franchise to Quebec City, expands to Europe, or the Chinese start assuming control and domination over global communications, the Montreal Canadiens will be unique in this respect.

    Over the past 20 years the issue has been largely played out beyond the realm of the ice, due to the fact that the Habs have employed bi-lingual coaches. Circumstance, however, has now forced the Habs into a hornets nest of trouble as Jacques Martin’s old post has been filled by the uni-lingually Anglo Randy Cunnyworth. Immediately, the issue became front page news in both English and French news media and the same old tired positions from the English and French speaking corners of the country began to be reiterated for the millionth time.

    French-speakers demand that a coach be able to communicate with the fanbase that although incredibly strong in English-speaking Canada, is still largely French. English-speakers, especially those outside of Quebec, see the outrage as an extension of overly-protective language laws by a portion of society that always tries to make language a divisive issue.

    And yet amongst all of the arguing, perspective of the situation is lost.

    The question I have is this: How would the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs react if tomorrow Brian Burke fired Ron Wilson and hired a head coach that spoke only French.

    Speaking as someone who lives in Toronto and has to endure the Leaf-focused sports talk shows I can tell you there would be near-revolution on Yonge St.

    The reason most people outside of Quebec don’t see this as an issue is because we’ve never had to experience the other side of the equation. Ours is the language of business. Ours is the language of entertainment. Although our athletes, coaches, and general managers often come from areas of the globe where English is spoken as a second language (or worse) – every fan base in the NHL can count on being able to understand the words of the head coach except for one. To discount the importance of this issue without considering that fact is to ignore the real issue.

    As someone who is bilingual and loves the Montreal Canadiens, there are few things that make me cringe more than this issue. I would love nothing more than to say: “It shouldn’t matter. Hire the best person for the job.” It does matter though.

    The Canadiens are an institution. They are a cultural legacy as much as they are a hockey team and although English-speakers have played an integral part in this team’s history from it’s very beginnings, there is no denying the importance this club has to French-speaking Quebec.

    I do not profess to have an answer to the current conundrum. I do not know who the French-speaking coach is that will be able to lift this team from its current struggles. I do know that it is infinitely unfair to Randy Cunnyworth to blame him in any way for his linguistic abilities, or the two losses that have occurred under his tenure. That said, I cannot ignore the real trouble that the Habs have created for themselves by not preparing a French-speaking candidate to replace the head coach of this team.

    I do not often throw my hat in with separatists. Nor do I agree with the divisive and opportunistic politics that some in the French media are springing on our troubled hockey team. Still, I cannot ignore the problem I have with the argument that dismisses this issue as unimportant, on the basis that winning is the only thing that matters. That has never been the case with the Montreal Canadiens. Not at the club’s inception. Not at the Richard Riots. Not today.

    Go Habs Go!!!

  1. Although I understand the reasoning behind having a French speaking coach, it is difficult for a habs fan to not want the best for your hockey team. There is also a reasonable expectation that people should be fair and allow Cunneyworth a chance to 1. first get the team turned around and 2. an opportunity to learn the language since he says he is committed to learning French. It is unfair for the french media to not be fair and there is an expection in sport, business and law that fairness is the number #1 rule in professional conduct.

    If the French media really have the teams best interest at heart that provide the fairness principle to the natural law of professional conduct.

    Having said that, why did management put an assistant coach in place without suggesting that he attempt to learn French in case he ever has the opportunity to be head coach of this team.

  2. Right now whoever is coaching in Hamilton should be told if they has aspirations to coach in Montreal they should learn French. That is just good succession planing.

  3. #3 Avatar37 says:
    December 21, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    I don’t think anyone in Toronto would care if a coach spoke only French, or only Russian, or only Czech, because there are people out there that speak multiple languages and provide translation services. If having the coach’s thoughts are so important that people need to understand them right away, then provide a translator who can translate for him on the fly. Problem solved.

    That, of course, doesn’t take into account the complete impracticality of having a Francophone coach in an English league, where all the officials communicate in English, and all the players on the ice communicate in English.

    And of course, this completely ignores the fact that Montreal has a large Anglo population. In fact, most of the rest of the province of Quebec who are strictly Francophone and finding offense in an English coach I’m sure you’d discover are the separatist, on veut seulment Francais ici crowd, who have always hated the Habs anyway, and are simply using this as an excuse to promote their typical racism and hate. If memory serves, these were the same people who were all Nordiques fans because the Habs were too “English”, and now they want to take offense because the Habs have the first anglophone coach in 40 years. Ridiculous.

    The Habs aren’t a cultural institution. They aren’t funded by the Quebec ministry. They are a business that pay taxes like everyone else. If Quebec wants a team to promote french culture stocked with only French players and only French coachs, then they should build a new arena in Quebec City without any federal funding and buy a team with provincial dollars, although I’m not even sure legally they could discriminate against English players and coachs in such a manner.

    Can you imagine the outrage in Quebec if a player or coach were fired from any other team because he was french? The double standard perpetuated in Quebec in keeping Quebec culture “pure” by keeping the English out as much as possible yet wanting the rest of the country to accept French culture is hypocracy of the highest order.

    No one is suggesting that Quebec culture isn’t important, but it doesn’t give them the right to ignore the fact that they are part of a larger English culture, and to discriminate and attack anyone who comes from that part of our collective culture. This is no different than if there were newspapers and people in BC calling for Vigneault to be fired because he’s too French, and how having someone that french coaching the Canucks is an insult to the culture in BC.

  4. #4 Mats Naslund says:
    December 22, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Avatar, I can understand your frustration on this issue because ultimately as a fan of the team you want what is best for the team. I share your frustration even though we have very different perspectives on this issue.

    First, I really don’t think that you’re giving enough consideration to my example of the Toronto Maple Leafs. You’ve dismissed the issue as though it wouldn’t even create a ripple amongst fans of the team to all of a sudden have a coach who speaks to only a tiny portion of the fan base. Frankly, I’m justified in my assertion that it would cause a huge problem because there isn’t ONE example in the history of the NHL of a club employing a head coach who doesn’t speak English. It would cause such a problem with the fans of each team, that it hasn’t even been attempted in a century of the sport. My assertion is that it is very easy to say “It doesn’t matter” when the reality is that it isn’t even a possibility.

    To respond to your point about the NHL being an “English” League: Why couldn’t a team with a Russian-speaking coach employ (as you’ve suggested) a translator. The reason is because its impractical in every respect. Which is exactly why this issue IS important. The Canadiens are no different than any other team in the league in that their Head Coach is held to account by the media and fans.

    You’re absolutely right in your assertion that Montreal has a large Anglo population. Even so, it makes up only a tiny fraction of the fanbase of this club. Less than 50% of Quebecois have a working grasp of English. Far less are comfortable enough to read a newspaper article. The reality is that the fans are still far-and-away French speaking. As someone who routinely analyses the decisions of the coach of this team I have to respect the desire among the French to be able to understand what is happening with this club.

    That brings me to my final point of contention with your argument: that the Canadiens “aren’t a cultural institution”. I’m trying not to read too far into this. Your statement about government funding leads me to think that we’re meaning different things when we say “cultural institution”. When I say cultural institution I mean it in the most literal sense of the phrase: elements within a culture/sub-culture that are perceived to be important to, or traditionally valued among, its members for their own identity. A cultural institution is something that is produced by a culture that informs the identity of a given group of people.

    I simply cannot think of a more appropriate term for the Montreal Canadiens. They are not simply a business. The history of the Club is so intertwined with the social and political history of the province of Quebec, and city of Montreal that it is unfathomable to me that it could be suggested that their is no special consideration due.

    I want to make my point clear – insisting on a bilingual coach is NOT discrimination. Its a job requirement. Its the same as if you applied to any government post with the Federal government in a job that deals with the public. To that end Randy Cunnyworth (though a capable assistant) is literally not qualified to be the head coach of this team. Insisting that the team find a bilingual coach can hardly even be viewed as a serious constraint given the incredible amount of hockey personnel that the province of Quebec produces.

  5. #5 Avatar37 says:
    December 23, 2011 at 8:15 am

    Mats – I composed a response to your message, however, it is large enough that I’m going to break it down into 3 parts. I apolgize in advance for the length, however, I had a lot to say and wanted to be as clear as possible in what I was saying.

  6. #6 Avatar37 says:
    December 23, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Part 1:

    I understand what you’re saying and where you’re coming from, and please understand that when I disagree with you, I do so with all due respect. We are all part of the Habs fan “family”. The reason I preface this reply by saying this is that sometimes tone doesn’t come out well in typed communication, and I wanted to be clear about my intent and how I am saying what I am saying.

    Let me start out by elaborating a bit on myself so that you may understand where I am coming from. I am a diplobrat, born in Vancouver, but raised in the foreign service, and have lived in Kenya, Egypt, Finland, Canada, and the United States. I have visited over a dozen other countries, including Russia (before the collapse of the Soviet regime), Sweden, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Israel, and a few others. In Canada, I have lived in Ottawa (14 years), Toronto (twice), Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Vancouver.

    When I was a child, I was fully tri-lingual, speaking English, French, and Arabic fluently, although I could never read nor write Arabic. I learned to play hockey while we were stationed in Finland, and got to meet Team Canada during the early 80s when they were playing there. I have a picture of myself with individual members of the team, all great guys, including Wayne Gretzky. In each of these pictures I am wearing my little Habs jacket.

    You see, the reason I was raised a Habs fan is that my father was born in Montreal. My father’s father was born in Montreal, and his father emigrated to Montreal, I believe, from Ireland. When we were living overseas, I was taught English at home, and attended the french Lycee school, first in Cairo, then in Helsinki, so that both English and French are native languages to me. My father currently lives in Ottawa, my grandfather moved away from Montreal because of the hostile environment towards anglos created by the french seperatists and their ilk. So, yes, I am very familiar with Montreal and what being an anglo familiy living there is like, and while my grandfather never spoke french, both my father and myself do.

  7. #7 Avatar37 says:
    December 23, 2011 at 8:17 am

    part 2:

    I understand what you are saying about Toronto and having a coach there that doesn’t speak English, I simply disagree with it. I’ve lived in Toronto, and have experienced the multi-cultural aspect of Toronto. Having a unilingual french coach there certainly wouldn’t create the uproar that it has in Montreal. I also do not believe it would create the media to attack the coach for being French, as Cunnyworth has been attacked for simply being English. Why? Because nowhere I’ve been in this country is there as much hostility towards Quebec and French people as exists in Quebec towards English people.

    This is not to say all Quebecers are like this, some of the most wonderful people I have met are from Quebec, but this is unfortunately not the majority. There is a large portion of the province still living the battle of 1759 hoping for a different outcome, in much the same way that there is a portion in the southern United States still flying Old Glory and praying for the South to “Rise again”. “Je me souviens” is the moto for Quebec, the meaning of which is that they still think of themselves as a conquered people remembering their past and waiting for their chance to rise up against their “oppressors”. Of course, it’s a complete crock of B.S., but that’s what Quebec is like, and it’s important to understand this in the context of what Cunnyworth is going through.

    Now, to address your arguments. You can’t say your argument is justified because there isn’t one example to support it. If there’s nothing to support it, how can the argument be justified? The reason that it hasn’t been attempted before isn’t because of any particular objections the fans might have, but because the language of the NHL is English. It’s simply a numbers game. If the English portion of this continent were the size of Quebec, and the French portion as large as the English is now, then the language of the NHL would be French. Players and coachs are expected to be able to get by in English, because that is how everyone communicates, and not because fans might find some offense in a coach who speaks a different language than their own. Of course there might always be a small portion of people offended by it, there are racists and bigots EVERYWHERE, which is an unfortunate part of the world we live in. However, the majority in all the places I’ve lived in have not been this way. I simply do not believe that it would be an issue garnering 1/10th the attention it has in Montreal anywhere else in North America.

    Why is having a translator as a coach impractical? When we lived in Finland and I was learning to play hockey, I didn’t speak Finish. My father didn’t speak it, yet he became an assistant coach on the team we played on. There was one assistant coach who spoke English, and he provided translations to the players and to us, and believe me, those Finns were *very* interested in learning hockey from a Canadian. Language itself was not an issue for anyone, and certainly no one there was offended that my father couldn’t speak in Finnish. Yes, I understand that there is a big difference between some little kids league and the big leagues, but the principles involved are the same. It frankly isn’t as impractical as you are making it out to be, other than in the minds of those who want it to be impractical for their own reasons.

    Yes, Montreal’s Anglo population is a small fraction of their fanbase IN QUEBEC. However, the Canadiens have a huge fanbase that extends far outside of Quebec, and most of those fans speak English. Go beyond our continent, and believe it or not, there are fans living all over Europe and Russia, who do not even get to see the game yet are fans of Montreal, Chicago, NYR, or Detroit. The point I’m making is that if you were to poll every single person on this planet who thinks of themselves as a Habs fan, you’d find suddenly that French is not the majority language, and that there also exists many minority languages.

    I have no problem with Cunnyworth being held accountable for his actions. In fact, there are some coaching decisions he’s making that I disagree with. My problem isn’t with that, my problem is that the media in Quebec isn’t holding him accountable for his coaching, they’re holding him “accountable” for being English, and that kind of racism in today’s world is totally unacceptable, especially in media outlets.

    I also understand the desire fans have to analyse the team and hear the coach respond to questions, but again, a translator could easily provide the fans and media with those. As I said, the media aren’t upset over his coaching, they’re upset over his being English, which are two completely different things. There is absolutley no need for the coach to have to speak French for the fans and media to get their answers.

  8. #8 Avatar37 says:
    December 23, 2011 at 8:18 am

    part 3:

    Ok, so lets hash over the meaning of what a Cultural Instituion is. Oregon Law defines it as:

    “Cultural institution” means a public or nonprofit institution within this state which engages in the cultural, intellectual, scientific, environmental, educational or artistic enrichment of the people of this state. “Cultural institution” includes, without limitation, aquaria, botanical societies, historical societies, land conservation organizations, libraries, museums, performing arts associations or societies, scientific societies, wildlife conservation organizations and zoological societies. “Cultural institution” does not mean any school or any institution primarily engaged in religious or sectarian activities.

    Wikipedia defines it as:

    Cultural institutions are elements within a culture/sub-culture that are perceived to be important to, or traditionally valued among, its members for their own identity. Examples of cultural institutions in modern Western society are museums, churches, schools, work and the print media.

    Alright, so lets accept that the Montreal Canadiens are, at the least, an icon in Quebec. I’m old enough to remember the days of the Habs – Nordiques rivalry. I’m old enough to have had arguments with Nordique fans. When asked why they were Nordique fans, the argument typically went along the lines that the Canadiens were too “English”, and the Nordiques were the true french Quebec team. The Canadiens have always been an institution that has been more accepting of English, and have had in its history several Anglophone coaches. What this means is that the precedent has already been set. Having an Anglo coach wasn’t some violation of Quebec culture back then, and it isn’t now. What we have now are a large portion of displaced Nordique fans bringing their own brand of racism and hatred towards the English and using this as an excuse to make their arguments public again. I’d bet good money most of these people weren’t Habs fans in the first place.

    And lastly, your argument that working for the Canadiens is the same as working for the federal government. This clearly is not the case (one is a body of people set up to govern a population, paid for by taxpayer dollars with a mandate to provide serivces to all in English and French, while the other is a private organization beholden only to its owner who can legally do whatever he wants to within the boundaries of the law set up by that government). The government has a legal obligation to provide services in both official languages, a private company does not. In fact, if the Habs really belived that Cunnyworth was the best candidate for the job in Montreal but refused him employment because he is English, he would have a case to sue them under Quebec law.

    You’ll find that discrimination for employment based on language is specifically prohibited in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, NWT, and the Yukon, at least based on my understand of what I’ve been able to read.

    Insisting on a bilingual coach IS discrimination. While there are some fans in Quebec who feel that the Canadiens are an essential service, from a legal standpoint, they are not, nor are they a governmental organization with a mandate to provide service to all citizens of the country. There is no legal basis for requiring the coach to speak French, or any other specific language.

    To put your argument in perspective, let’s change the parameters of it slightly to make a point. Lets say the coach were black, coaching a mostly white team. Your argument would be that there is no reason to have a black coach, because most of the fans are white, and they have a right to identify with a white coach, and that enough good white coachs are produced locally that there should be no reason to hire a black coach. Or, let’s try gender, because it works as well with that. There’d be no reason to hire a female coach because all the players are male and most of the fans are male, therefore a woman should never be allowed to coach the Habs. Its a ridiculous argument, and insulting to people who are great coaches, and just happen to only speak one language. Anglo coachs have existed in Montreal before and the province survived, and I’ll be clear on my opinion:

    To attack Randy Cunnyworth for being English is inexcusable in today’s world, I would have thought all of us had moved past such petty racism. To then give credibility to these racists in the media is equally ridiculous, and believe me, with things like this in international headlines, that’s exactly what Quebec is coming off as, a small minded racist province of Canada.

    One merely has to look at FIFA for an example of what I’m talking about, with teams spread out from South America to all over Europe, Africa, and Asia. In total, FIFA recognises 208 national associations and their associated men’s national teams as well as 129 women’s national teams Coaches in FIFA have been frequently known to not speak the local language of whatever country the team they are coaching is in. Believe me, no one in Brazil or Japan cares if the German coach doesn’t speak Spanish or Japanese, that is what translators are for, and they are used quite effectively. These people don’t care where a coach is from, they only care about how the team does, and you can believe me when I tell you that if they were to see the fuss being made in Quebec over this, they wouldn’t understand why it’s being made such a big deal of.

  9. #9 Mats Naslund says:
    December 27, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Avatar : language capability is a part of any job description in which a company requires its employee to function in both languages. It isn’t racism to require someone to speak both languages.

    You’re also attributing the larger issue of Quebec Nationalism to this issue which is irrelevant. Requiring a coach to speak French allows the French population access. It’s not about a French only coach. My assertion is regardless of who is the coach, they should speak both English and French. That isn’t discriminatory – its a widely practiced qualifier in the public service which was simply an example I used to show that this isn’t an extraordinary demand.

    Your definition of an “institution” is of an institute.

    I’m not talking about bricks and mortar. An example of a cultural institution amongst the British could be Tea or Manchester United. Things that are so important to a group of peoe that they inform the very identity of those who live there. That is what the Canadiens have always been. The link is undeniable. From the very beginnings of this franchise there have been bilingual Anglos who have built and carried this team – but it has always been a product of French speakers. Once the Maroons died, more and more Anglos adopted the team as their own. The Richard riots cemented this team as an institution in Québécois culture, leading ultimately to the Quiet Revolution.

    Even without the historical link, it is nonsense to think that there isn’t one qualified coach out there who can do the job better than Randy Cunneyworth. This isnt a slam against him, but he’s not Mike Babcock. If he were I don’t think many would have this big of a problem. If they’re just going to put any old coach in that spot – they should have chosen a bilingual person.

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