When David Atkins was designing the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Olympics, he crafted what he thought would be a spectacular segment around the Quebec anthem Mon pays.
Written in 1964 by Gilles Vigneault, Mon pays became an anthem, of sorts, for Quebec independence. Mr. Vigneault was a prominent separatist. But Mr. Atkins and John Furlong, CEO of the Games, thought including the song in the opening ceremonies would send a powerful message to Quebec that the Winter Olympics included everyone in the country, even those who saw Canada as two solitudes.
Mr. Atkins had to get every piece of music cleared by those who had authority over its use. In this case, it was Mr. Vigneault himself. It didn’t take the Quebec songwriter a second to inform the Olympic organizing committee that the song could only be used under strict conditions: It could not be sung anywhere the Canadian flag was displayed and it could not be used in any production that promoted Canada as a country that included Quebec.
David Atkins was devastated. He had not anticipated that reaction. He had already lined up Quebec sensation Garou to sing the song. The segment was completely mapped out. Mr. Furlong decided to phone Quebec Premier Jean Charest to see if he could intervene to change Mr. Vigneault’s mind. Mr. Charest tried – no luck.
In the end, Mr. Atkins had to abandon his plan and add a new song to the lineup: Un peu plus haut, un peu plus loin, which was performed by Garou just before the cauldron was lit marking the climax of the show.
I thought this anecdote was worth telling in light of Graham Fraser’s recent condemnation of the opening ceremonies for its lack of French. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I drew the story from Mr. Furlong’s soon-to-be-released Olympic memoirs Patriot Hearts, which I helped him write.
I can tell you, without giving away the best parts, that making sure our country’s linguistic duality was recognized and honoured at the Games was a full-time job. And in fact, Games’ organizers won high praise for their efforts to make sure the French language was both seen and heard.
Pascal Couchepin, the Grand Witness of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie at the Games, said in the introduction of a report he prepared on the 2010 Olympics: “As you will find in the following pages the French language unquestionably came away with a gold medal.”
Mr. Fraser’s criticism stung John Furlong. The Games CEO doesn’t think the federal languages commissioner’s report on the Games reflected the lengths to which the organizing committee went to ensure Quebec was properly recognized at the Olympics.
“I can tell you it was no accident that Quebec was the first province we signed up in our provincial partnership program,” Mr. Furlong said the other day. “The French culture was reflected in the music we picked and the performers who performed. Our country’s French heritage was evident in a million images seen at the Games. To knock us for not having enough French spoken at the opening ceremonies seems grossly unfair.
“I mean, criticize my French, that’s okay. I tried my best. But I can tell you Quebec was top of mind in everything we did, the opening ceremonies included.”
Yes, Mr. Furlong, your French is atrocious but, as you say, at least you tried. Having to speak a language you don’t know in front of hundreds of millions of people would be terrifying for anyone.
Personally, I didn’t notice a lack of French in the opening ceremonies but my view is irrelevant. I wouldn’t have been looking for it the way others might have. Most of the criticism that VANOC faced over the lack of French in the opening ceremonies came from Quebec media who felt insulted. Fair enough. I still think the issue was overblown and unfortunately ended up overshadowing the many good things VANOC did on the language front.
At the closing ceremonies, it was Mr. Atkins’s idea to have a mime come to the rescue of the Olympic cauldron, one arm of which refused to lift during the opening ceremonies. The mime was certainly a nod to Quebec, but he was also there to make a point.