Bernard Landry dropped me a note a couple of weeks ago. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about the former Quebec Premier publicly speaking out about something or other (it’s undoubtedly the source of many headaches for Pauline Marois); what is interesting is that he would do so to a designated Anglo journalist whose opinion, you’d think, would mean bupkis to him. That said, I’ve interviewed him before, and we once had a 10 minute conversation entirely in English outside the Gazette offices on St. Catherine. (I kept looking around for fear that it was part of some elaborate Just For Laughs gag.) Suffice to say he’s approachable and great with a quote, which is always nice for a person in my line of work.
As it happens, Landry took issue with how I used one of his more infamous quotations in a blog post about Sun News. (You’ll find it here. Hey Brian! Great Hair!) Referring to the wee shell game Quebecor plays with its news brands—ultra-patriotic outside of Quebec, fleur-de-lys blue nationalist at home—I wrote the following: “Hell, even former premier Bernard Landry, the man who once compared the Canadian flag to a ‘red rag,’ once wrote for Quebecor—before his union sympathies got the better of him and he gave up his column during the Journal de Montréal lockout in 2009.”
Landry took issue with my translation of “red rag”, and accused the English Canadian press corp of ignorance and bad faith. Ayoye.
In his letter, Landry quotes from his own biography/blurb presented to a group of students when he was teaching in China last year. “A few years ago M. Landry caused quite a commotion in Canada. Because of an error in interpretation, we were led to believe that he referred to the Canadian flag as a ‘red rag’, when in fact he used a well-known French expression inspired by the piece of red fabric that matadors shake in front of a bull and which signifies a provocation.”
“It seems the nation that invented the compass, the printing press and gunpowder is more apt in [French-English] translation than Toronto and Ottawa, or and maybe even Montreal [?]” Landry writes. “One of the best and most bilingual English Canadian journalists in Canada told me a little while after that he was appalled at this false interpretation that suggests ignorance as much as bad faith.” Ouch!
So I went back to his original quote. (UDATE the French version is as follows: “[L]e Québec ne ferait pas le trottoir pour un bout de chiffon rouge.”) Landry used the term “torchon rouge” (literally, red cloth, towel or rag) in 2001 referring to the Canadian government’s $18-million grant to Quebec’s zoo on the condition that the zoo have bilingual signs and fly the dreaded flag in question. “Quebec isn’t going to walk the street for a piece of red rag,” he said. Landry did indeed make the distinction in a following news conference (he even apologized for the mix-up), but the quote has lived on. I myself have used it three times in the last six years, including the Sun News post. So, here goes: when he said “torchon rouge”, Bernard Landry didn’t mean a snot-worthy piece of tattered cloth, but something you wave in front of a bull to piss it off. Mea culpa. I won’t use it in the former context again.
But back to his quote. It seems most people picked up on the ‘red rag’ bit and ignored the first, far more loaded, term Landry used. “Walk the street” (“faire le trottoir”) means to prostitute oneself. As in, “Quebec isn’t going to prostitute itself” for $18 million. Charming. That one, I think I’ll use.