Welcome to the Olympics. Come look at the francophones

There simply wasn't enough French at the Olympic Opening Ceremony on Friday

The Minister of Canadian Heritage is one of many people doing a good job of pointing out the simple fact that, for a public event in Canada, and especially for the games of an international association whose official languages are French and English, there simply wasn’t enough French at the Olympic Opening Ceremony on Friday. “Period,” as James Moore puts it. “Full stop.”

So I would have no particular interest in piling on if it weren’t for the transparently ridiculous excuses VANOC spokeswoman Renée Smith-Valade gave at a news conference this afternoon. There was plenty of French at the event, she said, in effect. You just didn’t hear it.

“Let me give you a bit of background on the French content at the opening ceremonies,” she said, before listing dance choreographers Jean Grand-Maître and Jacques Lemay; flag-bearers Julie Payette, Jacques Villeneuve and Roméo Dallaire; and acrobats from the École Nationale du Cirque.

Now, choreographers, flag-bearers and contortionists aren’t normally thought to have much in common, but one thing that does connect them is that they don’t speak.

I read the excuses offered by Smith-Valade, who is perfectly bilingual, to Graham Fraser, Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, and over the phone I could hear him sigh. “That speaks to an idea that people will tolerate French as long as it’s not actually heard. And that francophones are part of Canada, but not the French language.”

Fraser wrote his first report warning about serious limitations in the amount of French at the Olympics in December, 2008. He had meetings with 20 federal departments and agencies to encourage them to make French part of the experience of francophone visitors to the Olympics. “And a lot of them really stepped up to the plate,” he said. “I fully recognize that VANOC put a lot of effort into improving the infrastructure.” Cable companies put “a huge effort” into ensuring that coverage is available coast-to-coast through CPAC, Fraser said. “And that deserves to be recognized.”

But at the opening ceremonies, organizers “seemed to believe it would be an imposition on the audience to hear French spoken,” Fraser said. “So much so that they took a quotation by François-Xavier Garneau and translated it into English to read it to the audience.”

Garneau asked, “En quel autre climat la Reine du Silence montre-t-elle plus de splendeur?” In the circumstance, it seems an apt question.