VANCOUVER — Members of Quebec’s media are raking the CEO of the Vancouver Games over the coals for the perceived lack of French at the opening ceremonies, a controversy that threatens to overshadow the province’s celebration of native son Alexandre Bilodeau and the first gold medal of the Games.
One reporter, sarcastically referring to Games CEO John Furlong as the “poster boy” of the Games, asked Furlong to answer the critics. Another wanted to know whether Furlong felt the ceremonies represented the place of Quebec and the French language in Canada.
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 vent beginning to end it was delivered completely in both languages.”
The issue has angered the Quebec public, and Premier Jean Charest and federal heritage Minister James Moore have both weighed in, saying there wasn’t enough French content at the Friday night spectacle that kicked off the Games.
There’s a two-page spread in Monday’s La Presse newspaper with headlines like: French as Rare as Snow in Vancouver; and Only 15 Per Cent of 25,000 Volunteers Speak French.
The controversy is tainting the moment of Olympic glory for Bilodeau in his home province, where critics say the language he speaks has been treated like an also-ran at the Games.
Celebration of his Olympic freestyle skiing victory risks being overshadowed by the controversy.
A stream of negative viewer comments was being aired on TV talk shows.
Several commentators argued that French — which is not only one of Canada’s official languages, but actually one of the Olympics’ official languages — was heard more often at the Beijing Games in 2008 than at Vancouver’s opening ceremonies.
On Quebec’s TV talk shows, questions were being raised about whether official bilingualism in Canada was actually a facade.
Charest stood by his comments at he sat with Furlong at a news conference in Vancouver.
“It wasn’t sufficient,” he said of the francophone presence.
But the Quebec premier then heaped praise on the Games, saying he’s impressed.
“I’ve seen the effort that’s been made,” he told reporters.
Denis Coderre, the federal Liberal critic for official languages, said francophone concerns were being ignored in English Canada.
Coderre, who habitually sprinkles his own political speeches with a few phrases of Haitian Creole or Italian, poked fun at Furlong’s failure to do the same.
He said Furlong could have bothered, over the last several years, to learn a few phrases of French — other than tossing out a token, mispronounced, “Bienvenue” during his address at the opening ceremonies.
“I don’t accept being a second-class citizen,” Coderre told a talk show on LCN network.
“The reality is not to find something negative about the Games, it’s to say look, respect me.”
The first few lines of the Ireland-born Fulong’s speech at the ceremonies Friday were delivered in a stilted French.
Another former cabinet minister said she watched the opening ceremonies with a group of federalist friends — all people who believe in Canada — and that they were aghast at what they saw.
“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 quickly pounced on the issue and one ardent sovereigntist said he expected Games organizers to at least try keeping up the charade that Canada is a bilingual country.
“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,” Mario Beaulieu, president of the Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montreal, said of the opening ceremonies.
“It’s deplorable, but we’re not surprised.”
On the flip side, readers of The Canadian Press weighed in with e-mails expressing anger at the fuss and irritation at the critics’ complaints.
Canada’s official languages commissioner, Graham Fraser, issued a report last fall that warned Olympic organizers they weren’t doing enough to make the Games bilingual.
The Conservative government gave the Olympic organizing committee an additional $7.7 million in September to pay for French translation services and more French signs.