To mark Canada’s 150th anniversary, Universal Music Canada recently released Canada 150: A Celebration of Music, a six-CD set of Canadian hits from the 1960s to now. Despite plenty of francophones also singing up a storm for the past 60 years or so, not a single French song was included. Celine Dion was the sole Quebec francophone with My Heart Will Go On from Titanic on that list.
“Assembling a package that sums up Canada’s 150 years would be impossible,” reads the press release. “A country as vast and diverse as ours, with rich histories from countless perspectives could not be contained in one place. But I believe it can be visited – and contemplated by viewing through the lens of the many thoughts expressed here in picture, story, and song,” explains Jeffrey Remedios, President and CEO of UMC. “Hopefully, this one-of-a-kind odyssey across our country goes some way to answering the question of ‘how does a nation sing happy birthday to itself?’”
Apparently, if one takes a quick look at the six-CD compilation, it does so in English.
The minute I looked at the list, I groaned. I groaned because as a Quebecer I could immediately see what was missing (francophone music), and because I knew what was coming.
“What more proof do you need? It’s obvious Quebec isn’t considered part of Canada.”
“How many times are they going to insult us before we stand up for ourselves?”
“It’s time to separate and quickly!”
These were just some of the not-so-measured reactions I saw online. While I certainly don’t blame French Quebecers for getting upset at the lack of any French music in a six-CD compilation meant to celebrate the country’s 150th, it’s too easy and too tempting to simply assume that this is just another routine example of Canada snubbing Quebec’s French language and culture. Mainly because it happens often and from a variety of sources.
Huffington Post’s 100 Best Canadian Songs Ever list in 2014 didn’t include a single French song and the Polaris Music Awards have routinely failed to shortlist French artists in the past. But in this specific situation Canada didn’t snub Quebec because Canada had nothing to do with snubbing Quebec. Universal Music Canada did.
But Universal Music Canada’s glaring omission of any French songs is more proof of gross incompetence and ignorance, severe navel-gazing, shrewd commercial calculation, and a glaringly Toronto-centric approach to management than it is a malicious snub intended to insult French Quebecers.
Let me explain.
First off, don’t let the “Canada” at the end of the company’s name fool you. UMC isn’t a national corporation or a homegrown company. It is part of a for-profit American global music corporation that has been 100 per cent owned by French media conglomerate Vivendi since 2006. Its main headquarters are basically either in California or Paris, which means this company is as Canadian as the Santa Monica Pier or the Eiffel Tower.
While I don’t necessarily wish to pigeonhole people, or paint them with one giant brush, a quick Google search of UMC President Jeffrey Remedios also explains a lot. Remedios is a Toronto boy who studied in Hamilton, Ontario, moved up the ladder by promoting local indie bands like Broken Social Scene, and is featured in Toronto Life’s Arts & Life spreads as half of a “best-dressed couple”. It’s just so… Toronto.
Finally, I suspect that the people making the song selections fell prey to stereotypical (and perhaps not that far-fetched) assumptions that those inclined to purchase a six-CD box set celebrating Canada’s 150th might just not reside in Quebec and speak French as a first language. In other words, the specific song selections were a money-motivated decision to appeal to as many of their potential buyers as they could, which is what most for-profit companies do. Just because this music compilation is draped in the language of celebration and sesquicentennial red and white flag-waving patriotism, it doesn’t mean it’s anything more than an opportunistic and calculated business venture.
I also suspect the people putting the list together (which was, no doubt, already limited by label approvals – notice how Alanis Morrissette, Neil Young, The Tragically Hip and other major Canadian superstar names are also missing) don’t have much of a clue about francophone music.
Is that lamentable and worth pointing out? Absolutely! Is it another example of how this country pretends to be bilingual a mari usque ad mare without having an actual clue about what that really means? Yes. Was the tone-deaf (pun intended) decision to include only English songs a conscious and politically motivated slight against Quebec by the rest of Canada? Of course not.
Universal Music’s Canada 150 compilation controversy, however, is fascinating to me for many other reasons and is a perfect example of people seeing what they want to see.
Many in the ROC didn’t observe anything wrong with this list because they didn’t even notice who’s missing. To them, francophone music is something separate from Canadian music, the way English-language writers or musicians are so often excluded from many lists of Quebec artists even if they were born and worked here.
To many French Quebecers this omission was first and foremost a slight against Quebec. French Quebecers have developed such a knee-jerk reaction and an (often justified) need to circle the wagons around their own, they often forget about francophones outside of Quebec. Acadian music and Franco-Ontarian musicians, to name but a few, were also slighted here, lest we forget.
There are plenty of examples of Quebec being mistreated by Canada, and I like to believe that I’m quick to point them out, but I don’t see this being one of them. If anything, the failure to include any French music here is an indictment of how Toronto-centric and oblivious to anything other than English culture so many Canadians (and particularly big businesses) in Canada are.
One final observation of a blind spot I see often. Not a single person complaining about the French omissions noticed or to my knowledge commented that Indigenous musicians were also missing from the list. No Buffy Sainte Marie, no Kashtin, no Robbie Robertson, no Tanya Tagaq, no A Tribe Called Red.
Remedios was right when he referred to Canada’s “countless perspectives” and “rich histories” in the UMC press release, but PR acknowledgment serves no purpose if you don’t include all of those perspectives and histories in your six-CD box set for people to be exposed to them and learn to appreciate and love them.