Thursday, November 1, 2007

On Koivu's Francais

A stir has been caused once more in La Belle Province of Québec about the fact that Montreal Captain Saku Koivu, an immigrant since 1995, has not yet mastered La Langue de Molière. It has reached the shores of this nation's fine newspapers, so I guess we have to address the subject.

The issue was raised in a governmental public consultation, the Bouchard-Taylor commission, about what is called Reasonable accommodations. It deals with the integration of immigrants to the Quebec Society. Immigration being under provincial jurisdiction in Canada, it is no surprise it will cause a commotion in the only official French-speaking province. If you need more explanation, think about it, We are French, we can't live without commotion. (Funny enough commotion is also the French word for concussion, not that we are so fond of those mind you, just ask Patrice Bergeron, but we are visor wearing pussies after all.)

Bringing forth his outrage to the commission was lawyer Guy Bertrand. A professional shit-stirrer, at the forefront of many far-fetched controversies, once a separatist, once a federalist, always a disgrace to his Province and his name (his brother Rosaire has been for many years my native region's deputy, representing it with great efficiency). This is only the latest desperate attention for headlines that he woke up with some morning when not waking up at all might have been a better option. Just to show, last time I remember him being in the news, it was to represent Leon Mugesera, a Rwandan war criminal known for speeches about "dump[ing Tutsi's] bodies into the rivers of Rwanda."

The argument brought to the table was "the right of Quebecers to be served in French". Good God almighty (or Allah or Buddah or Travolta or The Fonz, don't want to offend any religious groups here) that stuff ain't real, like Bob said (the other Bob, not Gainey and certainly not Marley). The guy is paid, not to offer a service, he is paid to do a job, a manual job, which requires little oral skills other than "Heads up, guys!", "Would you fuckin' pass it for once, Kovy!" or "You want to? Ok! Square off? Ok, Good Luck Man!", ok that last one is for larger men than Koivu, but you get the point. He does his manual job very well and, equal opportunity, equal salary, should a French speaking person be better at the position, it is hard to figure out.

Perhaps in 1993, Montreal should have opted for the next French Canadian available in the draft, namely Eric Lecompte picked by Chicago 3 ranks later with his grand total of 0 games played in the NHL until now. (Let's give him time still he's more than a point per game in Innsbruck this year and he used to kick serious ass in Switzerland's Nationalliga B, a legend in Langenthal, wherever the fuck that may be!) At the same salary, we can arguably find more impressive talent who speaks francais, but do they want to play in Montreal? The debate rages on and I am not getting into that now.

Let's raise a parallel, though.

Here we have a man who has immigrated to a French-speaking country, but has opted to live in its English speaking part. L'Île-des-Soeurs (when David Cronenberg does not infest it with horny zombies from outer space) is as close to a gated community as you will find in Québec, fitting for publicity-shy millionaires but not necessarily the best to mingle in the backstreet with the Boréale drinking frogs (Yes, I am allowed to use that word, having juicy tights yearning for garlic butter myself).

For my part, I couldn't find the French speaking part of Tampere when I moved here, but perhaps I could have found more talkative neighbors there. I have been in Finland for more than 3 years, but never had to take road trips to the rest of the non-Finnish speaking Europe every other week and don't get to flee when I miss the playoffs to come back for training camp, so all in all, I might have spent more time in Finland than Koivu really has spent in Québec. I probably speak worse Finnish than Saku speaks French, but he has the terrific advantage of being debated about on TV everyday and radio 24/7, whereas I am not name checked on Salatut Elämät yet.

In my job description, it is said that I am expected to speak French-Canadian as my mother tongue (don't ask what I'm doing but just know that I am not stealing anyone's job at least!). My company's official language is English, for internationalization purposes, our competitors, clients and employees are from different origins and we have a point in common, we speak the language that is commonly used in the trade so that everyone understand each other. Parallel stands. In Koivu's job description though (as well as in Mihail Grabovski's who does not even speak English), language is not mentioned, . Winning face offs, killing penalties, blocking shots and deflecting shots from the point, appearing on posters and tv spots, wearing a suit and tie on game day, yes, and a couple more things you can require to warrant a 4.75 mil a year (be it only American dough), but linguistic specifications aren't part of the deal.

At work, when I turn left, I see a Russian colleague and a French Canadian one, when I turn right I see a wall. If I turn around, behind, I see an American, a Briton and an Italian. Their names are not Kovalev, Bégin, Komisarek, Dafoe and ... Italian, hard to come up with one, Muzzati, ex-Hartford Whaler, is that too far fatched? but we are all part of the same team and communicate in English. No, I do not play right wing, but the situation is similar. My immediate boss, my Carbonneau if you allow the comparison, is a Finn, but he speaks to me in Shakespeare's lingo. And my higher hierarchical overlord is some Swedish holding company if I understood that correctly (Gilletsson from Kålårädostad as far as I care) and he does not give two shits about me speaking the local dialect or not, or he hasn't shared his feelings on the issue with me just yet.

Of course Jean Béliveau wasn't sitting in my chair before me but you get the point. I live well, albeit on a slightly reduced salary compared to Monsieur Bouleau's, in a country where I do not speak the language and, at 32 years old, find very difficult to assimilate. I want more, at my age, out of conversations than the basic
-Terve, minä olen Yves, minä olen Quebecilainen.
-Ooooh Kanadalainen!
-Ei, Quebecilai... ah pis laisse faire.

I have, in the past few years, mainly concentrated my cognitive efforts into learning how to do my job properly (which does not involve Justin Williams' stick blade getting under my retina in any way, but has a couple twists to make it interesting or at least challenging) and doing my best in the remaining time to raise my two children in French, a 3 years and a 1 year old, a girl and a boy (the parallel becomes eerie).

The Finnish (Suomi) language is of a level of difficulty renowned to be of the hardest but, if learned in a vacuum, is much easier than French. Problem is that finding a Finn to talk to is about as hard as getting a French to shut up. But silent letters do not exist in Finnish and exceptions have mostly been purged. The grammatical system however has not much to do with any other languages except Hungarian (Magyar) and Estonian (Eesti, hahah, Québecois inside joke here), which is why I say in a vacuum, because most Occidental speakers will look for reference in their own language and/or in English and they will find not much, mis à part a couple borrowed words here and there that have been cruelly butchered to fit strict Finn spelling (kahvi = coffee!). On the other hand, evidence of Napoleonian era colonialism and other historical phenomenons that have spread the seed of la langue francaise can be found in most languages. The only word that has evaded Finnish and spread to the far reaches of Turkey and Korea is Sauna, and let's not forget it. But I digress.

All I want to say is that, for my part, I might be able to speak Finnish one day and I do half count on my kids to teach me, like Koivu was saying, but it requires time, which I don't always have, and effort, does the "I'm not perfect" argument work here? Simple answer is I am in the country that offers the best situation for my family for the time being and am grateful for the opportunities it offered me, and with all the good will in the World (and I do take classes once a week which means far from often enough), putting the extra effort in learning a language I will probably never master enough to hold a decent conversation or get my point across without using 4th grade vocabulary does seem like a vain effort somehow. But even if, or let's say when I do learn, it will be a hell of a long time before you see me answering the questions of the Finnish equivalent of Michel Villeneuve on TV, unless he accepts a punch in the neck as a Finnish enough answer.

The PR blunder from this season's home opener cannot be blamed on Koivu. Yes, he could have seen it coming, he is a smart fella, but still, someone should have thought about it in higher places. It is not that hard, just write in Finnish (which is phonetics without the funky stuff and a few dots more): "Lö nymero kätrövinkätr, Gijoom Läätaandress" and so forth...
Easy! Facile! Helppoa!


Anonymous said...

Ozymandias from HF Habsboard...

Nice text man. Never lived in Europe nor elsewhere than the cultural melting pot of Quebec (not that I haven't traveled), but your story reflects my pov to the t.

I grew up learning our province's two languages and have always been proud of that unique situation we have in Quebec compared to most of the rest of America. Sharing our traditions and our cultures.

May your exile come to an end.

À la prochaine.

Carl said...

Valhoun from HFboards.

You quoted Bob Dylan. And obscure Bob Dylan at that. Therefore, you are cool.

In addition, Koivu is awesome.

ursus arctos said...

Fabulous post.

Going after Koivu would seem to be the mark of an extraordinarily desperate publicity hound. Or has public opinion in la belle province begun to turn against the great man?