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The Other "American" Star System

Yvan Petitclerc

canada is in many respects a very strange country. Particularly when it comes to the question of self-definition versus our American neighbors. Sure we still like to think of ourselves as more "social -démocrate", whatever meaning remains of that term. But as long as the question of culture is concerned, we are in some paradoxical way strangely similar to our neighbour from the South. On one hand English Canada likes to pride itself on the fact that it has a distinguishable culture despite all the indicators pointing towards an almost total Americanization. On the other hand, French Canada (mainly Quebec accounting roughly for 25% of the population) shamelessly copy the American star system while remaining stubbornly distinct.

In Toronto or Vancouver as well as in many other Canadian cities, virtually all the most popular TV series are american ones, while in Quebec 29 out of the 30 most watched tv shows are "Québécois" productions. And these productions are well sustained by numerous magazines and talk-shows devoted to gossip about the various local TV or film stars. We may speak mostly French for some 82% of the 7.3 million population but as far as cultural pattern is concerned, we are unmistakably american. So much so in fact that in Quebec it's not uncommon to hear some folk claiming that Celine Dion is nowadays more American than an American woman.

The existence of such an elaborate mini star system for such a small population has, and continues to, puzzle many people. However one can safely assume that it's in part due to a continuous desire to protect and maintain a cultural identity on a North American continent where French-speaking people represent today less than 2% of the population.

For the rest of Canada the existence of that different cultural landscape in Quebec was often used in the past as an example of the fact that we, as Canadians, were clearly different from Americans. That argument faded over the years. Today it's more as if having recognized that Quebec has an identifiable and vibrant popular culture, the rest of Canada must double it's efforts to state clearly what makes it different from the United States. And with the Internet that challenge is for sure to become increasingly difficult in the coming years.

Whatever the result, Canadians will continue to cultivate several contradictions towards our American neighbours. English Canadian elite, for example, routinely warn against the peril of american cultural imperialism while in the street of Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, film crew and local merchants welcome the arrival of loads of cash coming from Hollywood actors, moguls and studios.

In Quebec it could be even more surprising. The debate about the protection of the French language resurfaces periodically, asking new comers and anglophones to make French their social life language of choice, while if a Chinese or Greek immigrant try to ask something in French in a convenient store, the French speaking clerk will almost automatically (out of courtesy for sure, but nonetheless) switch to English.

Oh, and don't forget - if you speak only English and intend to visit the gay Village in Montreal or any chic bars, for that matter, don't forget to say you're a tourist and not a native Quebec born English speaking guy. It will only improve your cultural experience. In and out of bed...


Yvan Petitclerc has studied history in the past but is teaching French for a living. He write mostly about social trends, and lives in Montreal.

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