Why Québec’s Music Industry Is Still Divided Over Language

9 Montrealers talk about what it’s like making multilingual art in the Francophone province.

January 12, 2017
Why Québec’s Music Industry Is Still Divided Over Language Maya Dufeu

Lisez l'article en Français

Montreal, Québec is where progressive pop musicians like Grimes, Arcade Fire, and Kaytranada got their start, but these artists found international success as outsiders. Québec is Canada’s second most populous province, with a music industry that is largely independent from the rest of the country. It has a self-sufficient star system, fuelled by a strong radio culture and successful independent labels such as Audiogram, Dare to Care, Coyote Records, Indica Records, and more. In Québec, French-language artists and record labels have unique privileges because of the laws protecting the province’s Francophone culture.

The sole goal of the 1977 Charter of the French Language was to “make French the language of Government and the Law, as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.” White Catholic Francophones, particularly baby boomers who identified as ‘Québecois’ — a phrase that also invokes nationalist sentiment — came to define the province’s default culture, from government institutions to the arts. This tacit nationalism, established through the protection of language, precludes the presence of Indigenous peoples on this land. And, because the Charter was set up to assimilate newcomers, it has persisted through waves of French and non-French speaking migrants to the province, from across Canada — and around the world.


Montreal, Québec’s biggest city and cultural epicenter, is quite diverse: according to a 2011 census, 56% of the population are immigrants, and 57.7% are bilingual. (A 2006 study found that 24% of Montrealers are trilingual). But protective legislation has had a lasting impact on diversity and representation in Québec’s media, as well as its lucrative music industry.

So who gets access? Artists making music that is predominately French-language, and aligned with Francophone cultural ideals. Right now, a musical project must contain 70% French content in order to be subsidized by the majority of granting institutions. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), an independent body that regulates broadcasting in the country, has created special rules for Francophone media: 65% of radio content must be French language, while 35% must contain Canadian content. The Québec industry promotes music in French because it is legally sanctioned as the dominant culture, but there are many artists living in Montreal, that speak and perform in English, English/French, and ‘Franglais.’ They don’t feel represented in print and broadcast media, or recognized by awarding bodies like ADISQ — the ‘Québec Association for the Recording, Concert, and Video Industries.’

The FADER spoke with nine people working in Montreal’s music industry about the reality of making bilingual, multicultural art in a Francophone province.

Frannie Holder, Random Recipe

I see language as a way to put texture in my creations. It’s the same thing as choosing a synth. I got invited to sing at St-Jean-Baptiste Day (Québec Day). We have a song with Pierre Lapointe, where we sing in English but they wanted us to translate our verse in French because it was ‘Québec Day.’ I understand that we want to celebrate Francophone culture, but my bandmate felt uncomfortable rapping in French so she preferred to use Spanish, and the organization said it was okay as long as she wasn’t using English. I understood, but it’s weird.

Managers and labels won’t push a project that can’t get grants. There are good relationships between France and Québec for touring but I don’t want to tour only in these two places. If you want to tour in South Africa, for example, your label won’t do it because there is no grant open to finance this tour. We will go, but without any institution money.

Karim Ouellet, singer-songwriter

If an artist is born in Québec, or even somewhere else, says "I am québécois’’ — then, he makes 'musique québécoise.' I cannot find the beauty of French in another language; I wouldn’t know how to write about my emotions. But I don’t need to fight like my friends who will drop a bilingual album or a 100% Anglophone album and won’t get recognition in the grant packages and the award ceremonies, etc. Milk & Bone is a good example. For me, they make 'musique québécoise' even though it’s in English.

Laurence Lafond-Beaulne, Milk & Bone

This question has only been asked by people over 40-years-old and only Québecers. No journalist in the United States and Europe asks us why we write songs in English. It’s a Baby Boomer thing! We were lucky to have media coverage on our project because we started our careers by doing backing vocals for a lot of Francophone artists that have a lot of reach. We sing in English but we’re not part of the Anglo scene either. It’s weird, and it’s really like that.

Seb Cowan, founder of Arbutus Records

There are lots of [Francophone] labels that are built to get grants because it’s a good way of getting money. We’ve only recently figured out how to do that and we’re still not the best at doing it but it’s allowed us to build a more sustainable, or more musically relevant, model. I always feel that this wasn’t my home. I’m an Anglophone and I don’t speak the language. I’ve always been very sensitive about this.

Gourmet Délice, founder of Bonsound Records

One of our bands, Groenland, played at FME’s Winter Festival in January 2015. [Former opposition and Parti Québecois leader] Pierre Karl Péladeau was in the crowd and yelled 'En Français, SVP!' ('in French, please!’) during their performance and it caused a little scandal, but not as big as Safia Nolin’s t-shirt at the last ADISQ ceremony! Their album The Chase was on the top 200 on iTunes in Canada; it made so much noise. And Péladeau was at a show of a band singing in English, who address the public in French because, they are also Francophone.

Étienne Dubuc, director of programming at CISM RADIO 89.3 FM

The quota of 65% of French content is legitimate and realistic. At CISM, even if there wasn’t a quota, we would still try to reach for more French content than commercial radio. There’s enough good music in French that we can have a balance of 50/50 in the content that we program. If we don’t push Francophone music forward, we will lose our identity within the rest of Canada and the United States.

Ogden, Alaclair Ensemble

We address our public in French, with a pinch of English. I wouldn’t say that Alaclair does ‘Franglais.’ It’s a mix of French, English, and Haitian Creole. In our case, it was never a language issue. We are always over 70% French content. But for us, it’s more about music style. ADISQ doesn’t boycott rap; it’s still a subcategory, but commercial radio literally boycotts ‘rap québécois.’ There is a form of institutionalized racism: sometimes unconscious, sometimes more or less conscious.

I wonder: if Kaytranada was white would he have adequate media coverage in Québec? My personal answer is that it would change the way Francophone media cover him.

Robert Nelson [an Anglo-Quebecer, and leading figure in Lower-Canada (Québec) Rebellion of 1837-38] wanted to create a much more American-style society, a republic in which French and English would have been official languages. I would add Native languages too; they have values that are not ethno-linguist. Francophone Québec is more likely to strengthen a conservative and right-wing identity on the notion of Francophone identity.

There is a modern Francophone heritage of desire for protection in Québec, and it generates this impression that anything English does not concern the population. That's why [it feels as if] Kaytra is set aside, and he's the biggest Québec artist in the world right now! Well, maybe Celine Dion and Arcade Fire too!


Matthew Otto, formerly Majical Cloudz

I feel there’s a struggle to find a sense of unity in the city in terms of art. There’s clearly a French and English divide. It’s not like I am not making efforts, but it’s just that it’s never has been clear how to get through this divide.

High Klassified, producer

When I talk to the public online, I do it in English because I can reach more people. On the other hand, when I work in Québec, I speak French with my mates. But, to be honest, I don’t feel at ease speaking English because I’m stuttering. Not a lot of people know that.

The term 'musique québécoise' (Québec music) is a question of language and territory. It depends of the identity of the artist. We don’t have English speaking artists running around with the Québec flag and shit. Anglo rappers will identify as Canadian. Rappers doing that ‘Franglais’ thing are more considered Québec rappers because it’s part of the identity of Québec; it’s our common language.

Why Québec’s Music Industry Is Still Divided Over Language