Carey Price French Quebec

The Montreal Canadiens are a sports team, not simply a cultural monolith

A Bloc Québécois MP has called out Carey Price for not (publicly) speaking French, a problematic affront on several levels.

Carey Price owes us nothing, and he never has.

And yet, on Tuesday morning, Bloc Québécois politician Denis Trudel — the fauxhawked MP who’s served in Parliament representing the Longueuil-Saint Hubert riding since 2019 — earned himself quite the ratio when he angrily tweeted this (translated from French):

“Watched Carey Price last night on TV: Montreal’s biggest sports star is unable to speak the language of the majority of people who buy tickets to go cheer for his accomplishments! After years!!! I simply do not accept it!”

Boy oh boy, where do I even start with this?

First off, it’s worth reminding readers that Denis Trudel was one of the primary organizers of the pro-nationalist protest outside the Bell Centre in December 2011, after unilingual anglo Randy Cunneyworth was hired as interim head coach. This, of course, was the protest that seemingly scared owner Geoff Molson into emphasizing hiring head coaches and GMs who could fluently speak French.

Secondly, have language absolutists like Trudel ever considered teaching themselves the Carrier language (also known as Dakelh) or Nuxalk, the tongues of Price’s maternal ancestors? Price, of course, belongs to the Ulkatcho First Nation in B.C., in which his mother Lynda also serves as its chief. It also bears repeating that Indigenous populations have called this land home — including Quebec — longer than any French-speakers have, as Montreal exists on unceded Mohawk territory (Terra Nullius notwithstanding). Though Quebec’s cultural identity has been steadily built over many generations, we are also living on stolen Indigenous land. This also raises the issue of whether Price should even be obligated to learn another colonialist language, despite outside pressure to do so.

Carey Price ahead of the Montreal Canadiens Indigenous Celebration Night

(It’s also worth reminding readers that Trudel was part of the chorus denouncing the selection of Mary Simon as Governor General last July — Canada’s first Indigenous person to assume that role — because she doesn’t speak French. After Simon stated her intention to learn French and uttered a few words in what will be her third language, after Inuktitut and English, Trudel called the quality of her language skills “pitiful.”)

Thirdly, Carey Price is someone who has taken on one of the most pressure-filled jobs in North American sports for close to two decades, and handled it with extraordinary grace, poise, and style—the likes of which Habs fans hadn’t seen in their goalies on a consistent basis since Patrick Roy. Sure, it would be a nice gesture to the fans for him to speak French in public more often. But why are we wasting energy worrying about this instead of whether or not he’ll continue to play at a high level for a long time after he’s just returned from a prolonged stretch of injury?

As an indirect response to Trudel, I tweeted this:

“The Montreal Canadiens aren’t simply a cultural monolith meant to preserve ‘pure laine’ supremacy in Quebec society. They’re a global brand, with passionate fans across the country and the world. It will never stop frustrating me how some people refuse to grasp this.”

For the most part, my tweet has been received positively by fellow Habs fans (and viewed nearly 40,000 times as I write this), some replying from as far away as Melbourne, Australia. However, a contingent of Quebec nationalists and souverainistes have replied with some hostile, defensive remarks. If nothing else, this demonstrates the passion so many Quebecers have for the franchise, even if Montreal’s cultural diversity is unparalleled in the rest of the province.

Some may argue that European footballers at least learn the basics of the language of the country they play in. They may also compare Price unfavourably to athletes like the Belgian footballer (and eight-language polyglot) Romelu Lukaku, or claim that my arguments are akin to whining about there being “too many anglos in Calgary.”

First, a disclaimer: I understand that Quebec’s history is a complex topic with a TON of important details to unpack, especially when diving into issues like sovereignty and francophone identity politics. I absolutely don’t mean to insult or criticize Quebecers or their culture — it’s an incredibly unique component of our national identity. I also don’t ever want to downplay or erase the team’s historical importance to Quebec society, particularly the days of the Maurice Richard riots and the ensuing Quiet Revolution.

The Canadiens embody a sense of cultural pride among Quebecers, which helps make it one of the most distinctive franchises in North American sports. Francophone Québécois culture has always been a core component of the franchise’s identity, and always will be. As the son of an anglo Montrealer who grew up mostly in Toronto and Calgary, I’m also the first to admit that I can’t possibly claim to be an expert on Quebec’s cultural history.

Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky

But in an increasingly globalized world, and with hockey having a much wider reach now compared to the days of Richard, Jacques Plante, Guy Lafleur et al, they aren’t the only demographic that gets to call the team theirs. The Habs ultimately belong to anyone who chooses to support them, as much as they will always be ingrained in French-speaking Canada’s cultural DNA.

As such, throwing an online shitfit about Carey Price not publicly speaking French — though it’s important to learn in order to survive long-term in Quebec if you aren’t a multi-millionaire NHL player — reeks of entitlement. The Habs also haven’t been granted dibs by the league on drafting the best young French-Canadian players since the ‘60s.

Carey Price also comes across as a reserved, self-conscious person who can be quite hard on himself — his post-game interview after losing the 2021 Stanley Cup Final is proof. It’s entirely plausible he’s picked up a decent amount of French since he first started playing here 15 years ago, but lacks the confidence to speak it publicly. I have a hard time believing this possibility hasn’t occurred to Trudel.

I myself strongly relate to feelings of self-consciousness and inadequacy that non-Quebecers learning French experience while living in this province. I know all too well how it feels to try adapting to the local culture and customs, only to find myself freezing and panicking. Even now, people sometimes switch to English when I try practising it in public. It’s bad enough that some anglos who attempt to immerse themselves into Quebec society by speaking imperfect French still get “Ici à Montréal, on parle français!” barked at them by strangers (and yes, I recognize that a history of anglos shouting “Hey Frenchie, speak white!” is also deeply harmful and insensitive).

Price isn’t the only prominent Habs player to be berated for not publicly speaking French. Back in 2007, former captain Saku Koivu, a Finn, drew the ire of lawyer and Parti Québécois founding member Guy Bertrand for not speaking French to fans. As it turns out, Koivu actually could speak it pretty well, but felt anxiety about doing so publicly.

Saku Koivu (left) and Carey Price (second from right)

Around that same time, Pauline Marois — five years prior to becoming premier — suggested that the organization urge players to enrol in French courses. While it makes sense to encourage players in this market to learn the language, this is complicated by the fact that the NHL is a business where players get traded, released and claimed off waivers all the time. Since learning a new language fluently takes a great deal of time, effort and consistent practice, there’s only so much French knowledge players can acquire if they’re not going to be a Hab long-term.

Given how Koivu felt too self-conscious about his French abilities to speak it to fans, who’s to say that doesn’t also apply to Price? Assumptions like Trudel’s about his French competency arguably come off as willfully ignorant. Even if players try speaking French and do so imperfectly, they should be congratulated and encouraged for it, rather than shamed. Ditto for everyday anglo Quebecers.

The NHL is also a private enterprise wherein the Canadiens are the only team who play in a widely French-speaking market. They also aren’t bound by Bill 101 bylaws the way other Quebec-based industries are. If the Habs only played against other francophone teams, there’d be a more justified sense of urgency for Price to speak fluent French.

Price and Koivu’s lack of publicly-spoken French isn’t a deliberate affront to Quebec culture. A hockey player’s job isn’t to be a cultural figurehead in subservience to their local community — they are athletes first and foremost, whose primary objective is winning a Stanley Cup.

Yes, the Canadiens were initially designed as the team for francophone Quebecers, while anglos had the Maroons. But those were the 1920s, and too many generations have passed for that dichotomy to matter anymore. The Habs represent all of Quebec, and that includes all of its ethnocultural populations. Their influence also expands far beyond this province’s borders, and has for a long time — just look at the heavy Hab fan contingents at Western Canadian away games.

Ultimately, most of us will look back on Carey Price’s career in Montreal with mostly fond memories. Whether or not he can confidently speak French to fans isn’t a sign that Quebec’s identity or culture are threatened, or that he’s purposely desecrating a sacred cultural pillar even after 15 years spent living here.

Price should be allowed to perfect his French on his own terms, not because some politician has aired their grievances about it online. Although speaking fluent French to fans is an asset in this market, players should mostly let their on-ice performance do the talking — because winning is often a good way to shut people up.

In short: mange d’la marde, Denis. ■

For the latest in news, please visit the News section.