Calliari live Quebec language French allophone

Are we allowed to love Quebec in another language?

Quebec musicians who sing in other languages don’t often get the support that francophone artists do, raising the question of who’s allowed to belong in this province.

As debates around language and identity become increasingly heated in Quebec after the recent adoption of Bill 96, a new generation of allophone Quebecers is also emerging with their own unique stories to tell, often forcing new conversations.

Documentary filmmaker Anita Aloisio’s work revolves around issues of immigration, language and culture particular to Quebec and Canada. Her latest film, CALLIARI, QC is a documentary about the creative universe of musicians born in Montreal and raised in culturally and linguistic diverse backgrounds. The film initially appears to be about the career of Italian-Quebec musician Marco Calliari. But it’s about much more. When English-speaking singer/songwriter Paul Cargnello, Indigenous artist Kathia Rock (who sings in her Indigenous language) and Mexican-born Mamselle Ruiz (who performs in Spanish) appear on the screen, the viewer realizes this is a deeper dive into fundamental questions about who’s allowed to belong in Quebec.

Like Aloisio’s earlier documentary Les enfants de la loi 101 (Growing Up With Bill 101), the film tackles the complexity of carving out a life and identity in a place where cultural grievances and language politics often monopolize or derail public conversations in Quebec. 

The film explores the challenges of multilingual artists who write and sing in languages other than French or English. It’s a nuanced, tender and relevant look at allophones and artists like Calliari who’ve only known Quebec as their home yet are often treated as folkloric oddities or not “real” Quebecers because they choose to perform in their mother tongue. The film asks the questions, “What’s authentic Québécois music? And if those born and raised here are also performing in their other languages aside from French or English (and sometimes only in their other languages), are they, too, not also an authentic reflection of Québécois identity?” 

Representing a beautiful specificity

Anita Aloisio Quebec language Montreal
Anita Aloisio. Photo by Antonio D’Alfonso

“What Bill 101 created are these beautiful and unique new generations of multilingual Quebecers who identify as Quebecers and who speak French, but who clash with archaic ideas of what a Quebecer is supposed to look and sound like,” Aloisio says. 

“I’m a true-blue Bill 101 kid. I started school months after the legislation was passed and if French is prospering in Quebec today it’s because of our sacrifices, too,” she says. “Our generation was thrown into this new system while so much was still left to figure out.” 

She says the institutions were not prepared for the changes or the influx of new students at the time. “The first six years of elementary, I changed schools four times because there was no room.”

As a trilingual Quebecer, Aloisio tells me that everywhere she travels people are always fascinated by the plurality of her identity and the ease with which she transitions from language to language. Yet, she says, she often feels cheated as a child of Bill 101 because Quebec itself doesn’t seem to value people like her. “We live with constant reminders that there’s a limit to how much we can belong,” she says. “I was born and raised here, and I still have people telling me how ‘nice my accent is.’”

Aloisio’s interest in Calliari was initially academic while she was working on her Master’s thesis, but after he recorded Mi Ricordo in 2013 (a homage to traditional Québécois songs sung in Italian), she decided to spend the next seven years shadowing him with a camera.

“Marco’s music is a reflection of this beautiful specificity that would only happen here because of Bill 101,” Aloisio says. “Because of all these factors coming together, we have these… I like to refer to them as ‘artists in the margins’ who produce something unique. I started asking myself the question, ‘What does it mean when an artist produces unique art in this space? How do we recognize it? Do we even?’”

A different kind of Quebec artist 

“L’Avventura” by Marco Calliari

Calliari, too, is a child of Bill 101, but the trilingual Quebecer says he’s most comfortable in French. His musical trajectory has been, to say the least, eclectic. He grew up in St-Michel listening to the Italian opera his parents enjoyed but started playing in a thrash metal band as a teenager and later founded Anonymus with three other allophone friends. After five albums and a successful 15-year run, he embarked on a successful solo career exploring his Italian heritage. His first album, Che La Vita — a festive combination of world music and jazz, with all the lyrics and music written by Marco in Italian — was well received and sold over 25,000 copies in Quebec. 

Yet, as he continues to explore his many musical influences, his audience doesn’t always understand or embrace his efforts. When Calliari released Mi Ricordo (“I Remember” in Italian and a translation of the Quebec motto “Je me souviens”), the son of Italian immigrants who considers himself a true-blue Quebecer wanted to pay homage to both his cultures by translating some of Quebec’s most iconic songs, like Offenbach’s “Ayoye,” les Colocs’s “Julie, Robert Charlebois’s “Lindberg” or la Bolduc into Italian. 

“I asked myself, ‘What do I have that others don’t have when I perform in Italian?’ The answer was: My Québécois heritage,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in a karaoke version. I transformed the songs, but the essence was there.” 

Media reception, however, was lukewarm and some thought Calliari was being an opportunist or trying too hard to prove something. “I made that album for all the right reasons and when I was performing around the world, I was representing Québécois music on the world stage.”

What’s considered and supported as Québécois music? 

Paul Cargnello
Paul Cargnello on Belle et bum, Télé-Québec, Jan. 2022

For some, including many in the music industry, performing in a language other than French or English isn’t synonymous with Quebec music. English singer-songwriter and producer Paul Cargnello, who also performs in French, openly acknowledges these limitations in the documentary. 

“I think the problem with the Quebec industry is that it’s too small-town Quebec,” he says. “I think of Montreal as an international city. We need to embrace the voices of singers who sing in Creole, in Italian, in Spanish. We need to profit from all the wealth, but we don’t.” 

The double standards regarding funding often make that clear. “If you’re making a local album that’s considered ‘world music’ where you perform in neither French nor English,” says Calliari, “you might get $8,000–$10,000 in funding. For a French or English album, you can get $30,000 in grants. Your effort and expenses are still the same, though.”

“In Quebec, it’s really about the protection of the French language,” says Cargnello. “We have all kinds of amazing grants out there. The Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, Musicaction… but there’s always these very defensive and hyper-protectionist laws that govern them.” 

As a result, the system often subtly or not-so-subtly prioritizes some while stifling others. The structures set in place have been unable to keep up with Quebec’s current, increasingly diverse, demographic reality.

“My hope is that the public at large will realize how privileged we are to live in this cultural plurality,” says Aloisio. “As this Quebec culture we value continues to evolve and becomes infused with all these new influences, if we’re to move forward as Quebecers, we need to realize this is the uniqueness that’s being created here. Quebec needs to take accountability for what Bill 101 created. Québécois culture is not stagnant, it will evolve and change, and flourish with everyone’s investments.” 

Equity and inclusion for all 

“Terre de nos aïeux” by Kathia Rock

Innu singer Kathia Rock deplores a system that constantly pigeonholes her and makes it hard for Quebec artists who perform in other languages to get radio exposure and equal treatment and find their place here.

“I was born in Quebec, I live in Quebec, I work in Quebec, so Quebec is my home,” says the artist, who was born in Malioténam, an Indigenous reserve near Sept-Îles. “So why is my traditional Innu music categorized as world music when I’m home?” 

“Can we all sit together around a table and reassess the system that’s currently in place?” says Mexican-born Mamselle Ruiz, who performs in Spanish. “There are many outdated ways of doing things that no longer work and are obsolete. There are other possibilities, there is new blood, a new generation coming up that’s full of wonderful energy and so much talent. Let’s try to find ways to make it more equitable for everyone.” 

“There’s more than just French in life,” says an exasperated Rock in the documentary. “Yes, I will defend my Quebec, I represent my Quebec, I travel everywhere and sometimes I’m there representing Quebec, but Quebec itself doesn’t see me as representative of Quebec. Yet the first languages spoken in Quebec were Indigenous languages.”

La Fête nationale pour qui? 

CALLIARI QC directed by Anita Aloisio
CALLIARI, QC explores Quebec music and language politics

On June 23, Calliari, who’s currently writing and releasing music in French, is set to perform at the opening show for Saint-Jean festivities at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City alongside Philippe Proulx, better known as Pépé et sa guitare. As usual, Calliari plans on including some Italian songs and a mix of Québécois and Italian tarantella for his high-energy show. He’s excited, (“It only took 33 years to get here!” he said jokingly at the documentary’s premiere) — but he’s also nervous.

“I’ve been touring across Quebec since I was 18, Quebec is home,” Calliari says. “I love touring Rimouski, Rouyn-Noranda, I don’t feel any different because I’m a Quebecer of Italian origin, but every time I’ve performed my Italian songs during Saint-Jean festivities, there’s always been an incident. Always. During a performance in St-Eustache, someone yelled out, ‘En français, tabarnak!’ and then threw a plastic glass of beer on stage. After four or five incidents like these, you start to feel like you don’t belong. They’ve turned me off and it’s just not normal that they’re even taking place.” 

With Saint-Jean around the corner, he’s shielding himself for another potential confrontation. But he says he won’t be changing his set. 

“If something like this happens there, we’ll be having a conversation,” he says. “I want to take my place at the Plains — I have to be proud of all of me. We need equity and inclusion for all. It’s not normal that Indigenous artists are just now being invited to perform, we’re still stuck in these old colonial patterns and we need to move forward.” 

Calliari, who says he identifies mostly as an Italian Quebecer and is “obsessed” with his francophone side, simply wants to be appreciated and seen for all the facets of his identity — musically and as a human being. 

“I’m proud of being a Quebecer,” he says. “My dream place is not Italy. It’s Gaspésie. I want to finish my days there, it’s where I belong.” ■

CALLIARI, QC directed by Anita Aloisio and produced by Agata De Santis, Redhead Productions, is not yet available for streaming.


To discover the music of the artists included in the film, please click on the links below.

Marco Calliari

Kathia Rock 

Mamselle Ruiz

Paul Cargnello

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.