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How sweet it is to be Sugar Sammy right now

“What Sugar Sammy’s harshest critics resent about him, a poster child for Bill 101, is that his ability to speak impeccable French hasn’t automatically translated into his miraculous transformation into a version of a Quebecer they want to see materialize.”

I never planned on writing a column on Sugar Sammy. Quebec’s most successful comedian doesn’t need my help promoting his show, and what can possibly remain for me to say at this point that hasn’t already been said by every other columnist in the province? 

Every single time Sammy comes home to Montreal, he’s treated like a precocious yet über-talented enfant terrible by English media, who usually rush to fawn over him, while the francophone press is usually divided into two factions: those who write about him with (sometimes) grudging respect and appreciation for his quick wit, and those who treat him with outright disdain, routinely accusing him of being a Quebec-basher. 

Either way, whether you read about him via those who love Sammy or via those who love to hate him, the stand-up comedian’s perma-smile and one-liners are always splashed across billboards and newspaper spreads, ensuring he’s laughing all the way to the bank. 

A traitor and francophobe? 

I’ve seen the comedian perform in French and I’ve seen him perform in English and while both his show and quick-witted banter with the audience are funny, nothing is funnier to me than the highly politicized overblown response to a comedy show. 

Anyone who’s seen his shows knows that Sugar Sammy is an equal opportunity insulter. He’ll tackle anything and anyone, and people naive enough to sit in the front rows or show up late for his shows should be prepared to be roasted. No one escapes. Francophones, anglophones and allophones, and every single political party and ethnic community, will find themselves the butt of his jokes, and while some of his repertoire occasionally makes me groan a little, it’s never made me mad. 

Does Sugar Sammy push a few more buttons and save a few more comedic jabs for sovereigntists, language hardliners and those engaging in identity politics? I’d be lying if I said no. 

Sugar Sammy’s observational comedy loves to go after Quebec’s sacred cows, and that most definitely includes the sovereigntist movement. He’s a second-generation allophone Quebecer who’s heard everything there is to hear by now from a certain subgroup in the nationalist camp that pushes a very exclusionary agenda and keeps changing the goalposts about who gets to define themselves as a “real” Quebecer. It’s a group that often views immigrants or kids of immigrants like him as liabilities to the separatist cause, unwilling to assimilate, unwilling to prioritize the French language and culture. In past interviews, Sammy has always made it clear that Parizeau’s infamous “money and ethnic vote” comments hurt him, and those comments continue to haunt the movement today. 

“The comments stung Mr. Khullar, who was 19,” wrote Dan Bilefsky for the New York Times in 2018. “‘Here I was a teenager who was doing everything to be part of Quebec society and I was being told that I was responsible for the failure of Quebec’s dream of statehood,’ he recalled. ‘I realized that I would always be “the other” in Quebec, no matter what language I spoke.’”  

The ‘wrong’ kind of Quebecer for some 

Comedy is often coping and catharsis. It’s a fascinating skillset to be able to take what exhausts and pains many of us (and language and identity politics can admittedly run us ragged in this province) and channel it into jokes, creating a bilingual show that pushes all kinds of buttons, because, let’s face it, the political and cultural landscape is such that a lot of buttons can easily be pushed. 

In my book, We, the Others, I devote a couple of pages to Sugar Sammy, because, to me, he’s not only the poster child of Bill 101 and proof of its resounding success, he’s also the perfect example of why he, and other allophones like him, fundamentally annoy a certain crowd. And when I say, “a certain crowd,” I don’t mean francophones. If most Quebec francophones genuinely found Sugar Sammy to be hateful and driven by malice, he wouldn’t consistently play to sold-out shows across the province, nor would he proclaim in radio interviews that his favourite shows are often the ones he plays in les régions. Neither would he say in interviews that anglophones absolutely need to learn to speak French and that Bill 101 gave him the career that he now has. 

No, the crowd that doesn’t like Sugar Sammy is primarily made up of people who demand assimilation, not integration, from immigrants, allophones and anglophones as a sign of successful belonging. 

Bref, what they resent about Sugar Sammy (and others like him) is that his ability to speak impeccable French hasn’t automatically translated into him miraculously transforming into a version of a Quebecer they want to see materialize. For them, Bill 101 was supposed to transform thousands of allophone kids into francophone Quebecers who would think like them, live like them and, ultimately, vote like them. To their dismay, that didn’t happen. Or at the very least it didn’t happen to the degree they would have liked to see happen. Sugar Sammy is a proud self-proclaimed federalist who lauds the virtues of pluralism — in French. It’s the comedic equivalent of waving a red flag to a bull. 

Proving that language isn’t automatically culture, but ultimately a communication tool that transmits culture, acquiring French didn’t make allophone and anglophone kids French Quebecers. It merely made them into French-speaking Quebecers, far more integrated and immersed in Quebec culture, but not necessarily more interested in the political goal of independence. Some have never forgiven them. 

To add salt to the wound, not only is Sugar Sammy using the very language he acquired as a Bill 101 kid to poke fun at them, but he also represents and caters to Quebec’s (and most definitely Montreal’s) post-Bill 101 reality, a place where franglais and multiple linguistic and cultural identities coexist harmoniously and don’t interfere with or impact who is defined as a Quebecer. Many of these folks resent the fact that a bilingual show has had such incredible reach and success in Quebec, defying archaic showbiz standards that tend to divide the two linguistic communities, when most of us live and interact in two or three languages daily. Despite promoters once laughing at the idea of a bilingual show, Quebecers were ready for it.

Sugar Sammy’s success is Quebec’s success, too

Ultimately, the unfortunate by-product of spending so much time in Quebec treating language as a crisis and not as an opportunity is that we never really see what a marvel we are. How unique and wonderful this province is when it comes to language. How ahead of the game we are in comparison to the rest of the country. Our language legislation, which successfully protects and promotes French, also ended up producing this wonderful linguistic plurality: the most bilingual province in Canada and the most trilingual city in North America. 

Nowhere else in this country (except, perhaps, for small pockets of la Francophonie) would a bilingual show like You’re Gonna Rire work, let alone sell out for months at a time. Nowhere do people understand the niche jokes and the jabs that have become part of our daily cultural landscape. It works because he’s talking to us. And whether we like what he has to say or not, we understand him. Because his jokes on their own wouldn’t work without people sitting in the seats that get what he’s saying — linguistically and culturally.

Sammy’s observational inside jokes wouldn’t land, they wouldn’t sting as much, they wouldn’t elicit the groans that they do, if he was less knowledgeable, less immersed in Quebec culture and politics. It’s because he’s one of us that they do. When GQ France proclaims, “The funniest man in France is a Québécois!” we should happily claim ownership of him.  

There are many multilingual cities in the world that could have produced the likes of a polyglot comic. But only this city and this province could have produced both a comedian and an audience where this type of material — focusing on our collective blind spots and our ever-present, often-polarizing cultural and linguistic clashes and minority-majority dynamics — makes us howl with laughter. Where a seamless transition of French and English can take place and no one even notices. 

Sugar Sammy is most definitely a product of Quebec. His success is our success, too. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.