Quebec: a case of cultural and linguistic imperialism?

Gaetan Tremblay’s essay poses the question – “is Quebec culture doomed to become American?” He answers that there is a real threat of cultural invasion. But, the situation is not that bad, he writes, at least in the early 1990s when the article came out.

This paper is a critical analysis of Tremblay’s essay. After a brief summary of the article, some points of criticism will be raised, followed by questions arising from the work. There will also be an attempt made to update Tremblay’s article by referring to the recent television ratings in Montreal done by the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM). The results of an informal survey will also be used to update the ideas presented by Tremblay.

Tremblay uses certain data concerning television supply and demand. He beings his thesis by citing the Broadcasting Act, and then reviews those elements which highlight broadcasting as a service to preserving Canadian culture. The Quebec government’s effort to defend and develop Quebecois culture is also examined. He contrasts this notion with the American one to see cultural products as commodities like any other, subject to free market rules. In the essay, Tremblay presents his research and makes observations. He notes that two-thirds of all programs broadcast by Quebecois networks are of Canadian origin. The remaining third of programming is foreign. Public television has slight higher quotas than private television. The situation in programming is in the area of entertainment, particularly drama programming, which includes series, “teleromans,” films, and cartoons. Films make up the bulk of these programs, and more of these films are of American origin.

Tremblay observes that there is a strong presence of American products. However, he says the 50 percent proportion is not out of control. The reason it is not out of control is that of the language barrier, CRTC regulations, and view preferences. The BBM reports that Quebecois programming makes up the majority of the 20 most watch programs. Tremblay asserts that the Quebecois want to keep their protective policies and regulations for fear that the problem will deteriorate. This fear stems from four things: the proximity of America, the limited internal market, Quebec’s status as a linguistic minority in North America, and market rules favour American products.

Though Tremblay accomplishes much in his essay, it does have some shortcomings. For instance, Tremblay asserts that the Quebecois want to keep protective policies and regulations on Quebecois culture, but he does not support this claim with any data or evidence. Since throughout the essay he supports his ideas with data and his own research, it seems odd that his claim in the essay has none. In the data that Tremblay uses, it would have been interesting to have an age breakdown. To know what younger people are watching would give some sense of the future of Quebecois television viewing habits.

Another shortcoming of Tremblay’s article is that he sets out to answer a question about Quebecois culture by only looking at television. What the Quebecois watch on TV is only a portion of what the culture is. If Tremblay really wants an accurate answer to the question and title of his essay, his research will have to include more than just television.

Throughout the essay on television and Quebecois culture, many questions arise: should cultural products be commodities like any other and thus be subject to market rules? What happens to a cultural form when you change the language? Does it become part of the culture, is it recreated? What is Quebecois culture? Should there continue to be laws protecting Quebecois culture? Tremblay’s essay was written in 1992. The most recent part of his data is from 1990. Tremblay’s article raises some very important issues that are still relevant today. In order to update the information in this article, an informal survey was conducted and recent reports of the BBM were consulted.

BBM conducts surveys for its members, who include media organizations across Canada, both Francophone, and Anglophone. It selects a sample of the population to see what they are watching on TV and listening to on the radio. For the purpose of this analysis, only the share of the television market in the extended Montreal area was consulted. Particularly, the Francophone stations were compared the American stations in terms of viewing habits in primetime, from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., Monday to Friday. Ratings and the share were taken from the summer of 1996, which includes surveys from the weeks of June 20 to June 26 and July 4 to 10. BBM monitors individual viewing habits in one-week windows. The results of this survey included 3,368 respondents from the extended Montreal area. The share is the percentage of the total number of hours watched on television in a time slot. For example in a 6:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. slot, CFTM’s TVA edition got a 32 percent share of the total number of people watching in that time. Yves Robert, account executive at BBM, says one should look at the share when figuring out how a TV station is doing compared to others. An example of the survey used for the following analysis is enclosed at the end of this paper.

The report reveals that at the supper hour most people are watching the news on the Francophone stations, but there is a significant number, between 16 to 22 percent of the share, who watch ABC News. Moving further into primetime, from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., the most watched shows on Monday night are American programs, such as Beverly Hills 90210. On a Friday night, however, the most watched show is Cine-Columbo on CFTM, Télé-Metropole and second is Family Matters, an American show. Overall, from looking at primetime viewing habits, the audiences of Francophone TV slightly outnumber the American programs. Tremblay’s research still holds true, but he never mentions the American sitcom, whose influence becomes apparent when looking at the BBM report.

To update the information in Tremblay’s article even more than give voice to his ideas, an informal survey was conducted on Saturday, November 8, 1997, in the Eaton Centre, Montreal Trust Place and the streets of downtown Montreal. The survey is in no way as representative as BBM’s. It was conducted with 30 respondents, but it still gives a sense of what the Quebecois (in this case Francophone) are thinking and feeling about issues that stem from Tremblay’s essay. Thirty Francophone respondents were chosen randomly in an effort to be diverse in terms of gender and age. The respondents were asked three questions.

1) What kind of television do you watch the most, Quebecois or American? Why?

2) Do you think that Quebecois culture will become American? Why?

3) Do you think there should continue to be laws to protect Quebecois culture? Why?

Overall, the results were in keeping with Tremblay’s findings.

Table 1: Quebecois versus American Television Viewing Habits

Quebecois TV – 12
American TV – 10
Both – 8
Total respondents – 30

Similar to Tremblay’s findings, overall Francophones are watching more Quebecois television than American television. A significant number are watching both. Not everyone gave reasons for their viewing habits. Here are some of the reasons for those who did answer the question:

Jean, 18: watches more American programming. He finds it funnier, watches American TV for movies.

Sara, 29: watches more American television. “It’s what everybody watches at work and this way I can talk about it too.”

Sophie, 38: watches more American TV. “I watch with my child and all he likes are the English sitcoms and cartoons.”

Denis, 43: watches more American TV. He watches the movies and the comedy shows. Denis watches French TV at the supper hour.

Constance, 32: watches both. “They both have good things to offer. I like the news on French TV and movies on American TV.”

So, just as Tremblay found, the Quebecois are watching American programs for the movies and cartoons, or basically the entertainment programming. It is also interesting to note from this survey that it is mainly those people who watch more American programming who explained the reasons for their viewing choice. Even seven years later, (from the original date of this publication in 1997), Tremblay’s findings are still relevant.

Francophones surveyed also seemed to agree with Tremblay in terms of the major question he raises in his essay, according to Table 2.

Table 2: Is Quebec Culture Becoming American?

Yes – 8
No – 14
Already is – 7
Maybe – 1
Total Respondents – 30

According to Table 2, the majority of Francophones do not think Quebec culture will become American, that’s 14 out of 30 respondents, almost half or 47 percent. However, a significant number thought there is a threat of cultural invasion, 8 out of 30 respondents, or 27 percent. What is also interesting is that almost as many people thought that Quebecois culture already is American, 7 out of 30, or 23 percent. If the respondents who thought Quebecois culture would become American and those who thought it already is American are combined, then that makes 50 percent, more than those who answered “no.”

Here are some of the reasons respondents gave for their answers. Again, in this case, not everyone gave reasons:

Jean, 18: “Quebec culture already is Americanized, look at the McDonald’s, the Burger King. I drive an American car, I wear American clothes [had a Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt on]. Actually the culture is very similar so of course, were influenced.”

Sara, 29: “No, the language difference will always stop Americans from ruling completely.”

Sophie, 38: “Yes, I think Quebecois culture is in danger of becoming American, especially among young people.”

Benoit, 22: “Yes, Americans are going to take over the world.”

Suzanne, over 40: No, she says, Quebecois culture will not become American, it’s the same thing.

Virginie, 26: Yes. There are a lot of immigrants in Montreal. This makes her think she’s no longer in Quebec. She is from Trois-Rivérès. “I think Montreal will become American, but the rest of Quebec will stay the same.”

Mathieu, 27: Yes. “Quebecers like the American way, you see American fashion in the shows. Quebecers like the powerful way of Americans. They are like chameleons, Jacques Villeneuve wins and we’re proud to be from Quebec. We don’t have an identity, we go along with what’s cool.”

Louise, 35: “No, not necessarily if we are aware of the difference in cultures. If people were aware they would choose Quebecois culture.” The shows are the same. There should be laws to protect Quebec culture.

Yves, 38: “Perhaps, with independence, Quebec will become American. The States will take over.”

Kenel, 32: No. He said the rest of Canada will administrate Quebec if there are independence and Americans won’t take over.

Marie, over 65: “No. But if Quebec gets independence then it won’t become American. If it stays part of Canada then it will become American because all of Canada is becoming another state.”

Constance, 32: No. She said that laws will continue to protect Quebecois culture.

Martine, 34: “No, as long as there are strong supporters of Quebecois culture, like me, then the future will be OK.”

Angelique, 19: “Yes. This whole free trade is dangerous to Quebecois culture. Quebec is a small market, it can’t compete with the big Americans.”

A variety of reasons were given as to whether or not Quebecois culture would become American. A few people cited Quebec laws preserving the culture as the reason why Americans would not take over. Several people saw the power of the Americans winning out, and a few people noted the similarity of the cultures.

Although Tremblay did not have research as evidence for his claim that Quebecers liked the laws to protect culture, according to this informal survey, he was correct. All 30 respondents answered ‘yes’ to whether there should continue to be laws to protect Quebecois culture. Very few gave reasons for their answers, but here are some of the responses that arose:

Jean, 18: “The situation would get even worse for programming if there weren’t any laws.”

Sophie, 38: “It’s cheaper for broadcasters to have American programming. Without the laws, they will just do what is cheaper.”

Virginie, 26: “There should be laws to protect the culture because laws help people to do the right thing.” She’s a law student.

Mathieu, 27: “America is so big and close and powerful, we need something to protect our culture from such power.”

Lousie, 35: She says the laws help us to distinguish what is French culture versus American culture.

Tremblay again proves to be correct. He states four reasons why Quebecois want laws to protect culture, and some of these reasons come up in the answers from the respondents.

What greatly distinguishes this survey from Tremblay’s research is the age breakdown of the respondents (Table 3), and how responses can be categorized corresponding to age (Table 4).

Table 3: Age of Respondents

Under 25 – 8
Twenty-six to 64 – 20
Over 65 – 2

Table 4: Respondent Choices by Age

Question 1: what kind of television do you watch the most, Quebecois or American? Why?

Under 25
French TV – 4
American TV – 4
Both – 0
Number of Respondents – 8

Twenty-six to 64
French TV – 8
American TV – 6
Both – 6
Number of Respondents – 20

Over 65
French TV – 0
American TV – 0
Both – 2
Number of Respondents – 2

Question 2: Do you think that Quebecois culture will become American? Why?

Under 25
Yes – 4
No – 1
Already is – 3
Maybe – 0
Number of Respondents – 8

Twenty-six to 64
Yes – 4
No – 11
Already is – 4
Maybe – 1
Number of Respondents – 20

Over 65
Yes – 0
No – 2
Already is – 0
Maybe – 0
Number of Respondents – 2

There were definite differences in responses by age. For the purpose of this paper, the answers from the age group that is under 25, the future leaders, will be highlighted. An equal amount of people watched Quebecois TV and American TV, while no one watched both. Perhaps 38-year-old Sophie was “half-right” according to the survey. This number for the under 25-age group is less than those of the 26 to 64 age group. On the question of whether Quebecois culture will become American, only one respondent under 25 answered ‘no’ compared to 11 from ages 26 to 64 and all the respondents over 65. According to this survey, those under 25 tended to be more pessimistic about the future of Quebecois culture than other age groups.

These papers has critically analyzed the article by Gaetan Tremblay, “Is Quebec Culture Doomed to Become American.” A BBM report from the summer of 1996 was used to update the material in Tremblay’s essay. According to the report, the material from Tremblay is still relevant. Also, an informal survey of 30 respondents in the downtown Montreal area was conducted. The responses corresponded with the findings of Tremblay and also shed some light on issues he never raises, such as the sentiments of the future leaders of Quebec society.

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