The lack of French at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics revealed a "cultural insensitivity" among organizers, who missed an important chance to highlight Canada's bilingualism to the world, the official languages commissioner says.
Graham Fraser released his final report on the Games on Tuesday. He said, overall, organizers did a good job including French during the Games, from the official Olympic website to bilingual signs at sports venues to ensuring blue-jacket volunteers greeted visitors with "Hello" and "Bonjour."
But he said those achievements were overshadowed by an opening ceremonies in which most of the entertainment and performances were entirely in English, prompting angry rebukes from politicians, athletes and the public.
'It was almost as if the organizers of the show felt it would be offensive to the audience to actually hear French spoken.' — Graham Fraser, commissioner of official languages
"The problem — and where we got the bulk of the complaints — was the show, the cultural content in which the host country at the Olympics presents the face of the country," Fraser said in an interview.
"There were a lot of francophones who felt, 'This doesn't reflect my country. This doesn't reflect who I am,' and there were a lot of English-speaking Canadians who said to me, 'I kept thinking all the way through this: Where's the French?"'
During the opening ceremonies, which were broadcast live around the world, all of the formalities — such as official speeches and the introduction of athletes —w ere in both French and English, said Fraser.
French poem in English
With the protocol out of the way, the cultural component was almost exclusively in English. That included a theatrical story about the country's diversity, performances by artists, including k.d. lang, and a light-hearted poem that picked apart Canadian stereotypes.
Even a quote from a French-language poem was translated into English before it was read by actor David Sutherland.
"It was almost as if the organizers of the show felt it would be offensive to the audience to actually hear French spoken," said Fraser.
"I think it spoke to a certain kind of cultural insensitivity."
The amount of French in the opening ceremonies appeared to touch an immediate nerve in Quebec.
Premier Jean Charest and other politicians were quick to criticize the event; angry comments flooded online news stories; and one newspaper headline declared: French as Rare as Snow in Vancouver.
Federal Heritage Minister James Moore said: "There should have been more French, just period, full stop."
At the time, Olympic organizers defended the show, pointing out the opening ceremonies were just one part of a 17-day event.
On Tuesday, the former CEO of the Olympic organizing committee, John Furlong, noted a separate report by La Francophonie, the international organization representing French-speaking countries, gave organizers high marks.
"I did hear from the La Francophonie, who referred to our performance on bilingualism at the Games as a new gold standard for the Olympics and suggesting they were hoping to work with us to ensure the next organizing committees build on the success of Vancouver," Furlong said in an voicemail message.
VANOC not consulted
Furlong also said Fraser's office didn't contact him before preparing its report.
In Ottawa, Moore said he hadn't yet read the report, but he said many of the concerns were well known to the government.
The La Francophonie report was prepared by former Swiss president Pascal Couchepin, who was appointed by La Francophonie to monitor French at the Games.
Couchepin said he was pleased with the amount of French and said he wasn't bothered by the opening ceremonies.
Still, he said he could understand why Canadian Francophones were offended and chalked up the controversy to Canada's struggle with its dual French and English cultures.
"It is an internal and political question, revealed by the Olympic Games but having nothing to do with them," he wrote in French.
Fraser also said French wasn't prominent enough at a one-year countdown ceremony in Vancouver in February 2009 or at many stops along the Olympic torch relay and that there weren't enough bilingual volunteers at some of the Olympic venues.