The Allophone Factor

There is perhaps a bit of intriguing synchronicity to this post — relating as it does, in part, to ethnicity in Canada. A recent controversy has come to light, with revelations involving the new Canadian $100 bill. On it is a picture of a woman scientist — a white woman. No controversy there, eh? After all, the majority of the Canadian population is still white. Except it turned out the picture was originally that of an Asian woman, and apparently someone in authority looked at that and said: “huh? No way, dude!” and the picture was retouched to make her white, or at least ethnically inspecific…which ended up looking caucasian  (the reasons stated varying from not wanting to stereotype Asians as intellectuals, to feeling the figure was unrepresentative). Now, obviously, a single picture, or a single person, can’t reflect every Canadian — but that’s the point. It can’t reflect every Canadian. So it is just as reflective of Canada to have her be Asian as to be white. The fact that the picture is of a white woman isn’t a problem — the fact that the Powers That Be made the conscious decision that it had to be a white woman, is. That’s when it becomes troubling. That’s when it becomes…well, creepy.

The irony is that Canadian currency used to be noted for its animal and wildlife motifs (I remember American comedian Robin Williams once doing a riff on that — clearly seeing it as exotic compared to American currency). When the currency was redesigned a few years ago, to de-emphasize nature in favour of people and industry, I was disappointed. Both because, as I say, the Hinterland’s Who’s Who theme clearly was Canada’s “signature” globally, and also because someone once suggested to me that, historically, it tends to be a signal of civilizations in decline when the culture begins to distance itself from the natural world.

But if they’d just stuck with the deer and the kingfishers, they could’ve avoided this controversy.

Anyway, on with our regularly scheduled screed…

In my last few posts I was prattling on about the French-English question in Canadian movies & TV — given Canada is, technically, a bilingual nation comprised of Francophones and Anglophones.

Canada’s also what’s known as a multi-cultural nation. Truth be told: most nation’s are multi-cultural. Even the most insular country is still probably comprised of various indigenous regional and cultural groups. As well, most nations have large immigrant populations — not just Western, English-speaking nations, but all nations. The cliché of the monolithic, homogenous country is, I suspect, largely just that…a cliché more than a reality. Indeed, the gap between perception and reality is interesting. I think in some circles Canada is regarded as a fairly homogenous country by some (I remember years ago, in the US comedy, Canadian Bacon, a character remarking that Canada had avoided racism issues by having no minorities — now, obviously, the movie was a satirical comedy, but still…) even as Canada is actually heavily multi-cultural. According to statistics, Canada has a greater percentage of naturalized citizens (ie: people who became citizens but weren’t actually born Canadian) than any other country in the world. Some have suggested that Toronto may well be the most cosmopolitan city currently on the planet…more than London, England, more than New York.

Now, obviously — Canada’s a big country and no one size fits all areas. Just as a big city might be multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, a small town will be equally homogenous and white.

Still, if there is a perception of Canada as a monolithical nation, even in the big cities — do Canadian filmmakers share some of the responsibility for disseminating that imagery? (Well, filmmakers…and The Bank of Canada). I mean, given what I said about some claiming Toronto is the most cosmopolitan city in the world, given the fact that if you turn on the TV news and catch random man-in-the-street interviews you’ll see a dozen different skin hues, and a dozen different accents, all from “Torontonians”, now consider what you see when you turn on fictional series set, or allegedly set(!), in Toronto. Is that the city reflected in Rookie Blue, Flashpoint, Saving Hope, and others? (And, honestly, French-Canadian programs seem even less pluralistic — consider the ethnic make up of the regulars and guest stars of Saving Hope compared to the Quebec series, Trauma)

Now as I said: in my last few posts I was writing about Anglophones and Francophones. So today I wanted to briefly look at…Allophones.

Allophone is an interesting term because I think it may be uniquely Canadian…or rather, a uniquely Canadian use of the word. The dictionary definition of “allophone” is that it’s a grammar/linguistic term relating to a part of a word. But in Canada it has an additional meaning: it means someone whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. Presumably it evolved because as Canada became more multi-cultural, the old Francophone-Anglophone label was becoming increasingly hard to apply to a growing portion of the population. Of course since Allophone may be a bit of colloquialism, I’m not sure if the definition is entirely set in stone or clearly marked. For example, would Allophone apply to the First Nations? Or would they say that, as far as they’re concerned, everyone else is an Allophone…French and English included!

Anyway, I got to thinking about how this reality is reflected, or not, in Canadian films and TV.

Back in the 1990s there was CBC TV series, a crime-drama about a reporter from the wrong side of the tracks, called Urban Angel. It starred Justin Louis (who later dropped the stage name and now goes by Louis Ferreira — which is kind of unusual; actors might change their names when starting out, but Ferreira has switched names in the middle of a long and successful career — though his reasons relate to this post, as it apparently was out of a desire to more firmly acknowledge his ethnic heritage). And cast as his on screen girlfriend was Paula de Vasconcelos. When the producers discovered that both Louis (now Ferreira) and de Vasconcelos were of Portuguese descent and actually spoke Portuguese, they couldn’t resist working that into the series. So right there in the middle of Canadian prime time were scenes between the two of them in Portuguese, with sub-titles for the rest of us. The series overall was in English — but just peppered with these occasional scenes.

Remember, this was years before Lost, years before Heroes. Nor were these supporting characters, or showing how chic-ly cosmopolitan our hero was because he could slip into Portuguese when at the local Portuguese-Canadian Club. No, this was the heroes, at home, being themselves. And by sub-titling the scenes, it emphasized these weren’t throwaway scenes, to show off the actors’ language skills, but were scenes that were part of the episodes’ narrative. And we weren’t supposed to regard them as “exotic”…but we, the non-Portuguese speaking audience, were being invited in to be a part of these scenes. Adding to the multi-cultural vibe was that Louis/Ferreira is an English-Canadian, while de Vasconcelos is a French-Canadian, with a heavy Québécois accent when speaking English. So you had an English hero, his French girlfriend, talking in Portuguese.

I’ll admit, at the time, that was one of the coolest, most Canadian things I’d ever seen on TV.

It didn’t last, though. By the second season the producers had managed to ink a deal with an American network to get the series on American late night (in the same time slots once occupied by series like Night Heat and others). Now — I don’t know if that was the problem, whether American executives looked at this ostensibly populist, mainstream crime-drama and said: “What the heck are those sub-titles doing there?!? Why aren’t they speaking English?!?” But the Portuguese scenes seemed to get dropped from the second season, and, indeed, de Vasconcelos’ part was written out after a few episodes, anyway.

Times change. American networks have recently enjoyed ratings success with series like Heroes and Lost which employed frequent sub-titled scenes. (Although — and I realize this is nitpicking — in those series, the characters spoke foreign languages because they were, y’know, foreigners…whereas in Urban Angel, the Portuguese-speaking characters were still Canadian).

But all this is to say that just as I had previously been lamenting that lack of French characters in English-Canada dramas, and English characters in French-language dramas, I also wonder about the absence of other languages, too. And not just as a bit of flashy exoticness. In the American TV series, Life, co-star Sarah Shahi spoke Farsi in a couple of scenes…but it was not sub-titled; we were supposed to think it was cool she could speak Farsi, but we were observers, not participants.

Currently the CBC’s Arctic Air has gone the multi-lingual route. In a way, Arctic Air may be the most multi-cultural series currently on Canadian TV. Set on the migrant-heavy, boom & bust, high roller/big dreamer frontier of the frozen tundra, the cast of characters are comprised of white and First Nations characters, as well as (East) Indians, African-Americans, Swedes, and probably a few others. In a number of scenes, the First Nations actors have had conversations in (I’m guessing) Dene, but with sub-titles. Granted, I’ll admit some of those scenes can seem a bit awkward just because (again, I’m guessing) the actors are faking fluency. The characters are supposed to be Dene, but many of the cast are actually Cree and other Nations, so even if they do speak Native tongues, it’s not actually Dene, and they seem to be struggling a bit. (Obviously, I’m just going by perception — since I don’t speak Dene myself, maybe I’m wrong…but sometimes, even when someone is speaking a language you don’t understand, you can get a sense for whether they seem comfortable with it or not). Still — it’s pretty cool. Smack dab in the middle of prime time, in a series that is no more high brow than a popcorn ride of adventure and soap opera, the characters are occasionally speaking Dene…and inviting the rest of us in on the conversation.

You know, I’ve often though that if I were a filmmaker, one of the first things I’d ask my actors is if they spoke a second language. And if they didn’t, fine, just carry on with the scenes as is. But if they said yes, then I’d look through the script and see if there was some way to use that. Even better if, as with Urban Angel, it turned out two of the actors spoke the same second tongue.


Just ’cause it’s cool. Just ’cause it would give the scenes a pluralistic vibe. I mean, what can I say? I’m a unilingual Anglophone, so to me, anyone who speaks a second language is inherently cool. Occasionally in old Wayne & Shuster comedy sketches, the scenes would require some bilingualism. Shuster would rarely be part of these scenes, whereas Wayne would be, leading me to infer that Wayne was bilingual…or at least, comfortable enough that he could fake it with a script in front of him. (In another sketch it was suggested Wayne also spoke a smidgen of Italian). But there was something kind of neat about these two Old School shtick-meisters, these last holdovers from the day’s of live TV and slap stick…being able to do the occasional French bit when the scene called for it.

Maybe it’s a way for the filmmakers to present and popularize a vision of the country. Maybe seeing Canadian heroes speaking multiple tongues on TV and in the movies would help immigrants to feel like they really were Canadians, and not just visitors and outsiders. Maybe seeing multilingual heroes on TV would make multilingualism hip and sexy, encouraging kids to view their French classes as more than just a necessary evil of the curriculum, but a chance to broaden their horizons. If the cool and beautiful people on TV are multilingual…maybe they’d want to be, too. And, let’s face it, better communication between ethnic groups (and the French and English in Canada) isn’t anything but a good thing.

But it’s also important just because of that most pressing imperative of story telling — it’s life. Storytelling is about reflecting reality — even if your story is about monsters in the marshes, mobsters on the mean streets, or Mary Poppins in…okay, uh, I ran out of alliterative “m”s. But though I say I am not bilingual…a lot of people are. A lot of people in this big, wide, bilingual, multi-cultural, immigrant-heavy country do speak more than one language. And maybe that should be better reflected. And not just as “aliens” and “foreigners” — cops in a police drama rousting an immigrant family yelling in a foreign tongue. But with the heroes themselves, just in a few scenes, here and there. With sub-titles, of course, to invite the rest of us in.

And maybe that could be a Canadian thing. I’ve said before that often in Canadian movies and TV the stated goal of the filmmakers is to be as anonymous, as generically Canadian as possible. But I’d argue maybe international success would be achieved with the opposite. To make things as obviously, as Canadian as possible, as exotically Canadian — so that Canadian shows are identified as Canadian…and not just as the pseudo-American lite they are often dismissively perceived of as now. Maybe occasional characters casually slipping into second languages could become a hallmark of Canadian drama — and a reflection, not just of the Canadian reality, but the reality of all nations.


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