Randy Cunneyworth’s term as head coach of the most storied sports franchise in Canada, the Montreal Canadiens, is only a few games old. He has a lot of things to worry about. The Habs are losing games, Carey Price can’t stop a puck, they can’t put a power play goal in. Their top scorers aren’t scoring and their defense is hardly playing at all. But the big reason why he’s being criticized in the Montreal media right now is because he cannot speak French.
A lot of people are asking what the big damn deal is. And really, I can’t blame them. Understanding why a coach must speak both French and English to get along in Montreal involves learning a little Quebec history – and it involves considering the social ramifications of having an Anglophone running le blue, blanc, et rouge. So, let’s look at it, then.
People do their dissertations on Quebec history every year, because it is a huge part of Canadiana – Quebec is a nation in a country that is also a nation, giving it a unique place among the world. Nowhere else has a national group of people – the Quebecois – rejected the idea of independence in order to remain part of a greater whole – Canada. Though twice asked by referendum, Quebecois have twice said no to becoming their own country. So there’s obviously something that Canada has going for it that they like. But that doesn’t mean things have always been peachy.
The Quebecois have been conquered, oppressed, repressed, had their identity stripped from them, were exploited by the Catholic Church, and then placed into what was essentially a dictatorship for a couple decades by one of their own. During this period of time, English Canada controlled the means of production in Quebec. In essence, there was some serious Marxist shit going on, where the Anglos were the bourgeois and the Francophones were the proletariat. The Quiet Revolution put an end to that, but there was a serious parallel in Quebec’s favourite hockey team.
The players: Howie Morenz, Georges Vezina, Bernie Geoffrion, Jean Beliveau, Jacques Plante, and of course, Maurice Richard.
The coaches: Dick Irvin, Cecil Hart, Babe Seibert.
The idea of an Anglophone coach controlling the greatest symbol of French-Canadianism in this day and age is so out of date with reality, that it is no wonder that there has been a backlash. It reminds people of the day when the Quebecois created a very legitimate second class in Canadian society. It reminds the French of the days before they were allowed to pick their own destiny.
It is important. It is unfortunate. Randy Cunneyworth may be a great coach. He may be a bad coach. We’ll probably never know, as he’s unlikely to keep his job next year. Pierre Gauthier does not seem to have realized what he started when he hired Cunneyworth. But there is one thing I can assure you: the next coach of the Habs will speak French. Fluently.