Language & Art: Bilingualism and Music in Manitoba

By Colton Siemens

Communication is a wonderful thing, and in country as diverse as ours, there are many ways that we go about it. One of the most beautifully universal forms of communication is music. So it only makes sense that in a bilingual country and city, our music tends to reflect that. Both French and English permeate our culture and community. It affects our history, our relationships and our lives. Therefore, it affects our art. But exactly how does it affect our art? 100 NONS, is a Manitoban Francophone music organization that helps build careers in the French music community. On the 26th of January, they facilitated an event at the West End Cultural Centre, called “Franco-Roots”. The goal of this event was to debut a collaborative project between five francophone artists and five Francophile or Anglo artists. Including artists such as JP Hoe, Grant Davidson of Slow Leaves, Justin Lacroix, Marti Sarbit of Imaginary Cities and Lanakai, and Ariane Jean of Chic Gamine. In an intimate evening of collaboration and creativity, the artists showcased their work together and presented the audience with a one of a kind experience and evening. The chemistry between the songwriters was palpable as they came together and celebrated their differences.

I spoke to Justin Lacroix, who has spent many years preforming and creating in the Franco-music scene in Winnipeg as well as across Canada and Europe, about how he has experienced the effect bilingualism in our city and country.

Stylus: How or why do you think bilingualism is important to Canada and Manitoba in terms of our art?

JL : I think all art is storytelling of sorts. Telling stories past, present, future or other-worldly.  In Manitoba’s story (and Canada’s), first there are the indigenous people, then, the Europeans show up and it’s the French and English followed by a whole other big wave of multi-cultural immigration and it continues to flow.  So I think bilingualism is a big part of our story in that the French and English learning to co-exist was the foundation for the acceptance of all other cultures that have come to settle here.  What I feel is a shame is that there wasn’t more of an effort to honour and recognize the indigenous peoples’ culture and language as an equal.  How amazing would it be if we were all multilingual?

Stylus: How have you seen the francophone music industry and community grow or shrink? What do you think the future holds?

JL : Exposure is a huge part of it.  The experiences I had growing up: community cultural events, school activities, family and the church we went to, these are what showed me the community I was a part of.  I feel like I’ve seen it ebb and flow throughout my life and I think as long as there are enough people in this community working to keep it alive and vibrant, it will keep on thriving.  As for the music industry, well, there isn’t one in western Canada.  I think the Québec and France industries will be around as long as there are French-speaking people. For an artist who wants to be a part of that, it’s a hustle, but all is possible.  In the last years, there has been an amplification in the support that is offered to western Canadian musicians who wish to connect with the Franco-music-industry. We have never been so well supported nor has there ever been such an awareness that we even exist.  Today’s western francophone is very fortunate!  Then it’s what you do with it. 

Stylus: How do you think Canadians and Manitobans receive or see French art? Are they receptive or not?

JL : Some are receptive, some are not.  And it’s the same all over the world and not just for French art.  Same goes for anything different or new. Some people don’t want the routine to change. Some people are drawn to something new, different… and no one is stuck on their side of the thing, people can be enticed, some can also be turned off.  The way of the world. 

Stylus: How does a city like Winnipeg compare to other communities and cites in Canada?

JL : Well… In a way all cities are kind of the same. After a certain critical mass is attained, the same little pockets seem to develop.  Then again, every city has their own thing and Winnipeg is no exception.  For one, I think most big Canadian cities were already gathering place for the indigenous peoples prior to colonization, but Winnipeg is here because of the meeting of the rivers. We could say it was a place of gathering even before the first humans started meeting here.  After that, the French were the next to make it out here to start trading and soon, mating with the people of the land.  Being so far removed from what was happening in eastern Canada, Winnipeg got the chance to slow-grow.  That didn’t last for too long but a story like Louis Riel’s would not have happened anywhere else.  He’s the one who negotiated Manitoba becoming a province and protecting the French and Métis rights to be here.  What else about Winnipeg?  I think something about those rivers… there’s an energy that flows.  

Stylus: How do you think creating in a bilingual format has opened or closed doors for you?

JL : I do it because I’m drawn to it.  The music industry needs to be able to sell something. To sell something, you need to be able to describe it simply.  As soon as you are two things and not just one… complication. Not good for industry.  Other than that, it’s been a wonderful journey and I continue to feel good about how I express myself.  If people can see someone own their own story, it makes them want to own theirs and accept others for theirs.  Right… doors.  Well, there are activities I get invited to participate in because of the path I’ve chosen that I wouldn’t have access to if I had only picked one or the other.

Stylus: How do you think the ability and choice to create in both English and French affects your creative process?

JL : I don’t generally think about it off the bat.  I write in one or the other, it kind of chooses itself.  At some point in time, when sharing the music, I just try and make sure I’m making it accessible for those who will dig it.  

Stylus: Do you find it’s easier to express yourself having this ability?

JL : I don’t think it’s easier.  I just have an extra option. 

As the host of Franco-Roots, Denis Vrignon-Tessier, pointed out, bilingualism in music is everywhere. From The Beatles “Michelle” to The Talking Heads “Psycho Killer” to Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”.  Just like language, music gives us a way to express ourselves. The ability to use multiple languages opens doors for creativity and a greater capacity for personal expression. Our community is unique and so is our art. While sometimes our diversity is not always on the surface, it’s important we celebrate and support it. The ever changing and growing mixture of cultures in our city is breeding ground for new music, art, and expression. Just because some of us may not speak or understand another language, we know that communication is far more than that. We have the ability to interact with each other through music and art and this connects us in a beautiful and ever-changing way.