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    Sunday, February 8, 1998

    COA plain rude - in any language

      NAGANO -- A couple of days ago, there was a story in one of the local papers here about a poor businessman on the brink of disgrace who had done the decent thing and offed himself, apologizing for what he called, in the plethora of suicide notes he left behind, his "weak-mindedness."
     Surely there's a lesson there for Canadians, it seems to me: Forgive us our small-mindedness, Lord. We know not what we do. Since we have no significant problems, we have decided to manufacture some little ones, so as to drive ourselves completely mental.
     How else, I wonder, can one properly capture the spirit of the current language brouhaha now rocking the Canadian delegation in Japan and to a lesser degree back home except to say it is a fabulous reminder that to be Canadian is akin to being bitten to death by ducks -- irritating, excruciatingly slow and ultimately maddening?
     Well, perhaps there's one other way.
     Let me tell you this: A goodly number of the Quebec journalists here, led by the charming but irascible Rejean Tremblay of La Presse, are walking about with perpetual erections, so cheered are they to have stumbled upon and/or created a fresh little crisis here to fuel the larger nationalist debate chez nous, not to mention happy, I suspect, to have found a legitimate way out of covering luge runs for a day or so.
     Worth remembering is that these are the same folks who usually keep a running Quebec/Canada scorecard at each Olympics, carefully charting the number of medals won by Quebec athletes versus those from the Rest of Canada, so as to be able to provide the Quebec populace with evidence that Quebec could too make it on its own in the world, well, at least in any world where speed-skating and moguls skiing matter.
     English-speaking journalists from ROC, meanwhile, are entirely dispirited, and have adopted that patronizing look of long-suffering which Anglos perfected decades ago.
     The source of all this angst, lest you wonder, was a soire a couple of nights ago at Canada House.
     This is a traditional shindig put on for the athletes by the Canadian Olympic Association, and it is supposed to provide a kickoff to the Games themselves.
     Alas, this year's version was almost exclusively in English, from the speeches (which, like those I remember hearing in the early 1960s in my northwestern Quebec hometown, consisted of text that was predominantly English, with a few "Mesdames et messieurs" thrown in here and there as decoys) to the video presentation (which was completely Toronto-centred, and featured good luck messages from prominent Torontonians, all but two, as I remember it, in English; what, I wonder, would someone from Trois Rivieres make of Honest Ed Mirvish's dear old face?) to the hosting, which was handled by two alleged comics named Bowser and Blue.
     These latter, I'm told, are often funny, but this night were merely lame. Their spiel was delivered in English only, which may have ended up being a mercy for those young men and women who couldn't understand them or their unwitty lyrics (such as a song about how tough Canadians are, so tough "our army has k.d. lang as a pinup girl").
     Before all this blew up into a brouhaha, I was struck by how rude the evening was, by the shocking display of bad manners it was to invite young Canadians, some of whom do not even speak English, to a party that then systematically excluded them. This night was not a figment of Rejean Tremblay's imagination, however fevered. Indeed, it reminded me of the truth in that old saying: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.
     That said, the French press has since run wild. When Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, in Nagano because of the lead role he and Canada have taken in the move to rid the world of land mines, popped in for a quickie press conference, he was delivered a sharp reminder that such mines can lurk anywhere, even in a sterile conference room. He was grilled by Quebec reporters about the lack of French, not just at the Canada House reception but at routine press conferences. Axworthy had been at the reception in question, but only for a few moments, and acknowledged what he'd seen wasn't "reflective of the country I know."
     In truth, it probably was a reasonably accurate reflection of Canada, which remains a predominantly English-speaking nation with one Francophone province, a couple of genuinely bilingual ones, and a policy of official bilingualism.
     That's the rub, of course. The federal government is a major funder of the Canadian Olympic Association, the COA is a national organization, the young athletes here are French and English and from all parts of the country, and thus any official or quasi-official functions ought to be delivered equally in our two official languages.
     The COA was beating a hasty retreat yesterday, its head, Carol Anne Letheren, and president, Bill Warren, issuing an apology in an open letter to Canadian athletes in the Journal Canada newsletter. The apology reminded me of Alan Eagleson's recent offering to the hockey players he defrauded, a sort of "Hey, sorry for any harm I may have caused" job. "To those of you who were offended, we apologize sincerely," the COA apology read.
     Fine. Enough already. The question that remains is how, after decades of this very same stuff, have officials learned so precious little. How can they have been so stupid?
     With leadership like this, Canadians are doomed to remain, like warring gangs on opposite street corners, hissing at one another and looking for any hint of disrespect from the other side.