‘I want to pogne’: Céline Dion and Québec Nationalism.


In 1989-90 the Québec comedy troupe RBO (‘Rock et Belles Oreilles’) came out with an album called ‘Pourquoi Chanter?’ (Why Sing?). It was a compilation of original compositions sung by members of the troupe, poking fun at a variety of political and social issues which were raging at that time.

One of the songs was entitled ‘I want to pogne’, which, loosely translated into proper English means ‘I want to be popular’, or more literally, ‘I want to catch on.’ The song was a scathing denunciation of French-speaking Québec artists, especially Céline Dion, who, at the time, were trying to break out of the confines of the French-language Québec/France market by singing in English, and therefore appealing to a wider audience in the English-speaking world, especially in North America.

One has to recall the social and political context within which all of this occurred: Canada was in the throes of one of the worst recessions in its history. We were also going through another one of our now legendary bouts of existentialist navel-gazing over the definition of our nationhood. The Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Brian Mulroney, had been elected in 1984, and again in 1988, in part on a platform of National Reconciliation. Meaning he was supposed to heal the divisions that had been caused by the 1980 referendum on Québec secession and the subsequent legal wrangling that had occurred in 1981-82 over the amendment process of the Constitution, which had resulted in a new amending formula, but which had not received the approval of the province of Québec’s legislature. This had been in large part due to the fact that the government of the day had at the time been hoping, and holding out for some sort of collective rights clause to be entrenched into the new amending formula, which would have recognized the existence of the province of Québec as a collective entity within Canada, speaking the French language, using the French civil code of law.

This clause in the amendment process had been denied, on the assumption that only individual rights should be entrenched in the Canadian constitution, ignoring the fact that indigenous people’s collective rights were in effect entrenched within that very same amending process, with the entrenchment of the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

But I digress. Fast forward to 1990. The new constitutional amendment agreement which was supposed to address this legal vacuum, called the Meech lake Accord, eventually failed. Tensions were running high in Québec regarding the protection of the French language and nationalist sentiment was running high also. There was a tendency to want to circle the wagons, so to speak.

In walks Céline Dion. She comes out with a brand new album where she sings in English. Some people applaud her. The nationalist/secessionist artistic and political elite savagely denounce her as a traitor to her people and The Cause. Nevertheless, Céline soldiers on, and eventually goes on to achieve fame, fortune and worldwide recognition as the little French-Canadian girl from Charlemagne who made good, with the angelically soaring and stunning voice .

Funny. I don’t recall Nana Mouskouri ever getting this kind of flak from her people in Greece because she wanted to appeal to a wider audience. Same goes for Julio Iglesias. But somehow, if you’re a little Canadian girl or boy, especially French, then you’re fair game for the naysayers and the nationalist/secessionist pinheads that try and grind you into the dust. Like the song mentioned at the beginning of this piece says at one point, ‘icitte is a small marché, icitte there is no débouché, I want to become very gros and laché my run de journaux’. The singer bemoans the limited market opportunities in the French market and yearns for something bigger and better.

I can only applaud Céline Dion for her tenacity, along with René Angelil, for standing up for what they believe in. Céline is now a household word around the world, and we can all be proud that she comes from Charlemagne, Québec, Canada.

Good thing she wanted to ‘pogne’, eh?

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