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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hockey and Cultural Rights

During my career at Nortel I worked closely with colleagues in Montreal. I have friends with origins in Quebec, and I’ve traveled to Quebec about 25 times and taken two vacations there. Through these experiences I became familiar with Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, often called Bill 101, and the feelings of many Nortel employees in Montreal about it. Complying with Bill 101 at Nortel was not easy, but as a manager I was sincerely sensitive to its aims and did my best to balance compliance with the financial constraints of Nortel.

I don’t profess expertise in the history, sociology, or political science of Quebec or Canada; but I remember being struck when I first saw the slogan Je me souviens (“I remember”) on license plates in Quebec. Having grown up in the U.S. South, I had often seen “Hell No, I Won’t Forget” or something similar on bumper stickers there. I’m not at all equating the desires of French Quebecers for cultural identity and preservation with the unfortunate pro-Confederate leanings in the U.S., but both slogans testify to deep-seated emotions that cannot be ignored.

Recent comments by leaders of the Parti Quebecois that the Montreal Canadiens hockey team does not have enough Quebec-born, French-speaking players have caused a ruckus. Until the National Hockey League began expanding in the 1960s, the Montreal team ran what amounted to a proprietary farm system in Quebec. Naturally, Montreal got the best players from the province – and achieved great success at a time when virtually every player in the NHL was Canadian by birth. Les Habs were a cultural phenomenon.

But the NHL did expand, and Montreal’s farm system was supplanted by an equitable draft. Gradually the composition of Montreal’s team reflected the composition of the league in general. English-speaking Canadians, Americans, and Europeans now comprise the majority of the Montreal roster.

It is a cultural discontinuity, and I’m not surprised that the Parti Quebecois articulated what’s on the minds of many of their voters. Should the ownership and management of the team try to maintain a strong Quebec presence on the team? Yes, of course; nearly everyone would agree with that. But should they deliberately forego top English-speaking talent in order to have a roster dominated by Quebec natives?

I don’t believe so. Here we have the collision of principle with pragmatism, a topic on which I’ve blogged before. The question is not unlike debates in the U.S. about affirmative action and quotas. The principle is so important that it compels sensitivity and good faith to comply, to a reasonable degree – while recognizing and balancing other important and legitimate interests. There are situations where principles demand absolute or near-absolute compliance, but the Montreal Canadiens are not one of them.