Montreal's #MeToo Comedy Crisis Is No Laughing Matter

Long considered the 'capital of Canadian humor,' the Quebec city is currently facing simultaeous storms: the pandemic, #MeToo accusations and a deeper debate on the limits of comedy.

Protest against Gilbert Rozon in Montreal on Nov. 6
Protest against Gilbert Rozon in Montreal on Nov. 6
Hélène Jouan

MONTREAL — At the Just for Laughs festival ticket office, on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, the windows are dirty, the walls covered with graffiti and the doors are decidely closed. An old poster announces the shows "from July, 10 to 28, 2019." Only a few red lanterns remain lit. The heart of humor in Quebec seems to have stopped beating.

For nearly a year, the coronavirus has frozen laughter. The curfew, in effect in the province since Jan 9, has once again forced local stars of the comedy scene — like Katherine Levac, François Bellefeuille and Rachid Badouri — to postpone their shows.

"I miss the audience's infectious laughter in the venue," says Mehdi Bousaidan, a young comedian in his prime. Last summer, due to the lack of open venues, he hosted several evenings under the title Festival au volant (FAUV) in Montreal, Quebec City and Drummondville. The concept: sketches performed in front of a few hundred motorists confined to their cars, and honking the horn to replace the bursts of laughter.

Other comedy professionals, especially younger ones, have taken advantage of their agility on social media to get active on digital stages. Mathieu Dufour, whose favorite platform was Instagram even before the pandemic, broadcast his hilarious "Show-rona Virus' live from his small apartment in the spring. Even though it was a hit, this digital native said he was still in mourning for "that genuine laugh I can't hear, the laugh of my spectators watching me while sitting on their toilets."

"At this forced distance, I console myself by telling myself that I have reached a much larger audience than I ever did in theaters," says Mehdi Bousaidan, whose Facebook account has exploded, with 100,000 additional followers.

But COVID-19 is not the only hurdle the Montreal scene has had to face recently. The fall of Gilbert Rozon, 66 years old, a key figure in this comedy world and founder of the Just for Laughs festival, has contributed to its fragility. On December 15, 2020, a "Just pour rire" sign was waiting for him as he left the Montreal courtroom. He had just been acquitted of charges of "rape" and "indecent assault" based on a case dating back nearly 40 years. He was acquitted on grounds of "reasonable doubt", but although this may have saved him from prison, it will not save his empire. "Justice can be achieved," he wrote to a relative, "but I still lost everything. I can no longer do the job I love."

For decades, this "little guy from Quebec" brought renowned international comedians to Montreal and helped change the city's image forever. For him, it all began in 1983, when he was still a penniless producer, barely 30 years old. That year, he organized the first edition of his festival, with guest star Charles Trenet, who had just come out of retirement in France.

In the eyes of the world, Quebec was no longer the land of cold and snow: it was the land of laughter.

Over time, the festival's mascot — a funny little green devil with red horns — has become the summer emblem of the city. Rozon had dreamt of him become as famous as the Michelin Man.

"Just for Laughs in Montreal every July was the Woodstock of laughter," says Belgian comedian Alex Vizorek, who came in 2016 and 2017 to present his show "Alex Vizorek est une oeuvre d'art" ("Alex Vizorek is a work of art"). "With one foot in America with its great stand-up tradition, another in Europe with our more poetic culture, it was a great creative mix," says Vizorek.

The festival was quick to attract foreign celebrities like the French comedians Anne Roumanoff, Elie Semoun and Blanche Gardin. The launch of the English-language version of Just for Laughs in 1985 brought Americans including Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg. They rubbed shoulders with established Quebec stars and up-and-comers: Anthony Kavanagh, Michel Courtemanche, Stéphane Rousseau, Louis-José Houde and so many others.

In the city, the festival took place everywhere: in theaters and cabarets like the mythical Club Soda or the Bordel Comédie Club, as well as outdoors on the dozens of stages set up in the streets. Montreal became consecrated as the "capital of humor." In the eyes of the world, Quebec was no longer the land of cold and snow: it was the land of laughter. The "cool comedy festival" label has done more for the attractiveness of the city and the province than any other advertising.

Gilbert Rozon was a mover and shaker. He invented concepts, launched careers and professionalized Quebecois humor by instilling the art of the punchline and asserting its power. His festival spread to Toronto, Nantes and Chicago. The Just for Laughs group expanded its activities to 135 countries. Some 20 separate companies employed about 100 employees and more than 4,000 contract workers, for an estimated turnover of about 100 million dollars.

From "Rockefeller of Humor" to "Quebec's Weinstein."

In the process, the group acquired two Parisian venues, the Théâtre de Dix Heures and the Théâtre 13e Art. It also produced Florence Foresti, Franck Dubosc and Laurent Ruquier in France and sold its hidden camera prank shows to dozens of airlines. Rozon was creative, a geek, friendly; his interpersonal skills allowed him to attract public subsidies — $41 million since 1995, according to the digital daily La Presse. Having been a judge on the M6 show "La France a un incroyable talent," he showed off his success in Montreal as well as in Paris, where he drives Charles Trenet's Jaguar.

This "Rockefeller of Humor" was at the height of its power when, in October 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, he was accused of being "Quebec's Weinstein." One, two and then dozens of women publicly accused him of harassment and sexual assault in cases that occurred over nearly four decades. In a few hours, he relinquished all of his businesses. Months later, he sold his multinational company to a group of Canadian-American investors, ICM Partners, Evenko and Bell Canada, for $65 million. And, even though he was acquitted at the end of 2020, dozens of women in the collective called Les Courageuses still hope to one day see him held accountable.

Does his fall mean the death of Quebec humor? The new president and CEO of the Just for Laughs group, Charles Décarie, vigorously contests this. For Décarie, the Rozon era is over, and he prefers to highlight, with magic numbers, the resilience that the company has shown in recent months.

"The festival, held online this summer, still attracted 800,000 spectators; we sold 20 comedy galas to Canadian and American television channels; we multiplied our comedy content on all social networks, with 35 million people following us today," says Décarie.

The crisis? What crisis? Despite the shock of the pandemic, the group hired nearly 500 artists in 2020. Better yet, the festival will be back in Montreal from July 15 to 31, in a form that COVID-19 and its variants will help determine. ComediHa!, which produces a comedy festival in Quebec City, used much the same formula to reinvent itself and survive. While waiting for the return to the theaters, shows featuring the best artists of the moment liven up the televised evenings of a Quebec City under curfew.

However, it is probably a little early for a victory cry. There are other, deeper threats looming. For example, on Feb. 15, the Supreme Court of Canada will rule on whether or not comedian Mike Ward's mocking of a young disabled singer is permissible in the name of humor. In unfunny terms, this is called the "judicialization of laughter." Challenged by the Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, Ward was ordered on appeal to pay $35,000 in damages to the young man in question.

Although he is aware of the risks involved, the comedian is pleased to see the Supreme Court, the country's highest court, take up the case. "Some people suggested I pay, but that would have set an unfortunate precedent," says Ward. "After that, how much would a joke against gays, Blacks or diabetics have cost?"

For him, there's no doubt that social media networks, the online sphere where the audience's susceptibility is growing inordinately, functioned as an "echo chamber." "It's up to the Supreme Court to take its responsibilities," he says.

The entire profession is mobilizing to support his judicial fight. And yet, corrosive, subversive, even outrageous humor is not very popular in Quebec these days. "Today, most acts revolve around the private life, with comedians telling stories about their everyday life, their car, their wife or their boyfriend husband or partner, but few dare to take on social or political satire, much less transgression," says Marc Laurendeau, an ex-comedian turned journalist.

How can we talk about all this while remaining funny?

In the 1960s, Laurendeau belonged to the Cyniques, a popular quartet that would broach without restriction subjects such as the priests, politicians and institutions of the day. He says that Quebecois humor has become quite innocuous: "We have gone from respecting minorities to the cult of minorities, and in a way, it muzzles us." According to Laurendeau, multiculturalism, this "sacralization of differences," and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is very protective of minorities, is the reason for "this sanitization of laughter, anxious to avoid any offense."

Louise Richer is the founder of the Ecole nationale de l'humour in Montreal, a unique institution and an important catalyst for the Quebec comedy ecosystem. Richer recognizes movements such as #MeToo, Black Live Matters and the emergence of diversity and gender issues for making people think about a crucial question: "How can we talk about all this while remaining funny?"

But she also describes a world of humor in full transition: "Like tectonic plates, two movements clash: On the one hand, political correctness tends to make a joke fall flat, but on the other, I see our students' desire to renew their spirit of provocation."

"It's disrespectful to pick on the weakest, but it's bad judgment to pick on the strongest," jokes Ward in one of his sketches about the thin line of humor. In a few days, this Quebecois humor will be summoned to the unusual and austere setting of the Supreme Court, which will perhaps say who, what and how it is now permissible to mock.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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