HOME HEARTSTRING 9: ENVY

Envy is a crippling flaw and an unsightly blemish on our genetic makeup.

Emile Bouchard, my grandfather who lived in St-Hyacinthe (and taught me how to play Boston pool, the other national sport of Quebecers), used to say, “There’s a sword swinging back and forth over us. And if you raise your head higher than anyone else’s, it gets cut off.”

It seems the word has spread. If we’re going to have a hard time, let’s all have a hard time together. Let’s share in our misery. In his song, Félix Leclerc warns Ti-Jean, “One man’s pleasure is seeing another man fall flat on his face.”

Arthur Buies of Un homme et son péché (A Man and his Sin) fame said the people of Quebec City eat each other alive and make it a habit to criticize each other in books, newspapers, speeches and conversations.

“Teeming with cliques, Lower Canada used to be known for its many gossipers,” wrote Quebec politician and historian Joseph-Edmond Roy.

At the turn of the 20th century, Georges Vattier wrote, “They also like to criticize each other. Envy, jealousy and bad-mouthing all exist in Canada.”

As Quebecers, our hands are tied by this flaw.

“I won’t sing in Creole no more…’cause there ain’t ‘no dollar’ in it...” This sudden change of heart by Robert Charlebois (singing in Creole refers to Quebecers being ‘white niggers’), although legitimate, was seen by many as the act of a defector. Attacked from all sides, Charlebois was quick with his comeback. “Joual (Quebec slang) has brought Quebecers closer together – and that’s a good thing – but it has come at the high price of keeping us closed off from the rest of the world.”

In a letter addressed to the minister of cultural affairs that was published in Le Devoir (June 6, 1976), an entertainer complained about his lot in life. The playful tone he wrote in wasn’t enough to hide his bitterness:


“I recently sent a letter to the papers about the St-Jean festivities (St-Jean Baptiste Day is the national holiday in Quebec) to complain about how the artists performing are pretty much the same as last year. The worst thing you can do to Quebecers is to not represent all of them during these festivities. Apparently, Sir Guy Latraverse was involved in the decision-making process. Why don’t you call next year’s party the St-Guy Latraverse Dance in Honour of Kébec Spec (Kébec Spec...ulation)? In all honesty, there are performers in Quebec who are wilder than Ferland, more stoned than Charlebois, wittier than Deschamps, better looking than Vigneault and more interesting than Léveillée. Listen up! I would’ve been all five of those things for what you paid just one of those guys. Bye.”


We can easily overlook the fact that envy wreaks havoc in our artistic community because it usually comes with being an artist. But when this flaw – which is much worse than nail biting – runs amok in our government ministries in Quebec City and Ottawa, creeps into university chairs and takes hold of unions and chambers of commerce, we have no choice but to admit we’re all guilty of envy.

There’s a very special caste in Quebec – let’s call them the semi-successfuls – that is especially responsible for perpetrating and systematizing envy.

Semi-successfuls are pretty intelligent people, but they’ve never made it big. And in most cases, it’s their own fault. More lethal than those who are envious by nature, these ladies and gentlemen are dangerous because they hold semi-positions of power in all fields of activity where they make semi-decisions.

Semi-successfuls envy anyone who’s ever made it. They don’t understand why they can’t have what they want, like an office and a secretary on the 12th floor at Radio-Canada, the hit show on Télé-Métropole, the highest ratings on prime time or any kind of influence on their political party. They hate that they’re not Stanley Cosgrove or Alfred Pellan, Yvon Deschamps or Paul Desmarais. And they’re upset they’re not the union spokesperson. The only thing semi-successfuls don’t do half-way is envy those who have what they want (and feel they deserve it).

By envying those who have made it, semi-successfuls tend to slow down progress. They’re like little dogs with sharp teeth that nip at everyone’s heels and end up drawing blood.

One of my clients, the president of a small business, has a poster of an Arab proverb up in his office. It says: The dogs bark but the caravan moves on. (I invented Heartstring No. 6 and patented an anti-dog boot. It’s a soft-leather device you wear around your ankle to protect your Achilles’ heel from the bites of pesky pooches.)

Joe Tremblay is almost apologetic when he admits the following. “I think it’s our worse flaw, but it’s also the one we know inside-out. How do we stop being this way?”

Jews are notoriously harsh on their peers. But unlike us, once they’ve gotten over their envy, they tend to want to follow in the footsteps of the successful without trying to destroy them. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. Don’t tell anyone if you’re successful in Quebec (meaning you’re rich or you have any kind of influence). Instead, talk about how much money you owe, how bad your business is doing and how complicated your love life is. Act like nothing is going right for you.

But beware of Heartstring No. 12, gossiping, while you’re listing your woes. If you make a big deal about not having extramarital affairs, people will think you’re queer. And if you admit to having them once in a while, you’ll be labelled an unrepentant womanizer.

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.