POLYLOGUES AT THE INTERSECTION(S) SERIES: Michel Tremblay and Tomson Highway: Decolonizing Dialects and Languages

by Shannon King


This paper argues that the plays Les Belles-Soeurs and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing tackle the classism associated with languages, and particularly regional dialects of Canada. The plot of Les Belles-Soeurs is about a housewife who wins a large prize of stamps that can be exchanged for products at certain stores if they are glued into booklets. The housewife Germaine invites the women in her neighbourhood to a get-together where they sit and glue stamps while they chat. Germaine’s neighbours were not fond of doing free labour and stole some stamps for themselves. Dry Lips is about a group of men from a First Nations reservation in Ontario protesting a local women’s hockey league and trying to find their place on the reservation. The plot’s momentum comes from Dickie Bird Halked: an Indigenous young man with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and mutism who commits a violent sexual assault on a woman. When the victim’s fiancé comes to confront Dickie Bird with a gun, Dickie Bird’s father who had been absent his entire life suddenly decides to protect him. These plays are commentary that attempts to decolonize Canadian language, while satirizing, entertaining and giving a sense of self to the country.

This paper will be analyzing the language of marginalized groups versus the hegemonic western European Canada.

Having a noticeable accent or lack of mastery in a language has been infantilized, “other-ed” and has caused tensions throughout Canadian history; these linguistic subtleties have become a source of inspiration for playwrights. Both playwrights immortalize harsh truths and realities about the nuances of different Canadian dialects and languages. These plays notice how using loan words or attempting to translate mid-thought can fall apart, yet they are everyday occurrences in the aftermath of colonialist expansion. The plays notice both the tragedy and comedy in these moments. They both feature a cast of almost entirely one gender, and their choices in language reflect the power they long for and what power they wield.

Feminine Agency in Joual and First Nations Languages

Michel Tremblay’s 1965 Les Belles-Soeurs was the first play to feature joual (the Quebecois dialect). Tremblay explained during a 2018 interview, “I wanted to try to put on the page as precisely what I heard when I was young… Well, it was the 70’s so we were trying things. We were experimenting…” (Michel Tremblay on His Play Hosanna, Quebec and Separation) He has managed to elevate and immortalize this regional aspect of Canada onto a theatre stage. This play also shown how middle-aged women had expertise in slang and are integrated into the regional nuances of the province, even while staying ingrained in the domestic sphere. Their dialect shows their engagement with the geographical, cultural, and societal structures all around them. The bursting energy of language and quick quips work as a parallel to the women’s engagement with the stamps/plotline throughout this play. Even while Les Belles-Soeurs was written in French, the “parapolitical role” of Anglophone British cultural and political supremacy permeates throughout these different dialects of Canada (Janes). French has an official academy to rule over the language, and yet the people still breathe their own spin into every spoken word. Cree and Ojibway languages were suppressed by residential schools, but people refused to allow their heritages to die.

The French and Indigenous languages of Canada have different gender-constructions/qualities than in English; both playwrights take notice and attempt to integrate features of this linguistic difference in Les Belles-Soeurs and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. The first play is all about women, while Dry Lips is about a group of men; their dialogues and dialects reflect their gendered places within differing spaces and languages. The diction of these groups reflects that they are in a one-gendered room in many instances. A room of all men or a room of all women entails different levels of gender performativity which impact their speech patterns. Michel Tremblay reflected back on his play, “I didn’t want to write a feminist play… I wanted to describe these women as they are.” (Michel Tremblay on His Play Hosanna, Quebec and Separation) The way women speak whilst only amongst themselves shows a powerful connection and solidarity through language, whether in French or English, “For Tremblay, the language established his characters’ authenticity, it reflected the frustrations of their daily existence and emblemized Quebec’s historical legacy of bitterness and defeat echoed at the end of the play in the ironic singing of ‘O Canada,’ which Tremblay has called ‘an anthem of submission.’” (Wasserman 2012, 60) When Big Joey casually chimes in with his feelings about the all-women’s hockey team, “I hate them fuckin’ bitches.” (Highway 467) this shows how comfortable and in power he feels in a room full of other men; yet it is also an ‘anthem of submission’ to the colonial attitudes, culture and language that Highway seems to suggest perhaps should have stayed foreign on Canadian land.

Language: A Tool for Class Differentiation

The inspiration for Tremblay came from a place of frustration, with how Quebec was forgotten in Canadian cinema. The feeling of misrepresentation seems to have cut deeper than being absent altogether. “We hated the [1965 Quebec Cain] movie because it was spoken in a Mid-Atlantic French… The language was false and no one in France would be interested in that … bastardized French.” (Hosanna, Quebec and Separation) The playwright had to recognize the global attitude toward Canadian dialects in order to decide what he wanted to put forth and what he wanted to say about his home province. Tremblay recognized France’s preconceived notions about Canadians, and decided they are not his only intended audience. Les Belles-Soeurs dramatizes the complex relationship Parisian French and Joual dialects have to Canadians. Tremblay asks himself and the audience, “Am I Canadian? Am I Quebecois?” (Hosanna, Quebec and Separation) Lisette De Courval romanticizes and idealizes Europe. She is consciously trying to maintain her “real Parisian French” as a status marker. Tremblay shows the social mobility of a sentence with dialect as a continual status marker. Her dialect is a reminder of Lisette’s money and travels which leads to tension from the other women. “Mme Brouillette, your language! I speak properly, and I’m none the worse for it.” Lisette says correcting Marie-Ange. Who then replies, “I talk the way I talk, and I say what I got to say. I never went to Europe, so I can’t afford to talk like you.” (Tremblay 68-69). This quote exemplifies the Canadian experience of living in the (linguistic and cultural) shadows of Europe. Marie-Ange has been characterized in the play as exceptionally bitter, and her heavy usage of profanity can reflect this as well as her rejection of striving to be a pretentious ‘French-wannabe’ like Lisette. The very scene of women in a kitchen speaking different kinds of French dialects remains a microcosm of Canada decades later. “[Raymond, Gabrielle’s son] speaks Latin, at the table!” after starting university (Tremblay 72). This moment seems to parallel the absurdity of speaking Paris French in a room full of Joual for no reason other than for self-differentiation. Switching to a less comprehensible and unfamiliar dialect/language creates distance; Lisette reminds others of her money/travels while Raymond reminds his family that he has more education.

Infantilization of Mutism and Indigenous languages

Dry Lips focuses on Dickie Bird Halked, who may or may not be able to verbally communicate. The other men in this play have wavering concerns about this. As Pierre pinches Dickie’s cheeks and tries to get him to call him Daddy, this reflects how the missed milestone of speech left Dickie infantilized and unable to peacefully defend himself with his words. This is a parallel to how native languages and accents have infantilizing class associations. Zachary states, “Lordy, lordy, lordy, I’m telling you right now, Spooky Lacroix, if you don’t do something about that nephew of yours, he’s liable to go out there and kill someone next time.” (Highway 2012, 457) Dickie Bird’s mutism is interpreted as threatening, disturbed, as a marker of inability/low IQ, and a precursor to violence. The stage directions call Dickie Bird “disturbed” in quotation marks. (Highway 449) In this play, the cast of characters speak different languages (Cree, Ojibway, and English) to varying levels of proficiency, yet the main character cannot speak and does not know sign language. Dickie Bird’s lack of verbal expression is something that differentiates him from every other talkative character, yet this does not halt his attempts to communicate. When he writes notes to Spooky asking him how babies are made, Spooky can smoothly change the subject since he is ‘talking’ to a mute. Spooky starts talking about something else before Dickie Bird can write another note, essentially cutting his line of communication off.

Colonialist Patriarchal Attitudes Socialized into Marginalized Characters

“The most explicit distinguishing feature between the North American Indian languages and the European languages is that in Indian languages (e.g., Cree, Ojibway) there is no gender. Unlike English, French, German, etc., the male-female-neuter hierarchy is entirely absent from Cree, Ojibway, and other First Nation languages.” (Wasserman 2012, 437) While the gendered hierarchies in Dry Lips may only exist in some of the Canadian languages present, the male characters have been socialized within patriarchal Canada to place themselves on top anyways. The first appearance of First Nations language in the play is, “This is it. This is the end. Igwani eeweepoonaskeewuk. (‘The end of the world is at hand.’)” (Highway 443) which shows emphasis and that this phrase rings truer in Spooky’s native language, even when it pertains to a non-native religion. These colonialist beliefs have now bled into First Nations dialects, changing the nuances and contexts irreversibly. “Dickie Bird Halked? I want you to come to heaven with me. I insist. But before you do that, you take one of them courses in sign language, help me prepare this reserve for the Lord. Can’t you just see yourself, standing on that podium in the Wasaychigan Hill Hippodrome, talking sign language to the people?” (Highway 448) Spooky did not care about what Dickie Bird had to say in the earlier scenes in the written notes where he asks how babies are made and who his father is. Once Spooky realizes Dickie Bird could help him preach, then he is more interested in what he has to say. Spooky recognizes the power of language as a tool of conversion, not for genuine instruction or familial bonding.

Substitutions in Food and Language Foreshowing Disaster

Zachary dreams of opening a bakery, thus bringing more colonial food (and culture) onto this reserve. Whether this is the cultural and economic development people want, Highway leaves ambiguous.  “There is …concern that a decline in the consumption of traditional foods will result in reduced participation among First Nations in traditional harvesting activities, in particular, reduced opportunities available for their youth to learn and experience these practices. This could potentially result in a loss of culture and traditional ecological knowledge.” (“Traditional Foods” 5) The fictional reserve is going in the direction of further expanding colonialist living and the power of its languages. Many types of baked goods have associations with Europe while being a baker is typically considered a feminine pastime. Simon recommends Zachary learn from an Italian woman, “Listen here, Zachary Jeremiah, I’m going to Sudbury next Saturday, okay? And if you wanna come along, I can take you straight to Mama Louisa’s Pasticerria myself. I’ll introduce you to the old crusty girl…” (Highway 447) A ’pasticceria’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “an Italian pastry shop.” Its origin is stated to be “a borrowing from Italian.” This foreign word is spelled wrong in the script reflecting that Simon mispronounces the word. This was an attempt at elevating the shop with European culinary expertise, that ends up falling flat. This word rings as more prestigious than simple anglophone ‘bakery’ or ‘pastry-shop.’ Dry Lips has multiple scenes where loans and substitutions of things forebode trouble:

“ZACHARY: …Where do you keep your rolling pin?

SPOOKY: Use my salami.…

ZACHARY: Got any cinnamon?

SPOOKY: I got chili powder. Same colour as cinnamon.” (Highway 458)

Substitutions in cooking may be as effective as using substitutions/loanwords in languages. The machinery to mold and change Zachary’s life is called a ‘Hobart’ but he keeps mispronouncing it as ‘Mobart.’ “Stupid fucking language, fuck you, da Englesa… You see, nineethoowan poogoo teetha (‘I speak only Cree’)” (Highway 465) Simon drunkenly claims, before he accidentally shoots himself with the gun he was holding. This shows a lack of mastery and command over the colonialist tools, from the gun to the language. Throughout Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing, the characters cannot pronounce the foreign words that will and can change their lives, showing a sense of ‘being foreign’ in the land they were born on.


The languages and dialects of Canada are only recently being thoroughly examined and integrated onto the theatre stage. Michel Tremblay recognizes that there are different types of French in Quebec, and Tomson Highway notices there are different kinds of Cree, Ojibway and English in Ontario. All these languages and dialects compose Canada; the hierarchies of which came first, or which has the most speakers per capita is not what the playwrights focus on. By showing dialects and languages often associated with classism, in a new light — a theatre stage’s light, shows the nuances of the diction of Canada that can get overlooked in everyday instances. These playwrights take the charm of North America without pitting it against Europe or trying to emulate old conventions. Tremblay and Highway show how translating whilst mid-thought and using loanwords are part of the Canadian experience. The ways speech can shift when all men or all women come together is explored by both playwrights in different ways. Tremblay shows that women labouring in the home still participate in the community building regional aspects of language. Highway’s characters Big Joey and Dickie Bird Halked show that living in a colonial patriarchal society brought the culture of gendered power dynamics onto reserves and into First Nations languages.

Connections to Convivial Thinking and Critical Diversity

This paper has explored a multitude of different languages, dialects, and ways of speaking in two prominent examples of Canadian theatre. While Canada has an array of languages, there is a hierarchy of hegemony that perpetuates European colonialism. Rather than analyzing a ‘gaze,’ I have analyzed how difference and diversity may have its own soundscape with classist connotations. The usage of a certain language with a certain accent or in a certain area can carry elevated or stigmatized status markers. The way characters exert gendered power changes depending on which genders are in the room. The Quebecois women of Les Belle-Soeurs show comradery and deception towards one another in the domestic social sphere as they utilize their dialect’s slang. Big Joey in Dry Lips is completely at ease as he calls his community’s beloved women’s hockey team a misogynistic slur in a room full of his male peers. Lisette speaking a Parisian version of French in Canada may be more a display of being wealthy and well-traveled rather than an authentic attempt at communication. The preservation of diverse beliefs is just as important as preserving a mosaic of languages yet hegemonic beliefs permeate into marginalized languages. Spooky in Dry Lips uses Cree, a nonhegemonic Indigenous language to worship a hegemonic religion imported through a violent history of colonialism. As globalization intensifies, the language itself and what the language is used to converse about can reveal who remains in power and who is erased from the conversation.

Shannon King is a writer, artist, and independent scholar. She double majored in English and Art/Art History from the University of Toronto Mississauga, where she graduated with her BA in 2022. She is a lover of both the abstract and analytical, always searching for answers in both other’s and her own written work. Her academic literary interests are in ecocriticism, animal studies, the medieval period, Old English, Middle English, and Canadian studies.

Works Cited:

Tremblay, Michel. “Les Belles-Soeurs.” Modern Canadian Plays, by Jerry Wasserman, Talonbooks, 2012, pp. 59–92.

Highway, Tomson. “Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing.” Modern Canadian Plays, by Jerry Wasserman, Talonbooks, 2012, pp. 431–470.

Notabenebooks, Beale. Michel Tremblay on His Play Hosanna, Quebec and Separation. YouTube, YouTube, 8 Oct. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjldiB6NXPc.

Janes, Daniela. “Introduction.” Canadian Drama. 11 Jan. 2021. University of Toronto Mississauga (Online) Lecture.

“Pasticceria.” Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University Press, www-oed-com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/Entry/240840?redirectedFrom=Pasticerria+#eid.

“Traditional Foods: Are They Safe for First Nations Consumption?” Assembly of First Nations, Environmental Stewardship Unit, 2007, www.afn.ca/uploads/files/env/traditional_foods_safety_paper_final.pdf.