(Thanks to JC for the tip)
By INGRID PERITZ
From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Montreal– He hasn’t even joined a picket line yet, but Canada’s most famous snowman already has a nickname: Comrade Carnaval.
The Bonhomme Carnaval, roly-poly symbol of joie de vivre and wintertime fun at the Quebec Winter Carnival, seems to have some more proletarian worries on his mind these days. Maybe it’s the sub-zero weather, the screaming kids and drunken out-of-towners. Maybe it’s the grind of being perpetually cheery.
Whatever — Bonhomme wants to join a union.
A local of the Federation des travailleurs du Quebec (FTQ), the province’s largest labour union central, has filed a certification request to unionize the handful of people who personify Bonhomme, as well as his cadre of escorts.
“This is not a joke,” said Hermann Dallaire of Local 503 of the United Food and Commercial Workers in Quebec City. “All salaried employees in Quebec have the right to be covered by the Quebec Labour Code.”
The FTQ’s union drive is not as quixotic as might appear. The same union local recently celebrated a labour victory by unionizing employees at the retailing giant Wal-Mart in Jonquiere, the first to do so in North America. Still, organizing mascots would drive the province’s labour movement into virgin territory. As it stands, Quebec has the highest rate of union membership in Canada: 41 per cent of its workers belong to a union, compared with a national average of 32 per cent.
But is the Bonhomme having a meltdown? Neither the union nor carnival management would discuss his working conditions, saying it would ruin the “magic” of the Bonhomme character. “He’s like Santa Claus,” Mr. Dallaire said.
Still, those in the know say that despite the permanent grin on his face, Bonhomme’s life is less than jovial. Noel Moisan, a Bonhomme in the 1950s and 1960s, said his reliance on a cane today may stem from the years he spent in a 7-foot-tall padded costume with a gigantic fibreglass head.
“I used to lose 15 pounds each winter,” Mr. Moisan, 86, recalled from his home in Quebec City yesterday. He said Bonhomme, premier symbol of the world’s largest winter carnival, deserves a share of its riches; last year’s carnival brought $22-million in economic spinoffs to Quebec City.
“This is the 21st century and it’s normal to have a union,” Mr. Moisan said. “We’re dealing with people who are out to make a buck, so Bonhomme should get decent pay.”
Some years have been tough on the Bonhomme, too. Although generally a figure of affection, he comes in for periodic ridicule. One year, after being savaged by some Quebec humorists, he was pelted with snowballs at the carnival parade.
“It’s hard work. The Bonhomme has to be on his feet early in the morning and late at night. These are 15-hour days, easily,” said Jean Provencher, a Quebec City historian and author of a book on the history of the Carnaval de Quebec. “You have to show good humour, availability, infinite politeness and constant joy. It’s not a sinecure.”
He said the snowman outfit has been made lighter in recent years “but a guy still comes out of it exhausted.”
“The carnival isn’t interested in having an unhappy Bonhomme, because an unhappy Bonhomme is like a depressed Santa Claus at a shopping mall. You’d might as well tell him to go home,” Mr. Provencher said.
Bonhomme Carnaval has been on the job in his red stocking cap and traditional red sash for 50 years. A Quebec City tourism official came up with the idea of a snowman mascot — an obvious choice for one of the most snowbound cities in the world — in the traditional Quebec garb of the coureurs de bois. A legend, and a succession of mascot jobs, were born.
Bonhomme Carnaval has a gruelling schedule, putting in 1,000 public appearances in January and February. There are occasional perks during the non-winter months — promotional tours to New York or Paris, for example — but the work is largely seasonal. It’s not known if the snowman turns to pogey the rest of the year; the carnival’s official version is that he flies off for the North Pole.
Management at the Quebec City winter carnival, which promotes itself as the biggest carnival after Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, declined to discuss the union drive.
“We’re evaluating the situation,” said Roxanne St-Pierre of the Carnaval de Quebec. She noted that carnival employees who build the parade floats are already unionized, “so we’re not against the idea at all.”
This season’s Quebec Winter Carnival runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 13.