Welcome to uOttaKnow, a podcast that illuminates, inspires and entertains produced by the University of Ottawa.
Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and a proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences. I am also the President of the Equal Chance Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers women and Black communities across Canada.
uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa alumni and researchers around the globe at the cutting edge of their fields. Listen in for thought-provoking conversations on today’s trending topics.
For the fifth season of uOttaKnow, our theme is curiosity. How does it propel us to ask questions, explore new areas of interest, and move into uncharted territory? Our extraordinary alumni guests this season will be digging deep to uncover what curiosity means to them, its impact, and how it has spiced up their lives.
Today we are joined by Geneviève Côté, member of the Quebec bar, she has over 20 of professional experience in the Quebec cultural scene, notable in concert production and music promotion.
She has been the general manager of the Festival international de la chanson de Granby since August 2022, after having worked in various capacities in the cultural management field. Ms. Côté was Head of Quebec and Visual Arts at SOCAN, a pan-Canadian rights management society, from 2014 to 2021 and founded the company Frilance musique in 2003. She is a lecturer in the Department of Music at UQAM. Ms. Côté holds a dual designation of ASC-C.Dir and a degree in civil law from the University of Ottawa.
Ms. Côté chairs the Board of the Caisse Desjardins de la culture. She also sits on the boards of directors of the Fédération du Mouvement Desjardins, the Polaris Music Prize and the Conservatoire de musique et d'art dramatique du Québec.
Gwen: Geneviève, thanks for joining us today from Granby, Quebec. I want to start off with a question that we will be asking all our guests this season as a way to set the stage. What does curiosity mean to you?
Geneviève: I did give it a little thought before we met, Gwen. Thank you. I’m happy to be here. For me, it’s a sign of intelligence. When you’re curious, you’re never satisfied. You always want to learn more. I think that, along with passion, curiosity is the thing I look for most in the people around me. I like when people, and I myself like to, try to understand things, to learn things. A lot of older people say, “If you don’t learn something every day, you die.” I believe that. And curiosity feeds this desire to learn in everyone.
Gwen: That’s so true. Geneviève, you’ve followed a rather unusual path. You got your civil law degree before branching out into arts and culture. I’d love to hear about what guided your journey. Are any of the skills you learned at university still useful to you today?
Geneviève: First, what’s funny is that people think I branched out into arts and culture, but it’s the other way around. Let me explain. In Quebec, between high school and university, there’s something called CEGEP, a college of general and professional education. In CEGEP, I did Arts and Communication—so a DEC because that’s the diploma, a DEC—where I did graphic arts, sculpture, 2D stuff, TV shows. We weren’t learning how to make podcasts then, because I’m older than that. Then I did a year in Visual Arts at Concordia before going to the University of Ottawa to study civil law. So people think I branched out into the arts, but in reality I branched out into law. And while I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa, I worked on a pyrotechnics competition that still exists in Montreal where firework display designers set fireworks to music. It’s called pyromusical art. I worked summers doing that and then went to school in the winter. So I went from doing law school from September to April to producing events and shows from May to July. So really, I’ve always had a mix of both. What I learned at the University of Ottawa, aside from learning about law itself, is maybe putting your talent to work for others. I wanted to go to law school not to become a litigator. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to go into litigation. I wanted to help people, probably public law, and in the end, pretty quickly, I wanted to go into intellectual property. I even won an award in my intellectual property course at university, the Bereskin and Parr award, I think. So that paved the way for my career, which ended up being exclusively in arts and communication.
Gwen: Congratulations on your award, Geneviève. Professionally speaking, you’ve dedicated yourself to advancing the arts in Canada and have built bridges between the French and English music industries in this country, bringing these two silos together. In 2018, you became the first woman from Quebec to sit on the Polaris Music Prize board of directors.
You have also served as the head of Quebec affairs and visual arts for SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, which is the largest member-based rights management organization in Canada, in addition to serving as a producer/manager for both French- and English-speaking artists. That’s all rather impressive. How would you describe your experience in these different cultural spaces?
Geneviève: When you say it like that, it sounds like a lot, but it’s been over 20 years now. Sure when you put it all in one paragraph, it’s like, “Wow, she did all that!?” But I did all that over the space of 20 years. One thing I can say, I grew up in a small town in the suburbs of Montreal called Ville Saint-Laurent. In Ville St. Laurent already at the time—and I’m talking about the 80s, when I was in high school and all that—there were already people from immigrant backgrounds, many languages, many cultures mixing together. People from Lebanon, people from Laos.
We really had people from everywhere in my high school. I went to the comprehensive school, so I was really with people around me, people who were different. And even then, my P.E. teacher used to call me the Prime Minister because I would defend my classmates and all that. And I think that opened me up to the importance of being open, actually. I mean, it made me realize that we need to be open to others, to others’ culture. Of course, since I’m a native French speaker, people see me as building bridges between French speakers and English speakers.
But in reality, I’ve done it from both sides. I mean, I’ve represented English-speaking artists in Quebec, which was more about making sure English speakers’ voices were heard. After that, when I became the head of Quebec affairs at SOCAN, that was more to make the voice of French speakers heard by English speakers in Canada. At the same time, I always wanted to make my colleagues aware of the fact that, if in Quebec we don’t know what, let’s say, the Horseshoe is in Toronto, it makes sense that people in Toronto don’t know what Le Verre Bouteille is in Montreal.
If you want to understand each other, you have to show interest in the other. One of the things I did a lot was to develop references for each other. To explain who Louis-Jean Cormier is, if I only make people listen to his music, they’ll get that he’s talented, but they won’t understand what he represents in the community. But if I say Louis-Jean Cormier is the Hawksley Workman of Quebec, all of a sudden people from Toronto start to go, “Ah okay, I get it.” Or, “This beatmaker is like that beatmaker in Toronto or in Los Angeles.”
So trying to come up with references, because if you don’t understand the language, you won’t get it. But if we’re given the tools, clues, instruments to do that, I think it’s possible to really build those bridges. And, over time, I also tried to build bridges with everyone—maybe not everyone, because that would be difficult—but as many people in minority situations as possible. Women, people from diverse backgrounds...trying to always be there, opening and building bridges.
I’d like to think that I managed to do some of that, and I think it’s out of concern that we all have our place in life, but also probably out of generosity, passed on by my parents who are very generous people. And the fact that I was in contact with so many people—really, I had so many friends. Eating fatoush for the first time in 1983 probably—my parents used to take us out for souvlaki. So a lot of it came through food, but so much the better. So many passions that feed our curiosity and our knowledge of others.
Gwen: Geneviève, you talk about cultural and linguistic openness. Our alma mater is the largest French and English bilingual university in the world. I think the language issue is a topic of particular interest to our community. We lived on a campus where hearing Lady Gaga and Stromae at the same time was no big deal. The University of Ottawa also has some amazing artists as alumni, peoples like Leif Vollebekk, Angela Hewitt, and Roch Voisine. In your opinion, how can we bridge the cultural and artistic gap between our different linguistic realities across the country? I think you touched on that in your answer.
Geneviève: Absolutely. I really think you have to be open to both. Take Leif Vollebekk for example, I recently learned, and I love what Leif is doing. Montreal represent. I love what Leif is doing and I didn’t know he’d ever sung in French. I learned that this week. He has even performed at the Festival international de la chanson de Granby. I was stunned. So basically, it’s important not to exclude someone on the basis of language, but to include them and always try to understand where that person is coming from. I think French speakers have the impression English speakers don’t understand what French speakers are talking about, what they want and how they are. But I think it goes both ways. And that’s what I’m working on—trying to make English speakers realize, because I’m completely bilingual and I like to say bicultural, meaning I consume English and American podcasts, books, movies, TV series, and all that. So I understand Anglophone humour. I understand Anglophone references, American ones especially, British not so much, I’ll admit. You have to understand that it’s hard for an English speaker to know who Guy A. Lepage is because they can’t listen to his show. They don’t have this reference, whereas I do.
It’s like I said earlier. When I try to explain who Guy A. Lepage is, I don’t say “you should listen to him,” because it’s in French, so people who don’t speak French don’t have that option. Instead, I say that this is someone who is on air for three hours in front of two million people or 1.5 million Quebecers out of eight million. That’s huge. And when you talk numbers, all of a sudden people understand without understanding. It’s important to explain that when we speak English, we’re not speaking another language. It’s funny because it led me to draw parallels with, for example, my First Nations friends who are fighting for their languages to exist. Languages plural, because it’s not just one. And when they’re fighting for their languages to exist, I’m on their side, saying “Yeah, it’s important that your language exist, because in the same way we want ours to survive, we also want yours to survive.” I think that with this openness, we’ll make better majorities. When minorities manage to get along and understand each other, they’re better at influencing the majorities. In our country, the majority is English-speaking. So we can better influence them if between minorities, we understand and listen to each other and stick together.
Gwen: The work you’re doing is really impressive. You have a lot of passion—it carries through in your voice. The results are sure to follow. In July, you became general manager of the Festival international de la chanson de Granby, which was in its 54th season. The festival’s mission is to discover, develop, and promote the next generation of French singers from Canada and elsewhere. What appealed to you the most about this new challenge? And congratulations, by the way.
Geneviève: Thank you. It’s all pretty funny because the festival has a competition segment. Most people know Jean Leloup, Isabelle Boulay, Linda Lemay, Pierre Lapointe, Patrice Michaud, lots of people have won the competition that is part of the Festival international de la chanson de Granby. And I’ve been on the jury a few times myself. I really like the competition. I even represented one of the winners, “Mathieu La Voix,” if you’ll pardon the name-dropping. I was his agent for a while. Anyway, [laughs] I had been a juror on the competition and I really liked the festival and all that. I was even on the jury for the auditions in 2022, something I’d never done before. So I saw the 100 participants who were chosen in the pre-selection round and the 18 chosen from Quebec. There were actually 24 in all, because some came from all over French-speaking Canada. Hello to them as well. So I knew that particular season really well. And at the end of June, my phone rang and I was asked to come and be the interim general manager of the festival. I said, “Okay” but never imagined I’d take the job on permanently. But since I was there and was producing a festival that’s been around for 54 years, it’s a rare opportunity. A beautiful festival rooted in the city of Granby. I thought to myself, here I am in a studio in Granby with these young people—the Kool Club, let’s give them a shout-out—young locals who have built something where people can come. There’s a studio. There’s a place to practise art, music, and all that. Plus they make very sharp clothes. I saw a place where I could get involved in the life of the city, to head up a cultural institution like the Festival international de la chanson de Granby, in an area that’s so beautiful, and where people feel very invested in culture and in this festival’s mission. I wanted to help further the mission. That’s ultimately why I came, because I love the team I’ve ended up with. Interestingly enough, the recruiting committee asked me, “What’s your favourite thing right now?” while I was serving as interim director. And I said, “I love thinking about what more it could be.” That’s really what made me put my name in the hat to stay in Granby—to see what happens next.
Gwen: Are there aspects of this job that have surprised you?
Geneviève: I’m not sure what’s surprised me. Maybe the intensity. Even though I’d worked on other festivals—including Just for Laughs, which is huge—the intensity was different in Granby, precisely because the festival has been around for so long and everyone knows it, so it was like I’d showed up to take care of their baby. When you come take care of someone’s baby and they’re watching you, you have to make sure you’re doing it right. That’s how it was for me. So just that intensity of people stopping me in the street to say, “Hello. Thank you for taking this on.” That sense of belonging to the Granby community may be what surprised me most. It’s also such a wonderful springboard for young people. It’s really touching to see them grow. Even when they first arrive, from their audition in March through to the last show in August—oh my gosh, that’s surprising, but in a beautiful way this time. [laughs]
Gwen: I can imagine. Since you know the Canadian music industry inside and out, would you like to take advantage of this platform to recommend some of your favourites that you think we should check out?
Geneviève: Two projects I really like come to mind. The first performed at the Festival de la chanson de Granby this summer—since I wasn’t involved in the lineup, I could really—because the lineup was done by the time I arrived, of course. I’m a fan of what she does. She’s a beautiful young woman who is really gutsy and spunky. I’m talking about Ariane Roy, who is a Quebec singer, songwriter and composer. I love her music. It’s really the kind of music that fits every occasion. I always like it. It’s always good. When I’m driving, it’s good. When I’m spending a Saturday morning at home, it’s good. When I’m making dinner, it’s good. It’s always good. I love what Ariane is doing. I love seeing her live, too. She has spunk. There’s a French journalist who said she has a “wild elegance.” She’s very elegant, but with an edge. And since we’re talking about bilingualism today, the other project that comes to mind is Clay and Friends, who are also from Montreal, mostly based in Verdun, and who make music in both French and English. Their music has a groove to it, it’s really good. The leader’s name is Mike Clay, but he has friends with him, so there’s a “native” Quebecer as they say, but also others from diverse backgrounds. It’s really a great group, a band that, again, is really awesome. Check them out, Clay and Friends.
They always say they make “la musica popular de Verdun.”Verdun is a borough of Montreal, a working class neighbourhood, not very rich and all that. So it’s cute, their little inside jokes. And they make songs in both languages.
Gwen: Thank you so much for sharing your picks with us. Let me ask you one last question that I’ve been asking all my guests this season. What is something that currently sparks your curiosity? It can be anything. Something you’re not familiar with but want to learn more about, or anything else.
Geneviève: Again, I gave this a little thought, obviously, I knew we were going to talk about this. It’s funny. I had a conversation with someone this week who said, “You’re always curious...” Even now, I’m sitting in a studio, I’ve never been here before, and I’m wondering, “What kind of microphone is this? Where’s this piano from?” I always want to be learning things. What sparks my curiosity the most right now, as I mentioned earlier, is my First Nations friends.
There’s a lot to learn and understand, and I think it will allow us to be better neighbours, better members of their communities, better allies in their fight. In that vein, I encourage listeners to read Michel Jean, who wrote Kukum, which won a Governor General’s Award.
Super interesting, along with anything to do with music: learning or reading about it or listening to it.
There’s Laura Niquay, there’s a lot of First Nations performers doing really interesting stuff right now. In that sense, I feel really lucky to be involved, as you said earlier, in the Polaris Music Prize, which is a prize that really makes room for all of Canadian diversity, including the First Nations. We’ve had people like Jeremy Dutcher who won the Polaris Prize, who’s working on something awesome, bringing back the language of his grandmother and grandfather. He went digging in the archives of his village, his community, and it’s wonderful.
Gwen: Geneviève, thank you so much for sharing what is sparking your curiosity right now. Could you tell our listeners where they can find you online?
Geneviève: I have a LinkedIn profile that is more for professional purposes of course, and because I sit on several boards of directors, I use it to share things that have to do with governance and openness to others in governance, in decision-making authority, those kinds of things. On LinkedIn, you can find me by searching Geneviève Côté Granby or Caisse Desjardins de la Culture.
On Instagram, it’s Gen Côté MTL, for Montreal, which is funny. I might have to change my handle because I’m not really in Montreal anymore. Same thing on Twitter, I think. I’m pretty active all over, but I would say that though I have a Facebook page, of course, I keep that for the people I’ve actually met in real life. So for the listeners, Twitter and LinkedIn might be better. But if we’ve met before and I know you, feel free to contact me on Facebook, too.
Gwen: Geneviève, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. It’s fascinating to learn more about a career obviously inspired by curiosity and passion for the arts and culture in Canada. A huge thank you, Geneviève.
Geneviève: Thank you, Gwen.
Gwen: uOttaKnow is brought to you by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. It is produced by Rhea Laube with theme music by alumnus Idris Lawal. This episode was recorded with the support of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English and French or to find out more about uOttaKnow please refer to the description of this episode.