Suzanne Pinel: Childhood written on her heart

Faculty of Health Sciences
International and francophonie
suzanne pinel
Ever heard “Le clown Samuel”? “Rôbôtô”? “Allez allez où”? These songs are all the work of uOttawa alumna Suzanne Pinel (BSc ’67, ScN ’64) (and 2002 honorary doctorate recipient), aka Marie-Soleil, the great ambassador of French-Canadian culture, but also, maybe especially, of children, who’ve sung her nursery rhymes for nearly half a century.

Singer-songwriter, TV star, nurse, educator, citizenship judge — Suzanne Pinel has lived many lives. She dreamed of becoming an elementary school teacher, but following the advice of her mother, who thought her too young for such a career, she decided instead to study nursing and public health at the University of Ottawa, which was affiliated with the Ottawa General Hospital. Former uOttawa chancellor Huguette Labelle was her teacher. Could she have imagined at the time that she’d leave her mark on several generations of children through her songs and that her work would still be widely disseminated in francophone schools and French immersion programs across Canada?

A nurse and her guitar

“Whatever I do, I come back to the children,” says Pinel, who is a member of the orders of Canada and Ontario, plus holding her uOttawa honorary doctorate, and has received many awards for her contribution to the French-speaking world, education and her community. “When I became a nurse, in the early 1960s, the Grey Nuns, who ran the program at the time, asked me to give the first course in French on pediatrics and child development. So I brought along the guitar that my brother’s friend had given me to sing songs to the sick children. I wanted to teach my colleagues that, in addition to physical care, the little ones needed to have fun to forget their situation a bit.”

Pinel quickly realized that the classic French tunes weren’t getting a reaction from the children and began to compose nursery rhymes of her own, for example, “Les cochons,” which is about allergies, “Le clown Samuel,” written to encourage a boy to do his rehab exercises, or “Rôbôtô,” a favourite of Franco-Ontarian singer Damien Robitaille, meant to get a boy in the hospital moving and make him laugh. “As I was focusing on child development and language, concentrating on particular sounds, I began to receive requests for songs from immersion teachers, among others. In 1976, I put out my first record, with a teaching guide, which sold fast,” she says. “Then, in the early 1980s, I got a call from an anglophone television station in Sudbury. They offered me a children’s show.” And so, Marie-Soleil was born.

A prolific artist

Marie-Soleil, a bilingual show starred Pinel in the French-speaking title role, the English-speaking dog Fergus (a puppet she designed) and Samuel, a mute clown played by different people, including a 14 year old girl. The 145 episodes (and 15 albums and four videocassettes!) won over both francophone and anglophone children, because they allowed them to learn new songs or words in French while having fun. The show was rerun on various networks until the late 1990s. During the time of Marie-Soleil, Pinel raised her three children and used each experience to write her songs, including visiting her daughter, born with a heart defect, in the hospital. She composed “Musique de ton cœur” then, watching the line of her daughter’s irregular, yet so precious, heartbeat. “It’s one of my favourite songs,” says Pinel, who’ll soon mark her 80th birthday. “It celebrates our differences as well as what he have in common: our heartbeat.”

Marie-Soleil, a bilingual show
Suzanne Pinel as Marie-Soleil, with Clown Samuel and Fergus

A committed citizen

Pinel took a break from her singing career in 1997 to become a citizenship judge for 15 years, at the invitation of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Once more, with much humility, she took on this new career, which led to her, as a rare francophone judge, travelling around the country. “New citizens taught me a lot about the reality of our country and our world.” In retirement, she continued to preside over citizenship ceremonies as a volunteer and get involved in various organizations, such as the Ottawa Board of Health, the CHEO board and the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine admissions committee. She also was a sessional lecturer at the uOttawa Faculty of Education, developed a course in the use of music in child development for Algonquin College, gave workshops on early childhood at La Cité and much more.

In a recent documentary about Pinel, Alias Marie-Soleil, directed by Émilie Martel and broadcast on TFO and Radio-Canada, you can see her glow, surrounded by her three children and five grandchildren, or on an emotional visit to the neighbourhood of her childhood, whose appearance changed in the 1960s. “Another favourite song is ‘Noël chaque jour,’ which still reminds me of Ottawa’s francophone Lowertown, where I grew up and where everyone spoke to each other and smiled at each other.” Each of Suzanne Pinel’s 400 songs has its own story and carries with it the richness of Canada’s francophone culture. TFO will also be rebroadcasting videos of her songs starting in March! “While getting to know others’ cultures, I hope that we’ll still be able to speak French,” she says warmly. “Our language is an irreplaceable treasure.”