Gilles Proulx!

By Dan Delmar on June 26, 2008

“Je suis vieux. Après 46 ans, ca me fatigue. J’ai des problemes de surdité et je n’ai plus d’énergie,” Gilles Proulx began as he prepared for last Friday’s edition of Le Journal du Midi on Montreal’s francophone powerhouse talk station, 98.5 FM. “À 68 ans, j’ai dépassé largement la plupart des carrières à la radio, qui durent en moyenne de 10 à 12 ans.”

There is a certain defeatist attitude in Proulx that is unexpected for someone who has made a name for himself as a fighter; a fierce defender of the French language and an unrelenting critic of anyone with the gall to get elected to a public body in his province–or, more appropriately, his State. He entered the business because he wanted to affect change. In his final years, Proulx said he has come to realize that journalists are not agents of change; they just get the news a little earlier than everyone else.

 He isn’t a modest man, but he does not have the inflated ego that would normally come with three hours of daily airtime on one of Quebec’s most popular radio stations. The closest he came to a diva-like tantrum in The Métropolitain’s presence was when, jokingly, he gave his assistant a hard time for bringing him apple juice instead of orange. He is fairly quiet and soft-spoken, no doubt mellowing with age. Industry rumours about his temper are legendary though. He was once acquitted on charges of roughing up a researcher and pepper-spraying a truck driver alongside an autoroute.

Brushes with the law didn’t get him down, nor did it soften his on-air persona. Some of Proulx’s critics predicted the last nail in his coffin would have been a shockingly insensitive statement he made about a teenage rape victim in 2005. On a TQS debate show he co-hosted, he referred to a 14-year-old victim as “une petite cochonne. Elle est allée se donner dans la gueule du loup (rapist Frédéric Dompierre). Tant pis pour elle.”

“C’était très malhabile,” he admitted, “mais qui n’a pas eu des chutes dans une carrière publique?”

After every embarrassing tumble, he has consistently bounced back. It’s a remarkable feat, given the temptation to escape public scrutiny and recoil in shame. He often deplores his listeners’ lack of memory and short attention spans but, ironically, that may partially explain why he still has a job.

Last year, Proulx nearly lost a lot more than a gig. After leaving the studio, “je ressentais une pression et je ne pouvais plus respirer.” He needed a quadruple bypass, which he said he has barely recovered from.

The off-air Gilles Proulx, who is married to an Italian songstress 25 years his junior, is not the curmudgeonly blowhard listeners tune in to every lunch hour, according to his right-hand, researcher Audrey Simard.


“C’est un personnage,” said Simard. “Quand il rentre en studio et met le micro sur ‘on,’ c’est parti. Hors-onde, il est très serieux. Il n’est pas méchant mais des fois il se fâche…pas avec nous, l’équipe, mais par rapport à la situation.”


A self-described “athée politique,” Proulx said he no longer believes in government and hasn’t seen a decent leader in Quebec since René Levesque.


Fédéraliste, nationaliste... je ne sais plus qu’est ce que je suis,” he said. “La vulgarité est devenue une marque de commerce pour le Québec. Le sexe, le joual et le sacrage sont les trois pilliers de la culture québécoise.”


Although often mistaken for a sovereignist, his deep mistrust of politicians and disappointment in     an underachieving populace has eradicated any hard-line nationalist tendencies that were present earlier in his career.


It began at a paint store in 1961, he recalled. His version of the fat lady at Eaton’s was an intolerant Sherwin-Williams franchise owner who, when overhearing Proulx speak his mother tongue, snapped and said, “don’t talk French!”


He began working in radio in the regions, making $35 per week as a disc jockey, following in the footsteps of his brother, Jacques. He was swept up in a nationalist tidal wave in the mid-1960s and began exploring the news side of the communications business. Proulx’s biggest break, he said, was the confidence radio mogul Jack Tietolman had in him, adding him to the roster at CKVL, a small station is his hometown of Verdun. He would go on to host Le Journal du Midi on CJMS for a decade, then bringing the same program to CKAC through most of the 1990s.


Proulx has made his fair share of enemies along the way. Many of them, who are often victims of his razor-sharp wit, still have an appreciation for the man as a Quebec institution; a straight shooter, an equal-opportunity offender and un gars qui dit les vraies affaires.


Huntington Mayor Stéphane Gendron, a controversial media personality who hasn’t rebounded from scandal quite as gracefully, saluted Proulx in a recent blog posting:


“Malgré toutes les controverses suscitées par Gilles à mon endroit, je persiste à souligner l'influence que cet homme a eu sur ma jeunesse, ma vie, et sur la formation de mon opinion sur les affaires publiques. Il représentait un exemple à suivre et à imiter. Un homme d'opinion ne peut faire l'unanimité. Et au fond, qui n'a pas de travers ici et là?”


“Il dit ce qu'il y a à dire,” said friend Dominique Blanchard, who spent an hour in studio with Proulx, showing her mother Hélene what the radio business is like. “Les gens sont un peu mouton…lui, il est toujours contre le courant.”


Blanchard credits Proulx with helping her learn history. Every edition of Le Journal has a history segment where he answers listener queries, à la “why is my street named this?” It’s an interesting few minutes and rare in an age where that airtime, on other programs, would otherwise be spent on jokes and various quétaineries.


His on-air guests typically fall into one of the two following categories: the ones that adore him and the ones that fear him. While interviewing a PR person from the STM, the disdain in the woman’s voice is apparent after the first few seconds.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Proulx,” she said, in a laborious slur that really meant, “get this over with.”

Charles Lapointe, the head of Tourism Montreal, was just the opposite. He’s been having chats with Proulx for 20 years and knows the drill. He seems almost excited to face the firing squad.

“C’est un animateur qui est assez amusant,” Lapointe said, adding that he wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated. Proulx’s humour is infectious and disarming. It may explain why the dimmest of callers keep coming back for more, even though he routinely refers to them as “salopards,” “ignorants” and the original and all-encompassing “con-tribuables.”

“Je suis triste. C’est vendredi… deux jours de vacances,” Proulx told listeners on Friday, munching on sesame snaps during the commercials, as he does every lunch hour. “Le bonheur est dans le travail, comme disait Karl Marx.”

It’s difficult to imagine the man resting. He seems to have an infinite supply of catch-phrases, drive-by opinions and an encyclopedic knowledge of the past, which he passes on to his listeners in succinct, radio-friendly sound bites. He has talk radio down to an art. In August, he’ll hand it all over to commentator Benoît Dutrizac, who will be his successor.

Proulx is excited to leave the business and resume his travels; there’s a trip to Italy in the works with a group of his fans. He won’t totally vanish from all media, though. His television program, Globe-Trotter, on Canal Évasion will continue with new episodes. Producers have asked him to profile at least another 40      destinations and, as an amateur photographer, his work is often on display at charity events. He’ll also be heard on 98.5 occasionally, when Dutrizac is on vacation.

Despite the profession being a disappointment, he doesn’t feel that his time was wasted.

“J’ai rencontré Fidel Castro, le Pape…je suis citoyen honoraire du Maroc…J’ai fait le tour du monde deux fois,” he said proudly, adding that he’s going out the only way he knows how: on his own terms. “Je me calisse dehors, par la grande porte.”

Proulx can be heard weekdays from noon–3 p.m. on 98.5 FM.


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