Crime

‘IT OPENED A DOOR’

Karla Homolka’s savvy pitch to Quebecers just might work, writes BENOIT AUBIN

July 18 2005
Crime

‘IT OPENED A DOOR’

Karla Homolka’s savvy pitch to Quebecers just might work, writes BENOIT AUBIN

July 18 2005

‘IT OPENED A DOOR’

Crime

Karla Homolka’s savvy pitch to Quebecers just might work, writes BENOIT AUBIN

WHEN KARLA TEALE, the new and improved version of sadistic sex-killer Karla Homolka, needed a place to start a fresh life after her hyper-publicized release from a Quebec prison last week, she stole a page from a book written by another Ontarian who set out to conquer the hearts and minds of Quebecers before her: John Sleeman, the beer-maker from Guelph, Ont.

A few years ago, Sleeman, then unknown in Quebec, was able to capture a sizable chunk

of the province’s crowded and chauvinistic beer market simply by recording radio ads in which he sounded exactly like what he is: an anglo who tries to speak French. Quebecers are not hostile to other Canadians, François Lacoursière, the ads’ creator, told Maclean’s at the time. “An anglo who tries to speak French is instantly welcome, if only for trying.” Homolka pulled the same stunt. Hidden inside an official van, she eluded the 24/7 watch of a gaggle of sometimes agitated journalists camping out at the prison gate, only to resurface, less than two hours later, inside a Radio-Canada studio, where she gave a 20-minute interview in French to journalist Joyce Napier—but refused to give even so much as a 20-second sound bite in English.

It was a masterful performance. Appearing demure and contrite, speaking a working woman’s French but with that English accent, Homolka told her audience what she thought it wanted to hear: “Local media seem less aggressive, less sensation-happy, and more serious... The atmosphere in Quebec is quite different from that in Ontario, I want to remake my life in French... I am not dangerous.” And, marketing-wise, the interview was a brilliant strategy, says Yves Dupré, a communications expert in Montreal. “It will not solve all her problems, and will not make us love her, but at least it has opened a door for her here.”

Quebec often seems more laid back, tolerant, sometimes even insouciant, about moral issues, especially when sex is involved. Quebecers can take to a likeable rogue, and tend to root for the individual against any organization—the shop, the law, or the press. But—embracing Karla

Homolka? In fact, they don’t. A Léger Marketing poll published last week in Le Journal de Montréal showed that of those who had an opinion, 46 per cent believe she still represents a danger to society, compared to 33 per cent who said there was no threat—although 63 per cent think the media should stop hounding her. And when the tabloid sent a reporter to an east-end Montreal working-class district, nine out of 10 shop owners on Masson Street said they

would never hire her, even for menial jobs. Another story reported that mayors of smaller towns across Quebec would raise a stink if Homolka chose to settle in their municipalities.

What is not found in Quebec, though, is the rampant hostility toward Homolka that is palpable in the rest of the country—and in some of the national media. And what went largely unreported were the appreciative smiles over the way Homolka was able to fool the “Toronto press,” and then rubbed salt in the wound by refusing to be interviewed in English. Sticking it to les anglais was seen as a good practical joke in Quebec.

But there was more. A large contingent of reporters from Toronto had descended on the Ste-Anne-des-Plaines penitentiary near Montreal to cover the story—with no love lost between them and their local colleagues. “They were easy to spot—they’re the ones who couldn’t understand what was being said,” one Le Devoir reporter quipped. Local press started referring to “the media circus” at the prison. “Clearly, some of the Toronto types had problems remaining objective in their coverage,” said a Presse Canadienne reporter. “They were quite involved, even hostile, in their reports.” As Raymond Corriveau, chairman of the Quebec Press Council observed, “I think the Homolka story has attracted two types of journalism. There were the serious journalists, there to cover a difficult story and a complex set of issues, and there were others, with the big hardware-looking for what?”

Sensation, perhaps, or ratings. But for now, Homolka is an ex-con living somewhere in Montreal. Her entourage says she will stay holed up, waiting for the dust to settle or the press to scatter, before venturing out for that cup of iced cappuccino at Tim Hortons that she told Napier she craved so much. And maybe, if she sits tight long enough, she might even find that Montreal has smarter cafés—and that speaking English is allowed, too. [?]