It was still years before the #MeToo movement. It was 1990 and in France, the literary talk show Apostrophes was a surprising hit with TV viewers as famous and not-so-famous writers and celebrities appeared before a live audience to discuss books and ideas.
One of the guests that evening was Gabriel Matzneff, a leading member of France’s literary establishment, who had written a book about his sexual escapades with underage girls.
To the amusement of his fellow guests, Mr. Matzneff, who was in his 50s, recounted how he preferred seducing girls who were young and who had not been hardened by life. One guest was not amused. Denise Bombardier, the Quebec TV presenter who had become well-known in France as a commentator and novelist, accused Mr. Matzneff of being a pedophile. She said she felt as if she was living on “another planet.”
“Mr. Matzneff tells us that he sodomizes girls who are 14 and 15 years old and says that these girls are crazy about him,” she said. “We know that old men often attract little children with candies. Mr. Matzneff attracts them with his reputation.” She added that literature can’t be used as an “alibi” for those kinds of actions and that if he weren’t a writer, he would probably be facing criminal charges.
It took 30 years for Mr. Matzneff to finally pay a price for his predilections. In 2020, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, one of his victims wrote a memoir documenting her abuse at the author’s hands from the age of 14 and the years of depression and trauma that followed. He was dropped by his publishers and charged with sexual abuse, although it’s expected the case will eventually die because of legal delays.
The incisive comments by Ms. Bombardier, who died in Montreal on July 4 from cancer at the age of 82, were indicative of her outspoken style during a career in journalism and literature that spanned over 50 years. A celebrity host and interviewer on Radio-Canada, Ms. Bombardier was a passionate Quebec nationalist and promoter of the French language, who hung out with politicians and famously had an affair with one, the future Quebec premier, Lucien Bouchard.
Ms. Bombardier was always “the leader of the gang, the life of the party,” according to journalist Lysiane Gagnon, a longtime friend. “Her father ignored her, and she wanted to be seen, to attract attention all of the time,” Ms. Gagnon told The Globe and Mail, explaining how Ms. Bombardier loved to share her personal life with the public. “She became a TV personality, a diva of public affairs, the Celine Dion of the intelligentsia.”
After flirting with the left as a student, Ms. Bombardier moved increasingly to the right as she aged, becoming a harsh critic of Canada’s open-door policy door toward immigrants, attacking Muslims, gay marriage and drag queens, becoming nostalgic for a Canada where Quebec had a bigger political role.
Politicians of all stripes praised her legacy, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom Ms. Bombardier treated with disdain, calling him “an actor” whose goal was to destroy French Quebec with uncontrolled immigration. Mr. Trudeau praised her contributions and called her “tenacious, passionate, intelligent and courageous.”
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Graham Fraser, the former official languages commissioner and journalist, said that Ms. Bombardier was “as passionate and indignant in person as she was on television or in her columns.” Mr. Fraser, who got to know Ms. Bombardier as country-house neighbours in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, said she was “rigorous in her analysis and forthright in her opinions. No one was left in doubt what she thought.”
Marie Louise Yvette Denise Bombardier was born on Jan. 18, 1941 in the Montreal working-class neighbourhood of Villeray, the eldest daughter of Jean-Louis Bombardier, a radio-technician, and his wife, Simone Desrosiers.
Growing up in a tumultuous household with an alcoholic father, young Denise attended local Catholic schools and after taking French elocution lessons, began getting roles as a child actor on Radio-Canada. She attended the University of Montreal, initially as a night student, and was an early member of the separatist Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale, a forerunner of the Parti Québécois.
In her 2018 memoir, Une vie sans peur et sans regret, Ms. Bombardier said she was blocked from getting a job with the press office of Expo 67 after the RCMP reported on her separatist leanings, but this didn’t stop her from getting a job as a researcher at Radio-Canada a short-time later. It was the start of a career at the state-owned broadcaster that lasted until 2004, when she was fired after she unleashed a particularly harsh attack on same-sex marriage during a TV interview with a gay-rights activist.
Ms. Bombardier earned a BA from the University of Montreal in 1964 and an MA in political science from the same university in 1971. She married Jacques Lamontagne in 1964 but split from him two years later. It was the start of a complicated private life.
She took to TV journalism enthusiastically and soon was a high-profile journalist and on-air personality. In 1970, she began an affair with her boss at Radio-Canada, producer Claude Sylvestre. When he was transferred by Radio-Canada to Paris in 1971, Ms. Bombardier followed, living with him and his four sons in a vast apartment in the 16th Arondissement. She returned to university and completed a PhD in sociology at the Sorbonne, while doing freelance work for Radio-Canada and beginning a long love affair with France, where she lived off and on for many years. She married Mr. Sylvestre in 1973. Their son, Guillaume, was born in 1977.
Returning to Canada, Ms. Bombardier in 1979 became host of Noir sur Blanc, the first woman to anchor a public-affairs show on Radio-Canada. She thrived in the role. Over the years, her guests ranged from Pierre Trudeau to French President François Mitterand, from singer actor Yves Montand to writer Margaret Atwood.
She also branched out into fiction, publishing Une enfance à l’eau bénite, an autobiographical novel about a young French-Canadian girl growing up in working-class Montreal. It was a big success, including in France, unusual for a Quebecer, cementing Ms. Bombardier’s reputation there.
In 1985, during one of her trips to Paris, she was introduced to Lucien Bouchard, who was then Canada’s ambassador to France. She left her husband, flew back to Paris and moved into the Canadian embassy with her young son. The passion quickly faded and after six months, she moved out, returning to Montreal and to her husband. But within a year, the couple split again. In her memoir, Ms. Bombardier said she found Mr. Sylvestre “boring.”
Over the years, Ms. Bombardier became a prolific writer of essays, fiction and other works, including a biography of singer Celine Dion, whom she followed on a world tour in 2008-09. She also wrote the lyrics for a song, La Diva, recorded by Ms. Dion in 2007.
In 2012, Ms. Bombardier published a novel titled l’Anglais (The Englishman), about a middle-aged Quebec journalist who meets the love of her life in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she has been invited to participate in a seminar hosted by a charming English academic, who’s a francophile to boot. The romantic tale is based on Ms. Bombardier’s real-life encounter with James Jackson, a professor of French literature at Trinity College in Dublin. They married in 2003, becoming the longest-lasting relationship of her life.
After leaving Radio-Canada, Ms. Bombardier became a commentator and columnist, first with the private TVA network, then with Le Devoir and Le Journal de Montréal, where her views became more conservative and outspoken as time went on. In her column in Le Journal de Montréal, which she wrote from 2014 to May of this year, Ms. Bombardier frequently lashed out at changes in society, attacking immigration, Muslims, gays and drag queens. Her columns led to frequent complaints to Quebec Press Council, which issued several rulings for inappropriate comments or failing to check her facts.
In a 2021 column on gang violence in Montreal, Ms. Bombardier blamed authorities for not learning lessons from Toronto, which she said was the Canadian city that had suffered the most from what she called “racial criminality.” She claimed that this violent crime resulted from impossibility of meeting the enormous challenges “when it comes to the social integration of immigrants.” The implication was that immigration led to criminality, which the press council said Ms. Bombardier had failed to prove.
In March of 2023, Ms. Bombardier wrote that the Trudeau government’s plan to increase immigration was another way of flooding Canada with groups that would drown out francophone Quebecers. “We have become spectators to our end,” she said.
In her final column, published on May 20, Ms. Bombardier lashed out at the federal government after reading a report that Ottawa had created 52 prayer spaces at facilities across the country to fulfill obligations to protect religious freedom and encourage diversity. Singling out Muslims, Ms. Bombardier said the policy meant that taxpayers would be paying Muslim public servants to skip work and pray five times a day.
In a radio interview accompanying the column, Ms. Bombardier that francophone Quebecers were still the minority in Canada. “We’re the ones who were victims.”
“Denise was indeed a conservative person. There was no sudden turn in her feelings and opinions. It just got more intense as she got older,” said Ms. Gagnon, who admitted she didn’t share Ms. Bombardier’s recent views but insisted her friend wasn’t homophobic or anti-Muslim.
Ms. Bombardier became a chevalier of France’s Legion of Honour in 1993 and was promoted to officer in 2009 for her work defending the French language. She was appointed a chevalière of the Order of Quebec in 2000 and was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2016. In 2010, she was awarded Quebec’s Reconnaissance-Francophonie prize for her role in promoting Quebec culture and language internationally.
Ms. Bombardier leaves her husband, James Jackson; her son, Guillaume Sylvestre; and her granddaughter, Rose.
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