MONTREAL — Over a career that spanned five decades, André Arthur became known as the king of Quebec City radio, the acid tongue that prompted dozens of lawsuits and moulded the “trash radio” style that today prevails in the Quebec capital.
His popularity twice got him elected to the House of Commons as an independent, and it sometimes seemed there was no line Arthur could not cross. One case against him made it the Supreme Court of Canada in 2011, where the judges labelled him a “rabble-rouser” but ruled his “racist” insults of Haitian and Arab taxi drivers did not defame individuals.
Now, in what some are interpreting as a sign of a reckoning for Quebec City talk radio, Arthur’s radio station BLVD 102.1 dropped him from the airwaves Monday afternoon after homophobic remarks he made last week sparked outrage. Live by the slur, die by the slur.
Arthur was putting in a plug for the spaghetti at a downtown restaurant last Wednesday. “It’s on AIDS Boulevard in the heart of the gay quarter,” Arthur said, referring to a restaurant on St. Jean Street between two gay bars.
In an interview Monday with Radio Canada, Arthur said he had no regrets, claiming he has been calling the street AIDS Boulevard for 20 years. And it is understandable that he might be surprised that this was his undoing, considering what he has got away with recently.
In the immediate aftermath of the massacre at a Quebec City mosque one year ago that killed six worshippers, Arthur felt it important to highlight the fact that a grocer killed had received health-code violations at his shop. Last summer, after the mosque president’s car was set on fire, Arthur suggested the president had done it himself to attract sympathy. (Quebec City police later arrested two men and described the arson as a hate crime.)
This is not the first time Arthur has been fired; in 2016, his previous station, CHOI Radio X, dropped him following controversial comments about the plane crash that killed Quebec political commentator Jean Lapierre. But with Quebec City talk radio hosts under increased scrutiny, it will be hard for Arthur, 74, to stage another comeback.
Arthur started in radio in 1970, and his long career was marked by libel suits and run-ins with the CRTC. Listeners loved how he took on big-shot show-business figures and politicians, but he has also gone after minorities. In the 1998 comments that led to the Supreme Court case, he called Arab drivers “fakirs” and the Creole language “nigger.” In a dissent arguing that individuals had in fact been defamed, Justice Rosalie Abella said his comments were “blatantly racist, highly stigmatizing, and vilified members of vulnerable communities.”
That behaviour did not stop him from getting elected to Parliament in 2006, where he was greeted as eccentric because he held onto his other job as a bus driver. “If all elected members had a real job, they might be less stupid,” he said after his election. He was defeated by the NDP wave of 2011.
When he joined BLVD 102.1 in 2016, they hyped the arrival of “the greatest communicator in the history of Quebec City radio.” And as news broke Monday of his dismissal, he drew praise from some competitors.
Jeff Fillion of CHOI called Arthur “a pioneer who cleared the land” for the hosts who occupy the airwaves today. Arthur, he said, was not pleasant to work with, but he was one of “the good ones who take a chance” and challenge the “dominant discourse.”
Denis Gravel, another CHOI host, said Arthur was one of a kind. “I have never heard a story-teller of that magnitude on the radio, and I’m not sure I am going to hear others,” he said.
But even before he lost his job, others were questioning whether the godfather of trash radio was sabotaging his legacy. Richard Martineau of CHOI said he regularly defends Quebec City radio against accusations that it is trash.
“There are so many people who take pleasure out of smacking Quebec City radio without understanding it, that at a certain point, dammit, you have to be careful. SIDA (AIDS in French) Boulevard, that makes no sense,” Martineau said. “It hurts all of radio.”