Do You Want to Bribe a Snowman?

Last Sunday, the annual Quebec Winter Carnival came to an end and the province's best-known celebrity snowman mascot wrapped up his 62nd year on the job. The figure of Bonhomme has been associated with the Carnival since 1954, and according to the official Carnival website, 96% of Quebecers and approximately 60% of all Canadians are able to identify him. (He also has a LinkedIn profile if your professional network needs some extra star power.)

But Bonhomme's reputation as a clean-cut and law-abiding kind of snowman was threatened in the fall of 2010, when Maclean's ran a cover depicting Bonhomme strolling around with a suitcase full of cash alongside the headline, "The most corrupt province in Canada".

 

An uproar ensued almost immediately following publication. The House of Commons voted unanimously to censure the magazine, and Maclean's bit back with a tongue-in-cheek short piece poking fun at the wording of the submitted motion. Jean Charest, the premier of Quebec, requested that Maclean's make a formal apology. (Maclean's refused.) Rogers Publishing, who owns Maclean's, ultimately issued a public statement emphasizing the importance of the Quebec market and apologizing for "any offence that the cover may have caused."

The Quebec Winter Carnival also issued a statement asking for a formal apology from Maclean's and hired lawyers to defend Bonhomme's image, claiming the magazine had infringed upon their intellectual property and that "unauthorized or defamatory use of [representations of Bonhomme] is unacceptable and will not be tolerated". However, a legal battle was averted when lawyers for both Maclean's and the Quebec Winter Carnival reached an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which were not disclosed.

But that wasn't quite the end of the story. Gilles Rheaume, a Quebec sovereigntist and the former leader of the Quebec Parti independantiste, filed an official complaint with the Press Council of Quebec (Conseil de presse du Quebec), which adjudicates disputes involving the Quebec press industry. In addition to Rheaume's complaints about the characterization of Quebec as the "most corrupt" province, he alleged the magazine cover was attacking a "Quebec national symbol" and engaging in "Francophobia" through its depiction of Bonhomme. Rheaume's complaint was partially upheld, with the majority holding that Maclean's did engage in a "lack of journalistic rigour". However, the council found that the use of Bonhomme was caricatural in nature, and therefore was not unethical. (The full text of the decision is available on CanLII in French).

The article remains up on the Maclean's website, but now it's accompanied by a clarificatory note at the bottom, stating that Maclean's "used Bonhomme as a means of illustrating a story about the province's political culture, and did not intend to disparage the Carnaval in any way".

So if you're planning to caricature Bonhomme, be wary: you may be on the right side of journalistic ethics, but you'll have a snowball’s chance in Hull in the court of public opinion.