Childhood and Early Career
Janette Bertrand grew up in Montréal in a working-class neighbourhood where her parents owned a men’s clothing store. She was the youngest of four children, and the only girl. Through sheer determination, she convinced her parents to let her continue her education after high school. She enrolled in the arts program at the Université de Montréal, where she studied history with the prominent historian and Québec nationalist Father Lionel Groulx.
Bertrand began her career in journalism at the newspaper Le Petit Journal, writing a column called Opinions de femmes that offered a humorous perspective on men’s attitudes in the society of that time. She began writing the paper’s advice column, Le refuge sentimental, in 1950 and continued to write it for the next 17 years. It was the inspiration for the song Madame Bertrand (Dear Madame Bertrand), recorded by Robert Charlebois and Mouffe (Claudine Monfette) in 1969.
Radio Host, Screenwriter and Actor
In the early 1950s, Bertrand joined Radio-Canada as host of the radio show Déjeuner en musique. She then moved on to radio station CKAC, where she and her husband, actor Jean Lajeunesse, hosted the show Jean et Janette. Their next show, Mon mari et nous, marked a first for French-language radio in Canada: taped in their kitchen and dining room, and interrupted by their children coming home from school for lunch, the program brought thousands of delighted listeners right into the heart of the couple’s everyday lives.
At about the same time, Bertrand began her television career, writing and acting for three different broadcasters: Radio-Canada, Télé-Métropole and Radio-Québec (now Télé-Québec). A leading figure in Québec television, she took an innovative approach to writing for television dramas and serials (see French-Language Television Drama). Her simple, direct style struck a chord with viewers, who saw themselves in these shows about love, marriage and family issues. Drawing on her own experience and the hundreds of letters that she received through her advice column, Bertrand was never at a loss for inspiration. The series Grand-papa, Toi et moi and Quelle famille! (the last of which featured Bertrand, Lajeunesse, their children and their dog) painted touching portraits of family life at that time.
As years went on, Bertrand began writing poignant dramas that shattered taboos and fearlessly broached ideas considered daring at the time. She touched on topics never before addressed on Québec television, such as sexual relationships, AIDS, suicide, gambling, violence against women, incest, loneliness and aging. She became the first Québec journalist to discuss homosexuality openly on television (see also Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Canada). For many years, two of her programs — the 52-episode dramatic series Avec un grand A (1986–96) and the talk show Parler pour parler — were among the most watched on Québec television. They painted a realistic portrait of Québec society and how it was changing, including the status of women and women’s liberation, and helped to launch the careers of many Québec actors. Bertrand won numerous Prix Gémeaux for the two programs, including Best Writing for a Dramatic Series and Best Program Host.
In theatre, Janette Bertrand made her mark with two important plays, Moi Tarzan, toi Jane and Dis-moi le si j’dérange. These works had a definite impact, not only because of their subjects (sexism and the loneliness of old age), but also because of the intensity of the actors’ performances and the emotions that they portrayed. Bertrand began teaching playwriting at the Institut national de l’image et du son (INIS), in Montréal, in 1996.
Over the years, Janette Bertrand has published a variety of books, from the cookbook Les Recettes de Janette (first published in 1968 and reprinted in 2005) to the novel Avec un grand A (1990) to her autobiography Ma vie en trois actes (2004). Her novel Le Bien des miens came out in 2007, followed by Le Cocon in2009. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, she published a triptych of novels entitled Lit double that deals with the lives of several generations of couples.
Long recognized for her progressive stances on social issues and her role in educating the public about them, Janette Bertrand has left a profound mark on television and other media in Québec. In keeping with her social commitment, she has served as honorary president of fundraising campaigns for numerous community and service projects.
In 2013, Bertrand wrote a letter in support of the Québec Values Charter proposed by the PQ government of Pauline Marois. The letter was co-signed by 20 other women, including Djemila Benhabib, Denise Filiatrault, Chantal Renaud, Denise Robert and Julie Snyder. They called themselves the “Janettes’” an implicit reference to the “Yvettes” affair that turned the tide of the 1980 Québec Referendum. Some of Bertrand’s subsequent statements concerning the Values Charter were roundly criticized in the media, but the letter nevertheless launched the public debate on this subject and focused it on the issue of equality between men and women.
In 2014, a three-part documentary based on Bertrand’s autobiography Ma vie en trois actes aired on the biographical documentary series Les grands reportages – Personnalités on Radio-Canada news channel Ici RDI. The show was a finalist in the 2015 Prix Gémeaux competition in the category Best Documentary Program or Series (Biography or Portrait). Bertrand plans to follow up her three-act autobiography with a fourth installment, to be published in the near future.
Honours and Awards
- Miss Radio-Télévision, Gala Artis (1964)
- Woman of the Century, Salon de la femme, Montréal (1990)
- Silver Medal, Mouvement national des Québécois (1991)
- Knight of the Ordre national du Québec (1992)
- Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement (Broadcasting), Governor General's Performing Arts Awards (2000)
- Tribute, Cinémathèque québécoise (2001)
- Officer of the Order of Canada (2002)
- Chevalier of the Ordre de La Pléiade (2002)
- Fight Against Homophobia Award (since 2014, the Laurent McCutcheon Award), Fondation Émergence (2003)
- Condorcet Dessaulles Award, Mouvement laïque québécois (2003)
- Tribute, Femmes du cinéma, de la télévision et des médias numériques (2005)
- Prix Gémeaux (2005)
- Readers’ Choice Award for her autobiography Ma vie en trois actes, Salon du livre de Montréal ‒ La Presse (2005)
- Doctor of Letters honoris causa, Université Laval (2006‒07)
- Guy Mauffette Award for Radio and Television, Prix du Québec (2011)