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After allegations against Win Butler, an existential crisis lingers for Montréal

Sarah Gonzales for NPR

"I usually write," Élise Jetté laughs. "It's hard to speak about a very emotional subject like this one."

The freelance music journalist had always been a fan of Arcade Fire. More than just one of her favorite bands, Arcade Fire defined her career. The band that made her a music journalist. As a young student at Université de Sherbrooke, she had gone to three shows, back-to-back, before the release of The Suburbs, the band's Grammy-winning record.

"Being at their show at the time had the same energy as being at church in front of a priest," Jetté says. "We were all there, in front of them, glorifying them. They were... I don't want to say gods... but they were so highly respected and loved!"

Since forming in 2001, Arcade Fire had been one of the brightest gems in Montréal's musical crown. Led by Win Butler, an American who grew up in Texas, and Régine Chassagne, a Francophone Québécoise with Haitian roots, the band symbolizes the reality for many Montréalais and Montréalaises: Living in a city that mixes French and English in every aspect of its being. A city where people come to find themselves through cold winters and hot summers, through language barriers that are erased in gatherings. Living in a city that prides itself on its cultural scene and mostly its music, whether it is produced in French or English. For the last two decades, Arcade Fire has been the most visible export of that scene.

But since the end of August, the Montréal music scene has had to reckon with sexual abuse allegations against Butler. To quote Pitchfork's shocking investigative piece, three women alleged "sexual interactions with Butler that they came to feel were inappropriate given the gaps in age, power dynamics, and context in which they occurred." The story also alleged that Butler sexually assaulted a fourth person, who is gender-fluid, "twice in 2015, when they were 21 and he was 34."

In a response, communicated through New York-based crisis public relations expert Risa Heller, Butler acknowledged the sexual interactions, but claimed they were consensual:

"While these relationships were all consensual, I am very sorry to anyone who I have hurt with my behavior," Butler wrote. "As I look to the future, I am continuing to learn from my mistakes and working hard to become a better person, someone my son can be proud of. [...] I'm sorry I wasn't more aware and tuned in to the effect I have on people — I f***** up, and while not an excuse, I will continue to look forward and heal what can be healed, and learn from past experiences."

In November, a fifth woman came forward to allege an "ongoing abusive relationship."

While many outlets reported the news right away and had extensive coverage in the days following, the reaction in Canada seemed delayed. This wasn't the first time someone from the Canadian music scene had been accused of sexual harassment and probably wouldn't be the last. However, this situation felt especially dire. Butler is a star who both enabled and troubled the growth of a scene that has been recognized globally for its creative talent. He represented something more than just a beloved hometown artist — he's an international star who helped earn the Montréal scene a global reputation.

Jetté's story could be the story of many other people living in Montréal. Everybody who lives in the city has a story about the band. But since the allegations came to light, Arcade Fire has become a synonym for something darker, something even the people evolving around them couldn't see coming. This time around, the question lingered: How and why did this happen?

In Québec, 'we glorify them.'

Olivier Lalande is no stranger to the Montréal music scene. Before working as an online content editor, he was a music journalist and one of the first to interview Arcade Fire before its big break.

"Around this time, in 2003, there was already a cult around them in the underground scene," Lalande says. "I was a freelance music journalist in charge of the music section of Nightlife and I used to spend time on a forum called Montréal Shows. This forum is where it all started. Every time Arcade Fire would perform, people would go nuts. I was curious."

After the release of its first album, Funeral, in 2004, the band quickly gained attention from mainstream media across the world. The following year, David Carr, one of the most prominent pop culture columnists in the United States, profiled Montréal for his New York Times column. Carr described the city as the breeding ground for a creative, out-of-the-ordinary music scene: "Being the biggest destination [for music] in a region almost guarantees an influx of musically inclined, disaffected young people to both play in and listen to bands. Bad weather helps, because it keeps songwriters inside and bands rehearsing. And perhaps most importantly, a nascent musical scene requires lots of cheap real estate for musicians and their fans to hang out and play in."

Carr's article, for the most part, existed because of Arcade Fire's newfound glory on the international scene. In the nearly two decades since, the band's released six albums total, performed on Saturday Night Live five times and toured internationally. In 2011, The Suburbs won the Polaris Music Prize as well as album of the year for both the Juno Awards and the 53rd Grammy Awards.

"When you'd walk around Montréal and saw members of Arcade Fire on the street, you would feel extremely special," Jetté says. "You know, we [Québécois and Québécoise people] have this connection with our artists. There's cultural belonging. As soon as someone who comes from our home shines abroad, we go crazy. We've done it with Céline Dion, and we've done it with Xavier Dolan. We've done it with many artists. Our Québec TV series are translated into many languages. A lot of Québec culture is found elsewhere because it is distinct from Canada. It has a color; it has a particular flavor. When we succeed globally, it makes us exponentially proud, here in Québec."

Jetté's words are echoed by Lalande, who confirms the godlike state of artists in the French-speaking province. Lalande mentions how albums are announced in the province: Instead of a sortir ("release"), artists offrir ("offering"), as if they were gifting us their talent rather than releasing their work.

"Look at any variety show in Québec," Lalande explains. "Every time there's a popular artist who's a guest, it feels like ... Christ has come back to deliver us from our sins. I know I'm exaggerating, but there's a lot of this. We glorify them."

The heavy, religious lingo is no mistake: French-Canadian Catholic history looms large in Québec, but that language has, over time, come to describe cultural products, too. This underlines a bigger issue: the systematic glorification of artists and their perceived infallible behavior through the eyes of fans, making it easier for them to be abusive toward those who love them unconditionally.

A culture of silence lets abusers run free.

Maryse Bernard, known as Maryze, a young up-and-coming artist from the Montréal scene, explains how disappointing the allegations were when she read the news: "It's disheartening, especially for people who saw Arcade Fire as a very fun-loving, positive community. Because then it's, like, 'Oh, even the good ones here have stories that come out.' So you wonder kind of like, who in the scene can you trust?"

In Montréal, artists help and mentor each other in order to export their talents outside of the city.

"Montréal was always this kind of cultural mecca of Canada," Bernard says. "I think there has been this kind of myth of Montréal, especially in the heyday of Arcade Fire, of that scene that was very artsy and free and welcoming and, you know, open to all people. A city where you could be yourself no matter how freaky your art was. It was a place to explore creativity."

It's just this weird unwritten rule that [abuse] is just gonna happen, that you'll have to deal with this if you want to get in.

To most of the people who spoke for this article, the accusations against Win Butler came as a surprise. The band was known for taking a stand on social issues, most notably by supporting initiatives in Haiti. Régine Chassagne, the band's lead singer and Butler's wife, co-founded KANPE, an organization that brings help to underserved rural communities in Haiti.

"They were very much involved in the Montréal community," adds Bernard. "They were the kind of artists that, you know, smaller artists would hang out with. And in some ways, that's great if they could offer forms of mentorship, because many young artists need help and be reassured that they don't need to jump through all these hoops to be in this industry. You can do what feels good for you. But it's when big artists [like Arcade Fire] take that [relationship] to their advantage that these things [like abuse] are happening."

Bernard says a culture of silence exists in the Canadian scene, where abused people decide to stay silent to preserve their careers. As if there is a general understanding that these things will happen in someone's career.

"It's just this weird unwritten rule that [abuse] is just gonna happen, that you'll have to deal with this if you want to get in," Bernard says. "You're going to have to deal with a certain amount of it. Some people will treat you badly, especially if you're starting out and you don't want to rock the boat."

Bernard mentions that artists have been talking more and denouncing sexual abuse in the music scene more, but there's still a level of fear that careers will be tarnished or that they won't be taken seriously. This silence lets abusers roam free in the scene without apparent consequences.

"We see them at a panel or a festival, and they're just like hanging around. I'm like, 'How many people is this making uncomfortable? How many people know that this is a bad person that we should be careful around? And that shouldn't really have access to the community anymore? And they're still just here, like nothing?' " Bernard notes.

Courageous and resilient, Bernard isn't a stranger to all of this. She herself has suffered abuse in the industry by someone she's not yet willing to name. "I'm still afraid to call out my abusers within the music industry, you know, and for what? I do feel that I'm in a position where I would be believed and that I would be taken seriously, but I'm still scared of the repercussions. I even hear myself, you know, like metering my words and calculating some responses because I don't want to, like, I don't want to put myself in an unsafe position."

'With Arcade Fire, it was like questioning something that was bigger than us.'

When the Pitchfork story was published on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022 — coincidentally, at the start of election season in Québec — Canadian media took the weekend to report the news. La Presse, a major Québécois news source, released a short report on the allegations that evening and the CBC ran a story the next day on TV. After Pitchfork's follow-up featuring a fifth allegation, only one major Canadian media outlet (TVA and Journal de Montréal through QMI Press Agency, all three entities owned by Québécor, a media conglomerate) featured the story in French. With scant coverage on the allegations, consequences were practically nonexistent, which only adds to the culture of silence in the music industry.

"We saw the CBC fail to have an online-accessible story about Butler until, like, a day or two after the investigation broke," explains Toronto-based pop culture critic Jill Krajewski. "Our national broadcaster didn't run a TV story [until Sunday night], and the fact that the [La Presse] story broke at 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening in the Québec market makes it not accessible for everyone."

Finally, I decided that Arcade Fire wasn't worthy of my admiration anymore.

Québécois people are protective of their unique cultural exports. Lalande explains how this cultural pride has an impact on journalism, mostly on reporting cultural affairs.

"A culture journalist, reporter or columnist cannot bring up a public figure's dark side in just any circumstance," says Lalande. "First, most media wouldn't even consider that to be their job. Second, fact-checking takes a certain editorial structure that I don't think most outlets have. It's hard news, it is the job of an investigative journalist, not an arts one. It is not seen as their role."

While this statement brings up the difficulty of reporting on allegations of abuse in the music industry, it also shows the lack of weight these stories pull in major media. But for Élise Jetté, the reason for the lack of coverage might have stemmed from something else — a sort of mourning process.

"Yes, it took time for everyone to react," Jetté says. "We all needed to absorb the shocking news. As much for the real fans as the local media. We had to take a minute, sit down and digest it to be able to comment on it."

Jetté remembers another moment in Québec's music history: the #MeToo allegations of summer 2020. A prominent Québécois label, Dare to Care Records, was thrown into disarray after sexual abuse allegations against one of its artists, Bernard Adamus, were brought to light. The head of the label, Eli Bissonnette, resigned after being accused of protecting Adamus for the past 10 years, knowing that the artist had behaved in problematic ways toward his fans. But they weren't the only ones. More than a dozen people from the music industry were outed, including David Desrosiers, who left Simple Plan as a result.

While public response to these allegations was swift, those against Butler raised an existential question.

"With Arcade Fire, it was like questioning something that was bigger than us," Jetté, who writes for several Montréal-based outlets, says. "It was as if you were asking everyone to kill their darlings. We started questioning: How did this happen? Why did we not see anything? It makes me question my professional roots and my personal attachment to music."

When news broke, the young journalist took a step back to evaluate what was happening and how she felt about the story. She mentions always believing victims, whether they seem trustworthy or not; believing them and offering them support, rather than questioning them. Her feminist beliefs are greater than her love for Arcade Fire. As much as she loved the music, she came to a painful realization.

"Finally, I decided that Arcade Fire wasn't worthy of my admiration anymore."

The only way to change the industry is through education and safe spaces.

"What upset me so much is when I read the article, I was like 'Oh, [Win Butler] used the Pop vs. Jocks event to prey on this young woman who was barely 18 or whatever. You know, that was kind of f***** up!"

Daniel Seligman's voice is thick with anger and disappointment. The Creative Director of POP Montréal, a massive annual not-for-profit cultural event that showcases emerging and independent talent from Montréal and across the world, felt betrayed. Not only was 2016 the last year of POP Montréal working with Arcade Fire for Pop vs. Jocks, a friendly charity basketball game between indie artists from major bands, but the whole experience left a bad taste in his mouth. According to the Pitchfork investigation, Stella (a pseudonym), one of Butler's alleged victims, was contacted by the singer after taking pictures at the event.

"[Butler] had a pattern," says Seligman. "He took advantage of them and the festival! For me, that was s*****, because we were trying to raise money for a local charity. That was actually the last time we worked with the band. That whole experience was actually kind of hard. We were working really hard and we kind of felt slightly taken advantage of. He wasn't very nice to work with; he was slightly abusive. And then after reading that article, I was taken aback."

For Seligman, the only way to change the industry is through education and creating safe spaces in which people will not be subjected to inappropriate behaviors.

"I think it's important just to have an outward display of policies that are slightly symbolic. It shows the people participating [in your events] that the organization is trying to do something that keeps us safer. I think that it is important to have your policies up on your website, making sure you are listening to people, fans and other artists who have issues."

Jill Krajewski and Maryse Bernard also mention that whisper networks — that is, networks of people sharing information about sexual abusers — have emerged across the country. Olivier Lalande remembers a much different climate in the aughts. Rumors of questionable behavior were common, but didn't raise eyebrows. Some artists were even upfront about it.

"Without being aware of the abuse," Lalande says, "I remember being at parties, hearing artists making nasty jokes about the girls they slept with on tour, while they were actually in relationships with people I knew. [...] You'd want to question their behavior, but the answer was always the same: 'He is an artist. We can't really understand what he is going through...' I noticed this a lot."

But for Bernard, another aspect of the Pitchfork article that got her attention was the young age of the victims. Something she can relate to from her own experience in her late teens and early 20s with older people in the Canadian scene.

"A lot of these experiences happen to younger people who haven't had enough life experiences," says Bernard. "It's not like they don't know that certain things aren't okay, but they haven't learned, yet, some behaviors are actually bad and need to be called out. If people are telling you this is just how it is, you're more inclined to believe them. When you're younger, it's easier to take advantage of younger, bright-eyed artists [or fans]."

But even as members of the industry want change, an invisible force remains.

Stories of abuse in the music industry prompted Sarah Armiento to start Hot Tramp Records, a women-only label, in response to the inappropriate behavior she experienced in the music industry.

"When I was in Toronto, I got unsolicited pictures from men, people I worked with, and other types of experiences," says Armiento. "This is what made me want to start a company like Hot Tramp. When I read things like this happening, it makes me remember why I started my label."

Armiento completely understands why women would want to work exclusively with other women in the music industry, who can understand and support each other. She tries to make them feel safe within her label and their work. And she isn't the only one. After Dare to Care's turmoil, Béatrice Martin (aka Cœur de pirate), one of the label's major successes, purchased and renamed the label Bravo Musique, vowing to change things in the industry. In an interview for Exclaim.ca, she said, "A lot of stuff was swept under the rug or nobody did anything about it. I want people to come to me and say, 'This is happening,' and I want to be able to do something about it. It's about respect and decency. Our work extends everywhere: It extends to how we behave like artists and elsewhere. It wasn't clear to everyone where work started and ended, and now it's clearer. So that's good. Boundaries are important."

But, even as members of the industry want to move forward and change, it seems like an invisible force keeps on bringing controversies of its own. Arcade Fire continued its North American tour, though Feist and Beck dropped off as openers. On Sept. 19, 2022 — just three weeks after the first wave of accusations against Butler — Montréal artist Pierre Kwenders, ended his acceptance speech for the Polaris Music Prize by thanking Butler and Arcade Fire for their contribution to his album. Although one radio host at Radio-Canada asked Kwenders about the speech and some other actors in the industry mentioned the incident in tweets, the moment went practically unnoticed.

"That already tells you the problem with Canada's music industry having a culture of silence," Jill Krajewski says. "People made a deliberate choice not to call it out. [...] Why did [Pierre Kwenders] bring up someone accused of sexual assault in a widespread investigation? Were they genuinely thankful for their contribution to their album? That's one thing. But the information [about Arcade Fire and Win Butler] has changed. And it wasn't appropriate to be praising someone accused of sexual assault, certainly not on the platform of Polaris being streamed live on CBC Music, a public-funded media. That was very distasteful."

"If this happened three weeks after the allegations, how can the Canadian fans expect the scene to go forward and change?" Élise Jetté adds. She wonders if artists aren't able to learn from the mistakes of others because they feel protected by the industry. "They aren't afraid of losing their career. I'm vigilant about what is happening in the industry. But they have to get scared of losing something! We need to scare them. They need to be scared of getting caught."

However, acclaim has continued unabated. WE, Arcade Fire's most recent album, was nominated for best alternative music album by the Grammys. The band finished the North American leg of its tour in Montréal to a sold-out crowd. On Jan. 31, the Juno Awards, presented by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, announced Arcade Fire's nomination for group of the year. When the CBC asked for comment about the nomination, CARAS responded: "We look at Arcade Fire's nomination for group of the year as one for the entire band. While we take the allegations very seriously, in this situation, we are also honoring the rest of the band for their success. We hope the allegations against Butler will not detract from the achievements of the other group members."

As awards mount and repercussions do not, Montréal and the Canadian music scene at large are left with one question: Without any real consequences, will these situations keep recurring?

"It's a question I keep asking myself," ends Olivier Lalande.

Yara El-Soueidi is a millennial writer, culture journalist and columnist based in Montréal, Canada, where she covers the local cultural scene for Canadian and American media.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yara El-Soueidi
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