It almost felt like Trivia Night at the Embassy of France on Tuesday, to the extent that one couldn't imagine anyone departing the premises that evening without having acquired additional knowledge about Canada and France and the relationship between the two.
Ambassador Kareen Rispal hosted a reception for about 400 guests to celebrate our two countries’ 90 years of diplomatic relations, and our common language, history and values.
It was a party with panache. No sooner had coats been checked than guests had their pictures taken, via instant camera. They were encouraged to hang their snapshots on the giant Christmas tree on display in the entrance hall. Before long, the tree was covered with photos.
Rispal, an unfailingly fashionable diplomat, wore a sparkly, multicoloured cocktail dress that was perfect for the holiday season. “I put on a dress that looks like a Christmas tree,” she said light-heartedly as she officially welcomed guests.
Rispal tested everyone’s knowledge of France and Canada through an interactive game. Guests used their smartphones to answer a series of multiple-choice questions. Their guesses, followed by the correct answers, were projected onto a wall in the Grand Salon, allowing for the group to see how it collectively fared.
The crowd — which included Joe Clark, a former prime minister of Canada and secretary of state for external affairs — did very well.
The game revealed, for example, that the croissant is originally from Austria, and that France imported 1,578 tonnes of Canadian maple syrup last year. Practically everybody knew what address they were at: 42 Sussex Dr.
One question that tripped up most people (except for a brainy six per cent) was: when were women first allowed to wear trousers in Paris. Surprisingly, it's only been legal since 2012, unless riding a bicycle or a horse.
Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau delivered her remarks in French, as did Mélanie Joly, minister of tourism, official languages and la francophonie. Both ministers represent ridings in Quebec.
Special guests included Helen Vari, who was on hand for the unveiling of a plaque recognizing her late husband, George W. Vari, a real estate developer and philanthropist who immigrated to Canada after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. His developments have included building the Tour Montparnasse in Paris.
George was appointed to France’s Legion of Honour, as was Helen, for their unwavering attachment to France and its culture, language and influence, and their roles in strengthening relations between the two counties.
Helen helped to restore the embassy’s birch bark room through funding from a family foundation created by her and her husband. He was also a member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and the Order of Canada.
“My George, as a devoted Canadian and as a loyal friend to France, did everything to foster friendship between our two great countries,” Helen told the room.
“He loved our countries for our shared history, culture and commitment to liberty, democracy and a just society.
“Madam Ambassador, I am deeply touched and would like to express my gratitude for your extraordinary gesture. Allow me to say from my heart,” she said, before switching to the French language to wish eternal friendship between our two countries.
Rispal is France's first female ambassador to Canada.
Guests included Dr. Duncan Stewart, CEO and scientific director of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and executive vice president of research at The Ottawa Hospital; Christina Tessier, president and CEO of Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation; National Capital Commission CEO Mark Kristmanson, National Gallery CEO Marc Mayer, and Chamber of Marine Commerce president Bruce Burrows, who serves on the board of the Vimy Foundation, which preserves and protects Canada's First World War legacy, as symbolized with the victory at Vimy Ridge in northern France, in April 1917.
From Ottawa's fashion world was Marie Anik Desmarais, long-time owner of Anik Boutique on Cumberland Street.
Rispal kept her remarks light and brief, and remained uniformly positive on where the world might be in another 90 years, in 2108. There's one Franco-Canadian dispute that will surely remain unsettled, she said good-humouredly, before joking about Canada trying to get its classic Quebec dish, poutine, on the UNESCO world heritage list. “Not even in your dreams,” she quipped, to the amusement of the room.
France’s gastronomic cuisine is recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural treasure.