Montreal has a rich and complex history as a bilingual city. Since the British conquest of French Canada in 1760, the city has been the centre of debate surrounding the two languages and a host of different cultures. This changed significantly in 1977, with the passage of Bill 101 which made French the sole official language of Quebec.
The city’s football club, Montreal Impact, feels firmly in the hands of its French-speaking majority. The fleur de lys features prominently on the club crest, the official emblem of Quebec and a link to its French ancestry, and sits below their motto Tout pour gagner on a bleu shirt. The ultras who gather behind each goal at the Stade Saputo are far more European in character than they are North American and almost the entirety of their song book is in French; any announcements on the tannoy in English merely seem a formality to appease their MLS overlords.
Montreal are the outliers of the MLS - they genuinely feel like a separate club with a distinct identity from the rest of the league. The squad is shaped by this character too, with many either Canadian or Francophone, none more so than captain and local hero Patrice Bernier.
Watching the Impact against New York Red Bulls at the beginning of June, Bernier charged around the pitch like only a man representing his home city could. His performances are characterised by grit and graft, aggression and drive; he is the engine room and the dirty work in one. Such is his style, it's surprising to learn that this legend of Montreal is no youngster but in the middle of his 37th year.
Born over the Saint Lawrence River from Montreal in the municipality of Brossard, Bernier was brought up on football. His father, Jean, would go on to become a Quebec Soccer Hall of Famer but spent his early life establishing the Challenge Brossard, a youth soccer tournament that drew teams from all over Quebec. Jean weaned the young Patrice on stories of Pele and the great Brazil 1970 that had inspired him to get into football. “I saw all the goals, all the games, and then ’82 and ’86, Brazil were probably better than the 1970 team but they never won — the best team that never won”, Patrice remembers in conversation with Grantland in 2013. So immersed was he in the soccer setup of Brossard that it was where he met his future wife, Melissa Barile, a teammate of his sister’s. Barile has had a successful career in her own right, winning the provincial and national over-30 women’s championships last year with AS Varennes.
Despite the relative hotbed of soccer in Brossard, Quebec’s first sport will always be ice hockey. Patrice was a decent player himself and played both sports until the age of 18, appearing for local sides Val d'Or Foreurs and Sherbrooke Faucons. Balancing this busy schedule from a young age, he learnt the discipline required to become a professional athlete. "I could have a tournament where I played hockey in the morning and then a soccer tournament in the afternoon”, he told the NHL in 2012. “It was a bit draining - 365 days of switching from soccer to hockey, sometimes in the same day.”
Hockey’s loss would be football’s gain. Bernier played two seasons of college soccer over the US border at Syracuse University in the NCAA, where he started every game he played in, before returning to Montreal and signing with the Impact when they were still in the United Soccer League. Bernier was drawn towards Europe though, particularly the north of the continent where the colder conditions suited the game he had gotten used to in Montreal. He spent six seasons in Norway, first at Moss FK and then Tromso, within the Arctic Circle. There he recorded the best stamina test results in the history of the club, an attribute Bernier would carry with him for the rest of his career. He also had a spell at Kaiserslautern in Germany and most notably in Denmark, for FC Nordsjælland, where he was voted Player of the Year in 2010 by the supporters.
However, Quebec came calling back for its favourite son. In May 2010, Montreal got the go-ahead to be the 19th MLS team with 2012 their inaugural season. The Impact operations team were making overtures to Bernier while he was still in Denmark to come home and the offer was too good to refuse. He returned to Montreal, not just to be a player but very much to be a club ambassador. As the only Francophone in the squad - and the only Canadian in the new starting XI at the time - Bernier was thrust into the spotlight as the embodiment of the new side. He handled many of the media requests for the new MLS club and by a matter of convention, all interviews were first conducted in French.
While Patrice is a Québécois through and through, he also represents a connection the wider Francophone community. His parents are Haitian immigrants, who arrived in Montreal in 1971, so his father could study at HEC Montréal, a French-language business school. They were part of a wider trend of Haitian immigration to Canada, as many fled the brutal dictatorship of Francois Duvalier. Quebec became an obvious destination, given its shared language and Francophone culture with Haiti and today, there are over 130,000 Haitians in Canada, 90% of them in Quebec.
Since his return, Bernier has been making a greater effort to engage with his Haitian roots and give something back. This February he organised a celebrity futsal match called “Patrice Bernier et ses amis” to raise money for the Maison d’Haiti, a Montreal-based organisation for cultural integration for whom he is an ambassador. He and his father have also helped organise programmes to send surplus football equipment to Haiti to help support the game there.
As the game against Red Bulls neared its conclusion, with the Impact 1-0 up but the result far from confirmed, Bernier sprinted towards the touchline to try and keep a ball in play and maintain the pressure. He kept the ball in bounds but momentum carried him on and Bernier screeched into the sunken dug-out. This was typical of the man's performance, putting his body on the line for the team but it appeared this time he may have caused himself serious damage.
As only live sport can, a buoyant crowd was reduced from bellowing chants and banging drums to complete silence in seconds. Players from both sides surrounded the dugout, peering to see if their fallen friend or foe was ok, while the fourth official beckoned towards the stretcher. Thankfully that was not needed and Bernier was helped off on the shoulder of physios. He applauded the Ultras who were chanting his name as he hobbled off down the tunnel.
His connection to the city, and to the pre-MLS Impact, will always make Bernier a fan favourite. Thankfully, the Legend of Montreal lives to fight another day, although he has stated this will be his 18th and final season as a player, a coaching job at the Impact awaits and it’s hard to think of a wiser member of this cohort to pass on his experience to the next generation. He will finish his career where he started, in a city he loves and for a club he helped to put on North America’s football map.