Emotional tribute to Cowboys Fringants' Karl Tremblay at Bell Centre

“I love you Karl Tremblay. We love you notre gros,” Marie-Annick Lépine says of her late partner.

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It made perfect sense that the national funeral for Karl Tremblay was held at the Bell Centre Tuesday evening.

Tremblay and Jean-François Pauzé, the founding members of Les Cowboys Fringants, met in the dressing room of the Repentigny Jets, “an obscure junior-B team”, in the words of their official biography. Les Cowboys also sold out many shows over the years at the Canadiens’ rink, just one more example of the incredible popularity of this group.

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Of course Tremblay and Pauzé played hockey. That was the kind of guys they were, the kind of band Les Cowboys Fringants were. Speaking to fans outside the Bell Centre, people kept coming back to the idea that what they loved about Tremblay and his band was that they sang about everyday life in Quebec. Songs about a guy driving his truck across North America, about people going to a demonstration, about people disappointed with modern Quebec, about people concerned about the fate of our troubled planet.

Tremblay died Nov. 15 from prostate cancer.

Jean-François Pauzé, Jérôme Dupras and Marie-Annick Lépine smile, dressed all in black, on stage
Members of Les Cowboys Fringants — from left, Jean-François Pauzé, Jérôme Dupras and Marie-Annick Lépine — look on during an event paying tribute to the late Karl Tremblay, lead singer of the band, at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. Photo by Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press

The 15,000 fans at the Bell Centre lost it when they saw the three surviving original members of Les Cowboys Fringants — Jérôme Dupras, Jean-François Pauzé and Marie-Annick Lépine, Tremblay’s partner and the mother of their two daughters. When they took the stage, there was a three-minute ovation punctuated by — appropriately enough — the Habs cheer of “Olé Olé.”

“We don’t know what happens after you die,” said Pauzé. “But if he saw what’s been happening over the past two weeks, I think in his infinite wisdom, he would say: ‘Voyons donc, calmez-vous, ostie!’”

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Pauzé spoke about how Tremblay was his best friend and his alter-ego. Pauzé wrote the vast majority of the lyrics for Les Cowboys and Tremblay sang them, his rich voice bringing these down-home stories to life.

Lépine was visibly moved by the crowd reaction but still managed to pay a memorable tribute to her partner.

Fans listen and watch in the audience, while in the background, hundreds of lights are visible scattered in the stands
Fans look on during an event paying tribute to the late Karl Tremblay, lead singer with Les Cowboys Fringants, at the Bell Centre. Photo by Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press

“The last week passed very quickly, he experienced unbelievable pain, just unbearable for a human body, to stay with us as long as possible,” said Lépine. “He never complained. His last lucid words, on Tuesday night going into Wednesday, were: ‘I’m going to endure this right to the end Marie for my two daughters.’ I love you Karl Tremblay. We love you notre gros. Our big tree. You’ll stay in our memories for such a long time.

“The first thing we’re afraid of forgetting when someone dies is their voice. But I think we’ll still be hearing yours for a long time.”

Four people perform on stage, with an image of Karl Tremblay in the background
Members of Les Cowboys Fringants perform during an event paying tribute to the late Karl Tremblay, lead singer of the band, at the Bell Centre. Photo by Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press

Dupras talked of the magical night on the Plains of Abraham this summer when Tremblay had to sit down to sing in front of 90,000 fans because he was ailing so badly.

“Walking off stage, I said to (Jean-François), ‘Man, tonight I feel like I was playing with Maurice Richard’,” said Dupras. “With one knee on stage, Karl sang like there was no tomorrow. In two hours, he gave us the definition of the word ‘courage’.”

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François Legault speaks into several news media microphones outside the Bell Centre
Quebec premier Francois Legault, accompanied by his wife Isabelle Brais, makes a statement to reporters outside the Bell Centre Tuesday. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Outside the Bell Centre before the ceremony, Premier François Legault paid tribute to Tremblay.

“It’s incredible what we’ve seen in Quebec since his death, a wave of love, of sadness,” said Legault. “It’s like millions of Quebecers lost a member of their family. The entire nation of Quebec saw itself in the songs of Les Cowboys, in the songs of Karl … so we just want to say ‘thank you Karl’, for bringing Quebecers together around the values that unite us.”

Ianic Letarte came to the funeral with his 22-year-old daughter Léonie and both felt it was important to live this moment together.

“I’m not as much of a fan of Les Cowboys as my father,” said Léonie. “It’s more music for his generation. He always told me it was big when he was in college and now I’m in college and I can listen to the music with my father.”

People in winter coats wait in line outside the main entrance of the Bell Centre
Fans line up outside the national funeral for Cowboys Fringants lead singer Karl Tremblay at the Bell Centre. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Ianic spoke of how he was almost the same age as Tremblay. He’s 48. Tremblay was 47 when he died.

“He sang about daily life,” said Ianic. “He was able to sing about the emotions we all live. People really saw themselves in the songs.”

He really thought Tremblay would recover and was hit hard when he didn’t. He and his daughter have recently lost two family members to cancer, his father and his uncle.

“I listen to his music everyday, so it’s tough,” said Ianic.

A man smiles while wearing a green T-shirt with a graphic from Les Cowboys Fringants' Break Syndical album on it
Dominic Ahier paid tribute to Karl Tremblay by wearing a band T-shirt. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

On radio station 98.5 FM Tuesday evening, Sébastien Fréchette a.k.a. Biz from Loco Locass eloquently spoke of how Tremblay sang for all the people who got up early to head out for a long day of work. He sang for le peuple.

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Three people wave to a large image of Karl Tremblay on a screen on stage
Members of Les Cowboys Fringants wave to a photograph of Karl Tremblay. Photo by Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press

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