Monday, June 27, 2005

La fête nationale

Quebec gets an extra holiday in the summer. It's St. Jean Baptiste day or La fête nationale. This year it took place last Friday (June 24th). The rest of Canada also takes Canada Day (July 1st) off. I think they get that as a holiday here as well.

It originated in France as a pagan holiday celebrating the summer solstice. When King Clovis started making christianity official, he turned the holiday in to a celebration of St. John the Baptist (the dude who baptised Jesus and I think later got betrayed by Salomé and had his head cut off). The original french settlers brought the holiday with them to Nouvelle France and maintained it as a patriotic celebration. I think it's not such a big holiday in France anymore, but here, especially with the revolution, it has been installed as one of the biggest holidays of the year.

And it's big! Quebec City and Montreal have huge spectacles (that's concert in french). Montreal actually had two, a free one in Parc Maissoneuve and a pay one on Île st. Hélène. Hundreds of thousands of people attend these shows, wrapped in Quebec flags, fleurs-de-lys painted on their face. I'm sure most of the smaller cities in Quebec have their own spectacles and parades as well. People really party. I imagine there are a lot of people born 9 months after June 24th! At the shows, everybody knows all the lyrics, singing them together with the people on the stage.

Anyways, it's a very nationalistic holiday. I know to a lot of westerners, that must sound weird. It still sounds weird to me. I also heard a few bilinguals scoff at it being called la fête nationale. I'm sure there are many who feel threatened by Quebec nationalism who are not comfortable with the tone of this holiday. Most people, though, from what I read in the english hebdos, are quite happy to have an extra holiday and consider it a great opportunity to party.

I heard an interview with a politician who was encouraging people to come to the spectacle in Montreal. He took great pains to make it clear that this holiday was open to all Quebecers, especially immigrants. The host was asking him some tough questions about this issue, but I still got the sense that the politician was protesting too much. The problem with Quebec nationalism (any nationalism, really) is that it reveals the fuzzy line between cultural pride and exclusion. It's a complex and rich argument, with points on both sides. But Quebec nationalism connects itself back to the original white, french settlers. And that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Many anglophones have families that have been in Quebec for generations. There are also many immigrant groups, especially here in Montreal, who have been here for 2 or 3 generations (Italians and Portuguese specifically) who don't feel included in the fête nationale.

Furthermore, Quebec is bolstering its population with immigration. The government is working hard at educating the new immigrants, in the french language and the Quebecois culture. But you just don't get a sense that someone who moved here from Mexico is going to feel the same connection to Quebecois pop hits from the '70s as someone who grew up with them. Perhaps Quebec's strategy is a bit like the U.S. Unlike the "vertical mosaic" of the rest of Canada, Quebec is trying to fully assimilate its immigrants. Judging by the low-level racism that I see and hear constantly in Montreal, I don't think they are succeeding (more on this issue later).

I don't have many conclusions, beyond that there is a real tension inherent in the fête nationale, but I think the overall postive and festive nature of the culture here will keep the tension at an intellectual level rather than turning the holiday into something divisive.


Uneasy Rhetoric said...

I was in Montréal (Lachine, actually) during the fête last year and had a blast. It would have been more fun if there hadn't been so many bugs; however, everyone was having such a good time and, with few execptions, was tolerant of my poor billingualism. Actually, the most intolerant folks were the anglophones, but I can see how they would feel threatened by the fête. Once I was sure a fight was going to break out, but the francophones just laughed it off.

Anonymous said...

Racism is an issue for all of white Canada but it's important to remember that the racism of Québécois culture was strongly [even artificially] instilled by the oppressive Catholic church. If you compare France of the 1940's and 50's to Québec of the 1940's and 50's it's easy to see how the Catholic church and other detrimental political forces warped the natural development of French Québécois culture. This is a culture that was never meant to develop into racism and conservatism. The farther away Québécois culture gets from the Catholic church and the more it affirms its own political independence; the more Québec begins to resemble what it was always supposed to be: inclusive, cosmopolitan, educated, progressive and ultimately modern. If you consider how little time has passed since Québec began to free itself from the oppressive influence of the Catholic church, it's truly amazing that it's come so far so fast, and it can only get better.

And in its defense, Québec culture in general is far more inclusive than most, despite the fact that it has the most to lose due to its dwindling birthrate [a victim of its own success]. Each year Québec welcomes more immigrants into its society than any other province in Canada. And it also works hard to hold on to them through generous social programs and financial incentives. Contrary to what some Canadians may think [or seek to make others think], Québec is most definitely not a culture that seeks to close itself from the world and reject multiculturalism, quite the opposite.

WeSailFurther said...

That nationalism sounds like a healthy patriotism. You couldn't do it that way down here, as everything has to be intense and fully-flavored. I recall watching (on TV) the Quebec Nordiques play hockey and wondering if there were any people in the building. It was so quiet. Then they scored and the place went nuts.

I can't recall but it was either the Nordiques or the Habs who have fans who sing afer each goal. I love that.

Sigh - I miss hockey.

Anonymous said...

hey, it's august!!!!!

When are we going to hear from you?