Vive la Fête nationale – it’s our holiday too

l'Autre Saint-Jean at Parc du Pélican: Lots of bright lights in your face

CTV Montreal had one of their viewer polls on Thursday asking whether they plan to celebrate the Fête nationale. The result: 91% said no.

Those who believe in the stereotype of CFCF viewers, that they’re hardcore federalist anglophones who despise Quebec and the French language, won’t be surprised by that number. But I was. (And it wasn’t exactly a fluke either, their viewer polls, though voluntary and unscientific, still attract more than 1,000 responses on a regular basis, and this was no exception.)

It’s kind of depressing. Like me, many anglos complain that they’re not made to feel included in Quebec society, but then when given the opportunity to participate in it, they turn it down.

On Thursday night, I headed to Parc du Pélican in Rosemont for l’Autre Saint-Jean. You might remember that as the event that attracted a lot of controversy for inviting two anglophone acts to play there. That’s how I learned about it, and when the organizers stuck to their guns and kept them on the ticket caved to public pressure and re-invited them after caving to lesser public pressure by uninviting them in the first place, I decided to show my support and attend the party. There were some boos for the artists, but also lots of cheers, as francophone Quebec does not speak with one voice.

I went back this year, not because they had any anglo bands on the ticket, but because I was free that night and there was this big free rock concert happening, so why not? I got to listen to some Galaxie and Karkwa with thousands of other people in weather that varied from clear to drizzle.

At one point during the night, as I was tweeting beside the stage, I got tapped on the shoulder and looked up to see the night’s emcee, MC Gilles introducing himself to me. Since he has 20,000 twitter followers and I only have about 3,000 (and because he’s on half a dozen TV and radio stations and I’m on none), he’s more famous than me, so it was an honour to meet him. I also encountered some other interesting characters.

But the night was about the music, not networking with the long-haired masses. As Karkwa was on stage, they invited on a special guest, Patrick Watson, to perform with them. Many in the crowd were already aware of the surprise, but he still got a huge cheer when he was brought on stage. They performed a song in French, and another in English, and the crowd ate it up. It didn’t matter what language they sang in (and really, at a rock concert, few people can make out the lyrics anyway), that front row of young girls wanted to take these men home with them.

Rue Frontenac’s Philippe Renault was there (this event attracted a lot less journalistic attention than it did in 2009), and summarizes the night. The story includes a photo of Watson in a Quebec flag T-shirt, which the fans appreciated.

That’s not to say the crowd was anti-separatist or anything. Speakers who advocated Quebec independence (including now-former-PQ MNA Louise Beaudoin, who represents Rosemont) were heavily cheered as well when they gave their vive-le-Québec-libre speeches. It’s silly to think that pro-sovereignty speeches will ever be absent from St. Jean festivities (though it would be nice if divisive political speeches in general would be toned down a bit). But this event was about people wanting to have some fun, celebrate their music and their heritage, and welcome all to the party.

And yet, I could easily have been the only anglo among the 9,000 people in that park.

I’m an anglophone Quebecer. I can’t change my birthplace, my family history or my mother tongue, nor do I have any desire to. I live here because I love this city, warts and all, and I love Quebec. I celebrate its culture and its people, whether they speak English, French or Klingon. I watch its television, read its newspapers and talk to its people, and the vast majority of those things are in French.

It’s days like this that I wish I wasn’t seen as some exception to the rule. I wish more anglophones took a serious interest in some of the great stuff that’s produced by Quebec artists. I wish as many anglophones could identify Véronique Cloutier, Éric Salvail, Damien Robitaille and Louis-José Houde as can identify Rufus Wainwright, Leonard Cohen, Terry DiMonte and Mutsumi Takahashi. (I also wish the same was true for francophones.)

And I wish more anglophones would take the initiative to make themselves part of Quebec’s culture as much as I wish that Quebec’s culture would open its arms to us.

I could go on, but I want to go to this party at Parc Maisonneuve. I hope I’ll see you there.

Bonne Fête nationale à tous les québécois. Vive le Québec ivre!

Fête nationale at Maisonneuve Park

UPDATE (after the Fête nationale at Parc Maisonneuve): I got to the concert pretty late. Fortunately I recorded it on Radio-Canada so I didn’t miss anything. I saw the best parts in person, including a tribute that Rufus and Martha Wainwright did to their mother, Kate McGarrigle, who died in January 2010. They were warmly greeted by the crowd after Guy A. Lepage’s introduction that described McGarrigle as building a bridge between Quebec’s two solitudes.

They sang in French, songs that the crowd wasn’t familiar with (certainly not as much as they were with those of Éric Lapointe and Robert Charlebois), which was probably why many who were far from the stage didn’t pay much attention.

There’s a bit of controversy here, in that the Wainwrights were apparently not allowed to sing in English. That’s still unfortunate, and probably more a symptom of the fact that this concert is run by the highly political and anti-anglophone Société Saint-Jean Baptiste than evidence of a desire to censor minority cultures in Quebec from the government or artists. I think the Wainwrights’ choice of songs was good, and they should probably have been sung regardless, but it would have been nice if that choice was theirs.

All that said, it was nice to see them there, to see Kate McGarrigle recognized as an important Quebec artist by Lepage and the concert, and an acknowledgment that anglo Quebecers are Québécois too.

On my way to the metro station afterward, I noticed that a group behind me was chatting in English. So I guess I wasn’t the only anglo there.

Maybe Quebec is changing. By baby steps, to be sure, but still changing. And dare I say it, it’s changing for the better.

24 thoughts on “Vive la Fête nationale – it’s our holiday too

  1. Kevin

    A couple possibilities spring to mind.
    1) CTV’s audience is old, and no way are they going to any concert let alone one where they fear being assaulted by the RRQ.
    2) voters knew the weather would suck

    And that’s it. I went to a small event with my kids today and they were happy to wave flags all afternoon. No politics. But it’s going to take some time before St Jean is perceived as anything BUT a political rally

  2. Vahan

    As my name suggests I am a Canadian with ethnic roots. Never really accepted by the French Canadians as one of them even though I am born in Quebec and still live here and have raised a family in Quebec while the rest of my friends and relatives have headed west on the 401. My kids are grown now and I am seeing a whole new generation of Quebecers. A group of youth who accept each other for the person they are. Heck, my son speaks to his girlfriend in English and she responds in French, both without missing a beat. I did participate in festivities today in the park and enjoyed it, but at the same time my anger of not being accepted in the past came up in my mind. But I have to realize that the older generation were fed a line by politicians who were only looking out to fatten themselves at the trough and they invented anger and fanned the flames of hate. The marketing of hate was so well crafted by these old men that it has taken time for people to see through the bullshit. People are coming around to realize we are all citizens and we share common goals. I love the Quebec culture and actually feel we should spread it too the rest of Canada. Imagine a nationwide holiday on the 24th. Now someone should sell that.

  3. Nick Maibroda

    Hitting the nail on the head as always. Enjoy both your interview with Terry and your recap of St. Jean. I just got back from St. Hubert where the Cowboys Fringants played a great two hour set. Apart from myself and three of my friends, I think we were the only english people there. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the music, the company, the fireworks and some beers. Quebec has so much to offer, it’s sad that some people will ignore some things just because it’s not their language of choice.

    Keep up the good work Fagstein!

  4. AlexH

    I have spent years trying to make myself part of the Quebec culture, part of the being the Quebecker that I was born as. I speak both languages without issue, watch french TV and pretty much live a multicultural life.

    Sadly, as you say Steve, it is too bad that the other side won’t open their arms to us. Rather, we are looked at as the “maudit blokes”, the people who stole the referndum (along with those immigrant types… shame on them!). We get treated like second class citizens in our own country, and have fewer rights than people who live in the neighboring provinces.

    The St Jean shows are often impressive in their scale, but that is all lost to me when someone walks up and gives us the old “vive la Quebec libre” chant, every time they pop up an image of Rene Levesque on the screens, or every time they take exception to anything Canadian that gets involved.

    I don’t feel includes, I don’t feel invited, and I don’t feel welcome at any of the St Jean parties. In fact, my allophone / immigrant friends seem much more welcome at these festivities, as some in the Separatist movement hope to appeal to these people the next time around, and use their presence to suggest that Quebec is moving forward to separation. Pure white anglos are just not particularly welcome to that event.

    It’s sad, I never enjoy being a second class citizen in what is otherwise generally a first class city.

  5. Joe Clark

    So essentially, now they’re allowing a few anglos to attend their parties. But in practice, why should they? Do whites show up for Khalsa Day?

    1. Aaron

      “So essentially, now they’re allowing a few anglos to attend their parties.”

      Let’s get something straight. Who’s party are we talking about? Is the 24th la Fête de la Société Saint-Jean Baptiste? I thought it was la Fête nationale… as in a celebration of and for Québec. Oh, right, anglos aren’t party of Québec, according to some apparently.

    2. Aaron

      Just to clarify, I’m not accusing you (Joe Clark) of this, rather I’m just confronting the anti-anglo sentiment out there.

    3. David Pinto

      Well, I am a white person, Jewish to be specific, and I showed up for Baisakhi, which is, I believe, the correct name for what Joe Clark refers to as Khalsa Day.
      Great parade, great Indian food, lots of friendly people, lots of children.
      I even spent some time in the gurdwara — the place where Sikhs pray.

  6. rhodia

    I don’t feel welcome at St Jean celebrstions, but on the other hand I don’t celebrate Canada either. Why should I be ashamed of not liking patriotic events of any persuasion. Doesn’t mean I’m not integrated — I even did my B.A. at a francophone university, and how many anglos can say that?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I wonder what would have happened if someone went to the parade with a Canadian flag…

      Probably the same thing that happens when someone shows up to a Canada Day event with the Patriotes flag.

          1. felix

            you’d be surprised, I’ve been told that it’s ridiculous for me to celebrate this holiday. Last year, Robert Charlebois was Sudbury’s (my hometown) St Jean show, and the reactions I got when I told people really surprised me.

  7. rc

    I suppose that old myths you’re not Quebecois unless you are Francophone and white doesn’t help one feel integrated or proud enough to attend SJB festivities. It’s only been in the last 10 years that the nationalist movement has tried to bring people who didn’t fit the norm into the movement and it was only because they realized that it was a necessary evil.

    Plus, people may not feel comfortable attending a politicized event where things may get out of hand. All you need is one drunk asshole (anglo or francophone) to start a fight over language. I also wouldn’t attend an event where people are barred from entertaining in any language, be it English, Arabic or Hindi. Perhaps if it became less politicized other people would attend.

    As an aside, I think Montreal needs its own celebration, as a distinct society within Quebec. If there’s one thing that unites the French and English in Montreal, it’s that we are passionately in love with our city and we love a good time. It would be nice to have a day to celebrate contemporary Montreal in all its diversity. It’s a definite nod to the Francophone population, since our city was founded by the French, but it could also a recognition of the ethnic, linguistic and sexual diversity that presently exists in this city, and would be far more inclusive and meaningful to most of us, and relevant to modern Quebec than SJB (half the population of which is in the Montreal met area).

    1. rc

      actually, I take it back. Montreal doesn’t need its own day to celebrate our distinctiveness — we do it all summer, AFrica Nights, Gay pride, Festivalissimo, St jean, Canada Day, etc. oops.

  8. Paul in Calgary

    The ubiquity of the internet has changed the average French-speaking individuals’ perspective and enabled them to look outwards. For those who would like to isolate and control, this is bad news.

  9. felix

    it’s interesting to see an Anglo-Quebecer’s take on it. I’m a franco-ontarian living in Montreal now, and although I’ve always celebrated st jean back home in Sudbury, the quebec version of the holiday is intimidating since although I’m not a “quebecer”, I share pretty much everything in common with them culturally.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I’m a franco-ontarian living in Montreal now, and although I’ve always celebrated st jean back home in Sudbury, the quebec version of the holiday is intimidating since although I’m not a “quebecer”, I share pretty much everything in common with them culturally.

      Guy A. Lepage specifically asked the crowd at the big Fête nationale concert to recognize francophone Canadians outside of Quebec. Though it wasn’t entirely clear if that meant the holiday was for them too. St. Jean and Fête nationale aren’t exactly two names for the same thing.

      1. felix

        It is a confusing issue. The way I usually explain it to anglophones who have no idea about any of this, is like St Patrick’s day for the Irish. It as if the republic of Ireland would change St Patrick’s day to the “National Holiday”, you’d still have people in northern Ireland (and Irish around the world) celebrating St Patrick’s.

        Also, Guy A.’s been getting progressively more federalist, on Tout le Monde en Parle last time Damien was there, he specifically said that TLMEP’s production team looks beyond the Quebec BBM ratings because they know they have a significant audience outside Quebec. For him to make a declaration like that on TV, at the actual Fête National gathering, is a huge leap forward.


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