It’s wise, when travelling to Québec, to be mindful that their motto is not La belle province, but Je me souviens. Just what is to be remembered has never been entirely explained. Its inventor, Eugène-Étienne Taché, carved it on Québec’s Parliament Building in 1883, but left his compatriots to guess the rest.
To be safe, we should assume it means everything: the hope of New France, the fall of Québec, the Rebellion of the Patriots, conscription to war, the Rocket banished, Le Chef Duplessis and his Great Darkness, the Quiet Revolution of Trudeau and company, the not-so-quiet revolution of the FLQ, the War Measures Act, the general strike of 1972, the kitchen accord betrayal of 1981, René Lévesque’s promise of “la prochaine fois.”
Perhaps Taché meant, by his epigram, what William Faulkner meant by his: “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” But then Faulkner was talking about America, as all American writers do, one way or another. Or maybe, as someone said to me, it means “History is a wake.” But then, he was talking about the impasse in Palestine.
I was in Montréal over the Victoria Day weekend to attend the wedding of a friend of mine. In Québec, it’s not the Queen’s birthday they celebrate; it is la Journée nationale des patriotes. I had time to wander the streets—up Saint-Denis, down Saint-Laurent, over the Boul de René-Lévesque and into the old part of the city. As I roamed I contemplated the 250-year marriage between English and French Canada (I’m counting from the Treaty of Paris). A shotgun marriage it was and we’ve been living apart in the same house ever since. Not something I wish for my friend and his wife.
I guess I was looking for what has kept us apart all these years. But it was on a part of Saint-Denis that looked a lot like Queen Street West, except for the wrought iron stairways gracefully curving up to second floors, that it hit me: we are more alike than we’d care to admit.
We talk about the same things over the same brands of beer. We are all getting a little pudgy, maybe not as much as Americans, but we could stand to lose a few pounds. They have poutine, we have s’mores. They have shrines: church spires and the Forum (in spite of Centre Bell). We have shrines: bank towers and grain elevators, the Gardens (in spite of the ACC), the Saddledome and the Phone Booth. I saw Mercedes Benzes prowl the streets and beggars on the sidewalks.
We look south for just about everything: money, markets, fame, holidays – René Lévesque vacationed in Maine and Céline Dion rescued Las Vegas. We define ourselves according to who we are not: we are not Americans, not English, not French.
I browsed the row of booksellers behind the Université du Québec à Montréal. There I struck up a conversation with two students, both about my daughter’s age. I asked them what they thought about the Orange Crush that flattened the Bloc Québecois.
Gallic shrugs and English: “The Bloc has had its day,” said one. “They did a lot of good for Québec, but they can do no more, except talk about another referendum.”
“Québec is more socially progressive than the rest of Canada, eh?” said the other. “So if not the Bloc, then the NPD,” as they call the NDP. “We like Jack Layton. He spoke well in the French debate and with our accent too.”
“What about Stephen Harper?” I asked.
“Oh, no – too conservative, too controlling.” Then their politesse Canadienne kicked in. “We’re sorry – did you vote for him?”
My own Canadian politeness came out. “No, no, that’s OK,” and I gave them a Toronto shrug to show that I was more interested in how they voted.
And there it is, I thought, the famous Canadian courtesy. But it is not the obsequious pandering some think it is. This courtesy is closer to the old French and English ideas of courtoisie and courtesie: kindness and consideration expressed elegantly, a sharp wit, and courage in battles of all kinds.
It embraces compassion – as a people, we contribute generously to countries in crisis, even if we are complacent about our own place in the world. We will comply with authority but not without compunction as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and the Québec general strike of 1972 attest. We prefer compromise to combat, for we seek settlements of differences by consent, not by concession. It’s no accident that other countries saw us as honest brokers to the world.
We are more comfortable with irony than with nationalism; with myth-busting rather than myth-making, which might explain our favourable balance of trade with the US in comedians. We’d sooner be companionable than competitive – our colonial history with Aboriginal peoples notwithstanding. For in that, we are all complicit.
We are a composite people, in spite of Jacques Parizeau’s “laine pure”: French, English, Irish, Scot, Métis. And now, Jew and Arab, Tamil and Sri Lankan, Tibetan and Chinese, Indian and Pakistani and a whole lot more.
I see I’ve used a lot of words with the prefixes com- and con-. They’re from Latin, like a lot of words we share. They mean, “together”, “jointly”. We are, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, whether we like it or not, joined together chez nous, Canada.
I am admonished by my Québecois friends to remember that Québec still considers itself a distinct society and I cannot disagree, if by ‘distinct’ they mean a group of people with a separate language, a continuous boundary and their own way of doing things. But of course that’s not a bad definition of First Nations either and I hope my Québecois friends will concede that they too are distinct societies. They also remind me that, the urge of some Québecois for sovereignty has survived the NDP tsunami, and the Party of René Lévesque will likely replace the Liberal government in the next provincial election.