Je me souviens

In a text titled "The Pandora's box known as Je me souviens" published by The Globe and Mail on Jan. 24, 1991, Stephen Godfrey writes that Québec's motto "must be a terrible embarrassment to Quebec nationalists who know history". In his text, Mr. Godfrey argues that the full motto is: "I remember that born in the lilies, I grow in the roses."

It's a well known fact that the author of Québec's motto, Je me souviens, is Eugène-Étienne Taché (1836-1912). It was written around 1880 and was engraved above the main entrance of the parliament building around 1885. This motto became official when Québec's government unveiled the province's new coat of arms in 1939.

What's not so well known is that Taché wrote another motto around 1908, "Born in the lilies, I grow in the roses". It was initially meant to complement a work of art representing the nation canadienne. This particular project didn't see the light, but the phrase was recycled for the commemorative medal of Québec's 300th anniversary in 1908. On it, one can read the words: "Née sous les lis, Dieu aydant, l'œuvre de Champlain a grandi sous les roses" (Born under the lilies, with God's help, Champlain's work has grown under the roses).

Why, how and under what circumstances both these distinct and independent mottos have been united into a single piece to give "Je me souviens" a meaning it never had is unknown. Speculation over the precise meaning of Québec's motto has been simmering ever since the Parti Québécois put it on license plates in 1978.

The author himself has left no documents to explain the precise meaning of his words. Articles, reports and other texts written while he was living never hinted to possible complementary information to the words "Je me souviens". It's safe to assume that the author simply summarized into three words the historical references he incorporated in the parliament building's design, including references to General Wolfe himself, which puts aside any vengeful undertones. That's how I see it, an invitation to remember my origins, British heritage included.

Adding a phrase meant for the nation canadienne (the French-Canadian nation) to Québec's motto gives it a meaning it never had, that the province itself has matured under the rose. Until supporting documentation can be found, and without addressing the opinions of those who welcome the association of both mottos, the citation they credit to Eugène-Étienne Taché remains a myth.

Adapted from a reader's letter by Gaston Deschênes, "Un mythe tenace" published in Le Devoir, August 30th 1994. Additional information is available in French in l'Encyclopédie de l'Agora.

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