Celebrating Canada

I wish I could put in a few simple words what this country is. I recognize it on TV when I see reruns of "The Forest Rangers", "The Beachcombers", "Degrassi Junior High" or, more recently, "Sue Thomas F.B.Eye" (even if the action takes place south of the border, it feels Canadian). I also recognize it on the radio when I hear the Bare Naked Ladies or the Tragically Hip. But explaining Canada in a few words to a tourist and how it differs from the USA?... I can't.

Apparently, I'm not the only one. Defining Canada seems to be a challenge. As a Bishop's University student in the late 80s, I sometimes popped the question to my Anglo friends. They almost invariably served me some of Trudeau's cultural mosaic mantra. I always thought there had to be something sexier than that.

One would think that the 1995 referendum was an incredible opportunity for boasting the Canadian identity. It wasn't. That the "No" side attacked the Péquiste government's draft bill on Québec's sovereignty is in the order of things. But that the "No" side wasn't able to go much farther than the Canadian passport and currency to portray one of the best countries in the world is bewildering to say the least. When Montréal's Le Devoir [Google translation] posted on its website the "No" side's leaflet that was never distributed, I eagerly looked it up hoping for some inspiration. What a disappointment that was.

2000 marked a little bump in the identity drama. Molson struck an emotional chord with its "I am Canadian" beer ad campaign. Sheila Copps, then Minister of Canadian Heritage, seized the moment and, in her own characteristic enthusiasm, proudly boasted the beer commercial. Unfortunately, the hype didn't go very far.

On its November 25, 2002 cover story, Maclean's magazine asked "America lite: is that our future?" I read it diligently looking for clues, but it turned out to be another frustration. Were my expectations to high? I have two books waiting for me on my nightstand: "Reflections of a Siamese Twin", by John Ralston Saul, and "Canadians", by Roy MacGregor. Hopefully, I'll find something in there.

In the meantime, Canada has been working very hard to promote its identity in Québec, but competition is stiff. Last Wednesday, the nation I'm part of celebrated the 175th edition of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. In comparison, the Canadian nation is rather young, having gradually shed its British identity during the last century.

Regardless, important amounts continue to be spent to boost Canada's image in the province. As if the sponsorship scandal hadn't been enough, Ottawa spent $3.2M in Québec for Canada Day and related celebrations last year. That was 85% of the budget for the whole country and it's not sound.

Canada seems to be soul searching. In spite of its upcoming 142nd birthday this week, it's acting like an adolescent.


Saint-Jean vs. Fête nationale

Celebrating the summer solstice has been a tradition in many cultures. The first French settlers in North America were among these cultures and they quickly gave this tradition a religious twist by associating it to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, celebrated on June 24.

In 1834, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day takes a patriotic tone. Inspired by the celebrations of the first St. Patrick's Day in Montréal, several attending Patriotes got the idea of organizing something similar for all the Canadiens and their friends.

In 1880, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste organizes a gathering of all francophone communities across North America. The event was the first Congrès national des Canadiens-Français. On Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day that year, the citizens of Québec City are the first to hear Calixa Lavallée's "Ô Canada", based on a poem by Adolphe-Basile Routhier. The song had been commissioned by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. 

In 1908, coinciding with Québec city's 300th celebrations, Pope Pius X officially designates St. John the Baptist as the patron saint of all French Canadians across the country.

In 1977, on the advice of René Lévesque, an Order-in-Council by the Lieutenant Governor declares June 24 the Fête nationale du Québec to encompass all residents of the province. Since then, June 24 has two meanings:

  1. Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day: a holiday celebrating Canadians of French origin across the country.
  2. Fête nationale du Québec: a holiday celebrating the Québécois of all origins across the province.

So... that's roughly where we're at right now. And things aren't that clear in the mind of most Canadians. Outside Québec, there seems to be a dissociating trend between French Canadian celebrations and Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. The Festival Franco-Ontarien, for example, hasn't included June 24 events in its program since 2006. On the other hand, cultural communities have contributed to the Fête nationale du Québec in many languages. Anglo performers like Jim Corcoran also have, but not in English.

Two years ago, I stumbled on a TV interview with Stéphane Archambault; he's the lead singer of Mes Aïeux. He submitted that Anglo performers singing in English should also join the celebrations. I must admit I was a bit puzzled at first thinking: "That's weird, but he's right!... I wonder when we'll be ready for this..."

I got part of my answer last weekend. Lake of Stew and Bloodshot Bill were all set to play at an alternate Saint-Jean concert in Montréal until a few hardline sovereigntists rocked the boat and almost had it capsized. Voices were raised. Among them, Pierre Curzi, PQ critic for culture, communications and language, denounced the situation stating that an inclusive Québec must welcome Anglophones wishing to participate in the celebrations.

That's the brand of nationalism I like. We're talking about welcoming Québécois artists whose mother tongue is English; we're not talking about acknowledging Anglo wannabes.

I assume it will take some time before we see such performances at le grand spectacle au parc Maisonneuve on June 24th, but, simply put... there's no logic in denying any kind of contribution to our already rich heritage. And in fact, Anglo-Québécois have been doing it for quite some time. Need it be remembered?

Those who don't agree should bear in mind that you can't build a nation while alienating one of its important communities. Canada tried when it patriated the constitution without Québec's consent in 1982. It doesn't work.


I am American

In an interview titled "The author who posed in a pink suit... and survived" published by The Globe and Mail on April 2, 1998, Michael Ignatieff states: "Quebeckers walk around with this fantasy of how different they are, but they are just North Americans who speak French. They take the minor difference and magnify it."

Yes!... of course!... There's a lapalissade, or a truism, if you ever wanted one. What else are the Québécois supposed to be, if not North Americans? I was raised on Kraft Dinner watching "The Flintstones". How can you get more North American than that? Like the rest of the country, the province is submerged by USA's cultural production.

Along with many Québécois, I craved on American TV. "The Beverly Hillbillies", "Get Smart", "Happy Days", "Hogan's Heroes", "M*A*S*H", "Taxi" and "WKRP in Cincinnati" are mere examples of the cultural icons I was being spoon fed as a teenager. None of these shows have ever been dubbed in French. Yet, I was able to appreciate their humor. They were better at introducing me to my second language than my English teachers.

Humor takes many forms. I also liked magazines and movies. I was a big fan of Jerry Lewis. How can you not love the man? Jim Carrey obviously did. As for reading, Mad magazine "What, me worry?" did it for me. So did the raunchier National Lampoon magazine.

Now... USA's cultural production is rich and diverse, but why would anyone restrict her/himself when there's so much more? Like the majority of young Québécois, I was a huge fan of Louis de Funès. He appeared in 145 movies. He was simply tireless... a comedy machine... I also read French comic books such as Rubrique-à-brac and humor magazines like Hara-Kiri. Reiser drew some pretty nasty strips in the latter, sort of like Robert Crumb did in the USA. France, along with Belgium and Switzerland, has a rich comic books tradition.

The American way of life and France's cultural production are important parts of all Québécois' entertainment intake, but there's more to it. Over the centuries, Québec has managed to integrate both these important sources of inspiration and make them into its own. The Québécois have grown to love and celebrate their distinctiveness. Canadian content is alive and well in the province (see Canadian content, Part 2 and Part 3) and it's very much different from what other provinces enjoy.

I find it odd that Canada's national newspaper deemed Michael Ignatieff's statement newsworthy and put it on its front page as the quote of the day (la citation du jour). I mean... let's suppose a sovereigntist went: "Canadians walk around with this fantasy of how different they are, but they are just North Americans who... [fill in the blank]. They take the minor difference and magnify it." Would Montréal's La Presse or Le Devoir have printed it on their front page? I doubt it.

I am American, but United Statian, I am not...