Saint Jean Baptiste: Quebec’s National Holiday

Yesterday’s post might have pushed this one back, but there’s not much that can keep Quebec under the hood for long. In fact, it’s almost more apropos than ever in light of recent politics: June 24th is our provincial celebration that is fuelled by the Québécois fires of independence.

Not that we are independent (to the dismay of many). As I mentioned yesterday, Quebec has had a few referendums in a continued attempt to separate. The one in 1995 came the closest with 49.42% voting to leave and 50.58% voting to stay. I’m still Canadian because of a barely greater than 1% difference in opinion.

Like most separatist movements, however, the desire for independence isn’t born out of the ground one spring like a mystery seedling. Quebec has a long history of butting heads with the English – all the way back to the colonization of the New World.

2016 Stewart Museum Nova Francia et Canada Map small
Back to the beginnings of Canada…

To condense a fairly complex history, the French and English both arrived in the Quebec area in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. This was mostly due to the fur trade so as to bring back luxury goods to the wealthy classes in Europe.

Naturally, the French and English were rivals. Their respective struggles to monopolize the commercial resources of North America culminated in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). France, meanwhile, was tied up in its alliance with Prussia in Europe and couldn’t afford to send aid to its colonies. The French colonists managed to hold their own for a time, but the English captured Louisburg, Quebec City, and finally Montréal in 1760 when the French were forced to capitulate.

The English decreed that they would not force deportation on anyone living in the colony (many of whom had been born there and had never seen Europe). Instead, they had a choice: leave everything behind and return to the motherland, or remain and concede to English rule. The latter allowed them to keep their businesses, religion, and, perhaps most importantly, their language. Most stayed.

2016 Stewart Museum Chambli Map small
The French had been established in North America long enough to feel it home.

Fast forward a few centuries, and generations of French Canadians have grown up in a country that both is and isn’t their own. They have a geographical pocket where they can express their ancestry, but for the most part they’re expected to bury that part of themselves. French speakers were considered lower class – almost second class citizens until well into the 20th century.

Enter the liberal 60’s, a call for reclaiming the French identity, and some political crises, and that began to change. There is of course a ton of social intricacies and politics that I’m brushing over, but for the sake of brevity, francophones began to unify to fight for a better future.

In 1977, the Parti Québécois (a conservative French government) was elected and introduced Bill 101, a law that decreed French as the official language of Quebec.

2015 Tams Quebec Francais small
And so began the language debates, still present today.

So while French culture has been with this province for centuries, it’s dominated the last few decades here.

Though both the 1980 and 1995 referendums for sovereignty fell through, it hasn’t stopped French pride. And there isn’t any other time of year that said pride is stronger than on Saint Jean Baptiste – Quebec’s national holiday.

So I say “national”, but that is once again tied to the desire for independence. Still, it’s officially known as La fête nationale (the national holiday) as it’s a central tradition to French culture as early as 1606 when the first colonists began staking out their territory of Lower Canada.

2016 Stewart Museum Jacques Cartier Portrait small
Jacques Cartier, staking out the New World for France!

Its origin is rooted in a celebration of the nativity of Saint John the Baptist and welcoming in the summer. In 1834, it was celebrated in Montreal with a spirit of peace and unity between the French and English and therefore was declared a patriotic holiday to be held each June 24th thereafter.

Although there were some military repressions in the following years which put a damper on this, Saint Jean kept on coming back. Parades were held, then suspended for decades; then songs were written, people began to become nostalgic, and eventually the holiday reemerged to be made official in 1925.

Since then, it has become a longed-for weekend by most Québécois (francophones and anglophones alike). The most fond celebratory traditions usually involve barbecues, beer sipping (or guzzling), and lighting fireworks. I remember a not-so-modest celebration myself some five years ago in Australia when, in a fit of homesickness, I partied hard and lost my liking of gin for some four years afterwards.

2011 Saint Jean Baptiste in Australia Oz
Andrea came to visit me in Australia bringing blue fleur-de-lys shotglasses…that leaked all the blue dye into our drinks.

June 24th summons an inordinate amount of nostalgia in me, no matter where I am in the world. Given the choice, I would emphatically vote “NO” to separation should there be another referendum, but I can’t deny that I feel far more like a Québécoise than a Canadian.

And so there is your slice of Quebec culture and history for the day. I honestly didn’t do much yesterday due to my moping about over Brexit, but it was nice to listen to the whistles of firecrackers going off in neighbours’ backyards all the same.

Also let me know if you’d be interested in similar posts about particular pieces of Quebec/Canadian history! It’s one of my favourite periods to research and I enjoy sharing the love.

Finally, a very happy birthday to my beautiful superginger sister. You’re the best!


6 thoughts on “Saint Jean Baptiste: Quebec’s National Holiday

  1. Great summary, Marta! when I started waitressing in Montreal in ’75-’78, customers would always ask ”es-tu Canadienne où Anglaise?” Being a redhead, I do not look like a typical norman, but I have a québecois accent when I need it. To old quebecers, ”Canadian” means French-Canadian, the rest of us are ”English”. When you go back to the UK, check out Quebec house in Kent. I saw a lot of disappointed Québecois tourists wandering around there, especially because it used to belong to Wolfe! Merci! Marie

    Liked by 1 person

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