June 24th is la St-Jean-Baptiste (Saint John the Baptist’s day)—traditionally, Québec’s provincial holiday, or, as the Québécois call it, la fête national, the national holiday. (Good luck convincing them Canada Day is la fête national, or rather, don’t try).
It’s a day of hearty merrymaking, during which people come together to shop small businesses in an open market, eat hotdogs and barbe à papa (papa’s beard, aka cotton candy), wear Québec flags, drink and sit around watching people, do activities with the family and neighbours, and attend a concert before watching fireworks at 10 P.M.
Yesterday, as I sat at the waterfront of our small town, watching all my happy compatriots milling around, the patriotism and satisfaction I had in my province was strong.
I thought of the men who braved the dangers of an open ocean to find if a good land did indeed lie beyond the waves. I thought of the ones who battled a climax wildly different than their own and were not to proud to adopt ways that were not their own to build a better quality of life.
I thought of the downtrodden common folk who saw a better future in this New France and chose to risk illness, starvation, pirates, and drowning to come to a new land rampant with danger but wildly free and beautiful.
I thought of the openhearted, openminded people who made friends with the natives and taught them better ways while adopting the natives’ better ways, seeking the best of both lifestyles.
I thought of the men and wives who stubbornly clung to the new life they were building for their children and refused to let torture, slavery, and scalping scare them away.
I thought of the heroes who ventured out among a race that to them was fierce, unpredictable, confusing, with the wholehearted desire to convert them with kindness and example, however mistaken their faith may have been.
I think of the women who bought up so many children, watched so many draw their last breath, tended so many bloody and feverish bodies, worked endlessly in gardens and kitchens, sent away husbands to certain death, and poured all of themselves into founding this country.
I think of the men who explored, trapped, hunted, canoed, tilled, chopped, built, rowed their lives away, caring for wives and children who depended on them for food and safety and shelter, who saw children and wives and comrades killed, but who never gave up their vision for this land.
I’m thinking of the names still celebrated today: selfless Paul Chomedy de Maisonneuve, steadfast Samuel de Champlain, strong Jeanne Mance, kindly Marguerite Bourgeois, devoted Adam Dollard des Ormeaux, hardworking Louis Jolliet, renowned Pierre Boucher, and many others whose names still live on today in our streets, towns, cities, highways, bridges, sectors…
I’m thinking of the many forgotten or unknown—Louis Hébert, Marie Rollet, Lambert Closse, Madeleine de Verchères—who, unrecognized as they may be, have built this place and left a legacy, however humble. Truly, as Suzanne Martel remarked, the blood of heroes runs through our veins.
(It is difficult to imagine, in the Montreal of today, all the heroism and all the terror that have marked this soil where we live. These feelings must still float somewhere in our streets, at the edge of the river. If we were attentive, could we feel them? What remains in our blood of the blood of these simple and stubborn people?)
Our language, so vigorous and delicate, imported from France, and still keeping many old-fashioned words and terms that our ancestors used, although France has since discarded them; our joual, the expressive slang every Québécois speaks, a mixture of French, English, and purely Québécois words; our options and sentiments, our character and perspective, our pastimes and habits—so much of us can still be traced back to those hardy, hearty, hard-working heroes who settled the soil we live on. We walk where their feet trod, we till the ground they worked, we live in the houses they built, we cross the forests they explored.
They left us a glorious heritage… and I hope, I believe, that we are not unworthy of what they left behind. I hope we have kept the simple virtues and remedied the ugly flaws they had.
Did they mess up, were they mistaken, were they wrong? Doubtless, at times; just as we do now. But their examples of love and strength and hope, their vision for a better future, can inspire and encourage us, and I hope that we, too, can be fired with that vision and work to building a better, stronger, more beautiful Québec than it ever was.
Québec—je me souviens.I remember.
Descendants of the filles du Roy, those brave women who came out to search for husbands with whom to populate and build this strange land; descendants of the voyageurs and coureurs-de-bois; descendants of the city folk of Québec and the farmers of Montréal… bonne fête nationale.