Sunday, 24 June 2007

From Saint John the Baptist to Fête Nationale: Quebec in the 21st Century

There was a time when June 24 was a very inward-looking holiday in Quebec. It is the feast day of St. John the Baptist and since early in the history of New France, it has been celebrated after one fashion or another. In 1908 Pope Pius X named the saint the particular protector of French Canadians. As the 20th century wore on, and French Canadian and Quebec nationalism became more insistent, la Fête de Saint-Jean-Baptiste was transformed into a great popular, nationalist, political celebration.

Quebec has changed a lot, though, and so has the June 24th holiday, which is now called the Fête nationale. Not only is French the official language of Quebec, but hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the world have come to live here. Most settle in and around Montreal which has always been a gateway city, but the language of integration into Quebec society is not English as it was for several generations, but French. This means that the June 24 celebrations have taken on a very cosmopolitan air, although the singing and the slogans remain proudly Francophone.

As a complement to this integration of people who are not Québécois pure laine, Quebeckers are making themselves felt on the international scene. Indeed, Jean-François Lisée, an ardent nationalist and executive director of the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales at the University of Montréal, titled his Fête nationale essay “Globalization wouldn’t be the same without Quebec.” In addition to the big three—Cirque de Soleil, Céline Dion and Bombardier, maker of airplanes, trains and snowmobiles—he points out that half the helicopters in the world are made in Quebec while Quebec companies are building an Algerian independence monument and sporting installations for the Beijing Olympics. Add that to the key role Quebec politicians played in getting the ground-breaking UNESCO treaty on cultural diversity, and you have an idea of what Quebec and Quebeckers have accomplished over the last 40 years.

There are blue and white Quebec fleur de lys flags flying around town today. Last night saw block parties in many neighborhoods, while there will be a big parade today in Montreal and huge shows here and in Quebec City this evening.

We have a flag on our balcony, too, and my iris, those fleurs de lys, are about ready to bloom. This Quebec has a place for everyone, including us transplanted Yanks who came here more than 30 years ago on a three year contract, and stayed. The place has it problems, but they are orders of magnitude smaller than most other corners of the world.

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