Every year on June 24th the people of Quebec celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day (John the Baptist). This day is also known as La Fete Nationale, or Quebec’s Nationale holiday. It is said that it is a day for all Quebecers to participate but the Quebec Nationalists will not have that. This year two English groups were scheduled to perform for the occasion and their gigs got canceled because they were not French. More appropriate to say this day, is a French Quebecers celebration and not all Quebecers are welcomed. Another oddity about this particular day is that it is celebrated only in Quebec and not enjoyed by the rest of Canada.
The Quebec National holiday is a day to celebrate national pride, heritage and the unique culture of French Canada. The term national is loosely used here because Quebec is not a nation but a province within the great nation of Canada. However, because of its French heritage and different religion and customs French Quebecers known as Quebecois see themselves as a nation within a Nation. They see themselves as a unique people and have been trying to secede from Canada since 1976 and the emergence of the Parti Quebecois whose sole political agenda was to separate from Canada.
Where did the celebration originate and why?
The celebration originated as pagan summer solstice celebration held on the 21st of June. With the advent of Christianity in Europe it was moved to the 24th of June to celebrate John the Baptist. Both of these celebrations shared the summer light and John the Baptist performed the baptism of Jesus the light of the world. The practice of lighting a bonfire on this occasion to celebrate the light continued well into the middle ages. Prior to the French Revolution the King of France himself lighted the bonfire.
The tradition transferred continents when the French colonists came to Canada (New France). In 1635, in is chronicled that the Gouverneur de Quebec, Monsieur de Montmagny commanded five cannon shots to commence the celebration. The first noted bonfires in Quebec were recorded in 1638. There was dancing and singing all along the St. Lawrence River in every village.
The Patron Saint of Quebec was originally St. Joseph however due to the frisky spring season in Quebec it was decided that St. Jean Baptiste would be a more appropriate patron saint in order to have warm summer activities to commemorate his day.
St Jean Baptiste day began as a religious one but later took on a patriotic tone. Ludger Duvernay founded the Saint Jean Baptiste Society (Société Saint Jean Baptiste)
in 1834. It was Duvernay’s desire to rid the colonies in what would be become Canada from British rule. He invited 60 guests for the banquet celebration on June 24th of both English and French decent to discuss the future of Canada. . From this day onward it became known as Quebec’s National holiday. Though now almost two hundred years later the national movement again has surfaced within Canada’s borders.
By the end of the 19th century, flags, banners, and parades were added to the celebrations in Quebec City and Montreal. On June 24th 1880, Oh Canada was sung for the first time at the celebrations. In 1908 St. Jean Baptiste was officially proclaimed the Patron Saint of French Canada. At that time each parade had a little boy with curly brown hair and symbolic sheep to represent Jean the Baptiste at the parade. Though the patron saint of Quebec was acknowledged before hand, the actual day of Saint Jean Baptiste was declared the official national day of Quebec in 1925.
By 1948 the Quebec fleur de lys flag was adopted and flown all around the celebration. The festivities including: Quebec, history, culture, heroes, and pride. By the 1960’s during Quebec’s quiet revolution the religious aspect of the St. Jean Baptiste disappeared including the little boy and his sheep. It now became strictly a patriotic event with national heroes, and Quebec artistic talent performing on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec and Mount Royal in Montreal ( now replaced with Parc Maisonneuve in Montreal)
The 1990’s brought in the arena of Quebec Politics to the festivities with Quebec’s separatist party joining the celebrations and promoting Quebec independence. Later the celebrations opened up to ethic groups, Caribbean groups, Scottish bagpipes and more.
Hence we come full circle because as was stated at the beginning of my article, two English bands were slotted to perform and then told they couldn’t because they were English. The bottom-line being that this is a French celebration; at least this is the feeling from the English blue grass band Lake of Stew and Bloodshot Bill a country music singer.
The organizers regretted that they had to make the decision to pull the bands because a sponsor threatened to stop funding the event if the English groups played at this French patriotic occasion. They also feared that riots might break out. The sponsor was reported to be L’association culturelle Louis Hebert, which has close ties to the Société Saint Jean Baptiste.
Even sadder is the fact that this event was a smaller celebration held on June 23, named L’autre St. Jean held in Pelican Park in Rosemount and not the big celebration of the following day. This little concert was to promote home grown talent, but apparently not English talent.
The English bands are getting a lot of support even from francophone groups, petitions are being signed online and on facebook.
The organizers of the celebration did not respond to Montreal Gazette phone calls, and Bloodshot Bill a native born Montrealer is disappointed that he will probably not get the chance to perform at his first St. Jean Baptiste concert. Clearly the St. Jean Baptiste celebration is not for all Quebecers, reports me, Carol Roach, an English Quebecer, it is a celebration for the French only.
Addendum: since yesterday when I wrote this article, it appears that the English bands have been accepted and they will play this evening June 23, 2009. Small wonders never cease!