The English colonization of Ireland suppressed the Irish language, but the advent of the Irish republic showed you can virtually extinguish a language, and not kill nationalism. British Lord Durham wanted to assimilate Quebecers to the English language majority.
The Act of Union of 1840 failed to achieve that imperial objective, and the Irish example suggests that even if the French language had been substantially weakened, Quebec nationalism would not have disappeared.
The history of de-colonization shows how much trouble multi-linguistic states have creating a sense of identity strong enough to engender national feelings. The primary attachment remains the linguistic community.
Quebec celebrates its national holiday on June 24, and the French language is the hero of the party. The night of June 23 in Quebec City, an open air concert on the Plains of Abraham traditionally brings together prominent Francophone artists, and is incredibly well attended. Across Quebec hundreds of thousands seek to share in the festive spirit, and enjoy the music. Montreal has its main event the night of June 24, and 26 other centres around Quebec stage an event in honour of the national holiday.
Quebec has a lot to celebrate. It is not well known that French did not become the homogenous language of France until the 20th century. Regional languages dominated in Brittany, Alsace, Corsica, Nice and much of the South of France. However from 1608, French was the language of the settlers of New France. In other words French was the language of what is now Quebec, before it was dominant in France.
The holiday used to be known as Saint-Jean-Baptiste day, after the patron saint of French Canada. It was a religious celebration, and only later was recognized as the French Canadian holiday.
Prior to be appropriated by Christianity, celebrating the summer solstice was a pagan tradition.
The origins of La Saint-Jean as a national event go back 175 years ago, not long before the patriots took up arms to fight Lord Durham, assimilation and the hated Act of Union, which took the debts of Upper Canada, and foisted them on the combined provinces when Lower Canada was debt free.
Interestingly, the patriots wanted to emulate the Irish who celebrated St. Patrick's Day with a Montreal parade. And until the nationalist riots of 1968 and 1969 led to its temporary suspension, the Montreal parade was the highlight of the celebrations.
Today June 24 is still celebrated outside Quebec, and prominent Quebec artists travel to concerts in places such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Moncton to celebrate the French language and culture.
Today being a Quebecer means taking pride in the heritage of the French language worldwide, and fighting to improve it and extend its reach within Quebec. Most Canadians recognize that a strong French language community is good for the country as a whole, and an increasing number of young Canadians have become Francophiles, speaking the language and wanting to be part of that community.
For Quebec nationalists, whether supporters of the Bloc, the PQ, or conditional federalists, there is no other choice than fighting to maintain and preserve their language, and many equate that fight with a political option: Quebec sovereignty.
To coincide with La Fête Nationale, the Bloc Québecois MPs sent out a householder listing the reasons Quebec would be better off as a sovereign state. Gilles Duceppe points out that the sovereignty would not have saved Quebec from the effects of the world crisis. He maintains, however that a sovereign Québec could have favoured its own priorities, education and research, instead of helping subsidy the Ontario auto industry.
Former premier Robert Bourrassa used to say he was a Francophone first, and a Quebecer second. In Quebec today the idea of opening the national holiday to people of all origins is well implanted, and many ancestral traditions are included in festivities. Nonetheless, according to a survey sponsored by the Association of Canadian Studies 90 per cent of Quebec Francophones fear for the future of their language. In Montreal, only 54 per cent of the population speaks French at home.
In 2009, the survival of the French language community is well worth celebrating again, but more is expected. This national holiday is about honouring a flourishing, creative, dynamic and unique Francophone society: Quebec.
Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.
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