We thought that this week — between Quebec’s “Fête Nationale” and Canada Day — coming in a year of almost historic peace on the sovereignty front, may be an important one to reflect on regarding our history. Because history matters. And many of the words, names and symbols that have caused so much friction for so long, didn’t start out that away at all. They were legacies from a time of unity amongst Quebecers. A time of no divisions.
The feast day of Saint John the Baptist was a popular event in the Ancien Régime of France, and it is still celebrated as a religious feast day in several countries, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Spain, Latvia and Lithuania.
The tradition landed in Canada with the first French colonists. According to the Jesuit Relations, the first celebrations occurred on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River on the evening of June 23, 1636, with a bonfire and five cannon shots.
In Lower Canada (Québec) the celebration of the nativity of St. John the Baptist took a patriotic tone in 1834 on the initiative of one of the founders of the newspaper La Minerve, Ludger Duvernay, who would later become the first president of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society. In March of 1834, Duvernay and other patriotes attended the celebrations of the first St. Patrick’s Day, the celebration of the Irish diaspora, in Montreal. This gave him and others the idea of organizing something similar for all the Canadiens and their friends.
On that June 24, George-Étienne Cartier’s “Ô Canada! mon pays, mes amours” was first sung during a grand patriotic banquet gathering of about sixty francophones and anglophones of Montreal in the gardens of lawyer John McDonnell, near the old Windsor Station. Rounds of toasts also went to the Parti patriote, the United States and Ireland.
Another irony of history is that our current national anthem was commissioned by the SSJB. On June 24, 1880, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society organized the gathering of all francophone communities across North America. The event was the first National Congress of French Canadians (Congrès national des Canadiens français). On this occasion, the citizens of Quebec City were the first ones to hear the “Ô Canada” of Calixa Lavallée, based on a poem by a Quebec Superior Court judge,m Adolphe-Basile Routhier. English words were later written for a royal tour in 1901. In 1980, “O Canada” became the official national anthem of Canada.
If we could come together then, we cerrtainly can today. Not only a time of no divisions...but an end to the two solitudes.