Je me Souviens-I Remember What, Exactly?


Here in the Province of Québec, our Motto is ‘Je me Souviens’, or ‘I remember’. This has been our official motto since 1939, and first came into popular usage when it was put onto our provincial parliament buildings in the 1880s by the architect Eugène-Étienne Taché. It was originally intended to symbolize French-Canadians attachment to the French language, culture, and history. However, over the years, its meaning has been appropriated and interpreted in different fashions to suit different political agendas.

As Québec nationalism became increasingly more separatist in the 1960s and 1970s, this motto was increasingly interpreted with a more separatist twist to it, meaning that I also remembered the glory of the Ancien Régime of France before the infamy of the Conquest. Others have since resurrected a more conciliatory interpretation of the motto in the wake of the growing rapprochement between English and French-speaking Québecers and Canadians.

It goes something like this: ‘Je me souviens que né sous le Lys, j’ai grandis sous la Rose’. Meaning that, ‘I remember that I was born under the Fleurs de Lys of France and grew up under the Rose of England.’

Regardless of what version of the motto you like to use for yourself, this only goes to underscore the importance of history, and who writes it, and how it is interpreted, and why, and what political agenda is behind it.

This is all the more important in this ever more rapidly-changing information age, where the pace of information gathering, storage, processing, ‘excretion’, so to speak, and transmission is ever more frenetic.

It used to be, not so long ago, that a particular school of thought or version of things could hope to last quite a long time in the era of electro-mechanical data processing, and even longer before that. But computers changed all of that. All of a sudden, groups of people in Tokyo, London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles etc.. sat down and pretty much decided that these new devices and their derivatives were the new avenues to the creation of material wealth, just as the control of land had been during medieval times and the control of the production of manufactured goods had been during the Industrial Revolution.

So we were sold on the idea of the ‘paperless office’, the ‘wired world’, etc, we were all going to be liberated from so many mundane tasks by being connected to these devices. What happened was quite different. We have become slaves to these devices, and along the way, yes, we can have access to a wealth of information and knowledge, 24/7, and stay connected with our friends and family anywhere in the world.

But we can also remain chained to our job, and hate our job 24/7, and be consumed by internet porn and so on… So each solution creates new problems, as  Marx so wisely foresaw with his theory of ‘thesis/antithesis/synthesis.

What we have going on now is the ability to compress the time lapse between the emergence of one societal paradigm, or trend, its evolution, and extinction. This has gotten to the point that with information technology and instant 24hr media and analysis, we even now have the ability to co-opt the emergence of new paradigms or trends, and to anticipate their emergence, even to the point of putting so much pressure and media exposure on people, places and things, that new trends and phenomena are often stifled, crushed, and smothered before they’re even able to fully develop.

We see this increasingly with public figures such as politicians, pop stars, athletes, etc.. As soon as a new kid on the block begins emerging, the media juggernaut immediately seizes upon them to try and lionize, demonize, analyze, or otherwise pick apart the person or phenomenon before it even gets the ability to flesh itself out beyond even an embryonic stage of development.

This is why there is an increasingly important need to maintain the link between the past and the present, as well as the future. We would think that the wealth of information and knowledge out there would help us to see more clearly along our path to enlightenment. However, most of this information and knowledge is being peddled on a commoditized basis, just like so much dish soap, or mascara. So the goal is to push as much of it out there as possible, get the consumer to consume it, ‘excrete’ it, forget what they read or learned, or saw, and then move in more information for consumption.

This then creates a sort of ‘junk food’ type of culture of knowledge and information, which ultimately is corrosive to our ability to make strategic links with the past and to maintain a certain type of continuity and organic stability with the flow of space and time as well as events and people. George Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. How true.

Getting back to our motto in Québec, look at how long it took for modern day Spain to emerge from the bloody conflict of la Reconquista. It took from roughly the 800s to 1492 before the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united to form the embryonic shape of modern day Spain. Modern day France took centuries to form.  The Nord/Pas de Calais region of what is today France was only finally annexed in the early in the early 1700s. Before that it changed hands between the Flemish,the Romans, Germanic Franks and others. Alsace and Lorraine were only reintegrated back into France after the First World War, at a cost of many lives. Modern day England first emerged in the 12th century, when King Henry II subjugated the Barons and compelled them to pay him tribute, and would burn their Churches and lay waste to their lands if they did not pay taxes to him. It was not until 1707 that the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland emerged.

So let’s give Canada a break. Je me Souviens of what, exactly? Who’s interpreting our history, and at what speed are we ingesting and excreting it? Do I remember that I was humiliated and got slapped around and ever since then, as Robert Charlebois said: ‘Tout ça a commencé sur les Plaines d’Abraham, la chicane a poigné et t’as mangé ta volé. Et depuis ce temps la t’as pas beaucoup changé. Ch’te trouve ben magané et ben poigné.’ In this song the singer talks about Québecers sense of humiliation over the Conquest, and their latent sense of morosity in the face of changing times. He then exhorts them to ‘Entre deux joints tu pourrais faire quelque chose, entre deux joints tu pourrais te grouillé le cul’ In other words, between joints of marijuana, you could go out and change the world and get off you ass and do something about your situation. In another song called ‘Québec/Canada Blues’ he sings ‘Si les États prennent le terrain, il va nous resté presque rien, sans patrie, sans pays, sans job, on va se trouvé pauvre comme Job, faut leur montré qu’on est capable, de faire mieux que les Juif, pis les Arabes, Faut s’appuyé, faut s’entraidé, partir une grande armée d’idée, et faire de la Nouvelle France, la terre promise de l’espérance!!!’ In this song he exhorts his compatriots to do better than the Arabs and the Jews in the Holy land, because if we don’t the USA will come and devour our country and our economy and we’ll have no jobs or Nationhood left to speak of. He comes out strongly in favour of maintaining a strong Canada/Québec union on the east-west axis to act as an economic and political counterweight to the tremendously powerful North-South pull of America.

However, Robert Charlebois’ music was lumped into the group of prevailing anti-Canadian wave of sentiment of its day, seeing who was writing history and interpreting it at the time.

So I repeat: Je me Souviens of what, exactly? Did I get humiliated in some war 250 years ago, or did I begin a process of construction of a new civilization on the east-west axis of the 49th parallel? One which is based on economic prosperity, and social solidarity, something that English Canadians and Québecers can both believe in. I get the impression that our story is still being written, and that, as Garth Stevenson wrote in the wake of the patriation of the Constitution of 1982, that we are, an ‘Unfulfilled Union’.

The ghost of Eugène-Étienne Taché surely haunts the halls of the National Assembly to this day: perhaps we could call upon him to see what it is precisely that he remembers?

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