AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, FRENCH-CANADIANS ARE STILL ATTACHED TO ‘LA TERRE DE NOS AIEUX’, AND, SOMEWHAT MORE AMBIVALENTLY, TO THEIR FAITH.
I saw a mixed martial arts bout the other day on the sports channel. It was some American guy fighting against the renowned French-Canadian mixed martial arts champion George St-Pierre. It was no contest. Mr. St. Pierre, in the opening seconds of the bout, took his opponent down onto the mat, and pinned him there for the better part of two rounds, until his opponent could take no more, and St. Pierre was declared the undisputed champion of the world in his class.
The bout took place in Montréal, at what must’ve been the Bell centre, and the place was definitely ‘ringing’ with the lusty cheers of his compatriots, as he was introduced, fought, and won. There was no shortage of people decked out in face paint, and brandishing Québec flags. Mr. St. Pierre himself had the image of a Fleur-de-Lys in his corner proudly displayed for all to see.
I’d seen this gentleman interviewed on CBC television once before for a Canadian comedy show. He was being interviewed as he was being presented to the national media on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. He displayed a very typically good-natured French-Canadian wise-cracking type of sense of humour to the cameras, as he hammed it up with various journalists and politicians. But you could tell down deep that he was dead serious about his chosen profession, and that excelling in it and being number one was important to him.
This brings me to the main point of this piece. French-Canadians, especially Québecers, have begun to excel in all fields of endeavour in our country, as well as abroad, be it George St. Pierre, Céline Dion, Marc Garneau or Julie Payette the astronauts, Bruni Surin the track star, originally from Haiti, Chantale Peticlerc, the Para Olympian, Myriam Bédard, Gaetan Boucher, Joannie Rochette, Alex Despatie, all outstanding medal-winning Olympians.
And this doesn’t count all of our French-Canadian hockey players, strewn all over the NHL, as well as outstanding businesspeople and entrepreneurs such as Guy Laliberté, who founded Cirque du Soleil, and Robert Lepage, who founded the Ex-Machina experimental theatre company, and designed a lot of Peter Gabriel’s stage shows, not to mention the ‘Moulin à Image’ sound and light show in Québec city, which, for the last four years now, has been a giant sound and light show projected onto the grain elevators in the Old Port area of Québec city.
It used to be that French-Canadians had a deeply-ingrained sense of fatalism within their being, of being ‘né pour un p’tit pain’, literally meaning, ‘to be born for a little piece of bread’. They felt that their lot in life was pre-ordained by the realities of the Conquest of British arms of 1759, their entrepreneurial caste of business leaders having gone back to France, and British merchants having taken their place, and British commercial and political authorities having formed an alliance of convenience with the Roman Catholic clergy to keep out any potential American annexationist threat from the south, or home-grown Republican threat from within, all of which did occur, the former in 1775-6, and 1812-14, the latter in 1837-38.
This alliance of convenience was also formulated with a genuine concern in mind for the preservation of the French-speaking civilization in Canada, but also with an eye to augmenting the temporal power of the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually, by the end of WWII, French Canada was on the cusp of a radical transformation: It had rapidly urbanized and industrialized, and with this came secularization.
By 1960, the so-called Quiet Revolution broke out and Québecers embraced the rapidly-emerging welfare-state reforms of post-WWII western civilization in the fields of health care, education and social services. Which leads us now to the question of: To what extent are French-Canadians still attached to what is referred to in the French version of the Canadian national anthem, as ‘la terre de Nos aieux’, or ‘the land of our ancestors’, meaning Canada?? Another part of the anthem talks about ‘et ta valeur, de foi trempé, protègera nos foyers et nos droits’, or in English, ‘and your valour, imbued with faith, shall protect our homes and our rights’.
These passages talk about how Canada, for French-Canadians, is an ‘ancestral homeland’, and that ‘we as a people’, who are the ‘cradle’ of this ‘ancestral homeland’, are now choosing, of our own accord to be part of the ‘new version’ of Canada, that is to say, ‘Confederation’, under the auspices of the British Constitutional Monarchy, and that in exchange for our consent to be part of this ‘new Canada’, Canada, will ‘protect our homes and our rights’, therefore ‘we’ should ‘stand on guard for thee’ as it says in the English ‘O Canada’
According to some French-Canadian academics, the sense of French-Canada’s autonomist aspirations has always been typified by two paradigms: One the ‘Coureur de Bois’ or ‘Voyageur’, who were adventuresome fur traders and trappers of the 17th-19th centuries, who didn’t hesitate to leave the ‘terre de nos aieux’ of the original ‘compact colony’ of the St. Lawrence, to go explore further afield either for adventure, necessity, or profit, and the habitant, who was, literally, an ‘Inhabitant’, or ‘canadien’ farmer, tied down not only to the land but also to his faith and his cultural traditions, language, and sense of duty to his family, his ‘people’, and his almost mystical sense of attachment to this sacred land where New France began. That, or he somehow felt he could not overcome his own inertia to break out of his in-born ‘né pour un petit pain’-type character, was afraid of failure, unable or unwilling to learn English, was somewhat afraid of foreigners and mistrusted them, and generally held a very insular mentality.
Generally, we still find these two paradigms about in equal measure in French Canada, especially in Québec. The two seem to balance each other out, for good and for ill. The more outward-looking types both have had their advocates, both secessionist and pro-Canadian, as well as secular and faith-based. Whereas the more inward-looking types also continue to have both advocates of secession, pro-Canadian, secular and pro-faith-based views.
So basically, French Canada, as usual, is of two minds about its existential state, as it has been essentially since its inception, and especially, since the Conquest, which has only made this sense of ambivalence more pronounced and ingrained. The people of French-Canada, especially in Québec, still feel an attachment to the ‘terre de nos aieux’, but for many this is more just the province of Québec, and not all of Canada, whereas others feel an attachment to the entire country. Many feel that it is impossible to be fully ‘liberated’ and to ‘roam’ like the Voyageur or the Coureur de Bois, whether it be literally or figuratively, and somehow fully leave behind our Roman Catholic faith. After all, our motto in Québec is ‘Je me Souviens’, which means ‘I remember’. I don’t just have a selective memory, but I remember everything, the strong Catholic heritage of my ancestors, and how it shaped my sense of belonging to this land, to the French language and culture, to my sense of fidelity to family and friends, colleagues and comrades in arms. How the faith of my ancestors moulded my sense of responsibility towards myself and to others, to live, love, to forgive, and be forgiven, and to dwell in God’s Grace.
Yves Beauchemin, spoke of ‘liberation’ in a talk he gave in Montréal on the ‘Canal savoir’ TV station. He’s a secular secessionist sociologist in Québec who feels that Québecers can only know ‘liberation’ or ‘Liberty’ by seceding from Canada, and leaving their French-Canadian and Roman Catholic identity behind, so as to truly ‘progress’ into the marvellous future of secularism and ‘progressivism’ of a Republican Québec, devoid of any trace of active practice of our Catholic traditions, which, after all, have been the strongest bulwark against assimilation in years past.
If we are to continue to produce the George St. Pierres of this world, and have them fight for Canada (that’s if mixed martial arts is indeed an Olympic sport), then we certainly need to continue to nurture a sense of belonging to Canada amongst French-Canadians, and one of the ways we can do it, is to nurture a renewed sense of attachment to our faith in the Roman Catholic Church and its links to our strong spiritual heritage, which after all, has made us who we are: A noble and courageous people, capable of taking on all comers and winning, especially when we do it as part of a team, which I like to call ‘Team Canada’.
‘Go Team, Go!’ And looking forward to that first gold medal, there Mr. St. Pierre. French power rules, là!