We live in an amazing country and we celebrate it every year on Canada Day. Next year will be Canada’s 150th anniversary, so we’re looking forward to a truly special celebration. There will be frills and fireworks everywhere – with one notable exception because of the very framework upon which Canada is built.
Having spent Canada Day in Montreal this year, I was reminded of how Canada Day is nothing special in Quebec. Remarkably, it is a cultural thing in Quebec to refer to la fête du Canada or Canada Day not by name but, rather, just by “July 1st.” Canada Day is not the chosen terminology most Quebecers use.
On Canada’s birthday, many Quebec stores remain open. All the big chain stores are open. Although it is a statutory Quebec government holiday, every government liquor store is open and, for a week before the holiday, the outlets seemingly proudly post in huge bold type that they are open on July 1.
But what really nails it is the fact July 1 is also “moving day” in Quebec. July 1 is the date most leases begin in Quebec. For many years, May 1 was moving day in Quebec. In 1974, a federalist – not a separatist – government, made the change to July 1. So Canada Day has been moving day in Quebec for more than 40 years.
When they changed moving day to July 1, the government said it made more sense because children had finished their school year, thus avoiding disruption. It said the weather wasn’t always good on May 1. It also said workers wouldn’t have to lose a day’s pay while moving since it was a holiday anyway. These three practical arguments inevitably – deliberately or not – diminished the meaning of Canada Day in Quebec.
So, in the rest of Canada, when all levels of government do what needs to be done to make the conditions most advantageous for a beautiful celebration, in Montreal the streets fill with garbage.
Because people move on July 1, all the couches, chairs, dirty mattresses, clothes, books and personal things they no longer want are dumped on the sidewalk, all at once, on Canada’s birthday. On street after street, in district after district, this eyesore junk sits during the Canada Day holiday period. It usually takes more than a week for it to be cleared away.
It is not even as if Quebecers treat Canada Day just like any other day. July 1 actually becomes the day to try to do anything else – important or not – rather than show any trace of official or unofficial celebration of the maple leaf.
But it is not like anyone sees anything wrong with this. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government find ways to work around it; as did his father; as did Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper. It has become the Canada we know and love.
Spending Canada Day in Montreal made me realize again how amazing Canada is. The founding fathers, English and French, came together, and that meant finding ways to work around the differences.
Today, English Canada often forgets that Quebec didn’t sign the patriated constitution in 1982. Another fading memory is how an attempt to get Quebec to sign in 1990 fell apart over the rest of Canada’s refusal to recognize Quebec as a distinct society. Despite the setbacks, Canada remains together.
It may not be written in the constitution, but distinct Quebec is. Being the only province not to have signed the constitution is definitive proof of its distinct status within the Canada we have evolved into. The present sad state of the rest of the world measures our achievement.
The souls of Quebecers are soaked in the history of fighting to survive. For many French-speaking Quebecers, doing things like making Canada Day moving day, like not signing the constitution, are about never allowing Canada to surpass the prominence of Quebec in the equation. It is a reflex to think “Quebec first” and to not jeopardize that.
Being Canadian can be about fighting this dichotomy or it can be about making room for two different kinds of Canada Days. We made our choice a long time ago.
Canadian history is about the success of making it work.