Saint-Jean Baptiste Day lands in the West

Waving flags on Sait-Jean Baptite day. Photo by Fritz Maingrette, Flickr

Waving flags on Sait-Jean Baptite day. Photo by Fritz Maingrette, Flickr

If you find yourself in downtown Montreal this June 24th, you will see large crowds of Quebecois waving flags and singing songs with gusto. What you will be observing is not the latest student protest, but rather the celebration of Saint-Jean Baptiste Day, Quebec’s fête nationale (national holiday). Thanks to the introduction last week of Bill C-432, which proposes to make this day a holiday in all of Canada, such celebrations may become more common nationwide.

What is it?

Saint-Jean Baptiste Day has its origins in the celebration of the summer solstice. With the Christianization of Europe, the day became, especially in France, a celebration of Saint John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus.

It was in the 1830s that the holiday started to take its current form. French-Canadians, seeking to overthrow British colonial rule, revived the Saint-Jean Baptiste as a way to unify themselves. Since then, it has become a day to celebrate Quebecois and francophone culture and history, officially becoming the fête nationale of the province in 1977. Quebecois are proud of this day. For many it is the most important holiday in the calendar.

Saint Jean Baptiste Day in Vancouver

You don’t have to be in Quebec to celebrate Saint-Jean Baptiste. For instance, Maillardville, B.C.’s largest francophone community, is organizing an outdoor festival for the whole family to mark the day. Traditional music from Quebec, Acadia and France from the VAZZY duo as well as the Alouest musical group, which seeks to give a West Coast flare to the folk music from these regions, will create an authentic French-Canadian atmosphere.

More unexpected is the presence of Haitian singer Isline Saintil and Bollywood-style bellydancer Jessica Sall. According to Souad Yassin, one of the organisers of the event: “[Saint-Jean Baptiste] is a Québécois celebration, but it also celebrates everyone’s background as well because it is more of a melting pot in Montreal now.”

Such cultural diversity also helps to show that being proud of one’s culture does not mean one cannot appreciate others’. Keeping in mind Canada’s occasionnally difficult French-English relations, this multicultural celebration serves a useful purpose in showing that Saint-Jean Baptiste “is mainly for Quebec, but is a part of the Canadian culture as well”, as Souad Yassin points out.

After Maillardville in the afternoon, the celebration continues at the Boteco Brasil Restaurant in the evening. At this event produced by the International Cultural Alliance (ICA), Francophone and Brazilian culture will mix to celebrate the Saint-Jean Baptiste and the summer solstice through food, song and dance.
According to Christian Benoit, a Quebecois and president of the ICA, “[this] cultural diversity means that the Saint-Jean Baptiste becomes a real cultural celebration because it is based on its content […] without a feeling of being linked to politics or religion.”

A National Holiday?

However, Saint-Jean Baptiste is closely associated with the separatist movement, being officially organized in Quebec by the Mouvement National des Quebecoises et Quebecois, a group that promotes the idea of a free Quebec. If not separatism, the holiday nevertheless promotes for many the idea of a Quebecois nation within Canada. This is not an idea that sits well with everyone.

That is why many will react strongly against Bill C-432. This reaction may be premature. Bill C-432 is a private members’ bill, and as such will most likely not be addressed by the current Parliament, let alone become law.

As Joyce Murray, MP for Vancouver Quadra, notes, its effect is to provide an “an opportunity for engagement and conversations about the importance of the Saint-Jean Baptiste.” And while Saint-Jean Baptiste may not become a statutory holiday across Canada, thanks to this bill one can, along with Joyce Murray, “hope that it becomes more and more well known in all the country.”