Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Je me souviens

This weekend, a top UFC fighter named Georges St Pierre is going to fight in a title bout. He is a French-Canadian who trains in Montreal; he has a tattoo of the fleur-de-lis on his calf.

I was once fluent in French, and have occasionally deluded myself that I understand Quebec. In 1980, Quebec first tried to separate from Canada. In a triumph of multi-lingual education, I remember being puzzled at why so many people called the Quebecois names: it was just a language, and for me, not an alien one. Though I could tell that this was very serious, I didn't really understand what all the fuss was about: neither why Quebec wanted to leave nor why the rest of Canada seemed anti-French. I thought I understood.

Around that time, Quebec changed the slogan on their license plates from "La Belle Province" to "Je me souviens". I knew it meant something along the lines of "I remember" but I didn't think much of it.

Years went by. Quebec again tried to seperate circa 1995, with players (on both sides) who were sad imitations of the intellectual giants of 1980. By this time, I realized that there was so much culture in French-Canada that I didn't understand (can you name a famous Quebec folk singer or author? There are zillions), but I still thought that I understood the issues and the divisions, on both sides.

Last year, I mention the phrase "Je me souviens" to a friend at work. He is my product manager, from France. I don't know if he has ever been to Quebec. As I spoke, I became curious, and looked up the phrase on Wikipedia: sure enough, there was an entry.

My friend read the full phrase (arguably from a poem dating to the 1880s):

Je me souviens,
Que né sous le lys,
Je croîs sous la rose.

I remember,
That born under the lily,
I grow under the rose.

He nodded and smiled immediately: he got it. Born under the lily (fleur-de-lis) of France, yet living under the rose of England.

He had seen something profound that I had never really considered. Now, I think of it every time I see the Quebec flag, or their license. In a way, it is vaguely approximated by the Confederate flag in the southern US.


ps. This post is about the phrase "Je me souviens" and not the issue of separatism. That is a deep, complex issue that had its origins in the 1960s and the seeds of oppression long before that. I can't possibly summarize it here. However, I can state that I am 100% federalist, for a united, bi-lingual Canada.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I'd be interested to hear what your American friends think of it. Its a complex issue- much different from the American experience.


CaptainCanuck said...

To be honest, I don't really remember any conversations on this with my enlightened friends in StL (which includes the readers here).

I do have one pet story about a reaction from someone's 'American perspective' but it is unfair to repeat it here, lest it be taken as a generality. Let's just say there are morons in all countries, including the US and Canada. People are people, eh?