“Je me souviens”
From The Walrus:
I had never felt closer to Quebec than on the night of October 30, 1995, sitting in an apartment on Montreal’s Plateau watching the results of the province’s second referendum on sovereignty. The narrow federalist victory, and the promise of a combative concession speech by Premier Jacques Parizeau, compelled me and a friend down to the Palais des congrès to see how the rest of the night would unfold. Dejected Parti Québécois supporters were fleeing the convention hall, and we walked straight to the stage just as the premier mounted it. As a result, we were among a much diminished crowd standing five metres from Parizeau when he expressed his soon notorious view that Quebec’s dream of statehood had been defeated by “l’argent et le vote ethnique.” My friend, a transplanted Chicago Jew who worked as a novelist and translator, turned to me and quipped, “You must be the money, and I must be the ethnic vote.
It was true that while I’m half-French, I am also half-English — complicit in the “money” Ottawa had poured into the federalist campaign. As we wandered up to rue Sainte-Catherine in the biting cold, we stopped to chat with a group of young nationalists, many wearing punk attire and facial jewellery, gathered around oil barrel fires in a vacant lot shouting, “Vive le Québec libre!” and waving handwritten placards, the slogans imperfectly transcribed. Their mood was foul, a bitterness fuelled, I sensed, by stimulants as much as by defeat, and I was content to move on. But my Chicago friend, his impeccable French accented, told one protester that if he loved a free Quebec so much, he should learn to write his own language correctly. The kid was too stunned to object.
It has taken me most of the subsequent sixteen years to decide what came to an end that night, and to resolve whether it is indeed a national absence or — infinitely smaller — a mostly private loss. Born in suburban Toronto to a Franco-Ontarian mother with eleven siblings and an Ottawa Irish father with one sister, I was raised believing that part of my nature, and most of my relatives, belonged to a parallel Canada that spoke French and ate tourtière, happy to genuflect before the holy trinity of God, the Pope, and Maurice Richard. In early adulthood, I migrated to Quebec during the summers, starting with Quebec City in 1980. Arriving a week after the first referendum, I rented a tiny basement room on the street facing the massive Plains of Abraham, site of the 1759 battle that had birthed both the psychology of a defeated French minority in North America, and an epic dialogue between Canada’s two founding peoples concerning the shape of the nation.