Thursday, June 30, 2005


M. Polyscopique has a post on "Je me souviens", a phrase second in ambiguity only to "société distincte" in Quebec's Dictionary of Intentionally Obfuscatory Terminology. [Via Cosh, who forgot to code a permalink.]

I wrote about the famous license plate motto on the op/ed pages of the Post in April. Here's what I said (with the all the correct accents inexpicably gone):

It's one of Quebec's great ironies that no one remembers precisely what architect Eugene-Etienne Tache meant when he inscribed Je me souviens (I remember) above the main door of the Parliament Building in Quebec City in 1883. The motto, which officially became part of Quebec's coat of arms in 1939, has been the subject of so much debate over the years that you just wish Tache had told somebody, anybody, what it was he remembered. The Alamo? A lost lover? Mama?

Last Friday, the National Post published a letter to the editor... asserting that the motto, which has appeared on Quebec's licence plates since 1978, was a "divisive message" conceived by separatists "filled with smouldering detestation of everything English." What the Parti Quebecois wanted angry traffic-bound commuters to recall, Sangster believes, was the French defeat on the Plains of Abraham.

But while the party of Rene Levesque no doubt got rid of the cheerful license plate motto La Belle Province because they preferred un beau pays, its replacement slogan predates the modern sovereignty movement by almost a century.

While some have appropriated Je me souviens as a sovereigntist shibboleth, others have claimed it is a call to Canadian unity. There is a myth, unsupported by any historical documents, that it is just the beginning of a longer line by Tache: "Je me souviens que ne sous le lys, je crois sous la rose" -- I remember that born under the lys (France), I grew under the rose (Britain). (According to historian Gaston Deschenes, Tache did write a line similar to the second half of this poem to commemorate Quebec City's 1908 tricentennial.)

Tache's three-word sentence is a political and cultural Rorschach test in Quebec. In the 2002 National Film Board documentary A License to Remember, filmmaker Thierry Le Brun toured the province asking nationalists, federalists, Anglophones, Allophones, aboriginals and war veterans what Je me souviens meant and got vastly different responses. A cab driver gave the most compelling answer: He used to know what it meant, but he forgot.

Clues to what Tache meant the phrase to mean, however, are found by examining the rest of the building he designed. The facade of the Parliament Building is a monument to Quebec's history -- all of it -- with bronze sculptures representing First Nations, explorers, missionaries, leaders of the Ancien Regime and English administrators. Both the Marquis de Montcalm and General Wolfe peer out from the limestone.

And that's probably all Tache meant by Je me souviens: I remember.

I might add that, while we all say 'Lest We Forget' on Remembrance Day, a little laughter and forgetting is good for peace and prosperity. (Israel and Palestine, I'm looking at you!) I'm rather pleased we made it past the 25th anniversary of the first Quebec referendum without too much media hand-wringing, but I suspect it will be harder to sneak past the 10th anniversary of the second on October 30. (I, for one, fully intend to dress up as Parizeau-after-ten-years-of-continuous-drinking for Halloween this fall.)

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