265 000 students have graced the proverbial halls of Athabasca University since it opened in 1970. Despite differences of age or geography, we all share an intellectual bond as members of the academic diaspora that is AU. Turns out, we are not alone in sharing a unique bond with those who are surrounded by a different and larger culture. At AU we’re all a bit like Quebec! Monday, June 24th is Quebec’s Fete Nationale so let’s join in the celebrations and appreciate the unique awesomeness that is La Belle Province.
The Quebecois people who descend from the founding of New France in 1608 have some natural affinities with we at AU: our status as distance students belies our tenuous and largely invisible link with our proverbial motherland up in Athabasca itself. Wherever we are at in our studies, we are all part of Athabasca. Quebecois likewise are bound to one another across the world by their shared ethnicity as ontological denizens of their province. They celebrate this bond in places as diverse as Tokyo, Brussels, Mexico City, Acadie-Bathurst and New Orleans.
Saint-Jean Baptiste Day is thus a special celebration of all that is unique about that bastion of Francophone elegance that is Quebec. The first recorded celebrations of the date were in 1646 “on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River with bonfires and shots from a cannon”. In modern times, it attained statutory holiday status in 1925.
Wherever We Go, There We Are…As AU or As Quebecois
Quebecois I have personally known love being here in my home province, the ol’ Columbia-Britainique, but they are also quick to share with me their longing for the joys of their homeland in Quebec. There’s something comforting in the air when one is back at home. We too, at AU, can feel cut off from the larger concrete infrastructure of a regular university campus; distance education can lack a certain settled sense of belonging and leave us ill at ease with our status as students. A certain AmpUtation may even be said to have occurred; where in a previous academic incarnation many of us had a tangible campus to call home we now wander the nebulous halls of an online university like beheaded ghosts from a spectral past.
Here Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day serves not only to illustrate the glories and tragedies of Quebec’s history but also a key aspect of the relative isolation of AU life: we’re not wholly in academia in that our spatial surroundings are a far cry from the ivory towers of so-called higher learning. This may be cause for celebration of our intellectual independence, but, nonetheless, the apparent incompleteness of our AU existence bears the scar of shattered origins. Many of us, not to mince words, flunked out of college and had to re-enter academia at a later date. AU is a place where we built our identity as scholars outside and even in opposition to the surrounding cultural life of our lived environments and even universities themselves. Likewise, Francophone culture possesses a special identity in contrapuntal opposition to the predominant Anglo cultural reality of North America. Saint-Jean-Baptiste day may evoke little recognition outside of celebrations in Quebec but its slogan of “8 millions d’enticelles” (8 million sparks) symbolizes the energy of the actual citizens of Quebec (http://montreall.com/la-fete-nationale-celebrate-saint-jean-baptiste-in-montreal/ )
Quebec: A History of Biblical Proportions
The namesake of Quebec’s national party reminds us of the conflicted origins of modern-day Lower Canada. (To know the day Biblically is, well, more than to know it as a euphemism often associated with college life shenanigans though history. But we college kids at AU are here to learn more than to fornicate, even if we do know how to throw a good party.) The Bible story goes as follows: A particularly stimulating dance was performed by “the daughter of Herodias”, a noble princess. Perhaps the dancer was lasciviously enlightening or perhaps she was philosophically stimulating, or perhaps a bit of both but who is to say, as the Bible lacks illustrations. In any case, the crowd went wild. The key figure among the audience was one King Herod; to show his appreciation he offered the fulfilment of a wish and, much obliged, Herodias called for the decapitation of the famous evangelist and baptizer named John. Shortly he was tracked down and his head severed ISIS-style before being brought forth and presented, Top Chef style, on a silver platter. Ugh! (Not to mention mixed metaphors: double ugh, maybe?) Herod was a man of his word and, although he regretted it, he kept his promise. As AU students we too experience a certain decapitation as our lofty academic brains often experience grave distance from our non-scholarly corporeal surroundings. This sort of separation also characterizes the historical position of the Quebecois people vis a vis their incipient ruling class.
On September 13th of 1759, on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec city, the British general Brock defeated his French counterpart Montcalm and thus the subordination of Quebec to Anglophone rule began. Some historical theorists have termed the era that followed, and continued at least until Rene Levesque and the quiet revolution of the 1960s, as a decapitation. Professor Fyson from the University of Laval summarizes: “ In the classic view, summed up in the “decapitation thesis”, the Conquest resulted in the wholesale replacement of a francophone elite by a new, anglophone one. There were of course nuances to this: on the one hand, the persistance of fragments of the old elite of New France, notably the seigneurs and the curés, who allied themselves with their new masters; and, on the other, the growth, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, of a new fragment of the francophone elites, based on the liberal professions and on small-scale, local merchants. Both these fragments of the elites, however, were subordinated to the dominant British elites; further, both drew their power in large part from rural areas” (http://www.profs.hst.ulaval.ca/Dfyson/LocalJudiciary.htm)
Like John the Baptist, Quebec was symbolically defeated and humiliated by the British on the Plains of Abraham. Decapitation thesis suggests that incipient and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie scrammed (and were ejected) back to France and other colonies along with their businesses, as did landed aristocrats with their inherited wealth; both groups were largely replaced by English overlords. The language of rule became English and this alienated French speakers; it wasn’t until the past half century that French became the official language of Quebec street signs and government itself. An enforced conformity to English was a hallmark of Quebec life in somewhat the same way as we at AU may be expected by peers to fit the mold of university students even though we don’t.
Culturally, the symbolic language of university students is more about dorm parties and coming of age than actual academic studies. Although the average age of undergrads at AU is 23 it’s a different sort of 23, with a different personal language, than that of a student who remains sequestered on a college campus since graduating high school. Whatever our age, our life experience prior to and outside of AU belies our rounded experience as AU students. In a sense we at AU lack the trappings of a typical university experiences in the way Quebec has historically lost the usual path to nationhood that history takes. After all, countries like Italy and Germany were only united as nation-states at around the time Canada came into being! Yet, I think we can all agree that AU benefits us greatly with its flexibility; our schooling is what we make of it and the Quebecois of the 21st Century have made their culture and homeland a beloved and valuable part of the Canadian nation-state.
Being Ourselves as We Learn And Grow; Our Own Personal States of Evolving Self
Free-thinking is often thought but less often spoken; many a student remains mum in a class while quietly harbouring fascinating and ingenious viewpoints on the subject matter. A joyous part of AU is that we can, with our tutors’ guidance and consent, investigate academic realms that might be a little off topic in a typical brick and mortar classroom setting or that we are too uncomfortable to bring up in a class discussion. Confidence often comes from writing and then speaking to others afterward, and this is one great virtue of an AU education; we hone our minds such that we increase our personal pedagogical capacities.
As Quebecois know, immersed as they are in the hegemony of an English-speaking country, the whims of the masses limit certain discourses. Yet we can speak truth to power. A classic French fable illustrates this fact in fine fashion. It’s called The Wolf and the Lamb and its outcome serves as a reminder not to blindly trust those with authority in any setting. LaFontaine’s story goes as follows: Once upon a time a lamb ambled up to a stream and began to lap its refreshing water. Slaking itself in thirsty bliss, the little creature failed to notice the approach of a wily wolf who, confronting the wooly fluffball, announced that the lamb was stealing from the wolf’s stream. How can this be, asked the lamb. Surely the waters were free for all. The wolf (we might name him Nestle (https://www.corporate.nestle.ca/en/ask-nestle/water/answers/nestle-waters-british-columbia-overview) replied that no, he alone was sovereign over these lands, a canine king of the castle, and the waters were his too. To this he would brook (no pun intended) no dissent and the lamb was unable to dissuade him from the wolf’s right to claim unquestioned ascendancy over the stream. With time for discourse over, the wolf promptly killed and ate the lamb with no silver platter involved. Lafontaine’s poem summarizes its theme of how might makes right with the following refrain: “The right of the stronger is always better; and we will prove it right now”( http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=5710). By seeing the injustice of this state, the poem illustrates a truth that may be overcome with righteous virtue; there’s a reason that those in the know refer to Saint-Jean-Baptiste day as a bigger party than Canada Day. Celebrating their uniqueness carries a special energy with it for Quebecois.
So, as we have seen, the will of an English majority in Canada has been the historical fate of Quebec. But on Saint-Jean Baptiste day people celebrate their unique heritage and the ties that bind them together in their French culture. In fact, due ostensibly to 88% of rental leases expiring on the 30th of June each year, July 1st is in Quebec colloquially known as ‘moving day’ (https://www.cooksinfo.com/moving-day). Some celebrate Canada Day too but the real party is June 24th. Likewise, we at AU are always a bit out of step with regular university campuses simply by our difference and isolation. It’s our diversity and difference from ordinary colleges that makes AU a special institution; a plurality of voices populate our virtual campuses and hopefully find polysemic expression here on the pages of The Voice magazine.
So, historically bloodied but far from unbowed, the Quebecois today are a resilient and delightful people; whether in Pincher Creek or Port Alberni I can speak to my experience as one of fascination and appreciation of Quebecois culture: not one encounter has lacked a memorable charm on the part of my French interlocutor. Quebecois in my experience know how to have fun in the way we at AU know how to relish our studies. Like the Quebecois, we know we are part of something larger than ourselves. From such sentiments our AU nation is born. So let’s celebrate the National Party of Quebec with our AU heritage, be it long or short, in mind!