“Mon pays,” the refrain goes, “ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.” In English: My country is not a country, it is winter.

Penned almost 50 years ago by Gilles Vigneault, Mon pays is a song of love and longing that became the anthem of the movement for Québec independence.

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Now, in the wake of the stunning electoral defeat of the Parti Québécois a few weeks ago, the words take on new meaning.

Longtime devotees of sovereignty — Vigneault among them — are still grappling with the scope of it.

“It was a traitement de shock,” he acknowledges. But Vigneault remains determined. “Shock treatment can hurt, but it will not kill the intention of being a country.”

Vigneault was born in 1928 in the remote fishing village of Natashquan on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. His first record came out in 1962, at the dawn of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Since then, there have been 50 more albums, plus dozens of books of fables, short stories and poems.

Vigneault is now 85. He has won multiple honours and is a household name in Québec, and his latest album, Vivre debout (Stand Tall), is flying off the shelves.

Rare interview opportunity

The singer rarely gives interviews in English, but he welcomed me into his studio in Ste-Placide, a small town on the Ottawa River where he has lived for more than 40 years.

His studio is in a former restaurant in the middle of town, on rue René Lévesque, next door to a parking lot for tractors. When I open the unlocked door and step inside, Vigneault is standing by the counter, instantly recognizable with his prominent nose, unruly white hair and quick, toothy smile.

He waves me over and pours some green tea.

And then he takes me back to 1965, to the birth of Mon pays, the song that shaped his career and catapulted him into the role of Québec’s national troubadour.

At the time, Vigneault was acting in La neige a fondu sur la Manicouagan, a film in northern Quebec directed by Arthur Lamothe. He told Vigneault he needed a song.

Gilles Vigneault

Vigneault's signature song, Mon pays, was released in 1965, and made him a star in Quebec. (Ronald Labelle)

As a joke, Vigneault sat right down and “began to write for fun: ‘Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.’” Lamothe loved it.

Vigneault worked on it overnight, and by morning he was able to sing it for the director. Over the last half century, he has sung it thousands of times.

“It is still new for me,” he says.

“Back then, I had plenty of dreams about that country that should logically be independent. We are not against Canada. We try to be for us - separate [but] stay friends.”

Lyrical preoccupations

One of the songs on Vigneault’s new album is called L’isoloir, the voting booth.

Dans mon isoloir

J’ai quelques secondes

Pour changer le monde

Je prends le pouvoir

De me faire un nid

Au coeur de l’histoire

Et de ma croix noire

Me faire un pays…

“In the voting booth,” the lyrics go, “I have a couple of seconds to change the world. I have the power to make a nest in the heart of history, and with my black X to build a country.”

On April 7, Québecers did use their power, putting black Xs on their ballots. The PQ and the sovereignty movement were handed a stinging, overwhelming defeat that resulted in Liberal Philippe Couillard, a strong federalist, becoming the new Québec Premier.

My heart was broken. I am not the Oracle after all,” says Vigneault. “The Parti Québécois had become an old party and had forgotten youth.”

Gilles Vigneault

Gilles Vigneault's latest album is called Vivre debout. (Tandem.mu)

Still, Vigneault says he is convinced the French language can only be protected in an independent Québec.

“A friend of mine lived in Dunrea [Manitoba],” he says, “and when he was young, the proportion was that 70 per cent would speak French. He returned some years ago, and the proportion is inverted, 20 per cent speak French and 80 per cent speak English. The culture and the language in the province of Manitoba has almost disappeared in 50 years.”

Vigneault the pamphleteer

At 85, Vigneault is still asking provocative questions about Canadian and world affairs.

“Why are we not all more compassionate?” he wonders.

Vivre debout is classic Vigneault. His voice is still scratchy but heartfelt, his lyrics rich with metaphor, where love, nature and politics are all entangled.

The song Uranium is a protest against plans for a mine near Natashquan, Vigneault’s birthplace. In six verses, Vigneault packs in the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Geiger counters, solar power and rural development. He rhymes uranium with geranium, and wonders how the First Nations people are ever going to explain radiation to the caribou.

Mine promoters take a predictable beating. “Some people came to Natashquan,” Vigneault says, “to explain to [citizens] that they were sitting on a fortune and there would be jobs and jobs and fortunes and development.”

He says, “The people of Natashquan said no. I was so proud of this.”

But while he continues to speak out passionately on the issues that move him, he is feeling his eight and a half decades. Last year, there was a health scare, and from now on, Vigneault will be giving fewer concerts.

That suits him fine, as he will spend more time at home in Ste-Placide with his wife, Alison Foy. This spring, he collected sap from his own maple trees and made syrup.

The last cut on Vivre debout is a poem, Petit bilan provisoire. A little look back, a little review.

J’apprends lentement qu’à me taire

Je ne me fais plus d’ennemis

Le monde ressemble à la terre

On récolte autant qu’on a mis.

Gilles Vigneault says he’s learned over the years that sometimes it is better to be quiet and that there is no use in making enemies. People are like the earth, he says. You reap what you sow.