150 celebrations highlight Quebec's complicated relationship with Canada

Canada 150 celebrations lay bare Quebec's complicated relationship with the rest of the country.

Some in province see reason to celebrate country’s birthday, others not so much

Many Quebecers have complicated feelings about Canada Day celebrations.

Canada 150 celebrations are underway across the country, with big events, big spending and no shortage of patriotic merchandise.

But some in Quebec see little point in celebrating the country's sesquicentennial.

"I don't understand the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Canada — it doesn't mean anything," said Gisèle Bernard, a resident of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Que.

This year's festivities, ostensibly meant to unite Canadians, have inadvertently shone a spotlight on lingering divisions between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

Bernard said Canada's big birthday fails to recognize the history of French Canadians before Confederation.

Her husband, Norman, said Canada 150 resonates "with anglophones and immigrants" but added, "I don't think that [francophones] are very happy" about it.

A recent Leger marketing poll found enthusiasm for the celebrations in Quebec pales compared to other provinces.

Fifty-five per cent of Quebec respondents said they are looking forward to Canada's 150 events, compared to 84 per cent in Ontario.

Talking about the Constitution

The province's complicated relationship with Canada was laid bare last month, when Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, a staunch federalist, brought up the idea of re-opening the Constitution, which Quebec has never signed.

"We're just saying let's talk and understand each other better because we have drifted apart in last couple of years," he said.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, a staunch federalist, recently raised concerns that the country is 'drifting apart.' (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The idea, however, was quickly shut down by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

For its part, the sovereigntist Parti Québécois launched an alternative to the 150 celebrations, called l'Autre 150 (The Other 150).

"There is a lot of money put into official 150 of Canada [celebrations]. There is a lot of propaganda,"  said Montreal rapper Rod le Stod, a spokesman for l'Autre 150.

"We are here to kind of counter that."

That means highlighting events in Quebec's history, like the 50th anniversary of French President Charles De Gaulle's famous and controversial Montreal speech, in which he declared, "Vive le Quebec libre!"

Rod le Stod pointed out that for many Quebecers, Canada Day doesn't resonate as much as St-Jean-Baptiste Day, an annual celebration of French-Canadian culture, language and identity held every June 24.

"We talk about the two solitudes, so we are kind of like two nations in the same country," he said. "For us, the St-Jean is our Fête nationale and the first of July is more like moving day." 

Montreal rapper Rod le Stod is a spokesperson for l'Autre 150, an alternative to official 150 celebrations. (CBC News)

Indeed, July 1 has taken on that connotation in Quebec, where many people move apartments and the streets are filled with moving vans and discarded furniture.

Canadian or Quebecer?

In Montreal, the 150 is also competing with the city's 375th birthday, with events and celebrations happening all year round.

Indigenous groups have called out both celebrations for glossing over what they say is a painful history of colonialism.

Stephanie Pigeon, a 23-year-old who lives on Montreal's South Shore, has noticed differences in the way her friends in Quebec and the rest of Canada view the country's birthday.

"Some of my friends from Toronto, well, it's more Canada. And those who are born here, Quebec is more important to them," said Pigeon, whose father was born in Quebec and whose mother is from the Philippines. "But I feel like both are important."

For many in Quebec, July 1 is known more as moving day than Canada Day. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Canada Day has never been as big a deal in Quebec as it is in other parts of the country, but it does resonate for many here.

"It's been almost one year since I got my Canadian citizenship, so Canada is home for me," said Patricia Leite, who moved to Montreal from Brazil seven years ago.

"It's a country which embraces diversity and it's really so important. I'm celebrating and I feel I'm part of it."

Stephanie Pigeon, 23, notices a difference in the way her friends from Toronto and Montreal see Canada's 150th. (CBC News)

René Mailloux was born in Quebec but has travelled around the world for his work as a missionary, and it has given him a different perspective on his country and province.

"I am very happy to be a Canadian. That doesn't prevent me from being a good Quebecer," he said. "But I think that both are possible. We don't have someone saying, 'Do you prefer your father or your mother?' Without both, I wouldn't be there."    

Three perspectives on Canada 150

At a busy café in Montreal's Villeray neighbourhood, the sidewalks are painted blue and white for the Fête nationale, three friends with three different perspectives on Canada's 150th were enjoying pastries and coffee.

"I come from a family that is very, very sovereigntist, so there is no attachment to Canada. There is even a battle with Canada, a form of rivalry that exists," said Marie-Helène Ladouceur.

Patricia Leite, with her baby Sophia, got her Canadian citizenship one year ago. She will be celebrating Canada's 150th because 'it's a country which embraces diversity.' (CBC News)

Her friend, Alexandre Applin, who is from Montreal but lives in Toronto now, has another view.

"I don't think I will be taking part to major celebrations, but the values behind the country and what it means, and celebrating that as a Canadian, I'm a little bit more in synch with that," he said.

Across the table, Joëlle Parent, who recently moved to Ottawa from Montreal, said her perspective has shifted.

"I've always been more of a celebrating St-Jean and Quebec and my francophone identity," she said.  "But at the same time, I'm dating someone from Ottawa and he's an anglophone so he feels a bit more strongly about Canada, so I have mixed feelings."


Alison Northcott is a national reporter for CBC News in Montreal.