Who remembers what in Quebec? And when?

quebec plate
© 2007 Gordon Alexander
The license plate of Quebec

Posted 11.27.07

RICHMOND, QC | Read any good license plates lately? A lot Quebec motorists you ask have no idea what is on the license plate they just spent a small fortune to renew, other than their number (perhaps ) and the year and the rest don't know and don 't really care.

Motorists over forty are aware that on the bottom of their plate is the inscription "Je me Souviens." and never thought much about the origin or meaning.

Most under forty are not even aware that there is anything written on the plate other than their number and the provincial designation "Quebec."

Rightly so, as most of us don't spend quality time delving into the meaning of what some Provincial bureaucrat decided to inscribe on the plate.

According to the encyclopedia, "Je me souviens" is the official motto of the Province of Quebec. The literal translation of the French phrase in English is "I remember&.quot;

In addition to license plates, the motto replacing " La Belle Province" (The Beautiful Province ), both the coat of arms and the new motto were fashioned by the French Canadian architect Eugéne-V‰tienne Taché during his career as the Assistant Commissioner for Crown Lands for Quebec.

This motto also appears right under the coat of arms at the entrance of the Parliament Building in Quebec City. And itÕs the official motto for the Royal 22nd Regiment.

There has been a long standing debate on the motto's exact meaning, fuelled by the fact that Taché never did explicitly explain the meaning of Je me souviens. There is a persistent story that the full quotation from Taché is "Je me souviens que né sous le lys, je croés sous la rose" ("I remember that born under the lily, I grew under the rose" -- referring to the floral emblems of France and England), but this is undocumented.

The theory of Taché's anti-British sentiment persists, and over time the slogan has taken a nationalist tint and is taken by some to mean "I remember my French history and heritage" or, even, "I remember what the English did to the French."

"I don't know what it means...I guess I'm too young...ask somebody older " laughingly said Chantel Tremblay a clerk at the Richmond branch of Society de 'Assurance Automobile, who handles hundreds of new license plates every day.

" Does this have anything to do with René Lévesque?" said Nancy Atkinson, receptionist for the Town of Richmond ." I thought it might have something to do with the PQ trying to get independence " she added.

René Lévesque was a minister of the government of Quebec, Canada, (1960 to 1966), the founder of the Parti Québécois political party, and twenty-third Premier of Quebec (November 25, 1976 to October 3, 1985). He was the first Quebecer political leader since confederation to attempt, through a referendum, to negotiate political independence for Quebec.

Answers as to the meaning of the motto seems to depend on who you ask. Replies to the question go from profound, to silly to an "I dunno"

In the rest of Canada provincial mottos seem more straightforward by comparison. Alberta. " The Wild Rose ". Manitoba, "Friendly . . .". Yukon Territory " The Klondike ". Prince Edward Island. "Confederation Bridge". British Columbia ,"Beautiful . . .". Nova Scotia, " Canada's Ocean Playground". Saskatchewan. "Land of the Living Skies". Nunavut & Northwest Territories & NWT , "Explore Canada's Arctic". Newfoundland and Labrador, ""A World of Difference". New Brunswick, "Conservation". and Ontario, " Yours To Discover"

Record Columnist Ross Murray said "I remember..... when the license plate read 'La Belle Province.'"

Log Cabin Chronicles publisher/photographer John Mahoney said " I remember the Conquest by the English in 1759 and I am never going to forget that they took my country away (after I took away from the people who lived here first) Maudit Sauvage! They were not doing anything with it, Chalice! "According to Mahoney, his Quebecois ancestors came from France more than 250 years ago

Retired Richmond sales representative, Gordon Irwin, said ; "My idea as to it's meaning would relate back to 1759. When General Wolf defeated Gen. Montcalm on the plains of Abraham in Quebec city. Quebec was French; a colony of France. Suddenly, it was English under British rule.

Many French people never accepted Britain; even though they were allowed to retain their language and their religion. To me it represents defiance; and with the 1976 election of the separatist Parti Québécois; This new slogan emerged. Before that I believe the slogan was La Belle Province. (The beautiful Province). The word "Je" I take to mean "We the people of Quebec."

Irwin goes on to say "In longer terms they are saying; "We remember how it used to be and we will not forget. If you go into the history of the Acadians who left Canada and went to the Southern USA, it will give you an idea of the uprooting of families and hatred created." He said.

Brendalee Piironen, Director of Operations at the Foyer Wales Home in Richmond said: " My opinion is, Je me souviens, means I remember what the Veterans have done for us - us being Canadians.". This sentiment was paraphrased by several veterans.

Christine Aspinall , a resident of the Melbourne section of Richmond said: "I Can't remember exactly when this appeared on license plates. I always had the feeling - probably unjustified, that this refers to the troubled times of the FLQ terrorist cells in Quebec. This 'motto' could be a warning of sorts that 'we' (Francophone Quebecers mostly) should remember what could happen if 'we' follow a political movement blindly and without thought.

" I remember Quebec before Poutine" one man, who chose not to be identified, jokingly said referring to Quebec's own junk food dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds and covered with hot gravy

When, in 2002 ,Quebec film director Thierry Le Brun set off across Quebec to find out the meaning of the phrase, "Je me souviens," he uncovered, in a freewheeling way, the complexity of Quebec.

Early in the film, it becomes obvious that a simple question will not generate an easy answer. A cab driver, when asked the question, admits he was told what it meant but has forgotten.

Le Brunt goes to the Indian reservation in Kahnawake and finds that the Mohawks there see the motto as French propaganda and a daily reminder that they have lost land, identity, and culture. They remember that in the history books they are presented as the ones who massacred the French settlers. "Je me souviens" means that Quebec history began when Champlain came to Canada.

In the film review, some Francophones asked remember that the Act of Union in 1837-8, the precursor to the British North American Act, was forced upon them. As a result, the French majority became a minority in the newly defined country.

Some want to remember the power of the Roman Catholic Church and how that has finally been reduced. The liberation from Church authority was manifested by the sexual revolution.

A French-speaking Quebec man working in Manitoba is told by his boss to "speak White" when dealing with the customers.

Another interviewed in the film, sees the phrase as a piece of propaganda. He says, "They want us to remember what they want us to remember - that Indians are bad, the English are bad, and that we won't be able to speak French unless we separate."

An Afro-Canadian man remembers that at one time Quebec had 4,000 slaves. He states that, while things are not perfect today, times have been much worse.

Perhaps all this dialogue and speculation as to the motto's meaning is what EugEeacute;ne-v‰tienne Taché; had in mind. It could be that this seemingly incomplete motto is designed to open up thoughtful dialogue between both languages and nationalities. "Je me souviens " -- more than a motto, actually a riddle.

Copyright © 2007 Gordon Alexander/Log Cabin Chronicles/11.07