Politicians, Organizers, and the Making of Quebec’s National Holiday’s Public Policy, 1976-1984

By Marc-André Gagnon

Spreading across North America in the mid-19th century, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day was established by French Canadian nationalist elites to signify the existence of a distinct French and Catholic society through the use of public demonstrations. The Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, a patriotic association founded in Montreal in 1842, mobilized resources and used the celebration as a moment of reflection on the unique challenges posed by an anglo-dominant society in an effort to remind French Canadians of their duty to maintain their language, traditions, and faith.

By the 1960s, however, this long-time symbol of the solidarity among members of the “French-Canadian family” started to be contested. With the changing nature of French Canadian nationalism, the rise of the sovereigntist movement in Quebec, and the greater secularization of society, organizers were forced to rethink the celebration. In addition, new actors, in particular the Quebec provincial government, intervened through its funding of the event – with a major turning point being the election of Réné Lévesque’s Parti Québécois in November 1976. Seeking to build support for its vision of civic nationalism, Lévesque’s government issued a decree in May 1977 stating that the traditional Saint-Jean Baptiste Day should be also known as Quebec’s Fête nationale. His government also decided to take a proactive stance in institutionalizing the holiday’s organization and funding through the creation of the Comité organisateur de la fête nationale and the Programme d’aide technique et financière for local events. Once based on private and community initiatives, especially those of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Societies, June 24 celebrations became instrumental at a time when the Quebec nationalist movement was a major focal point of Canada’s political life.

The historiography of Saint Jean Baptiste Day has tended to use cultural analysis to trace the contours of the PQ government’s efforts to build a new tradition around these celebrations[1].Based in part on new archival material from the Mouvement national des Québécois fonds, National Assembly debates, and newspapers, my work explores the public policies around these celebrations. It provides a descriptive analysis of these policies, their consequences on the political debate, and ultimately their demise in 1984. It accounts for how various citizen groups and St-Jean Baptiste organizers participated in shaping these policies, especially after the 1977 celebrations.

Adieu le mouton, salut les Québécois

Taken from the jingle produced in 1977 to promote the festivities, this phrase evokes the liberating spirit that organizers wanted to want to convey in the celebrations. Referring to bonfires, fireworks, and the joy of life, the song also makes a reference to Quebec as a mature society and the disappearance of two of St-Jean-Baptiste Day’s traditional symbols: the lamb and its inseparable master in the person of John the Baptist.

Elected in November 1976, the Parti Québécois adopted a proactive attitude vis-à-vis the national holiday, which was partly a reaction to the federal government’s use of Dominion Day (which became Canada Day in 1982) to promote Canadian unity.[2] In response, René Lévesque’s cabinet’s strategy was to clarify June 24’s status and foster public participation through a series of initiatives. First, the government, following lobbying efforts by Saint-Jean organizers, adopted an order-in-council in February 1977 which set provisions for funding the year’s celebration[3], an act which also created a national organizing committee and placed the dossier under the responsibility of the Premier’s office[4].

For 1977, the government gave the the responsibility of organizing the event to the Mouvement national des Québécois (MNQ). Formerly known as the Fédération des Sociétés Saint-Jean-Baptiste du Québec, the MNQ was a non-partisan nationalist organization advocating for Québec’s sovereignty. In awarding the mandate, the government made a practical decision to reward those who traditionally gave life to the festivities on June 24. It also ensured regional collaboration as local societies affiliated with the MNQ would organize celebrations throughout the province.

The government adopted a second decree in May 1977 which declared that St-Jean-Baptiste day would also be known as Quebec’s National Holiday[5]. According to Katia Malausséna, this can be understood as the Lévesque government’s attempt confirm its civic status and move away from ethno-centric nationalism[6]. This is particularly evident when looking at the parliamentary debates where ministers expressed a desire to make the National Holiday a celebration for all Quebecers, including immigrants and non-Roman Catholics[7]. This was further reinforced by a 1978 bill which made June 24 a statutory holiday[8].

In its attempts to build a national consensus, the 1977 celebrations were a success on many levels. 250 municipalities hosted festivities which attracted significant public participation. The official opposition accused the government of partisanship, however, which could have significantly damaged the image of the Premier’s office. Following the controversy, the dossier was passed to Claude Charron, the Minister Delegate for Youth, Leisure and Sports.

Democratize, Decentralized, and Depoliticised

In its report on the 1977 celebrations, the MNQ expressed its desire to see the government adopt a global policy regarding Saint-Jean Baptiste festivities. MNQ president Alain Généraux proposed the establishment of a national organization with affiliated regional branches. Charron discarded this option, however, and proposed to take advantage of the festivities’ popular success to democratize, decentralize, and depoliticise the celebrations[9]. To foster further public participation, the government created the Programme d’aide financière et technique to help fund local events, which proved popular as more than 780 projects were funded in 1978[10].

Despite these attempts to move away from partisanship, however, Charron did maintain the right to appoint members to the national organization committee, a move which infuriated the MNQ. Denouncing this excess of bureaucratization, the nationalist movement feared the minister’s intervention could lead to patronage[11]. The MNQ also resented being left out after the organization of the festivities in 1977[12].

It should be noted that, despite its highly political nature, the government sought to avoid the inclusion of constitutional questions in the celebrations. Charron believed that a truly decentralized and depoliticized June 24 could not rely on a single agent, particularly as the MNQ and the Parti Québécois shared ideological affinities[13]. This did not prevent the MNQ from continuing its activism, however, as it lobbied politicians and remained critical of Charron’s work. Although over time, regional members of the MNQ adopted different attitudes towards the government project. In 1978, for example, a vast majority of MNQ members simply pulled out and refused to organize the celebrations[14]. In an effort to counter that disaffection, the government named 3 members from the MNQ network to the national organization committee[15].

By the early 1980s, however, constitutional issues and budgetary restraints reduced popular participation in the Fête nationale, resulting in questions over the holday’s management. Furthermore, an initial investigation of the Auditor General in 1981 tarnished the public opinion about the national holiday[16]. The Liberal opposition also noted that $180,000 in salaries were paid to members of PQ government offices[17]. In addition, Minister of Justice Marc-André Bédard confirmed to the National Assembly that the Sûreté du Québec –the provincial police force- was conducting an inquiry following allegations of drug trafficking perpetrated by employees in Montreal[18]. These events were enough for René Lévesque to ask Claude Charron’s successor Lucien Lessard to intervene.

In this environment, the MNQ continued its lobbying to reclaim its authority over the Fete Nationale, but it continued to find resistance. For the Liberals and their leader Claude Ryan, for instance, it was impossible to support the MNQ because of its stance on sovereignty[19]. As for the Parti Québécois, it appointed the Corporation des fêtes populaires to manage the 1982 edition. In a memorandum to the cabinet, Lessard discarded the idea of giving the mandate to the MNQ, a decision which could have been a fatal blow to the Movement[20]. The MNQ persisted, however, and its president, Gilles Rhéaume, re-positioned the organization as an external expert in order to offer a critique of the government’s intervention and mobilize a discourse on the celebration’s meaning

Nationalists are back in the game

When he became Minister of Leisure and Sport in the fall of 1982, Guy Chevrette was aware of the precarious situation surrounding the Quebec national holiday and was leery of making any unilateral decisions. He wanted to keep the gains of recent years, which included the increased regional influence in the organizational structure, improved budgeting to promote local projects, and the further involvement of civil society[21]. The MNQ remained a presence, however, and formal negotiations between the group and the government began in January 1984; with a protocol signed on April 7. At the press conference announcing the agreement, Chevrette admitted that he did not want to relive the events of recent years. He also emphasized the government’s commitment to reinstate a central structure to rally local and regional festivals under a single theme and campaign message.

Recognizing the expertise of MNQ, he stressed that it was natural for the government to restore the festival’s management to those who created it, especially as 1984 marked the 150th anniversary of the first National Day banquet. The agreement was also presented as advantageous to Quebec taxpayers as it would reduce the cost of the celebrations by half. To ensure the reductions, the ministry maintained authority over the financing of local events.

Ever since, the Mouvement national des Québécois has been responsible for organizing the Quebec national holiday. By giving the MNQ this mandate, the government settled a thorny issue that has affected its image and credibility. Renewed by successive governments, the agreement between the public authorities and the MNQ has been beneficial for citizens. Management problems are history and the objectives pursued by the government in 1984 have largely been achieved.

Originally from Hull (Qc), Marc-André Gagnon is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Guelph. His research focuses on identity and political movements in French Canada, primarily the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society. His most recent article, ” Le Canada français vit par ses œuvres: la Saint-Jean-Baptiste vue par le journal Le Droit, 1950-1960 ” will be published in the next issue of Francophonie d’Amérique (Fall 2014).


[1]See : Marc Ouimet. Le lys en fête, le lys en feu : la Saint-Jean-Baptiste au Québec de 1960 à 1990, Mémoire de Maîtrise (histoire), Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2011, 192 p. ; Katia Malausséna. Essai d’archéologie comparée des commémorations nationales anglaises, françaises et québécoises (1980-2000), thèse de doctorat (histoire), Université Laval, 2002, 1126 p. Katia Malausséna. « Commémoration et lien territorial. L’Angleterre et le Québec en comparaison » dans Recherche   sociographiques, Volume 43, Numéro 1, 2002, Pages 79-110 ; Louis-Robert Frégault et Ignace Olazabal «La fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste dans le quartier du Mile-End de Montréal. Nouvelle signification pour un lieu de mémoire ? » dans Revue européenne de migration internationale, Vol 16, no2, 2000, 143-152 ; Ronald Rudin. “Marching and Memory in Early Twentieth-Century Quebec: La Fête-Dieu, la Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and le Monument Laval”, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association / Revue de la Société historique du Canada, vol. 10, n° 1, 1999, p. 209-235.

[2] Matthew Hayday. “Fireworks, Folk-dancing, and Fostering a National Identity: The Politics of Canada Day”, The Canadian Historical Review, Volume 91, Number 2, June 2010 pp. 302-304.

[3]Comité des onze. Rapport du comité des onze relatif à la fête nationale du Québec. Présenté au Premier ministre du Québec Monsieur René Lévesque, 7 octobre 1977. BAnQ, Fonds de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec (P412), 2011-09-02 \ 39.

[4]Gouvernement du Québec. Décision 77-51 du Conseil des ministres, 17 février 1977. 2p.

[5]Gouvernement du Québec. Gazette du Québec, 1e partie, juin 1977, p. 5213.

[6]Malausséna. Op. Cit.P.101.

[7] Québec. « Déclaration ministérielle», Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, 18 mai 1977 ; Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, 23 juin 1977, p.1630.

[8] 31e Législature. Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, Vol.20. No.39, 25 mai 1978, pp. 1631-1633 ; Vol.20. No.42, 1er juin 1978, pp. 1816-1821.

[9] For this subjects and the debate within the organizers see: Marie Chicoine & al. Lâchés lousses. Les fêtes populaires au Québec, en Acadie et en Louisane, VLB éditeur, 1982, pp. 261-262.

[10] Comité organisateur de la fête nationale. Rapport annuel 1978, novembre 1978, p.5.

[11] [S.A.]. « Le comité des onze dénonce la politisation de la fête nationale », Journal de Québec, 2 mars 1978.

[12] Comité des onze. Texte de la conférence de presse de M. Alain Généreux au sujet de la fête nationale du Québec, Montréal, 1er mars 1978, BAnQ, Fonds de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec (P412), 2011-09-02 \ 23.

[13] 31e Législature. Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, Vol.20, No.8, 8 mars 1978, p.335. ; Michèle Tremblay. “Québec veut faire fêter les Québécois en isolant les nationalistes”, Journal de Québec, 28 mars 1978.

[14] See the folder in: BAnQ, Fonds de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec (P412), 2011-09-02 \ 23.

[15] 31e Législature. Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, Vol.20, No.46, 8 juin 1978, p.2099.

[16] 32e Législature. Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, Vol.26, No.14, 3 décembre 1981, p. 851. ; Vol.26, No.78, 21 juin 1982, p. 5231.

[17] 32e Législature. Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, Vol.25, No.2, 1er octobre 1981, pp.42-47.

[18] 32e Législature. Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, 23 novembre 1981.

[19] Claude Ryan. Correspondance avec M. Noël Giroux, directeur général de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec, 1er décembre 1981, BAnQ, Fonds de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec (P412), 2011-09-02 \ 23.

[20] Normand Girard. « Le PQ a une bien mauvaise opinion des mouvements nationalistes! », Journal de Québec, 10 mai 1982 ; [S.A.]. « Pour les Sociétés nationales, Lucien Lessard a fait son nid », Le Devoir, 20 mai 1985. In a private letter addressed to Gilles Rhéaume the same day he holds the press conference denouncing the governement’s report, Lessard tried to smooth his position. Lucien Lessard. Correspondance avec Gilles Rhéaume, president du MNQ, Québec, 19 mai 1982, BAnQ, Fonds Géard Turcotte (CLG59), 2009-08-003\345.

[21] 32e Législature. Journal des débats de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, Commission permanente de l’aménagement et des équipements, 12 avril 1984, pp. CAE-246-251.

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