By Michel Prévost
Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste or la Saint-Jean for some, the Fête nationale du Québec for others. No matter — June 24, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, is a holiday whose origins reach far into the past.
June 24 celebrations go back millennia when the ancients lit fires to celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The Catholic Church appropriated this pagan festival for a religious celebration honouring Saint John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, who became the patron saint of French Canadians in 1908.
The holiday was brought to New France by the French, along with their language, religion and customs. The first time Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day was celebrated in North America was in 1646, and holiday celebrations continued until the Conquest in 1760.
A patriotic holiday
In 1834, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day began to take on political overtones. Ludger Duvernay, editor of the Montreal newspaper La Minerve, made this celebration for a saint into a celebration for French Canadians, as Montreal Irish had done since March 17, 1824, with the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Duvernay even organized a patriotic banquet to which he invited sixty or so francophone and anglophone notables.
The next day, newspapers invited the population to celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day publicly the following year. Festivities were interrupted during the 1837–1838 rebellions but they resumed when Duvernay returned from exile in 1842. The next year, Duvernay organized the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parade, never guessing that he would be launching a long tradition of religious and patriotic parades.
In French Ontario, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day began to take root in the mid-19th century. As historian Marc-André Gagnon writes, this celebration “was long seen by the nationalist elite as an opportunity to gather and demonstrate the existence of a distinct, Catholic society.”
Starting in 1939, the Fédération des Sociétés Saint-Jean-Baptiste took over the organization of June 24 festivities in French Ontario. It determined the meaning of the holiday and coordinated events for the entire province. However, it did delegate celebration funding and preparation, particularly for the parade, to local associations. The highlight of the show was the appearance of a young, curly-haired boy with a lamb, representing the saint.
A joint celebration
In 1950, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste societies of Ottawa, Hull and Eastview (now Vanier) signed an agreement to organize an annual Fête nationale for French Canadians on both sides of the Ottawa River. There was a parade with floats, brass bands and marchers, not to mention dignitaries in fancy cars. A noisy crowd lining the streets applauded participants. These large Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day gatherings continued until the 1960s.
Then, French Canada experienced a major upheaval. With the decline in religious practice and the rise of Quebec nationalism, large Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations became less popular and took on a different meaning, particularly in cities. As Gagnon notes, “while in Ottawa, there was a tendency to emphasize a separate Franco-Ontarian identity, removed from the French-Canadian collective memory, festivities in Eastern Ontario, for example, showed more of a desire to celebrate the past as instrumental to identity.”
Quebec’s Fête nationale
In 1977, the Quebec government, led by René Lévesque, made Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day into Quebec’s national day. It should be noted that June 24 had already been a statutory holiday since 1925. Festivities became even more removed from religion, turning into a gathering of all Quebecers, regardless of their origin or language.
This break with the traditional Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day didn’t stop francophones outside Quebec from continuing to proudly celebrate June 24. In Ottawa, the Festival franco-ontarien has been the largest Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day event.
In some provinces, though, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day has gradually lost some of its importance. For example, in the Maritimes, people celebrate Acadian Day, August 15, instead, and in Ontario, Franco-Ontarian Day, September 25. This has been the case at the University of Ottawa, where since 2013, the campus Franco-Ontarian community has gathered at the Monument de la francophonie and taken part in various events celebrating Franco-Ontarian pride.
In essence, then, the takeaway is that all over Canada, year in, year out, francophones and francophiles continue to celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, a holiday associated with Canada’s French-speaking communities for nearly 400 years.
Michel Prévost was University of Ottawa chief archivist from 1990 to 2017. He has been president of the Société d’histoire de l’Outaouais since 1997. Prévost has received numerous distinctions, awards and honours. Saint Paul University awarded him an honorary doctorate for his career’s work, the ACFO d’Ottawa gave him its Bernard Grandmaître award for his invaluable contributions to the preservation of Franco-Ontarian heritage and the city of Gatineau named him to the Ordre de Gatineau for his outstanding commitment to the heritage of the region.