“Bonne St. Jean, monsieur!”
The boy was playing on one of Quebec City’s long outdoor stairways, this one climbing down the wooded escarpment from the Quartier Saint-Jean-Baptiste to the streets of St-Roch.
He’s with friends, but they’re hidden beneath the stairs, amusing themselves and laughing.
“Merci! Bonne St. Jean!”
Further along the way to Place-Royale, through the city’s reconstituted old port, another gang of youth ambled cheerily along the boardwalk on the drizzly evening of June 23. They were older and more boisterous than the earlier bunch, but no more menacing.
“Bonne St. Jean!” one called. “Veut-tu une bière?”
The occasion called for one, but I declined.
The Quebec holiday known as St. Jean Baptiste is held on June 24, but, like Christmas, it starts the night before. It began hundreds of years ago as a Catholic feast day in France, but it became political in the days of Lower Canada when it was used to try to unite the fractious French and the English populations.
The attempt failed, but after a rebellion and some military repressions, St. Jean Baptiste Day eventually became celebrated as a francophone festival throughout North America. Ultimately, the separatist premier René Levesque had it declared a national holiday.
Generally, however, Quebeckers just treat it as a day to enjoy being themselves.
That may be how St. Jean is still regarded along the old waterfront and in St-Roch, but on top of the plateau in the vicinity of the Plains of Abraham, it is something else entirely.
There, St. Jean Baptiste Day is called La Fête nationale de Québec, even though nobody wishes anybody a happy birthday.
The officially organized Fête, despite the singing and dancing, isn’t so much a celebration as it is a way to control the celebrants.
The kids down at the Old Port, for instance, would have had trouble strolling the streets inside the walls or around les Champs de Bataille because this year, for the first time ever, all alcohol, including beer, was banned.
Anyone who wanted to enter the barricaded exclusion zones around the concert venues and bonfire pit was searched by police and other security staff — although hopefully not by the hulking bouncers hired for crowd control.
The organizers say they want to turn la Fête into a family event and that banning alcohol makes the Plains safer. People accepted the explanation with some grumbling, but there was speculation about whether the new rule would really work. People, some said, could just drink a lot at home before staggering out late to the fire.
Unlike St. Jean Day, the Fête Nationale requires police to enforce the alcohol ban and fight the fear of violence — lots and lots of police. Thousands were apparently needed to search handbags and backpacks for booze at the few designated openings through the kilometres-long temporary barricade that snaked around the battlefield down to the great stone wall.
Outside the security fence, casual passersby were not exempt from examination. Even people who might have had no intention of entering the concert zone, like a dreadlocked young man who took it rather well, were still subject to random searches — especially along the restaurant-lined Grande Allée, which was split down the middle by the barricade. At suppertime on St. Jean’s Eve, there were more police officers than tourists and diners.
The glitz and glamour of this year’s Fête nationale could be seen as a near-final attempt by the gravely wounded sovereignty movement (as oddly represented by an agency of the governing Liberal party) to once again arouse Quebec’s potent separatist fervour.
However, if it has any lasting influence on the province, it will have little to do with independence. Instead, it is more likely to achieve two things: it will force Quebecers to get used to not drinking beer in public, and it will help them to cheerfully accept the presence of heavily armed police in their city streets.
Fortunately, it was not the ham-fisted bouncers, but Mother Nature’s more gentle touch that kept the crowds under control during the Fête. She steadily turned the light drizzle into a cold rain and most revellers just stayed home.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.