“Je me souviens” – I Remember – is a powerful Quebec message among the many bland and ultra-bland mottos adorning other territorial and provincial coats of arms in Canada – although opinions can be sharply divided on what it is Quebeckers should “remember.”
Many claim the motto, solidly carved into the walls of Quebec’s National Assembly building, is an eternal reminder of the day England defeated the French on the Plain of Abraham. That was on September 13, 1759, the day England’s General James Wolfe died during the 15-minute battle and France’s Lieutenant-General Louis-Joseph Marquis of Montcalm succumbed on September 14 to the wounds received the day before.
It is significant that in the National Assembly chamber displaying bronze statues of historic giants from Quebec’s past, Montcalm and Wolfe stand side by side, honoured and remembered.
Others insist the never-to-be-forgotten memory reaches back to England’s ill-conceived and brutally executed Acadian clearances.
The Acadians were established settlers of French origin. In rough geographic terms, Acadia was a section of the French colonial empire stretching from Maine through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and parts of eastern Quebec. Their language and culture were French; they refused to swear allegiance to an English king; and, they fought with the French and native-born tribal warriors in what history calls the French and Indian War.
It was savage. The French paid their Indians a bonus for English scalps. The English “cleared” Acadians by killing many; burning their homes, farms, villages; and, transporting survivors as far south as Louisiana where today’s Cajuns keep Acadian culture alive.
The English won the French-Indian War, only to be themselves “evicted” from North America when they lost the colonial war of rebellion (1755-83).
Could that be what Je me souviens commemorates? Or could it be that those historic troubles had been long forgotten until 1978 when Premier Rene Levesque removed La Belle Province from Quebec motor vehicle license plates and replaced it with Je me souviens to annually reiterate his belief that he and his province had been betrayed by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and other provincial premiers in the decision to repatriate Canada’s constitution?
A vengeful memory, still held by some, but not by the granddaughter of architect Eugene-Etienne Tache who designed Quebec’s National Assembly building and personally selected the motto. Helene Paquet, writing in 1978 when the first “Je me souviens” license plates were stirring controversy, claimed grandfather Tache had taken a line from a poem and its meaning only became clear by reading the second line: “I remember that born under the lily, I grow under the rose.” The lily and the rose represented France and England.
Unfortunately for Helene, her grandfather had left no specific hints as to what he had in mind for future Quebeckers to remember, but friends and knowledgeable historians were sure they knew. One, Thomas Chapais, a cabinet minister and historian, said in 1895 while participating in the unveiling of a new National Assembly bronze: “The province of Quebec has a motto that it is proud of and that it likes to engrave on the pediment (front) of its monuments and palaces. This motto has but three words: Je me souviens, but these three words, in their laconism (simplicity), are worth the most eloquent speech. Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its victories.”
Historian Gaston Deschenes insists the message of the motto has always been “remarkably simple … it simply invited Quebeckers of all origins to remember their history. Those who wanted to give it a revengeful meaning … did not know it had been inscribed on the façade of the Parliament Building under the feet of Montcalm and Wolfe.” Or, like Premier Levesque, chose to ignore the advice.
It all makes British Columbia’s “Splendor sine occasu” (splendour without diminishment) or as some prefer “beauty without end” – a motto lacking in inspiration. “Without diminishment” could be challenged, but we’re happy enough with the scenery.
(For voluminous detail in Encyclopedie Amerique Francaise, Google “Gaston Deschenes” and the Quebec motto “Je me souviens” or go to Wikipedia. I am indebted to both.)