Quebec’s National Day
June 24 is celebrated as Quebec’s National Day. The Quebec people’s National Day celebrates the Patriots who fought for independence from Britain in the mid-19th century: Nelson, De Lorimier, Côté, Chénier, Duvernay, O’Callaghan and many others. They fought to establish an independent homeland and republic that vests sovereignty in the people. It includes celebrating all those who have espoused and those who continue to espouse the cause of the Quebec Patriots, in particular all those committed to elaborating a nation-building project commensurate with the needs of the times.
According to some official circles, however, Quebec celebrates its National Day on June 24 because that is the Day of St. John the Baptist, declared patron saint of Quebec by theCatholic Church to undermine the celebration of the Summer Solstice by the Indigenous peoples. Between June 21 and 24, the longest days of the year, since time immemorial, activities have been organized to pay tribute to the sun. A tribute to the light, bonfires were also an occasion for public rejoicing in what was Gaul and northern Europe. The summer solstice is still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, England, Peru, Ecuador, Canada and many other countries.
In what was to become Quebec, the bonfire tradition was noted by the Jesuit Louis LeJeune on the banks of the St. Lawrence in 1636. In 1646, the Journal des Jésuites reported that “on the 23rd of June a bonfire is lit on Saint-John’s Day at eight-thirty in the evening. Five cannon shots were fired and the muskets were fired two or three times.”
New France was largely rural at that time. The rhythm of work was linked to the seasons, and the solstice provided a few moments of respite and entertainment before the start of the big haymaking and harvest work.
The Church, through the Council of Trent (1545-1563), attempted to Christianize the solstice as a celebration of light around a joyous bonfire by replacing it with a portrayal of submission in the person of Saint John the Baptist. In the same vein, in 1702, Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier, in his Catechism for the Diocese of Quebec that was intended for the Canadiens, noted that the Catholic Church in the New World — the colonies of the French empire — considered that ceremony acceptable so long as the “dances and superstitions” of the Indigenous peoples were banished.
When Ludger Duvernay and the elected members of the Patriot Party inaugurated the National Day of the nascent Quebec nation, they did so within a spirit very different from the orientation desired by the Church. Historians like Leopold Gagner, quoted in Denis Monière’s biography of Duvernay, said that Duvernay had been influenced by St. Patrick’s Day, which for the Irish is “a precious instrument for the reclamation of their freedom and rights.”
Today, it is noteworthy that on June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day, a “Solstice of the Nations” takes place. It is “an expression of exchange and friendship amongst the nations living in Quebec.” The Fire Ceremony held by the Indigenous nations is “to encourage closer ties amongst the peoples living on Quebec’s territory,” so that “the coals of that fire light up the bonfire of the Great Show of Quebec’s National Celebration, on the Plains of Abraham.”
(With files from: “La Saint-Jean-Baptiste, 1634-1852,” in Mélanges historiques Études éparses et inédites de Benjamin Sulte, compiled, annotated and published by Gérard Malchelosse; and Le réseau de diffusion des archives du Québec. Photos: Pointe-à-Callière Museum, P. Bourque, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Cooper’s Crossing School, S. Kirby-Yung, C. Huber))