How Krishna Saved St Jean Baptiste Day

How Krishna Saved St Jean Baptiste Day

By Jacquelyn Smith

I love the Cowboy Fringants. I had never seen them live and was thrilled to hear that they were playing on the Plains. But my plans changed, my friends couldn’t come up to la Vieille Capitale, I really needed a break and a change of scenery, so I decided to spend St Jean in Montreal.

I’m from Ontario. I had never heard of St Jean Baptiste Day before I moved to Québec. My first St Jean was in 2008, the year of the 400th anniversary, also, if I remember correctly, the first year that Labeaume was mayor.

Needless to say, it was a hell of a party.

Everyone decked out in fleurs-de-lis, blue and white, flying flags screaming “Bonne St Jean” to everybody else. Quebecois music was being blared from every possible stereo, flags were strung on balconies. There were people everywhere on the Plaines and around. Everyone was singing and dancing to the music even if they didn’t really know the words. It was spectacular! It was summer, it was St Jean we were together, and everyone was outside it was time to celebrate, together.

For me that is what St Jean is, everybody outside celebrating, rain, wind, cold or sun, federalist or sovereignist, drunk or sober, everyone in blue and white, together and shouting “Bonne St Jean”.

The day of St Jean, my Westmount friend and I put on our blue dresses and headed to the parade on the east side of Montreal to meet our friends. We were late because I got chatting with my friend’s father about the upcoming Charte des valeurs québécoises. He is a bit of a human rights expert and I wanted to pick his brain about the inclusion of laïcité or secularism in that charter and what that would mean for freedom of religion.

“To include secularism in a charter would be a sort of “presentism”, which I don’t think is a very good idea. Also it ignores the fact that there are churches on pretty much every street corner in Québec with Synagogues all over the place too. There aren’t mosques or Sikh temples everywhere and that charter would keep that from happening. It’s inherently discriminatory”.

At least that is what I think he meant. He is much smarter than I, and it is entirely possible that I totally misunderstood. That was the thought that I had in my head as we were commuting to Rosemont.

We got off the Metro and started walking towards the parade. There were hundreds of people walking in the opposite direction because of the menacing storm cloud overhead. But my friend and I heard music, accordion and tambourines. People were singing and dancing in a crowd a bit further down the road.

“Les Montréalais are so soft,” I said to my friend as we were walking and the raindrops started coming down, “they are afraid of a little rain. Don’t they know that that is what St Jean is? It’s going out and partying even if it is pissing down with rain!” We kept walking towards the parade following the sound of the accordion tambourine québecois music. People were panicking and running for cover, it was a wave of blue and white, but not so much white, not very much white at all, contrary to Quebec City. We slowed down a bit; we had missed the parade.

Looking around at the people, the ethnic diversity was apparent. There were people from possibly every corner of the world wearing blue and white saris, blue and white hijabs, blue and white turbans. If they were not in Québec’s national colours, they were wearing a fleur-de-lis, if they didn’t have either they were carrying a Québec flag. They weren’t screaming “Bonne St Jean!” like we do in Québec City, they were just screaming because of the rain, but they were screaming in French.

I was blown away.

We hear a lot about immigrants not integrating in Montreal. We hear a lot about people coming to Québec but never learning how to speak French and wanting to keep their culture and religion. We hear a lot about reasonable accommodation and how unjust it is that the state has to tolerate these outsiders that were forced on them by the federal government.

Yet there I was being hit by multicultural French-speaking wave of Québec nationalism.

My friend and I pushed forward toward the accordion and tambourine music. If we had missed the Cowboys Fringants on the Plaines we sure as hell were not going to miss whoever the wannabe musicians were singing and dancing between raindrops with their jovial melodies. In the flurry we noticed that the women were in mostly blue and were of varying ethnic origins and the men, who were mostly white, were dressed in white or a peach coloured pyjama like clothing. We learned the words to this québecois-folk sounding music very quickly because there were only two words: Hare and Krishna.

“It’s the Hare Krishna’s!” exclaimed my friend as the thunder rolled.

“They seem to be the only ones who understand what St Jean is all about” I said scoffing at my Montreal counterparts who were chickening out because of the rain.

So we sang and we danced in the rain. We got other people to join in. We held hands, we did some circle dancing. At one point there was about fifty people of all sorts of backgrounds and faiths throwing their hands up to the lightening streaked sky in a unified voice “Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Hare, Hare Krishna!”

We were outside, we were together, it was summer, we were wearing the right uniforms, but it did not feel like St Jean.

Other than the Hare Krishnas, who seemed to understand the spirit of the holiday, I was disappointed with Montreal’s St Jean celebrations. You can see my opinion here:

A funny thing that I noticed in the report: English Montreal does not seem to have St Jean festivities, they have the Fête Nationale. (I purposely did not italicise these words because they seem to be English words).

What is the Fête Nationale I asked myself and why is no one calling it what it was supposed to be: St Jean?

Justin Trudeau gave me the answer: “Happy National Holiday to all Quebecers and Happy St Jean Baptiste Day to Francophones across the country”.

What it means is secularism. What it means is that we have to take the St out of St Jean. What it means is that there are two holidays: a secular one for everyone who lives on the territory of Quebec and may not feel comfortable going to a holiday with saintly name, but has something blue to wear. And there is another non-secular holiday that celebrates Québec culture, the struggle to achieve national identity, the beginning of summer and at one time, a long time ago, St Jean Baptiste: the patron saint of Quebec.

So St Jean is about booze, bonfires and the Pope?

Yes, yes and yes he is invited if he wants to come, but otherwise no.

Québec is not a catholic province. It is not a secular one either.

There are Catholics in Québec. There are ten foot crucifixes in Beauce. There is a big Christmas tree in the lobby of Complexe G in December. There are churches on every street corner. But the majority culture of Quebec is not god-fearing, rosary wearing, barefoot and pregnant with their seventeenth child.

Quebec is a post-catholic culture. It was oppressed and corrupted by the Catholic Church which it liberated itself from with the Quiet Revolution. Quebecers now have a serious distaste for religion, and a profound suspicion of it. Duplessis was the breaking point for Quebec society; he was the tyrant who thought that the only one he had to answer to was God. Maurice thought that he was above the law because God was on his side. Maurice was wrong and no one in Quebec has forgotten that. No one is above the law, no matter what your god tells you.   

The current state of law, however, permits this sort of reasoning. There is a sort of hierarchy of norms that permits a genuine religious belief to exempt you from adhering to rules. This does not sit well with many Quebecers and it should not sit well with the rest of Canada either.

English Canadians like to criticise les Québécois for being xenophobic and closed minded about freedom of religion. There is a certain pomp amongst Montrealers and English Canadians that implies that Quebecois are backward because they don’t want to live in a diverse society or that they don’t perceive difference as a richness. This “freedom of religion” discourse falls on the deaf ears of a people whom have just been freed from religion, not so long ago. Also, Quebec does not forget.

Freedom of religion may seem like a very advanced and progressive attitude that English Canadians like to pride themselves on. These same English Canadians also elected a Prime Minister who seems to think he is above the law, whose evangelical ties encourage him to stifle scientists about climate change and pursue resource development that will end life on earth. Why does he do this? For profit? Maybe, or perhaps because he genuinely thinks that the four horsemen are coming anyways and he thinks the righteous will be saved.

Canadians voted Harper in while Quebecers did everything to vote him out, because they remember what it is like to be at the mercy of the hands of the church. Canada is about to learn with Harper what Quebec learned with Duplessis.

This who is more “advanced” or “progressive” squabble does not hold water. 

There are churches on every street corner. There is a crucifix in the National Assembly. They are not symbols of religion they are relics of the past and reminders for the future. Making Quebec a truly secular society would mean taking the crosses down, replacing 16th century monasteries with condos and turning St Jean Baptiste day into the Fête Nationale. Making Quebec a secular society would mean cutting ties with the past. It would mean cutting the heart and soul out of Quebec culture and society. It would be changing the culture from Je me souviens to Je ne veux plus en penser. It would be turning its back on history, culture and national identity. It would be turning its back on the Quiet Revolution.

Sorry Montreal, but your Fête Nationale sucks. It sucks because nobody knows why they are there or what they are doing. There is no community, no link to the past, no togetherness. Secularism sterilised the meaning of why we were having the party, just to be politically correct. It was Canada Day in blue.

 The good news is, contrary to popular belief there are hundreds if not thousands of new Quebecois who are ready and willing to wear a blue turban or pin their hijab with a fleur-de-lis because even though they were not part of Quebec’s past, they want to be part of its future. The challenge at hand is how to do that.

One thing is for sure however, even though Krishna is sometimes blue, she should not be the unifying factor about the holiday. But because of secularism Krishna became the most awesome thing about St Jean Baptiste Day.

Categories: News, Opinion

About Author

Jacquelyn Smith

Jacquelyn Smith was born and raised in Hamilton. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Developement from the University of Guelph and is currently studying Law at Université Laval. Jacquelyn Smith lives in Quebec City.


  1. Farnell Morisset
    Farnell Morisset 26 June, 2013, 12:04

    Great article, but since it’s all about the beauty of cultures incorporating into modern Québec, I just thought I’d point out that Krishna is male. It’s a common mistake though, he’s kind of like the Michael Jackson of Vishnu’s incarnations.

  2. peter
    peter 1 July, 2013, 09:46

    Enjoyed your article , St Jean is a time to celebrate , not only the French Canadian identity but the fact that summer has arrived .
    No matter where you are from , on this day you are part of the family .
    The Province itself comes to a standstill , Government offices close , Grocerie stores and shopping malls do like wise , all this to really celebrate the Patron Saint of Quebec and as you have witnessed , there is a celebration .
    What is grand by having this celebration at the end of June is that a week later we then have Canada Day , another celebration where we are all part of this family from coast to coast .
    I can imagine the inclusiveness for all to be part of the Canadian identity , just as much as being part of the French Canadian heritage and culture is on St Jean , for all in Quebec . I am looking forward to your impressions of Canada Day here in Quebec , that is if you are not helping friends moving thier furniture into a new apartment .

  3. 15 July, 2013, 15:44

    I wish to thank the author of this very insightful article for her excellent viewpoints on the shifting cultural paradigm of Quebec.

    She has truthfully captured the fascinating yet hard-to grasp multicultural demographics blending themselves over the last decade in La Belle Province.

    We are all hopefull that the “new Quebec” will achieve some success in its work-in-progress towards mutual respect and acceptance – Guy Paquette, Montreal.

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