Quebec shows its patriotism every year on June 24, one week before Canada Day—not because the French-speaking province gets a head start on the rest of the country, but because June 24 is the feast day of Jean Baptiste, the patron saint of Quebec.

By no means has the holiday become void of religious significance. (See my article “Canada: The Catholic Factor” in the November 1998 issue of Catholic World Report.) But it is now more synonymous with Quebec nationalism than with the saint himself. Thus, the holiday is often referred to as La Fête Nationale.

While the other nine provinces celebrate Canada Day on July 1, the anniversary of the country’s attainment of the status of a dominion within the British Empire in 1867, even many in Quebec who favor remaining part of Canada take more pride in St. Jean Baptiste Day.

In characteristic denial, the Canadian media reported that politics played no part in this year’s celebration. “More Fun, Less Politicking,” read the June 25 headline of the Montreal Gazette, Quebec’s only English-language daily. It was reminiscent of the Toronto Globe & Mail headline on July 22, 1994: “Separatism not an issue, poll finds.” Two months later, the separatists were victorious in the provincial elections, and the next year, Canada dodged a bullet when a bare 50.6 percent majority in Quebec defeated the last sovereignty referendum.

Given the history of St. Jean Baptiste Day, the gloating by the media was understandable. The parade in Montreal was held on the eve of the feast day. The last time Montreal had held its parade at night was in 1968, when militant separatists hurled bottles at Pierre Trudeau, the charismatic French Canadian who had just become prime minister of Canada. Thanks largely to the political mileage Trudeau got out of this incident, he would remain prime minister for most of the following 16 years.

After 1968, Montreal canceled its parade but revived it in 1990. As political fate would have it, die parade that year came two days after the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, which would have extended to Quebec the status of a distinct society.

Taking the collapse of Meech Lake as an affront to Quebec, separatists took to the streets in droves for the parade that year. Support for sovereignty became so strong that a referendum would have been held had Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa been a separatist (not that Bourassa was insensitive to Quebec nationalism).

And while, in recent years, there has been no incident comparable to 1968 in Montreal’s parade, violence and mass arrests were the norm until this year. The rioting in Quebec City was especially bad in 1996. And Montreal had a particularly tense parade in 1998, when English-rights activist William Johnson was hit with a pie in the face.

Johnson boycotted this year’s parade. And the politicians who watched the parade from the platform, as Trudeau did in 1968, were separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard (head of the Parti Quebecois) and provincial Liberal opposition leader Jean Charest (a federalist who advocates conciliation with separatists). So there was no one for the separatists to attack.

But no politics? More accurate, and interesting, is that there was no red-and-white Canadian flag with the maple leaf. While it is bigger news that non-separatist contingents participated in this year’s parade, the lack of a single Canadian flag is newsworthy (and quite political), especially since one of the non-separatist contingents was the Black Watch Royal Highlanders, the oldest pipe band in North America and an official army reserve unit in the Canadian military.

A Black Watch spokesman explained to the Canadian papers that the parade is “about music, not politics.” But when a military reserve unit agrees to march without its country’s flag, especially in a parade awash with the Quebec flag, it is very much about politics.

The failure of the Canadian media to publicize the absent maple leaf was no surprise. From false assurances that the separatists lack political support to specious arguments that Quebec has no legal grounds to separate from Canada even if a referendum were approved, the media and political elite of Canada are models of denial.

The legality of secession was supposed to have been settled last year by the Canadian Supreme Court. The Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien (himself a Quebecer) sued to enjoin Quebec from secession, citing the Constitution of 1982 (which has no position on secession and which Quebec never ratified anyway). The court declared Quebec’s right to secede and the rest of Canada’s obligation to negotiate a separation if a clear majority in Quebec approves a referendum.

Unfortunately, it is not clear what “clear majority” means. Thus both sides have claimed legal victory. Countering the old separatist claim that a majority need only be 50 percent plus one, federalists insist an overwhelming majority is needed. In one sense, they are right: Separating from Canada cannot be as simple as 50 percent plus one. But this is not an adequate majority to ensure Quebec’s future in Canada, either.

Yet it is this very type of majority—the result of the last referendum in 1995—on which federalists now rely. This double standard plagues federalist reporters and politicians. For instance, they do not like being reminded that Newfoundland voted by a bare majority to become a Canadian province in 1949. Whereas Quebec’s nationalist motto is Je me souviens (“I remember”), the Canadian media’s motto could well be J’oubliés (“I forget”).

Consider the case of English-rights activist Howard Galganov, who was criticized by separatist politicians in 1997 for being a member of the violent Jewish Defense League in the 1970’s. The Globe & Mail blasted the separatists for digging too far into Galganov’s past. But in an Orwellian twist, the same editorial also blasted the separatists for allegedly rekindling the antisemitism of Quebec nationalists of the 1930’s.

Of course, antisemitism is an embarrassing chapter not only in Quebec history but in Canadian history. Yet there is a bizarre double standard concerning whose past is fair game. Consider separatist and former Quebec jurist Richard Therrien, who came under fire in 1997 on a strained theory that he had lied prior to his judicial appointment about his past association with the militant Front for the Liberation of Quebec (FLQ).

Naturally, the Canadian press called for Therrien’s political head. Not so in the case of Yvon Charbonireau, a former separatist and labor activist with ties to militant groups in the 70’s. When this former separatist ran as a federalist for the Quebec legislature in 1994, his story was treated as a charming political odyssey. And the press was even more supportive of Jean Louis Roux when he was appointed lieutenant governor of Quebec by Chretien in 1996, even though his past includes marching in a pro-Nazi parade during World War II.

Apparently, past militant separatism and/or antisemitism is fine if the politician is now a federalist and deplorable if the politician is a separatist. A similar double standard was applied in 1995 to French President Jacques Chirac and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Chirac had indicated that France would recognize a sovereign Quebec were the referendum to pass. Though Chirac subsequently apologized for the statement, newspapers like the Toronto Star were quick to blast him for interfering in Canadian affairs. But Thatcher, who had criticized the separatists with harsh and personal language during a visit to Canada that year, received no such rebukes.

The United States was careful to stay mostly out of the fray in 1995. President Clinton even pledged neutrality during a state visit to Canada in February of that year. But this did not prevent federalist reporters and politicians from declaring that the United States would exclude a sovereign Quebec from any current agreements or arrangements that the United States has with Canada.

Such hijacking of American policy should have infuriated Americans. But even more infuriating was Chretien’s plea to Clinton in October 1995 to oppose the separatists, who were running neck and neck with the federalists in that month’s referendum. Clinton is not easy to embarrass. But he must have been a bit red-faced to revoke publicly the neutrality pledge he had made earlier that year at Chretien’s urging.

And so we come back to the misreported St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations in Montreal. The false reports include the story in the Gazette insinuating that there was no political march following this year’s St. Jean Baptiste Day parade simply because no politicians were marching. Truth be told, thousands of Quebec youth marched down La Rue Notre Dame shouting Le Québec pour Québecois (Quebec for Quebecers) and Oui, the latter indicating how they will vote in the likely referendum in 2000.

There are some wary and responsible voices in the Canadian media. The National Post ran a story on September 18 warning of the vitality of Quebec nationalism. And Gazette columnist Don MacPherson wrote the day after this year’s parade that the celebration had a “strong political undercurrent” despite its friendly nature. But more typical was the column by Josée Legault, which appeared just below MacPherson’s, in praise of the organizers’ supposed decision to “de-politicize the parade.”

The praise was not well received. When Guy Bothillier of La Societé Jean Baptiste addressed a huge crowd the night after the parade, he both warned and assured anyone misreading the friendly nature of this past year’s celebration, “We are not playing bingo.”

Well, at least the separatists are not playing bingo. As for the Canadian media, they just might be. Metaphorically speaking, it seems they are playing to cover the full bingo card. Or is it “cover up”?