“It all started with a defeat…” is but one of the numerous catchphrases used by Québec students to describe the narrative experience of their province according to Jocelyn Létourneau’s most recent book, Je me Souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse (Fides, 2014), published last week.
For the last 10 years, Université Laval Professor Létourneau has been interested in the historical consciousness of young Canadians. Refuting survey results showing abysmal lack of historical knowledge among youth, he collected over 3500 historical accounts of Québec high school and university students, asking them to write a short story and sum up in one phrase the historical adventure of their province. The results are both fascinating and troubling.
Despite what political leaders and the media claim, young Québécois are not historically disconnected nor are they amnesiacs. If many undeniably lack basic historical knowledge, often confusing dates and figures, their visions of history are nonetheless rich and telling. They are based on narrative structures which provide intelligibility and orientation to otherwise disparate and incoherent facts. Among the most significant events listed are “Jacques Cartier and the explorers,” “Les filles du roi,” and the “Conquest” of 1759, which top the list. Beyond the recurring themes and historical actors, one is struck by the students’ narrative orientation. One dominant template emerging from the stories of francophone Québécois is that of “la survivance” of a melancholic and unhappy representation of Québec’s place in Canadian history, and still hesitant about its future.