Singing “Gens de pays” in a Montreal restaurant

Over dinner at the spectacularly delicious & authentic Montreal Little Italy establishment, Pizzeria Napoletana, a lesson in Quebec cultural politics and history:

Our dinner party, enjoying Italian food in Montreal’s Petite Italie (Little Italy), hears a nearby table, evidently celebrating a birthday, break out in a familiar melody that sounds a lot to me like the French Canadian song “Gens du pays”. I wonder, out loud, if this isn’t the equivalent of “Happy Birthday” here inQuebec, and if it’s not the song by Gilles Vigneault, the beloved Quebecois folk singer of the 60s and 70s. The middle aged francophone couple beside us overhears my question and the wife confirms it is Gilles Vigneault. She goes on to say that although she likes his music, “we don’t sing that song”, and makes a significant eye gesture. Her husband, until then silent, starts gently shushing her, while smiling.

So, what’s going on here?

Gilles Vigneault, as well as being a widely popular Québécois folk singer, was a major cultural figure in the Quebec separatist movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s. His song Gens du pays became the de facto anthem of the movement, after it became associated with the Quebec separatist Parti Québécois leader René Lévesque when a supportive crowd sang it after Lévesque’s speech acknowledging his government’s losing the historic (and traumatic) Quebec separatist referendum in 1980.

Gens du pays, c’est votre tour
De vous laisser parler d’amour
[People of the country, it’s your turn
to allow yourselves to speak of love]

As well as becoming the Quebec separatist anthem and the unofficial Quebec “National anthem”, Gens du pays also became the song many Québecois (presumably those with at least some separatist sympathies) sing at birthdays, with slightly modified lyrics, replacing “Happy Birthday To You/ Bonne anniversaire”). And that’s what I heard at the restaurant.

Our neighbour’s avowal that she liked Vigneault but didn’t “use” the song meant that she liked his music but not his politics, i.e. she identified herself as a francophone federalist (i.e. non-separatist) Montrealer. Her husband’s slightly comical nervousness at her publicly hinting at this position, via song preferences, suggests that even in today’s Montreal, when separatism, after having lost a second referendum, is something of a lost cause, at least for the foreseeable future, still retains significant cultural, if not political support.

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