This is the day after school got out for the summer – at least that’s how kids in Québec view it. June 24 used to be more widely known as Fête de la Saint-Jean, marking the birth of Québec’s patron saint, St. John the Baptist. Having shrugged off her strong Roman Catholic tradition for secularism as a more assertive nationalism took hold, the holiday is now officially known as la fête nationale.
I vividly remember walking with Mom, Dad and my siblings down to the corner and over a block to watch the annual parade wind its way along the streets of our neighbourhood before crossing the St. Charles River bridge into a district which grew up around the early Beauharnois Canals. Whatever entertainment the parade offered escapes my memory now except, that is, for the predictably out-of-tune, breath-challenged members of the Sea Cadets band. (Mind you, while they were a good deal more long in the tooth than I was at the time, there weren’t too many of them older than about fourteen.) Someone else always there, bringing up the rear in his car with loud-speakers on the roof, was our self-styled town-crier. His menu that night would be reminders about wherever the bingos were to be held in the upcoming week, perhaps registration information for the boys’ summer camp, and whatever else he could convince small organizations to publicize at his reasonable rates.
The next morning, Saturday, the car would be packed and we would take off for our eastern Ontario relatives. Before 1967, when Ontario’s Highway 401 (and its Québec equivalent) went into service for Montréal’s World Fair, Expo ‘67, we would have to travel Highway 2 (which was know by the same number in both provinces). Barely out of town, at a curve in the road near Rivière-Beaudette, we would see a big faded sand-coloured brick house with fancy wood trim and other similarities to our grandmother’s, still three hours or more away. Cutting cross-country on the way to old Highway 43, we might stop at the farm of a great-aunt and great-uncle.
When we were old enough to be away from home for much of the summer, we would divide ourselves between Grandma’s in Perth and Auntie Dot and Uncle Homer near Portland, a forty-five minute drive away on Big Rideau Lake. Each experience offered unique features. Grandma, just retiring as a teacher, was a big booster of the nearby library which was a novelty for us because we didn’t have so large an English-language library in Valleyfield. I also liked to stop in to the museum with Grandma who would have a chat with my great-aunt (or maybe great-great aunt) who, standing in the reception area, reminded me of an apple doll – in a good way!
If I drew one of the straws for Portland first (we switched at the end of July) I could look forward to helping my aunt and uncle who, in addition to having full-time jobs in Portland, operated a set of six housekeeping cottages for mostly, but not limited to, American vacationers. It was great – a steep hill down to the water, lots of huge trees, and getting an early taste of interacting with the public.
All this and more began each year on this weekend – this Québec holiday weekend!