Do I remember who I am? Do you?

Posted 01.28.13

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | Last fall, in-laws visiting from British Columbia were struck by our Quebec license plates. "What does the slogan mean, 'je me souviens'?", they wanted to know.

A literal translation didn't suffice. "Remember what? What do Quebecers want to remember? The Plains of Abraham? Why would they want to remember a defeat?"

Their puzzlement set me to thinking. We see license plates every day, and rarely give their slogans a thought. Two editions ago, my Francophone counterpart on this page addressed the issue in much the same language used by the BC'ers -- "Remember what?"

Mr. Leclerc itemized a number of significant people in Quebec's recent history who most Quebecers, young ones at least, do not recognize. Plenty didn't know who Rene Levesque was, or what he did for Quebec, according to surveys.

With those statistics, it's not hard to see why so many Quebecers are worried about their heritage slipping away. That's a point we anglos might consider: we should sympathize with Quebec's fears because what do we remember of our heritage in Canada? Hasn't our anglo heritage been whitewashed by Disney and Hollywood?

In considering the in-laws' questions, I now think a literal translation does not capture the motto's fullest meaning. The literal, "I remember" is too large a net; it captures too much -- how about a more philosophical translation: "I remember who I am"?

This is an entirely different statement, one not limited to history, and not exclusive to any nationalistic program. It includes a philosophical question for each Quebecer. We should know "who we are", as possibly the most basic question in each of our individual lives.

Other provinces use their licence-plate slogans as tourism advertising or even as parental finger-shaking: "Yours to discover!" Yours to Protect!", and so on -- pretty trivial, especially compared to Quebec's Existential version of remembering who we each are.

Who are we is a question not only for history, not only about geography and place, not even of genetic or racial make-up, but of family and, of course, of psychology. It is existential. Who we are in terms of our psychological make-up, our ambitions and our stance toward life is a complex, profound question -- rare for license plates. It does not replace the original interpretation -- it deepens it. The motto urges Quebecers to be aware of who we are in all these senses.

The problem we anglos face is that we do so little of this social self-reflection that we don't understand its importance and value to a people and a community. We anglo-Canadians likely lump ourselves, thoughtlessly, in with the culture around us -- one generated not by us but by commercial efforts in Hollywood and New York. We don't understand the Quebec motto, because we so rarely give a thought to who we are as a people and a society. And that's something we might learn to do -- as we stare at all those license plates in our morning commutes.


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