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Remembering the ReferendumCarolyn Marie Souaid
8 October 2020
It was a red day: October 28th. I kissed my husband goodbye and waited for him to back out of the driveway and disappear down the street. Then I raced upstairs and dressed my three-year-old son in his red sweater. I grabbed a bag of noisemakers and red balloons and dug out the poster I had made and hidden in the closet. The sign urged my francophone compatriots to vote with their heads instead of their hearts.
Twenty-five years ago, I was married to a staunch Quebec nationalist, whom my parents called, privately but not incorrectly, a separatist. Someone who wanted to break up Canada. They loved him—but not his politics.
When we first met, in a small Inuit village on the coast of the Hudson Bay, I found it refreshing that he seemed to be a man of principle. Though I didn’t necessarily agree with my parents, it never occurred to me that he and I would have issues. I was eager to expand my knowledge of Québécois culture. And I assumed that by spending more time with me, a third-generation Lebanese-Canadian, he would eventually see the benefit of having a wider lens on the world.
Outfitted in our best and boldest reds, my son and I bussed it to the Longueuil metro station and joined the tide of people headed downtown to the pro-unity rally, fittingly taking place at Place du Canada. There was an energy I hadn’t felt during the previous weeks of the referendum campaign. It was like the Habs had just won another Stanley Cup. The red wave moved through the underground artery and ascended to join the amassing crowd. Canadians had arrived by bus, train and plane, some from as far away as the Yukon, all waving flags. Quebec flags, Canadian flags, flags of fleurs-de-lys and maple leaves stitched together in solidarity and love.
I wanted my son to bathe in it, to see, hear and feel what this country was: diverse, welcoming. Bilingual, generous, robust. A complicated nation with the wherewithal to settle its differences and work through the hard parts.
When I first became a mother, my parents warned me to stay on top of things, to see to it that my influence took precedence over the separatist genes. They didn’t want their grandson to become a unilingual beer-swilling dropout. They wanted him to be ambitious and cultivated, speaking as many languages as possible. They wanted an educated grandson who aimed high.
My husband was not a dropout. He was a teacher. He had initiative, the first ever in his family to attend and graduate from university. He came from a working-class town I had never heard of, while I had grown up in an elite suburb where the bushes were trimmed to look like poodles, where mothers stayed home, and husbands were bosses who didn’t punch clocks or work the night shift. Families in my neighbourhood rented cottages in the Laurentians and vacationed in resorts along Eastern seaboard. They believed in Canada. Sure, my husband liked a cold beer, who didn’t, but he also enjoyed fine Scotch and good wine. He just wanted to live in an independent Quebec. A Québec on its own terms, whose bitter history of living with English overlords would finally be replaced with a new narrative in which he and his compatriots could be “Maîtres chez nous.”
He and I agreed on one thing at least: had we not been hired to teach in the same far away village, we would never have met. In the Arctic cold beneath the northern lights, our relationship bloomed. He wooed me with his guitar, playing Charlebois and Harmonium. I introduced him to pita and hummus. We conversed clumsily in both official languages.
In time, we moved back down south and married. But the imperceptible drift toward the two solitudes was impossible to resist. The things we had found “cute” in each other, the political differences, the little irritants, mutated into conflict.
Now, less than a week before this second referendum on a question that the province had already voted on and rejected fifteen years earlier, my hackles were up. The arguments were mounting. I had lost my diplomacy. “They” were all enemies who hated the English and wanted to root us out like a disease. I had to take a stand for our survival—mine, the country’s, my son’s. I wanted him to feel the pride of being Canadian, to understand that we weren’t les maudits anglais. Someday, I reasoned, if this foolishness resurfaced, he’d be anchored in his memory of this love-in for Canada, however hazy. He would flash back to the canvas of solidarity he’d borne witness to—the dancing, the effervescence, the cheering crowds. My heart was light.
The big night came and went. Premier Jacques Parizeau, shocked at the narrow loss (49.42% vs 50.5%) blamed “money and the ethnic vote.” Though bitter and deeply disappointed, my principled husband rejected this outburst. Even called it racist. Maybe he and I could coexist after all.
Yet, weeks afterwards, when I finally confessed to attending the rally with our son, he was livid. He accused me of duplicity, blasted us, les autres, for illegal spending on the No campaign, for cheating to influence the vote. For flooding the city with Canadian flags as though Quebecers wouldn’t recognize it was mainly for show. And maybe he was right, but I pushed it from my mind because we had won. Canada had stayed together.
I didn’t see my divorce on the horizon, but maybe I should have.
Carolyn Marie Souaid is the author of eight poetry collections and the acclaimed novel, Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik (Baraka Books, 2017). She has performed at festivals and literary events in Canada and abroad, and her work has been featured on CBC-Radio, in The Malahat Review and the Literary Review of Canada. Her forthcoming poetry collection is The Eleventh Hour. She lives and works in Montreal, where she counsels Inuit students attending John Abbott College.
[Photo: Joel Silverstein]