It was October 1995 right before the Quebec Referendum, and the future of our country hung in the balance. Like millions of Canadians, I sat at home watching TV to see what would happen. The news had more suspense than the 1972 Canada-Russia Hockey series where Paul Henderson scored the winning goal. We’re up, we’re down, were up, we’re down; we’re a country, we’re not. Quebeckers had been invited to vote either “Oui” to separate from Canada, or “Non.” Then, as the “Non” side began to lead, I began to cheer, just as if Canada had scored. Like many Canadians, when the polls started showing Quebec might actually go this time, I found myself scared that my country was about to disappear and frustrated because there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it.
Then my friend Donna called to tell me a big Unity Rally would be held on Friday, October 27, in Montreal, and Canada’s airlines were offering a seat sale so anyone could go. Five minutes later, without any sort of plan, I dropped everything and booked a flight to Montreal. Thousands of other Canadians spontaneously did the same. Like them, I suspect I had a million good reasons not to fly to Montreal that day. But I also suspected that all of those reasons would have sounded pretty hollow the following Tuesday if the people of Quebe had voted “Oui” and I had stayed home.
When I told people I was going on the “Save the Country Express,” I expected to be teased. After all, it’s pretty hokey to fly three thousand miles just to wave a flag and sing the National Anthem. But to my surprise, even my most cynical friends thanked me and said they wished they were going. My dad asked me to hug a Quebecker for him.
In the departure lounge at the Vancouver Airport, I wondered how many of us were heading to Montreal in a heartfelt attempt to show the people of La Belle Province, that despite what they may have heard, we really did care about what they decided.
Standing in line, I discovered a man I knew from work, Chris, right behind me. “Why are you going to Montreal?” I asked.
“To say no,” said Chris, who was bringing his son and daughter along to do the same.
Once on board, the woman next to me told me she and her husband had been watching TV wishing they could go, but couldn’t afford the airfare. Then some politician appeared on the screen and said the rally was a stupid idea, and who cares what English Canadians have to say. A minute later, she was on the phone to a travel agent. The woman explained she was a Franco-Ontarian, and even though she and her husband were broke, they agreed that when they were ninety, she’d be able to tell her grandchildren that she did her best to help keep Canada together.
Then there was the schoolteacher from Bonneville, a small town in Alberta. He was carrying a big flag signed by every single kid in Bonneville. There were a couple of teenagers from Winnipeg, who had never been to Montreal, and didn’t know where they were going to sleep when they got there. They didn’t have much money, and they couldn’t tell me why, but they just had to get to this rally.
A flight attendant told me that about half the 170 passengers on this regular business flight to Toronto were headed to the rally. This was not one of the special Unity Charters that the airline had set up; there were no organized groups on board. No one I met had spoken to anyone, except maybe their significant other, before deciding to do their bit to help save their country.
Once in Montreal, I spotted Much Music vee-jay Terry David Mulligan, covering the event for Much Music. At that moment, I realized this was Canada’s Woodstock. I half expected the organizers to broadcast warnings that “There’s some bad maple syrup out there!”
The Woodstock image was confirmed when I saw a vendor selling souvenir T-shirts depicting a happy face with long hair, dark sunglasses and a bandanna covered with peace symbols along with the slogan: “Keep Canada Together.”
The next morning, Donna and I headed out early to Place du Canada to beat the crowds. The Rally was to start at noon, but when we arrived at 10:30 a.m., the streets were already packed. Still, we managed to get a great spot right next to the speaker’s platform. At 11:05, I heard the first of the numerous spontaneous renditions of O Canada that would sweep the crowd that day. Each was endowed with the same depth of feeling as when we sang it back in the original 1972 Canada Cup series against the Russians.
At about 11:15, a tiny elderly woman started forcing her way to the front of the crowd, using her elbows with the practiced skill of a professional hockey goon. She quickly attached herself to my left arm to keep from falling over, and held on tightly for most of the next two hours. She was from Richelieu, a half-hour outside Montreal, and I later learned her name was Marie-Josephte. She tugged on my arm occasionally to point out local celebrities like Jean Charest’s kids, and a local Montreal M.P.
As she filled me in on local colour, a man on the other side of the railing began tossing flags to the crowd–real, full sized flags. The next thing I knew I had a Quebec flag in my hands. Not sure what to do with it, I slung it over my shoulder, and suddenly, there I was, wearing a Vancouver Canucks jersey (which I’d worn to show where I was from) with a fleur de lis cap. My transformation to Captain Canuck was complete when Donna stuck a paper Canadian flag in my ponytail holder. Then Marie-Josephte pulled on my arm and handed me a small Quebc flag, indicating I should put it in my hair, too.
Under normal circumstance I would have felt ridiculous–but there was nothing about this event even remotely related to “normal.” I was surrounded by people of all ages who had drawn maple leafs and fleurs de lis on their faces, plastered their skin with “Non” stickers and dressed themselves in various combinations of Canadian flags. Meanwhile, the biggest flag I had ever seen was moving through the rally like a living creature. In this crowd – I was positively inconspicuous.
When Jean Charest began speaking, Marie-Josephte started tugging frantically on my arm again. When I turned, she pushed my other arm toward a man in a snazzy business suit. As I said, “Hi, I’m from Vancouver,” I realized I was shaking hands with Frank McKenna.
“I’m out from New Brunswick,” he said. “Glad to have you here.” Marie-Josephte tugged again, then beamed and shouted: “You came all the way from Vancouver. Now you will be on TV with the Premier of New Brunswick!”
I tried to be cynical and witty or at least hip and ironic about my feelings as I looked out at the mass of people, but the truth is, like Woodstock, it really was a love-in. We came for the people of Quebec to tell them we care, but we also came for ourselves, because for one brief moment, it felt like we might be able to make a difference.
As the crowd began dispersing, Marie-Josephte pushed a slip of paper into my hand. It had her address on it. She thanked me for coming and told me to write her. Then she grasped my hand and we hugged each other.
After she left, Donna and I walked away in our Canucks jerseys–or at least tried to. Every few minutes we were stopped by someone asking if we were really from Vancouver, and then after a moment where they appeared to get lumps in their throats, they’d thank us for making the effort, thank us for helping. Then we’d wish them well on Monday-Referendum Day. “You came from Vancouver?” they’d ask–some with English accents, some with French, “Thank you so much.”
I was told later that the TV newscasts focused on the speeches-but the truth is-no one cared about the speeches. As powerful as the words may have been, they weren’t as poignant as the man holding the municipal flag of the city of Yellowknife, the woman with the cardboard sign that read “Edmonton, Alberta loves Quebec,” or all the people from across the country who, like myself, had never waved a flag in their lives and were now proudly holding a fleur de lis and a maple leaf to show their support for a united Canada.
The only statement that really mattered was that people had come from all over Canada to participate in something no one could have imagined, a powerful and spontaneous outpouring of genuine Canadian patriotism. No one who was there will ever forget it. The biggest cheer came when a speaker announced the crowd was estimated at 150,000. I strongly suspect if the politicians hadn’t interrupted, we would have just sung “O Canada” all afternoon.
(originally published in Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul and performed in Local Anxiety’s 1995 Year in Revue)