“The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places—the school, the church, and the skating rink—but our real life was on the skating rink.”
Last week, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) held a week of events to better inform McGill students about the province in which they study. Possibly due to time constraints, or a fundamental misunderstanding of what really makes this province tick, they left out one of the main pillars of Quebec’s cultural history: the game of hockey, and specifically the Montreal Canadiens. The excerpt above is from Roch Carrier’s legendary The Hockey Sweater—which can be seen on the back of Canada’s five-dollar banknote—is a testament to the central role of hockey in Canadian culture, and particularly that of the Quebecois identity.
Maybe hockey wasn’t included because it isn’t political, and that’s what we all want to learn about, right? Forget that due to the move from the World Hockey Association to the NHL of the Quebec Nordiques in 1979, the province had two professional teams whose fanbases were largely divided along geographic, political, and linguistic lines. The infamous “Good Friday Massacre” between the ‘Nords’ and the ‘Habs’—in which numerous line brawls erupted during a playoff game—was a violent microcosm of the province’s larger divisions. The game has sometimes become so political that former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe campaigned for the establishment of a Quebec international hockey program to compete against Canada at the Olympics.
One highlight of the schedule was a session about the student movement—I imagine only first years might attend, as I’m pretty sure we all know enough about that—but how about the riots of March 1955 when Montrealers took to the streets to protest the suspension of Canadiens—and Quebec hero—Maurice Richard? The timing of the riot during the Quiet Revolution was symbolic of an emerging idea concerning a secular, nationalist Quebec, and it took on racial overtones, as rioters claimed Richard was discriminated against by NHL President Clarence Campbell based on his French-Canadian heritage. Richard was Quebec—every hockey-playing child in The Hockey Sweater wore his signature number nine—so it’s no wonder Quebec history textbooks devote pages to his significance.
Some might say that one cannot understand politics simply by analyzing the importance of sport. Those people are correct. It is problematic, however, that many of our understandings of “Quebec” are purely based in politics of sovereignty and language. SSMU should have recognized that understanding a place has much to do with culture, and that often, what unites populations is specifically the apolitical. It might seem that there are no similarities between a Francophone from Shawinigan and an Anglophone from Montreal West; but ask them whether Scott Gomez should have been bought out or if Alex Galchenyuk is the future of the Habs, and you’ll find that those nearly irreconcilable differences melt faster than you can say “René Lévesque.”
If a ‘poutine crawl’ were your choice of cultural immersion for the week, then ask yourself, “Where do most Quebeckers eat their poutine?” At hockey games, of course. Take any town in Quebec, from Gatineau to Abitibi, Shawinigan to Rimouski, and you will undoubtedly find an arena with a minor hockey game, and a pub showing RDS coverage of the Canadiens. Each of those establishments will likely smell like gravy, cheese curds, and fries. Gatineau’s Robert Guertin Arena, home of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Gatineau Olympiques, serves little other than poutine, hot dogs, Pepsi, and Molson beer. It’s about as Quebecois as Celine Dion eating maple syrup.
In all fairness, kudos to SSMU for recognizing an opportunity for education, and seizing upon it. That being said, if you want a real cultural experience, go to a hockey game. That’s about the most Quebecois thing you can do.