In focus

Acting and celebrating: Ottawa’s Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste

The mission of Ottawa’s Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste (SSJB) is modelled on those of Montréal (1834) and Québec (1842). The new organization is a patriotic and Catholic Society whose primary function is to organize festivities on June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of French Canadians.

Following the example of Quebec’s SSJB, the Ottawa Society also sets itself a political mission: seeking to defend the linguistic rights of Francophones in Ottawa and Ontario. As its leaders explain in 1906, its objective is to:

… bring together all the French-Canadians of the province of Ontario in a powerful Federation [sic] , in a true spirit of union and guided by truly patriotic aspirations regarding everything relating to religion and race; [and] to tread social and political terrain with vigour and courage in defence of the flag.1

The SSJB, however, struggles to carry out this role of political mobilization on a large scale due to lack of resources. For example, Ottawa’s French-Canadian elite outmaneuvers the SSJB by creating the Association canadienne-française d’éducation d’Ontario (ACFÉO) It is actually ACFÉO that will assume full leadership of the Franco-Ontarian resistance to Regulation 17 (1912-1927). In 1939, however, the Ottawa Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste accomplishes a major undertaking: setting up a federation of Ontario SSJB to bring together the many sister societies that have proliferated in the province over the years.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebration grows to an unprecedented scale. An army of craftsmen from French-Canadian parishes throughout Ottawa come together to organize the annual parade, build the allegorical floats, and solicit funding from Francophone businesspeople – with the result that the June 24 festivities allow French Canadians in Ottawa to collectively occupy public space and celebrate their identity. Those are the SSJB’s finest moments. Thereafter, the Society declines. In the disruptive ideological and cultural context of the 1960s, the Ottawa SSJB is in fact viewed by many – especially Franco-Ontarian youth – as too traditional and conservative. The Society goes downhill and disappears shortly afterwards, in an atmosphere of almost general indifference.

1 Remarks included in René Dionne, “1910. Une première prise de parole collective en Ontario français”, in Cahiers Charlevoix, no 1, 1995, p. 43 (translated from the original).