That road not taken
Bonjour Madame! Bonjour Madame! Her students were crowding around Lisa, slapping her on the back and greeting her in an unexpectedly excited and boisterous way. Not that the kids at the Polyvalente de Mortagne in Boucherville Quebec, across the river from Montreal weren’t friendly most of the time. Far from it, but this outburst of jovial good feeling toward the professor who’d been teaching them English since September 1970 wasn’t what Lisa was used to from her students. This was April 1 1971 and Lisa was about to learn another lesson about how Quebec is different from the rest of Canada.
She discovered it when she went to the staff room after class and one of her colleagues told her to take a look in the mirror at the back of her sweater. It was covered with paper cutouts of little fish.
Lisa had discovered Poisson d’Avril.
That’s the name Quebecois give April 1, April Fool’s Day in the rest of Canada.
The tradition began in the 16th century when Pope Gregory introduced a new calendar. The Gregorian calendar, the one much of the world still uses today, moved the beginning of the year to January first. Up till then throughout what is now known as France, the beginning of the year had been celebrated on April 1, the return of the light, the coming of spring, a time of planting and rebirth.
When French king Charles IX adopted the new calendar, not all of his subjects were happy. They felt there was no need for this change. The old calendar was good enough for them, they grumbled. It had served them well for years and coincided with the natural cycle of the seasons that everyone, educated or not, could feel, see, taste, hear and smell.
Others felt the new calendar was modern, fresh and innovative. It was the coming thing. They ridiculed the people who wanted to stick with the old calendar. They would walk up to them and slap them on the back in a friendly way and urge them to get with it, adopt the new agenda and get modern. While slapping them on their backs they were applying the poisson d’avril, the paper symbol of Pisces, the fish, the sign of the Zodiac that ends just at the beginning of April.
According to those who believe in the astrological signs Pisceans possess a gentle, patient, malleable nature. They have many generous qualities and are friendly, good-natured, kind and compassionate, sensitive to the feelings of those around them, and respond with the utmost sympathy and tact to any suffering they encounter. They are deservedly popular with all kinds of people, partly because their easygoing, affectionate, submissive natures offer no threat or chal- lenge to stronger and more exuberant characters. They accept the people around them and the circumstances in which they find themselves rather than trying to adapt them to suit themselves, and they patiently wait for problems to sort themselves out rather than take the initiative in solving them. They are more readily concerned with the problems of others than with their own.
In short, in the 16th century, according to the modern, forward-looking fans of the new calendar, Pisces people were suckers. Stuck in the past. Fools. The kind of people you could ridicule by sticking a paper fish on their back while pretending to be friendly.
Back in school, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River April 1, 1971, Lisa was not upset by the prank. She was glad to be initiated into the tradition of another culture and to be included in its celebration, even if she had to be the butt of a joke to join the crowd. The other teachers explained to Lisa that this was the day of the year when they all kept a close eye on their students and above all, their backs to the wall.
April 1 1949 in Newfoundland was a day when a large minority of the population felt they had their backs to the wall. Their side had lost the referendum and now they felt the humiliation of the paper fish of Canada stuck to their backs.
Some still feel that way 60 years later, but with the passage of time there are fewer and fewer people in this province who were not born Canadian.
There is no way to measure the quantity of sadness and dismay at the loss of a country. Only those who have lived them understand the quality of those emotions. What is sure however is that it will remain unknown forever what the consequences would have been to this place had the referendum gone the other way. As the poet Robert Frost recounts in his poem, The Road Not Taken, you cannot know what you give up when you choose one fork in the road and not the other.
Speaking only for myself, I can say with complete certainty that I am very happy with the chance the Poisson d’Avril of 1949 presented me. If Newfoundland had not joined Canada then, I most likely would never have come here. Had I not come here my life would never have experienced the richness of nature and humanity that is so abundant and deep in this place by the sea.
I believe Frost sums up my choice very well in the closing lines of the poem.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and II took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
To everyone in this place of fish, happy Poisson d’Avril.
Peter Pickersgill is a writer and cartoonist who resides in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. His column appears on this page every second week and returns April 14. He can be reached at: email@example.com