That road not taken

The Compass - - OPINION -

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: pick­ers­

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