At the beginning of December, I left my bicycle in Spain to return to Canada for a four-month winter break. I’d been pedalling through Europe for nine months, and I was due to get out of the Schengen Area anyway. This would be my first visit to Canada during the holiday season since 2007, the only time in all my years of living in Taiwan that I’d come home for a visit in the winter. Needless to say, I was excited to get a good dose of fresh winter air and beautiful snowy landscapes!
I landed in Montreal city, where my sister Kristine has been living since her own return to Canada two summers ago after several years of travelling and living abroad. As French-Canadians who were born and raised in Southern Ontario, we’ve been talking about moving to Montreal for years, where we could really get in touch with our Quebecois roots, and be closer to the various elements of the culture that have always drawn us in and stirred us to the core.
On December 30th, Kris and I went out to Club Soda in downtown Montreal for La Veillée de l’Avant Veille, an event that would bring us in direct contact with some of our favourite things: Good friends, live musique traditionnelle québécoise, and a hall full of people, young and old, gearing up for a night of traditional Quebecois music and dancing.
Back when we were in high school, Kris and I had grown closer than ever sharing a passion for this sub-culture. Along with other members of our family, we were a part of a dance troupe called Les Vive-la-Joie, a group of Franco-Ontarians who got together once a week under the guidance of founder Marguerite Beaulieu to rehearse a large repertoire of dances that were once an integral part of our ancestors’ lives. Square dances, contra dances, Irish-influenced jigs, waltzes, you name it; if they danced them a few hundred years ago in a log cabin, a village square or a church basement in a pioneer community in Canada, we wanted to dance them too. Through our involvement with this troupe, we got the opportunity to travel to various folk festivals and other events in North America and as far as France. Those days of experiencing this part of our heritage and performing with that troupe were some of the best times of my life…
Upon our arrival at Club Soda, my sister and I hurriedly bought a bottle of white wine and, jittery with anticipation, wiggled our way through the thickening crowd to secure a good spot near the stage. Within minutes we spotted a familiar face in the wings – our good friend Réjean Brunet, a talented musician and member of one of Quebec’s most successful traditional Quebecois music bands, Le Vent du Nord, who were hosting the event for the 17th year in a row. We’ve been friends with Réjean and his brother André (arguably one of the best traditional fiddle players in the world) for twenty years now, ever since our early days with Les Vive-la-Joie. Every time we see those boys, the memories of the good times we’ve had over the years come flooding back. The songs, the dancing, the music; we still get goosebumps reliving those moments!
The concert started minutes after we arrived, and from that moment on, the night got better and better with every minute (and not only because of the wine!) The opening band, Montreal-based RéVeillons!, got the crowd whooping and dancing instantly with some great tunes and crowd-pleasing sing-alongs. Then came Quebec-based Les Chauffeurs à Pieds, who kept the momentum going with more energy-packed music and crowd-engaging chansons à répondre, or ‘call-and-response’ songs. By the time Le Vent du Nord took the stage, the audience was electrified and overwhelmed with an insuppressible desire to clap, jump, sing and dance along to the magic that was spilling out of the speakers around the room.
And then came the call to dance. As musicians from all three bands got back on stage for what would be a fusion of some of the best musical talents of the genre, so too did the solid mass of people that filled the room start to shift and rearrange itself. They split into smaller groups, and soon enough they were forming clusters of couples arranged in the most common formation of traditional Quebecois dancing: four couples to a set, all in place for a square dance!
Amateurs, pros, teenagers, old-timers and everyone in between began to move in unison through patterns and sequences of moves as the calleur, Jean-François Berthiaume, skillfully guided the hundreds of dancers through increasingly complex figures. Some of the dancers moved with ease and confidence after years of attending such events, while others were at times a bit bewildered and struggling to figure out which way they should be going. But as is the case in all of these soirées, they all had that one thing in common: Every person on that dance floor had a smile from ear to ear and eyes shining brightly with the sparkle of pure delight. This is the euphoria that keeps me coming back, that keeps me rooted in this sub-culture which has continued to be such an important part of my life despite my sometimes extended absences from it…
Here’s a taste of what this annual event is all about:
At one point during the evening, while I was off to the side of the room catching my breath and gulping down a much-needed drink of water, a man grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the floor for the next dance. I’m not one who likes to watch from the sidelines, so I was happy to go along as we scrambled to find three other couples to form a set. I’d seen this young man on the stage earlier (he’d come with Les Chauffeurs à Pieds) but we’d never met. As it turns out, Ghislain and I both got more than we’d expected from that chance meeting. For starters, we had so much fun dancing with one another that we stuck together for the rest of the night. And over lunch the next day, we discovered that we had a lot more in common than we would have ever guessed.
Ghislain is a lover of the great outdoors who teaches Organic Farming at the Université de Laval in Québec City and at the Cégep in Victoriaville. He’s cycled across parts of Europe and travelled extensively in Central and North America in his constant pursuit of adventure, knowledge and experience in his field. He also plays the accordion and is a skilled calleur who has helped keep traditional dancing in his region of Quebec alive and well. Needless to say, we had no trouble finding things to talk about.
A week later I travelled two hours east of Montreal to spend a week with my new friend in Chesterville, Quebec, a quaint village near Victoriaville. I was excited about going out in snowshoes for the first time to explore the Quebec Appalachians, and eager to attend a traditional music jam in a part of the country I’d never visited before. But the real surprise came when Ghislain introduced me to a friend of his, a fellow accordion player who happens to be one of the most well-established tattoo artists in Quebec: Clément Demers of Studio Tatouage Actuel.
Clément is one of four brothers who worked with their father, the legendary ‘Professor’ Clément Demers Sr., who between 1962-1975 was the owner of the only tattoo shop in Montreal, International Tattooing Studio on the Boulevard St-Laurent. Clément Sr. was first tattooed in Portsmouth, England during World War II, and by 1947 he’d opened his first tattoo shop on York Street in Ottawa, Ontario. He brought his sons into the business as soon as they were old enough to learn it, starting with Clément Jr. in 1971.
It was fascinating to talk to Clément about those times while we sat around the wood stove in Ghislain’s cozy 19th century house. He reminisced about his childhood and the years his family spent travelling across Canada in a trailer, from one military base or hotel to another, in search of soldiers looking to get ink done. He talked about the old days in the shop in Montreal, where jars of used needles were lined up on shelves, the tips caked with dried ink and blood but used nonetheless for several months before being thrown out. He also mentioned a sponge his father used to pull out of a bucket of ink- and blood-tainted water to wipe down freshly finished tattoos… yikes. And latex gloves? Not a chance. This was an era when blood-borne diseases and hygiene were far from being on people’s minds when they stepped into a shop to get a tattoo.
I spent quite a bit of time with Clément in his shop too, picking his brain for a few tattoo tips, of course, but mostly listening to him talk of the adventures he’s had since he started tattooing people over 40 years ago. I was particularly enchanted to hear about the three years he spent on a bus that he’d converted into a tattoo studio on wheels, travelling from one bar to another across the country (much like his father had done years earlier) to find new customers. He also told me about the time he spent backpacking in Europe to work in vineyards when he took a break from tattooing in his early twenties.
It was interesting to see that a lot of what he was talking about is represented in the tattoos that cover his arms. He has a lot of old school themes that have traditionally paid homage to a love of travel: a ship, a mermaid, the sea… (which of course are the exact themes people were having done on them when Clément started tattooing in the 70s). He also had a lot of grapes and vines done to commemorate the time he spent in Europe in his youth.
Talking to Clément and reflecting on this blog entry has made me realize just how much our roots impact our decision when choosing what tattoo to get done. Few are the people who select the content of their tattoos strictly based on aesthetics, who choose a design simply because it looks good. Though this is a perfectly reasonable way to go about it in my opinion, far more people seem to lean towards getting tattoos that ‘mean something’, that reflect a part of their beliefs, values, experiences or cultural background. I don’t have to dig far to find examples of this. My very first tattoo was a fleur de lys and maple leaf combo, an obvious (and admittedly cliché) symbol of my French-Canadian roots.
(The back story on that: There were four of us who got that tattoo done shortly after the 1995 referendum that almost resulted in victory for the separatists of Quebec: Me, my sister Kristine, and our favourite aforementioned musician brothers, Réjean and André Brunet. Funny side note: ALL of us have since had those little amateur tattoos covered up. Ha!)
And though my current tattoo isn’t exactly jam-packed with meaning, it does betray a hint of my roots. For if you look close enough, you’ll see that nestled in one of the lilies on my lower hip, sits a tiny little frog…
Other examples of tattoos honouring one’s cultural background abound, especially in North America, where many of us have roots in other parts of the world. There is an ever-growing number of people who are proudly displaying tattoos that feature a coat of arms or a family crest, a Celtic knot, clover or a leprechaun, a maple leaf, a fleur de lys, or even a religious symbol done in a region-specific style. A few years ago I did a large tattoo of a sumo wrestler fighting a giant koi fish on a American man with Japanese ancestry. For another customer, I incorporated some holly to tie in with his family name, Lehoux. Currently, I’m working with a Montreal-born man on a large piece to commemorate his Viking roots. And for my dear friend Réjean Brunet, whom I had the pleasure of tattooing only a few weeks ago, we went with a more literal approach to honouring his roots by giving him a bold and brightly coloured tattoo of a tree.
We all want to understand who we are. We all strive to know where and what we come from. For some of us, it feels like it’s something we’ve always known. Others have to dig a bit deeper, do some research, ask some questions. And for others yet, these are questions that can never be answered. But for most of us, who our ancestors were, where our families came from, and what we call home are an indivisible part of our identity. We may not outwardly embrace every facet of our background equally – we may choose to honour our maternal lineage over our father’s, for instance – but few are those who would willingly ignore or deny any one part of their origins. Indeed, history is full of examples of people who have chosen to die rather than renounce a fundamental part of their identity… It’s no wonder then that so many people choose to incorporate symbols of their roots in their tattoos, who readily wear visual representations of a part of their identity on their sleeve (in some cases almost literally). The beauty of the creative process and of artistic expression is that we will never run out of original and beautiful ways to enable people to do this. Tattoo culture is in its prime, artists are pushing the boundaries every day, and quality standards are higher than we’ve ever seen them. It’ll be wonderful to see the works of art that will emerge from this ever-enduring desire in people to honour their origins.
Let the ink and creativity flow!