Escape to the Townships

By Scott Stevenson, Sherbrooke (Québec)

Summer in southern Quebec starts blue as the solstice sky with widespread Saint Jean Baptiste – or Fête nationale – celebrations, then a sprinkling of Canada Day festivities. It heats up and stretches out with music festivals, food-themed parties, community celebrations, and agricultural fairs. On September 18, Danville’s population may well triple as Townshippers’ Association once again showcases the region’s way of life during the 31st edition of Townshippers’ Day.

The event was started for the Eastern Townships English-speaking community in 1980 by the year-old Townshippers’ Association, itself formed to protect and promote the English culture in southeastern Quebec.

But like this very bicultural and bilingual region, Townshippers’ Day quickly became a larger community celebration of life in the Townships—annually attended by thousands of people from far and wide, from every walk of life, from all political stripes, and from countless language origins.

“Imagine market day in medieval times, or May Day celebrations in the square of an 18th-century village, and transpose those images to the here and now. Townshippers’ Day is…a gathering that allows old friends from far-flung corners to come together, and total strangers to strike up new friendships. It’s a day that almost vibrates with a sense of excitement, yet exudes a sense of calm and relaxation. It’s a showcase event for musicians, dancers, artists, writers, and photographers, but equally a time for entrepreneurs and artisans to display their wares, and community groups to explain what they’re about.Footnote 1

“It’s a day that salutes the vitality and creativity of the Eastern Townships English-speaking community but a day that’s shared with our French-speaking neighbours.”

Source: Townshippers’ Day website.

It is also inclusive of the region’s many communities, changing venue each year to give different towns a chance to host the event. This summer, on September 18th, Townshippers’ Day will take place in Danville, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

The town of 4000 is about 17% English-speaking, “a large majority of which is over the age of 60 and 70,” said the Townshippers’ Day organizing committee chair, Bob McKeage. That percentage would have been much higher in the early years of the Eastern Townships, a region originally settled by English-speaking immigrants from New England, Scotland, Ireland, and England beginning in the 1790s, followed by French-Canadians from overcrowded seigneuries elsewhere in Lower Canada.

The cultural mix has left an indelible mark on society today in the Eastern Townships and on Townshippers’ Day values, participants, and activities. Bilingual themes such as “Rendez-Vous” and “Together / Ensemble” abound on the list of Townshippers’ Days past.

Danville’s chair, Bob McKeage, embodies both English and French. “I live in French,” he said in an English-language telephone interview from his home in Danville. “I call myself a Franglais.”

With a French-speaking mother, McKeage “spoke whatever language was necessary with the relatives,” learning French at a young age. “It was just a necessity and a way of life growing up, which now I’m thankful for,” he said. His wife, Noël-Ange Codère, is French-speaking and one of two Francophones on the eight-member Townshippers’ Day organizing committee.

Meetings are held in English, but “if something’s not understood, I’ll repeat it in French,” McKeage said. “Anybody who wants to speak French, they’re more than welcome.”

The committee is also making sure the French-speaking community is invited to Townshippers’ Day and feels welcome, by publishing all communications in French as well as English, and by soliciting participation of the wider community in all aspects of the event.

McKeage said that inclusiveness is an essential part of Townshippers’ Day. It’s part of the widespread Townships approach to working and living together as one community, English- and French-speaking, that can serve as a model for others.


Credits: Courtesy of Townshippers’ Association

Published on Monday, August 16, 2010

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