Safia Nolin Saint Jeanne

Safia Nolin

Safia Nolin hosts an alternative fête nationale concert, Saint Jeanne

A pre-recorded streaming show featuring music, drag queens, performance art, readings and more.

This Wednesday, as Quebecers of all stripes seek new, lower-key ways to mark la fête nationale without the fireworks and huge gatherings, an array of the province’s artists, personalities and public figures from different cultural and gender backgrounds will get together online to celebrate diversity and redefine the notion of the Québécois identity. Saint Jeanne, an initiative spearheaded and hosted by singer Safia Nolin, her friend Phililppe Marinier and drag queen Kiara, streams at 8 p.m. on St-Jean (June 24), via Nolin’s social media accounts.

“Saint Jeanne was already an ongoing theme in my mind ever since a conversation I started with my friend Philémon (Cimon, a fellow musician),” Safia Nolin explained by phone from Lyon, France, where she has been inadvertently sidelined  with her golden retriever Pizzaghetti since late February, as she awaits a flight home next month that will finally accommodate the pup, an emotional support dog.

“I ended up having a long conversation along those same lines with our mutual friend Philippe (Marinier) and we had a Zoom meeting and discussed the idea further. The first person we approached was Kiara, a drag queen from Quebec who lives in Montreal and is about to be on Canada’s Drag Race that starts on July 2. She was into it, and the three of us make a nice event planning team. It’s been a huge job putting together an event in 20 days. We made sort of a wishlist, and tons of people said yes.”

Annie Sama Saint Jeanne
Annie Sama

Polaris Music Prize longlist nominee Backxwash, Tranna Wintour, Gabrielle Boulianne Tremblay, Karl Hardy, Annie Sama and drag queens Matante Alex and Gisèle Lullaby are among the list of Saint Jeanne performers, who were invited to use their time — or not — in any way they can conceive to express what being Québécois means to them.

“The goal is to give the stage to these artists and let them decide how they want to celebrate their St. Jean. People can talk about Quebec, not talk about Quebec, read Harry Potter, whatever,” Nolin said. “(The festival) is pre-recorded to stream, and it’s not just music performances. There are readings, and other types of performance art, and pre-recording has been a really nice way to assemble what will be an amazing, entertaining show.”

Nolin points to the negativity and insults she has experienced for coming out with her own opinions as an example of having experienced systemic inequality and character assasination by Quebecers. 

“But that’s just my experience,” said Nolin, whose father is Algerian. “I can only imagine what it is for people to experience racism and discrimination at all times. When I was little I was told to go back to my country because of my name. I was born here. What do you want me to do with that?”

“When George Floyd died, and even in the weeks before with the death of Ahmaud Arbery, I was thinking about it all a lot, and not being sure how I felt about it, and finally realizing that I felt awful. So I wanted to take that energy and turn it into something positive.” 

Nolin expressed how much she loves the province of Quebec, her native Quebec City and her life in Montreal, but also pointed out how it’s easy to get caught up in the cultural inclusiveness of the artistic scene here at the risk of forgetting that there is a lot of backlash and resentment toward the very things that many more forward-thinking Quebecers take for granted as our cultural freedom.

“For example, being in France now, my vision of Quebec is biased — well, not biased, because there’s a lot of truth to what I think — but I’m super proud of Quebec. I think of how open and accepting it is, how much I love my life in Montreal and all of my friends from all communities who are socially engaged, and people from all walks of life who can talk to each other and chill together and are accepting,” Nolin says. 

“Being able to live in safety, and be able to have debates over feminism, for example, in the public space — those are all things I love about Quebec, and that’s my Quebec.”

Denim Pussy Saint Jeanne
Denim Pussy

But there’s another, less virtuous side of that coin.

“When I’m away, I forget about the other part of Quebec, the part that dwells on reaction to all of these things. There are a lot of people who love Quebec and wish to identify as Quebecers and they can’t because they don’t feel included. Just hearing François Legault say that systemic racism doesn’t exist in Quebec reflects that. Telling all these people, like, just, ‘No, that’s not true,’ when it’s everywhere — in the police, in the City of Montreal, across the province, all over Canada. And that’s without even starting to talk about First Nations and Indigenous peoples, which is a whole other level,” Nolin emphasizes. 

“I’m sure there are people among these groups who feel a part of Quebec, and people who feel hurt, too. And we can’t deny that. C’est pas juste nice, le Québec.”

With Saint Jeanne, Nolin and her peers take a small but powerful step toward helping redefine cultural harmony by not only entertaining, but asking viewers to think outside of their preconceived notions and perhaps their comfort zones.

“Philippe told me, ‘You know, we’ll always be Québécois. We can’t be not Québécois,’” she states. 

“People are talking about a ‘debate’ over systemic racism. There’s no debate!” ■

Saint Jeanne is happening on Wednesday, June 24, 8 p.m. on Safia Nolin Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Follow the Saint Jeanne Instagram account for more line-up details. The event is free.

Safia Nolin website.

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