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Aesthetic revolt and the remaking of national identity in Québec, 1960–1969


Based on archival and ethnographic data, this article analyzes the iconic-making, iconoclastic unmaking, and iconographic remaking of national identifications. The window into these processes is the career of Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of French Canadians and national icon from the mid-nineteenth century until 1969, when his statue was destroyed by protesters during the annual parade in his honor in Montréal. Relying on literatures on visuality and materiality, I analyze how the saint and his attending symbols were deployed in processions, parades, and protests. From this analysis, I develop the sociological concept of aesthetic revolt, a process whereby social actors rework iconic symbols, redefining national identity in the process. The article offers a theoretical articulation and an empirical demonstration of how the context, content, and the form of specific cultural objects and symbols—national icons—are intertwined in public performance to produce eventful change, and shows why and how the internal material logic and the social life of these icons shape the articulation of new national identities.

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  1. 1.

    Despite their frequent conflation in (non-Canadian) English, “French Canadian” and “Québécois” are not synonymous. Rather, the terms represent different identifications and visions of the national community, each historically specific. As early as the 18th century, the descendants of French settlers in Canada called themselves “Canadiens,” an ethnonym reflecting their budding identity as distinct from that of their French ancestors. They started calling themselves “Canadiens français” in the early 19th century when the British who settled in Canada after the Conquest (1760) began to describe themselves as “Canadians” (Frenette 1998, p. 9). The term “Canadien français” fell out of usage in Canada in the late 1960s, when the French Canadians in Québec started thinking of themselves as Québécois. This territorial narrowing of identity set off a ripple effect throughout Canada, causing most French-speaking Canadian groups to redefine their own identities along provincial lines: Franco-Ontarians, Franco-Manitobans, Saskatchewan’s Fransaskois, Franco-Albertans, Franco-Columbians and so on. Despite the pervasive use of the term in (non-Canadian) English, thus, there exists no operative “French Canadian” identity since that period. Contrary to what is often assumed outside of Canada, moreover, the term “Québécois” does not suggest one’s political commitment to Québec’s independence. It is a descriptive rather than a normative political term. In this article, then, I speak of “Canadiens” and “French Canadians” to denote the descendants of French settlers in Canada until the 1960s. I use the term “Québécois” to denote the French Canadian population of Québec, and “Quebecers” to denote all citizens of Québec regardless of national origins, ethnic background, or linguistic belonging.

  2. 2.

    Mabel Berezin, in her study of fascist theater in Italy (1994), has convincingly demonstrated that meaning could be also be found in the mere artistic form regardless of its actual narrative content.

  3. 3.

    Materiality studies scholars would reject that distinction, as a text is printed onto a page, bound into a book that one carries, opens, shelves, or rips or burns; even oral tradition is embodied and material, as it is spoken, sung, or performed by bodies in specific material contexts.

  4. 4.

    Durkheim writes that “collective ideals can only be manifested and become aware of themselves by being concretely realized in material objects that can be seen by all, understood by all, and represented to all minds.” Society therefore projects ideals of its own creation onto an object—a totem, an idol, an icon— thereby becoming conscious of those very ideals made materially explicit (2010, pp. 49–50, emphasis mine).

  5. 5.

    This historical interpretation of the Quiet Revolution is a key feature of the Québécois national narrative that has a quasi-sacred status in Québec (cf., Létourneau 1997). That representation of history, however, is increasingly questioned. Québec historians and sociologists have in recent years engaged a critical re-examination of the putative chiaroscuro that contrasts the Duplessis years’ “Great Darkness” with the Quiet Revolution’s “light” (e.g., Bourque et al. 1994; Gagnon and Sarra-Bournet (1997); Bélanger et al. 2000; Bouchard 2005). Several studies have identified the Quiet Revolution’s roots in the 1930s and 1940s, either in liberal activism (Behiels 1985) or even in religious movements within the Catholic Church itself (Meunier and Warren 1999; Gauvreau 2008).

  6. 6.

    In Montréal, for example, participation in Sunday Mass dropped by almost two-thirds, from 88 % in 1957 to 30 % in 1971 (Hamelin 1984, p. 277). For analyses of the role of Catholicism in the constitution of French Canadian society and Catholicism’s trajectory in 20th century Québec, see Dumont (1986); Heap et al. (1986); Lemieux (1990); Beauchemin et al. (1991); Baum (1991), Lemieux (2006), Christiano (2007) and Dillon (2007). For an analysis of the reconfiguration of Catholicism as cultural heritage, see Zubrzycki (2012).

  7. 7.

    When many thought it could not get lower, in 1986, the rate hit a record low at 1.4 children per woman, what demographers call “low-low fertility,” creating a wave of insecurity about the future of the nation, a nation increasingly described in the media and political discourse as “endangered” (en voie de disparition).

  8. 8.

    An ad paid by Québec’s first separatist political group, the Rassemblement pour l’indépendence nationale, published in Le Devoir on June 30 1961 argued: “In 1951 … Dahomey (pop. 1,700,000) was a colony, and French Canada was asking for bilingual checks [from the federal government]. In 1961…Dahomey is an independent Republic [of Benin] and French Canada is still asking for bilingual checks. The only solution: INDEPENDENCE.”

  9. 9.

    Québécois nationalism is often cited as a case of “internal colonialism” nationalism. See, for example, McRoberts (1979).

  10. 10.

    Whereas Francophones in Québec constitute approximately 80% of the population, they constitute only 10 to 14% of other Canadian provinces’ populations, hence their common designation as “Francophones outside Québec.” Québec has therefore also become, in the last four decades, the reference through which—and sometimes against which—French-speaking Canadians are defined and define themselves. Acadians constitute an exception to that “rule,” as their identity was already distinct from that of French Canadians because of their unique historical experience and the trauma of their massive deportation from Nova Scotia in the late eighteenth century. See Thériault (1994, 1999); and Langlois and Létourneau (2004).

  11. 11.

    A tableau-vivant, in this context, is a live scenographic depiction of a historical event or a scene of everyday life. Tableaux-vivants on floats involved actors and sometimes animals as well. They often comprised built structures (houses, rooms) and “natural” features (trees, gardens, waterfalls) (Figs. 4 and 5).

  12. 12.

    Although most of the Patriots and their leaders were French-speakers, the movement was not constituted on linguistic, cultural, or ethnic bases. There were prominent Englishmen among the Rebellion’s leaders and the arguments for secession were political; they were inspired by the ideals of the American and French Revolutions, to which the Patriots frequently referred in speeches, pamphlets, and ceremonial toasts at meetings and banquets. For a history of the Rebellions, see Bernard (1996) and Greer (1993); for an analysis of the movement and its ideology within the context of rising national movements of emancipation in the Americas and Europe, see Bellavance (2000, 2004) and Harvey (2005). On liberalism, nationalism, and anticlericalism more broadly, see Bernard (1971) and Sara-Bournet (Ed.) (2001).

  13. 13.

    On ideologies in French Canada, see Dumont (1971), Roy (1993), Lamonde (2000), Mann (1988). On French Canadian and Québécois nationalism, see Rioux and Martin (1971), Guindon (1988), Venne (ed) (2000), Sarra-Bournet (ed.). (2001), Chennells (2001), and Rousseau (2005).

  14. 14.

    The Christian use of the symbol of the lamb originates from the Hebrew tradition. To protect Jews from the 10th plague brought by God to the Egyptians, God told Moses to instruct them to sacrifice lambs and mark their doors with the animals’ blood so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” their house and save their firstborn sons from execution. Jesus celebrated his own “Last Supper” with his disciples on Passover and with his proposal of a new covenant positioned himself as the sacrifice, agnus Dei, the saving lamb of God. In the French Canadian narrative, the lamb further signified civilization through the progress of the Christian missions.

  15. 15.

    In the 19th century, the term “race” in French denotes what we today would call ethno-nationality.

  16. 16.

    The first verse is the official translation of the French original; the translation of the remaining three is my own. The lyrics are by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier and the music by Calixa Lavallée, a popular composer of the period. The religio-patriotic hymn was proclaimed Canada’s national anthem on July 1, 1980, 100 years after its creation. Until then Canada did not have a “national” anthem per se; “God Save the Queen” was its official anthem. There have been some 20 English versions of “O Canada” since its popularization in English Canada in the 20th century. The version on which the contemporary official English lyrics are based was written in 1908 by Mr. Justice Robert Stanley Weir on the occasion of Québec City’s 300th anniversary and was only slightly altered in 1968 by a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons: O Canada! Our home and native land!/True patriot love in all thy sons command/With glowing hearts we see thee rise/The True North, strong and free!/From far and wide, O Canada/We stand on guard for thee/God keep our land glorious and free! The original French lyrics (translated into English in the text above) remain unaltered. French and English-speaking Canadians therefore learn and sing very different national anthems. After the Quiet Revolution and the creation of a secular Québécois national identity, “O Canada” lost its resonance for many francophone Québécois. It is rejected by many who associate it with another nation, Canada, but also because it narrates the history and destiny of a now defunct national vision, that of French Canadians. It also underlined the collaboration between the Crown and the Church, two powers that were perceived as colonizing the people. Booing “O Canada” thus became a common form of protest in the 1960s and in the mid-1970s, with the rise of separatism. For earlier English versions of “O Canada” and a history of the anthem, see (accessed July 18, 2007). It is worthy of note that two other key symbols of the Canadiens—the maple leaf and the beaver—were abandoned following their adoption by English Canadians. They were replaced by the fleur de lys, which highlighted the cultural connection to, and continuity with, France, thereby retreating from an initial “Creole” national identity that had emphasized difference from the mother country (See Bizier and Paulette 1997, and Zubrzycki, “‘Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue’: The Cultural Politics of National Symbols in Québec and Canada.” Article in progress.)

  17. 17.

    All translations in the text are my own, unless otherwise noted.

  18. 18.

    The enforcement of that religious rule actually promoted the assimilation of some non-French-speaking Catholics to the French Canadian community, most notably the Irish who, despite speaking English, often assimilated with the French-Canadians in Québec.

  19. 19.

    From a speech delivered by Charles Thibault, a lawyer, at the 1884 Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations. The allocution became canonical, emblematic of clerical nationalism, and widely disseminated in pamphlet form, extracts of which were included in school textbooks throughout the first half of the 20th century. On ultra-montanism and clerical nationalism in Québec, see Eid (1978).

  20. 20.

    See the classic ethnographies of Miner (1939) Hughes (1943), which discuss the relationship between culture and economic life in French Canada.

  21. 21.

    See, for example, the following primary sources: Chouinard (1881, 1890), Lemay (1898), Dugré (1923), Morin (1924), Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste (1926), Sulte (1929), Asselin (1937), and analyses of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations and the SSJBM: Blain (1964), Mathieu (1969), Boisvert (1990), Guay (1973), Giguère (1975), Rumilly (1975), Reid (1980), Turcotte (1987).

  22. 22.

    The literature on parades is especially rich on the Irish case because of the continued relevance of parades in the affirmation of national identity in Northern Ireland and the violent conflicts those events both commemorate and often create (cf., Kenney 1991; Jarman 1997; Bryan 2000; Kirkland 2002; Ross 2007; Smithey 2011).

  23. 23.

    Abner Cohen (1993) calls this form of politics articulated in non-political cultural forms “masquerade politics.” Carnivals and parades fall under that category. Although I agree with Cohen that this cultural form is utterly political, I am uncomfortable with the term he chose to name such practices, as masquerade implies playfulness and carnival via its association with disguise and costumes, but also deception, as something masquerades or attempts to pass as something else.

  24. 24.

    Susan Davis (1986) describes the 1832 parade as a “colorful spectacle present[ing] a ceremonious image of the city’s social makeup,” divided into distinct divisions: “city leaders,” “military,” “masters and employees of several trades,” etc. She sees parades as an important, varied and popular mode of communication in 19th c. American cities.

  25. 25.

    From 1924 to 1966, the annual parades had themes related to French Canada: “French Canada Remains Faithful” (1939); “The Face of French Canada” (1956); or “The French Canadian Presence in the World” (1966). (Three parades also had themes highlighting the North American reach of the French Canadian mission: “What [North] America owes to the French Race” (1924); “[North] America’s French Groups” (1945); “The French Expansion in [North] America” (1949).) Before they were abolished in 1970, the last three parades explicitly and self-consciously shifted the reference to Québec: “Québec’s international vocation” (1967); “Québec ‘68” (1968); “Québec, My Love” (1969) (Fonds P81, Archives nationales du Québec à Montréal). This change in reference presents another index of the identity transformation that took place during the Quiet Revolution and of the role of the parades in that ideological and semantic shift.

  26. 26.

    The original quote opens with “Le peuple” which can mean both the nation and the masses/populace (i.e., “a” people and “the” people.) Dugré is playing on both significations here, as he is advocating national indoctrination, but arguing more specifically for the visual form this indoctrination should take given the “child-like” nature of the mostly illiterate populace [quoted from Fernand Dansereau’s 1973 essayistic documentary, La Parade].

  27. 27.

    Slightly like today’s greeting cards, prayer cards were offered to mark various occasions: first communions, graduations, weddings, one’s entry into the orders, retirement, and such significant life events. They were often offered as “get well” wishes, with specific saints addressing different ills or problems. Prayer cards were also obtained by individuals for their personal devotion to their namesake’s saint or as invocations to specific help, or as religious souvenirs from pilgrimage sites. They were small enough to be carried in one’s missal, wallet, or purse, and were sometimes signed by the person who offered them. As such, these devotional objects were important in daily life. On the import of visual and material culture in Christianity see Miles (1985) and McDannell (1995).

  28. 28.

    On the personification of ideologies, see Maurice Agulhon’s study of Marianne, the iconic representation of the French Republic (1981). Agulhon demonstrates what Father Dugré maintained, namely the power of pictorial discourses to substitute for abstract ones.

  29. 29.

    The first time the saint was represented as a child was in the 1851 procession (Guay 1973); the last time was in the 1963 parade.

  30. 30.

    One must distinguish here between 1) “mainstream” political actors, involved in the formation of the welfare state and the definition of a new national project during the Quiet Revolution—Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party and his bright star, René Lévesque, future prime minister of Québec; 2) other significant groups such as Pierre Bourgault’s Rassemblement pour l’indépendence nationale (RIN) (1960–68), who were neither directly involved in state affairs nor in the official opposition, but were influential outside regular political channels by shaping the debates in the public sphere and organizing protests and strikes; and 3) even more marginal groups like the Marxist Front de la libération populaire (FLP) and the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), which rocked the 1960s and early 1970s with violent protests, iconoclastic actions, and even terror. These last two groups should not be confused. The FLQ was created in 1963 from the radical elements of the RIN, who advocated—and resorted to—violence as a means to promote Québec’s sovereignty. It disintegrated with the arrest of several members following the so-called October Crisis, in 1970, when the group’s kidnapping of Québec’s Vice-Premier and a British diplomat led to the death of the former and the institution of the War Measures Act in Québec. The FLP was constituted by the remaining left wing of the RIN, from which it split in 1968. The remainder of members of the RIN joined René Lévesque’s newly created Parti Québécois a year later, in 1969.

  31. 31.

    The RIN also organized protests against institutions perceived as having colonial agendas during which protesters bleated loudly, a symbolic performance criticizing both the colonial regime and French Canadians supporting it.

  32. 32.

    Because the saint was portrayed in its child-like form, great emphasis was placed on his curls. A boy’s hair was a key criterion to be selected to represent the saint in the Montréal parade. In smaller communities, when a boy fitting that criterion could not be found, a girl often impersonated the saint. The representation of the saint as a child thus not only underlined the infantility of the nation, but also emasculated it for the child’s long locks made the saint’s gender unclear and his young age pointed to a still unformed sexual identity that did not project strength and purpose. These aspects were also partly at the source of the opposition against that particular representation of the patron saint, as evidenced by the RIN’s choice of a ram for its logo or by the Catholic Church’s “virilization” of the saint in sermons and new iconic depictions in the mid-1960s.

  33. 33.

    This was not the first time the specific configuration child/lamb was criticized and debated. Olivar Asselin, president of the SSJBM in 1913–1914, himself qualified this representation as “a sad and clownish spectacle” (1937 [1913], pp. 86–92). This critique, however, was articulated in the context of reigning clerical nationalism and as such did not—and could not—have the resonance and impact similar critiques had during the Quiet Revolution’s overall cultural and political transformations.

  34. 34.

    The transformation from child to adult in the annual parades was sudden and quite dramatic, but the transition in the representation of the saint was often more gradual in other visual venues, such as magazines, where he was sometimes portrayed as an adolescent, respecting the usual physiological and emotional stages of maturing.

  35. 35.

    Note the frequent reference to the arcadian theme dismissed in the new French Canada/Québec. Arcadia refers to a utopian vision of pastoralism and harmony with nature. The term originates from a mountainous region of Greece characterized by a sparse population of shepherds, and it developed into a poetic metaphor for idyllic wilderness. It is here used to refer to the idealized vision of rural French Canada and to the representation of the patron saint with his little lamb.

  36. 36.

    On the disjuncture between the events and their “live” television broadcast, see the documentary Les feux de la Saint-Jean.

  37. 37.

    It is worth noting that the float was overturned just as it passed the Ritz on Montréal’s west-side, the richer, anglophone side of town. Here were two symbols sharing space for a brief instant: One that had become, throughout the 1960s, associated with French Canadian servility and economic backwardness; the other synonymous with Anglophone wealth. Although it is impossible to determine the feelings of protestors at that moment—historical record has no mention of those—it is possible the juxtaposition of both symbols caused a surge of anger in protesters, who then destroyed the icon accused of legitimating and ultimately participating in the exploitation of those the Church claimed to represent.

  38. 38.

    “Images of Épinal” were popular 18th and 19th prints depicting religious tableaux or traditional scenes of everyday life. The name of this artistic genre comes from the city where they were first printed and popularized, Épinal (France). The expression “image d’Épinal” refers, in its figurative sense, to a traditional and naïvely positive portrayal of life. It is in that sense that the commentator cited above described the beheading of Saint Jean-Baptiste as “axing this Épinal image.”

  39. 39.

    The statue’s head was never found, but rumors circulated to the effect that it was passed from one group to another as a trophy of the “killing” (La Patrie June 29, 1969).

  40. 40.

    The charismatic René Lévesque quickly outshone Premier Jean Lesage and became the “poster boy” of the Quiet Revolution, having conducted one of most ambitious and important mandates of the revolution, the nationalization of electricity and the creation of Hydro-Québec.

  41. 41.

    The Ministry of Education was created in 1964. Its foundation was controversial for some since it took education away from the control of the Catholic Church (even though education remained confessional).

  42. 42.

    The term “energumen” has a theological origin and denotes a person possessed by an evil spirit. It has come to mean, in both French and English, a fanatic, wild enthusiast. While it is of rare usage in English, it is quite common in French.

  43. 43.

    Decree no. 1600-77, May 18, 1977. See Débats de l’Assemblée Nationale for a transcript of the parliamentary discussion on the nationalization of the holiday. For meeting minutes and drafts of the bill, consult Fonds E207, Archives nationales du Québec à Montréal. In a newspaper cartoon entitled “The canonization of Saint Jean-Baptiste!” René Lévesque dressed in a prophet’s robe is shown “canonizing” the saint/Holiday by nationalizing him with the words: “Jean, on this people and for this people I shall build a country.” Over John’s head is a fleur de lys halo. This is a clever play on Jesus telling Peter “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Matthew 16: 18). In French, Peter and rock are the same word [“Tu es Pierre, et sur cette pierre tu bâtiras mon Eglise]; here John (Jean) and people (gens) sound identical. It is the secularization/nationalization of the Holiday that makes it holy, implied by the fleur de lys halo over Jean-Baptiste’s head. Source: Fonds P575, Archives nationales du Québec à Montréal

  44. 44.

    With the exception of a single reference that appeared only recently (Chartier and Vaudry 2007). While that history is no longer completely repressed, it does not figure prominently. On Québec’s official tourism website, “Bonjour Québec,” one can read the following blurb on the history of the National Holiday: “Cette fête trouve son origine dans la coutume de plusieurs pays de célébrer le solstice d'été par des feux de joie s'accompagnant généralement de danses populaires. Le 24 juin est officiellement devenu ‘Fête nationale du Québec’ en 1977. Spectacles et feux de joie ont lieu dans plusieurs municipalités. Le Mouvement national des Québécoises et des Québécois en est le coordonnateur national depuis 1984” ( Retrieved May 30, 2008.)

  45. 45.

    Based on ethnographic evidence collected through participant observation in Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations in 2007, 2008, and 2009. On selective memory and the invention of tradition in 1970’s Québec, see Handler (1988).

  46. 46.

    Mona Ozouf (1988) argued that festivals in revolutionary France were designed to operate a transference of sacrality, because a society must sacralize the very deed of its institution, of its creation. Yet the post-1969 instantiation of la fête nationale does not attempt to do accomplish that, perhaps because “Québec” was socially, but not politically, instituted in 1969.


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Research for this article was generously funded by grants from the University of Michigan’s Office of the Vice-President for Research, the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School, and the American Sociological Association’s Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline. I am grateful to Maxime Morin for his research assistance and to several archivists who went out of their way to help me make the most of my research stay in the summer of 2007: Estelle Brisson (Archives nationales du Québec à Montréal), André Ruest (Archives nationales du Québec à Québec), Marie-Paule Robitaille (Musée de l’Amérique française), and François Dumas (Centre de recherche Lionel-Groulx). I am especially thankful also to the Mouvement national des Québécoises et des Québécois’s executive director, Gilles Grondin, for granting me special access to the organization’s archives at the Archives nationales du Québec à Montréal (Fonds P161). Thanks also to my friends, students, and colleagues for their constructive criticism and helpful suggestions: Barbara Anderson, Elizabeth Armstrong, Courtney Bender, Gérard Bouchard, Denys Delâge, Geoff Eley, Rob Jansen, Paul Johnson, Vic Johnson, Peter Hall, Michael Kennedy, Howard Kimeldorf, Greta Krippner, Michèle Lamont, Camilo Leslie, Jeff Lesser, Sandy Levitsky, Paul Lichterman, Bill Sewell, Philip Smith, Kiyo Tsutsui, members of the Anthro-History program at the University of Michigan, participants at the symposium “The Nines: Brinks, Cusps, and Perceptions of Possibility—from 1789 to 2009” at the University of Michigan in 2009, members of Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology in Fall 2011, and members of the Successful Societies Program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. A final word of gratitude is due to Theory and Society’s reviewers and Editors, whose comments greatly improved the final version of this article.

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Correspondence to Geneviève Zubrzycki.



Archives visited and primary sources consulted

Archives nationales du Québec (in Montréal)

  • Fonds P82, archives of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal

  • Fonds E207, archives of the Comité organisateur de la Fête Nationale du Québec

  • Fonds P161, archives of the Mouvement national des Québécois

  • Fonds P575, archives of Phaneuf, cartoonist.

Archives nationales du Québec (in Québec City)

  • P769, S2

  • P858 Fonds Gilles Grégoire

  • Division des archives photographiques

  • Films of parades from the 1930s–1970s

  • Films of celebrations 1980s–1990s

Centre de recherche Lionel-Groulx (in Montréal)

  • Fonds François-Albert Angers P63/A1,31

Musée de la civilisation (in Québec City)

  • Prayer cards, paintings, parade floats.

Musée de l’Amérique française (in Québec City)

  • Vestments, flags, icons, devotional objects.

  • Collection Gaston Fiset-aquarelles of 58 floats for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste parades, 1950–1968

  • Collection Philippe-Lachance: Artifacts of popular devotion—pious images, prayers cards, medals, and rosaries

  • Collection des Zouaves pontificaux de Québec

Archives de Radio-Canada (in Montréal)

  • televised parades of 1968 and 1969

Archives de folklore de l’Université Laval

  • Religio-patriotic iconography

  • photographs of floats

Archives photographiques Notman, Musée McCord

(available on the web

Maine Historical Society

(available on the web


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Zubrzycki, G. Aesthetic revolt and the remaking of national identity in Québec, 1960–1969. Theor Soc 42, 423–475 (2013).

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  • Nationalism
  • Visual culture
  • Material culture
  • Historical transformations
  • Secularization
  • Québec