“Je me souviens”: A License Plate Story

Back in the Good Old Days of the United States of America, when men were men and cars were chrome, the license plate was a plain number on a piece of plain steel. It identified the car and showed that the owner was entitled to drive it. A simple, elegant system.

Which meant that it had no chance of surviving into the modern era.

These days, license plates have become advertising placards, selling the state and seventeen of the causes dear enough to the state’s voters to pass the latest feel-good referendum. The license plates in some states are so busy selling beaches or saving wildlife that it’s hard to see the number which is supposedly the main reason for the plate’s existence.

Except in New Hampshire. Which has taken considerable abuse over the years for keeping on its license plates, not sales pitches to tourists, but the state motto. A quotation from the days of the American Revolutionary War:

Live Free or Die

There’s another place in North America where the license plates carry a political slogan instead of an advertising campaign. Ironically, it shares a border with New Hampshire – an international border, one that had been a courtesy but threatens to turn into a barricade. The place is the Canadian province of Québec, and instead of a smoochy come-on, its license plate bears the words:

Je me souviens

Yes you do. You know what a souvenir is, and why you buy one. Souvenir in French is the verb “to remember”; Je me souviens, “I remember” – or, in certain contexts, “I will remember”.

The Quebecer remembers the ties to France. Ties that the conquering British in the latter part of the 18th century attempted to suppress, often brutally. Forcing the French of eastern Canada into serfdom – or migration, as with the Acadians, who were yanked from the seacoast villages of Nova Scotia and wound up in the bayous of Louisiana.

The Quebecer remembers the history that makes Québec the most restless province of Canada. One that has, more than once in the last few decades, come within a few thousand votes of declaring its independence. One whose politicians, back in the 1990s, sometimes proclaimed that they had closer ties to the United States than to Canada, and might do well to petition the US for statehood …

In Harry Turtledove’s alternative-history novel The Great War: American Front, the United States of Theodore Roosevelt, allied with Germany, has invaded Canada at several points, including Québec, at the onset of global hostilities in 1914. The Yankees, sore at losing two wars to the British-backed Confederate States of America, are ugly occupiers, robbing farms at gunpoint and reducing the noncombatant civilian population to cruel hardship, if not to starvation. The response of farmer Lucien Galtier: Je me souviens. His remembrance, however, remains passive. Other Canadians, like Arthur McGregor, remember U.S. atrocities with bombs.

Harry Turtledove could have been writing about the army responsible for Abu Ghraib. If The Great War: American Front hadn’t been published in 1998, five years before the Iraq invasion. And, in Galtier and especially McGregor, he could have been writing about men and women in an occupied nation who see in the Stars and Stripes only humiliation accompanied by squalor and starvation, for all but the corrupt collaborators. Men and women who remember their humiliation to the point of strapping gelignite to their bellies and setting it off, in the hope that they might take a few of the oppressors with them. That they might, by sacrificing themselves, redeem their nation, their way of life.

That they might live free or die.

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. Better say it to Canada Gov. that supports Bush!
    By the way, is it true that Canada, U.K., and — are all in a sort of Common Wealth?

    As you say Dear, people will remember. And I tell you that not only «je me souviens», but «je me souvinedrai»!

  2. Thank you for your informative explanation for the history. I didn’t know the story behind “Je me souviens” until reading your blog. I’ll remember it.

  3. Its like you read my mind! You appear to understand so much about this, such as you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you simply could do with a few percent
    to drive the message house a little bit, but instead of that, that is magnificent blog.

    An excellent read. I will definitely be back.

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