The song “Notre Place,” with music by François Dubéand lyrics by Paul Demers, will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame at the Gala Trille Or on Sept. 9, 2023, in Ottawa.
Let’s recall the historical context in which this important song was created. In 1986, Bill 8, which guarantees the public’s right to receive services in French from government departments and agencies in 26 designated regions of Ontario, was introduced by the then-Minister of Francophone Affairs, Bernard Grandmaître. The Act came into power Nov. 19, 1989; to celebrate, a Grand Gala was organized at Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre by the Fondation franco-ontarienne and TVOntario’s Chaîne française, which later became TFO. For the occasion, event producer Hélène Fournier asked pianist and composer François Dubé to create a musical theme, like those heard at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
“I told her that since we were celebrating the French language, it would be appropriate to have lyrics as well, and not just music,” says Dubé. “Ultimately, I convinced her to let me present her with a song, and she could decide.“
Dubé, who had previously worked with Paul Demers on galas and TV shows, contacted his friend to write the song with him. Demers, then recovering from a cancer diagnosis, agreed to do it. It was too good an opportunity to turn down, he thought. Writing and performing a song to showcase Franco-Ontarian vitality would provide a great return to the stage after many months of inactivity. Demers was inspired by two lines from poet Jean-Marc Dalpé’s “Gens d’ici” and “Les murs de nos villages”: “Notre langue, on l’avait dans nos poches, nos poches avaient des trous. ”
Demers went to Dubé’s home, they sat down at the piano in the basement studio, and the latter played a few bars he’d composed. He said he wanted their work to be as powerful as “We Are the World,” the song recorded by a group of American stars in 1985 to counter famine in Africa. Says Dubé, “Paul turned to me and said that, while I was playing, the words ‘Il faut prendre notre place’ kept coming into his head. I told him to get off his butt and come back to me with some potential lyrics; a few days later, he phoned me to say he had something.”
By their second creative session, the men felt as if they’d been struck by a bolt of lightning: in just over an hour, a first draft of the song was completed. “We were laughing with joy,” says Dubé. “The creative fountain was flowing inside us! Some songs take months to write; for this one, it seemed like minutes!” In the days that followed, Dubé sent the piece to the producer of the Grand Gala, who relented: it would be this song ,and not an instrumental piece, that would be played onstage.
Dubé and Demers met one last time to finalize what would become “Notre Place.” On the evening of the Gala, some 1,000 people were in attendance. Demers, accompanied by Dubé on piano, as well as Robert Paquette and the group Hart-Rouge for backing vocals, performed the song. At the post-show reception, the creative duo was mobbed by admiring dignitaries: “Notre Place” needed to be recorded so that as many people as possible could hear it! “It was all the rage! That night, Paul and I had the feeling that the song would be a hit. We weren’t wrong…” Demers then recorded the song in the studio, with Dubé on piano. And the rest is history…
In the following months, the songwriters were called by many school administrators wanting to use the song for student concerts, end-of-year parties, or ceremonies of sorts. In no time at all, like a tidal wave, the song became the unofficial anthem of every Francophone school in Ontario. Some went as far as to have their students sing it every morning, like a national anthem, broadcast over the school’s loudspeakers.
“Paul and I were touched by it all,” says Dubé. “The fact that we were able to give young Franco-Ontarians a wonderful tool for asserting themselves, defending their language and who they are, filled us with pride.” A pride that young people also feel when they sing it. “Notre Place” celebrates not just Bill 8 but the entire French community in Ontario.
In 1997, “Notre Place” became the rallying song of the S.O.S. Montfort movement in its fight to save Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital, the only French-language-speaking hospital in Ontario. In September 2016, 17 years after the song was written, a French-language elementary school in Orleans, named École élémentaire catholique Notre-Place, opened. In March 2017, only a few months after Demers’ death, “Notre Place” became the Franco-Ontarian national anthem following a motion put forward by Glengarry-Prescott-Russel MPP Grant Crack. It was unanimously adopted by the MPPs in the presence of Paul Demers’ widow, Sylvie Chalifoux-Demers, and Dubé. Finally, in 2018, a monument to the French-speaking world called “Notre Place” was unveiled at Queen’s Park in Toronto, in front of the Ontario Legislative Assembly.
“Beyond the significance of this song for Franco-Ontarians, it also has a special meaning for me,” says Dubé. “When Paul arrived at my home for our first working session, he told me how timely my call was. He was going through a difficult time with his illness. Writing this song gave him renewed life and hope. Through me, it’s as if the universe had sent Paul a message: you still have great things to accomplish, old chap.“
Pour ne plus avoir notre langue dans nos poches
Je vais chanter, je vais chanter
Ah! Que tu viennes de Pointe-aux-Roches ou d’Orléans
Ah! Je vais chanter, je vais chanter
Pour mettre les accents là où il le faut
Faut se lever, il faut célébrer
Aujourd’hui pour demain
Pour un avenir meilleur
Donnons-nous la main
Ça vient du fond du cœur