After a visit to the Jardin Jeanne d’Arc in Quebec City, local historian Bernard Crustin and I step out of the garden onto a path that runs alongside a large open expanse of green fields known as Battlefield Park.
In winter, when temperatures can drop to -10 C or below, it transforms into a cross-crountry ski playground. This is the Plains of Abraham, famed as the site of a decisive battle in 1759 in which the English under General James Wolfe defeated the French to take control of the region, with the fall of Montreal following a year later. The death of Wolfe at the moment of victory may have marked the birth of modern Ango-French Canada – French-Canadians still call their surrender in 1760 “La Conquête” (The Conquest) – but history here has shown that the cradle and culture are mightier than the sword.
The battlefield overlooks the wide Saint Lawrence River, beside which Quebec City was founded in 1608 as the first French settlement in North Amerca. Linking the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean, it is one of the world’s great waterways and first drew French explorers into the interior of the new continent in a search for a trade route onward to Asia. The Lachine Rapids stopped their progress, so they settled in 1642 to build a trading center that went on to grow into Montreal. At Pointe-à-Callière, next to the Old Port of Montreal, a museum tells their story and preserves the remains of these first French settlements.
They brought their Catholic religion and took away vast wealth from the fur trade. Great efforts were made to establish and maintain the region as solidly French. Sylvie, a historian at Pointe-à-Callière, tells me about Les Filles du Roy (the King’s Daughters), a programme in the 1660s and 1670s which took its name from the patronage of French King Louis XIV. Eight hundred young French women were sent to “New France” to marry, have children and populate the area.
“There was a popular belief that the King’s daughters were prostitutes,” says Sylvie, obviously frustrated with the staying power of the myth. “But they were looking for healthy girls to have babies, so they would never have sent prostitutes. They needed high fertility levels. They would have been women who lived in orphanages or hospitals, who had the choice of becoming a nun or coming here.” The women had their pick of the men, but there was pressure to marry quickly, usually within two weeks of arrival. Many of Montreal’s current residents are descendants of the King’s Daughters.
This kind of “strength in numbers” thinking endured. I meet Jean-Francois, a local French-Canadian, on a walk through the peaceful cobbled streets of Old Montreal. In the 1900s, he tells me, the influential Catholic church encouraged couples in the region to have big families, as many as 12, 14 or 16 children, to help boost the French population. This was known as “the revenge of the cradle”.
It seems to have done the trick. Road signs in both Montreal and Quebec City are written in French, and 85 per cent of TV programmes are Quebec-made. The majority of people are bi-lingual but, when you meet someone, it is polite to try French first.
The Plains of Abraham Museum in Quebec City features a multi-media exhibition about the siege of Québec and the 1759 and 1760 battles of the Plains of Abraham. Other displays feature the history of the site through archaeological artifacts found in the park.
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