Banging the drum for the Les Fetes de la Nouvelle France parade. The festival has only been celebrated since 1997 but it has become an important unifier of Québécoise culture.
Quebec – Long Read

Staying French in North America

Photo by David Sanger

Quebec – Long Read Staying French in North America

Hello Quebec, or should that be "Bonjour"? With its large French-speaking population, the province is distinct from the rest of Canada and its strong European feel also sets it apart from the rest of North America. From the croissants for breakfast in Quebec City, to Montreal's Cirque du Soleil, the French influence is inescapable.

Graeme Green
Graeme Green Travel Writer

“Are you not tired of dying, you bunch of morons?” This controversial line from poet Claude Péloquin was carved into the concrete wall of the Grand Théâtre de Québec by artist Jordi Bonet in 1971. He created three walls, dedicated to Liberty, Space and Death, with figures emerging from the concrete. “It was an address to French-Canadians to say ‘Wake up, fight for your language, your culture’,” says Natalie Portas, who manages the theatre. Half a century is a lifetime in politics and tensions in Canada were much higher back then, with talk of secession for Quebec. Things are now calmer, but the central question here remains the same: how to keep French culture alive and strong in this corner of North America?

To walk through Quebec City is to have a sense of déjà vu with sights such as the L’Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Steps) that link the Upper and Lower Town reminding me of Montmartre in Paris. There is an abundance of churches and museums, shop signs in French, and restaurants and bistros that spill out onto the pavement in European style. With the only remaining city walls in North America, Old Quebec is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Parliament Building is inspired by the Louvre in Paris and furnished with a recently imported French fountain. An annual Culture Day, begun in Quebec, is starting to stretch out across the country. There are statues, installations and public art projects across the city, part of the deal whenever someone completes a new building. Dominated by the impressive Chateau Frontenac, often described as the most-photographed hotel in the world, the city has such a European feel that it has stood in for France in movies such as Catch Me If You Can.

French is the language I hear on the streets, and see on the currency, and it is no surprise to find that around 98 per cent of the population are French, or of French ancestry. The province’s blue and white fleur-de-lis flag, displayed more than the Canadian Maple Leaf, is another sign of its roots. “The Grand Théâtre de Quebec and other arts centres have been central to keeping the French-Canadian culture alive,” Natalie tells me. However, Bernard Crustin, a local historian, tells me only 30 per cent of people in Quebec province are hardcore separatists. “The majority don’t have strong feelings,” he says. “When things aren’t going well economically, there tends to be more call for separating, but when everything’s good, less so.” And the number of separatists is getting smaller as the population of Quebec is growing, but the French-Canadian population isn’t.

Explorers, politicians and religious figures from the past

Walking the cobbled streets, I see statues of Champlain, founder of Quebec, and other key figures in the history of New France, the colony founded in 1535 that once stretched from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico. On the side of a building on Côte de la Montagne is the giant painted mural, Fresque des Québécois, which brings together explorers, politicians and religious figures from the past with popular modern personalities, such as hockey players.

I drive out of the walled city, passing the converted fire station that internationally famous playwright and multi-media artist Robert Lepage uses as a studio. On the edge of the Saint Roch district, I stop the car and Bernard leads me under the motorway. He points out the concrete supports, painted with creative, colourful graffiti designs, under which Cirque du Soleil stage a show every year.

Close by is Côte d’Abraham, a street of galleries and artists’ studios, some of them open to visitors. In one, I see a film, the camera moving over a miniature model of the countryside with a rumbling soundtrack, meant to look like a natural disaster. Another has a sampler and headphones for visitors to create a music remix based around recorded phrases said by Québécois politicians. There are galleries of nature photographs and photo collages of dancing women.

In an upstairs gallery, I meet Frédérique Laliberté and Boris Dumesnil, both part of Avatar, a group of artists who use audio and electronics in novel installations. In the studio, microphones are connected to lights, to a remote control car, to a piano. Talking through the microphone, I can play the piano, move the car, or make colored lights shine in the corner. The louder I talk, the brighter the lights become. One past Avatar piece had people write a sentence, with each letter corresponding with a note on the piano so they could hear their sentence played. “The artistic community in Quebec City is very dynamic,” says Frédérique. “It’s small and concentrated and very close knit. There’s a lot of collaboration.”

Quebec is a great place to try things

Because the city is so small, it’s easier to establish yourself and make a name here than in Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city after Toronto, she tells me. “Quebec is a great place to try things, to experiment, to begin,” she says. Some artists, film-makers and musicians start here, then make the move. Montreal’s appeal makes it much more diverse.

“Quebec City is quite white, Caucasian, French-speaking,” says Boris. “It’s something it has to work on: the diversity. But sometimes people speaking English in Quebec is seen as a threat to the culture.”

Bernard and I make our way back across the historic city and back towards the Fine Arts museum. There is a garden he wants to show me, Jardin Jeanne d’Arc. A statue of the Maid of Orleans is at the centre but the style of the garden itself is quite English. “Joan of Arc, a very French symbol, surrounded by an English garden, so everyone is happy,” he says, smiling.

We 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 -10C 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.

One of the world’s great waterways

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.

We’re North Americans who speak French

Both the French and the English made Montreal. Jean Francois points to French and English monuments and statues around the historic centre that face off against each other. He says it is a comment on the duality of the city. There are separate institutions such as hospitals or universities that are predominantly English- or French-speaking (though always bilingual). There are boulangeries, charcuteries, patisseries, fromageries and French-style bistros. But, standing outside the grand Basilica Notre-Dame, next to a statue of Montreal’s French founder Maisonneuve, he tells me people in Quebec don’t call themselves “French”. “We never say that,” he says. “We’re North Americans who speak French. We refer to ourselves as ‘Francophone’ or ‘Anglophone’, but not ‘French’ or ‘English’. If you ask someone from Quebec: ‘Do you feel Canadian, American, or Québécois?’ they usually say they feel most connected to the Quebec region, more than the country or continent.”

The province of Quebec is culturally distinct, with a live and let live attitude that is more progressive and liberal than the rest of Canada. It is more secular, more tolerant (towards homosexuality, for example) and fewer people get married here (around 25 per cent, Jean Francois suggests). There is even a civil code that, by law, women cannot take on the surname of their partner when marrying – even if they married outside Quebec. Considered a breakthrough by feminists in 1981, when the law was passed, it is now criticized by those women who wish to take their husband’s name – not to mention that of their children.

The separate language and culture leads to talk of secession, of Quebec becoming an independent nation. Several times, I hear local people use the term ‘national’ for matters involving Quebec province. The same issues arise here as in Scotland and Catalonia, a mix of nationalism and also economics, a question of whether Quebec would be better or worse off as an independent country. The current government is pro-secession, but Jean-Francois says support is split; referendums tend to waver around 50/50. Secession, he says, is unlikely to ever happen. Politicians and the media might talk about secession, but most people are happy with the status quo, although the two sides might tease each other.

“There’s sometimes a little tension. But Montreal is a great example of cohabitation,” says Jean-Francois. “People work together, get married… The presence of the two is very important. In art, culture, architecture and food, we have the best of both worlds.”

The lines between the French and English are blurred

At a laidback French-style restaurant, L’Express, across in the fashionable Plateau Mont-Royal district, I meet Hugo Leclerc, who works in tourism. “The lines between the French and English are blurred,” he tells me. “It’s not like my parents’ generation had the French on one side and the English on the other.”

The food and wine here is, characteristically, great. As we eat, Hugo suggests Montreal’s culture is a match for the gastronomy for which the city’s better known. In fact, Montreal tends to punch above its weight, with an internationally renowned Jazz Festival, the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, and the Montreal Film Festival. Cirque du Soleil come from Montreal and also put on an annual show here, down by the Old Port. The city has an internationally respected roster of bands and singers such as Godspeed You Black Emperor, Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen and Rufus Wainwright. It has also given the world Celine Dion, of course.

There is an abundance of museums and galleries across the city but the vibrant art scenes stem from a mix of cultures that includes many others than just French and English. “For around a third of the population here, neither English or French are their first language,” says Hugo. “There are so many different influences: Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Jewish, African, Vietnamese…”

Montreal is famed for its Underground City that allows residents to escape winter lows of -10C, usually made even colder by wind chill, in a maze of inter-connected passages that will take them from home to work and back via the mall or a gym without ever going outside. That has left its street scene neglected but I see signs this is changing in the Quartier des Spectacles – a square kilometre district that brings together more than 30 arts and entertainment venues. I walk there at night, passing a street filled with red- and white-lit fountains. The arts venues are marked out by red lights that shine on the pavements outside, a nod to the area’s past as a Red Light district. There are still several sex shops and strip clubs.

In the hallways of the central Place Des Arts, I see an art installation. Three boxy little sheds each contain a real, live man going about his daily business, visible through the glass window. Two of them sit working at laptops, while the third lies on a bed and twangs a banjo. I go upstairs at the nearby SAT (Société des Arts Technologiques) building and drink a locally brewed beer among the young arty crowd before stepping into a white dome. The small crowd lies down to watch psychedelic space-inspired projections on the dome’s walls and roof, accompanied by a DJ soundtrack.

That’s the French or European influence

Another night, I walk past the modern skyscrapers of Downtown to find Upstairs, one of the city’s respected jazz venues, with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald record sleeves on the walls. The Jim Doxas Trio of sax, double bass and, at the heart of the band, drummer Jim Doxas, improvise impressive, energetic music. Between sets, I talk to Jim at the bar. Even on a Monday night, the venue is packed. “People go out a lot and are happy to stay out late,” he says. “They might go to dinner at 10pm. That’s the French or European influence. People in their 20s often go to a jazz club, rather than a pub or a sports bar. There’s always been a strong jazz scene here.”

The government funds and supports a lot of the city’s arts, he says, one reason why Montreal has such a lively culture. There are cheap rents in some areas, too, also attractive to artists. But it is the mix of cultures that really make it. “The cultural diversity of Montreal means we have great food, great art. There’s a big mix of people playing in Bulgarian bands, African bands, rock bands,” he says. He often plays with local musicians from diverse backgrounds or different genres. He is friends with members of Arcade Fire who are active on the Montreal scene. “There’s a big avant-garde scene,” he says. “There are orchestras, choirs, a lot of creative people. It’s contagious.”

Jim’s mother is English, his father is American. He is firmly in the camp who want Quebec to remain part of North America. “All this stuff about wanting to be separate is bullshit. A lot is just politicians and newspapers. It’s talked about a lot. It’s been going on for 40 years.” But he is also clear that Quebec’s difference from the rest of North America is what makes it so special.

“It’s unique. A lot of the arguments, for example, to have all the road signs in French, are just. It’s to defend the culture. That Francophone culture is very bohemian. If we lose that French culture, we’ll lose a lot. We’ll lose our vibrancy.”

Other stories about Quebec