FRENCH BRED

Stan­ley Ste­wart muses on the Gal­lic con­nec­tions of Que­bec and Mon­treal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada & Alaska -

ON the heights of Que­bec, an over­sized Amer­i­can cou­ple ask me to take their pho­to­graph. Their in­struc­tions about the back­ground are quite de­tailed. They want the mon­u­ment to Gen­eral James Wolfe, reg­u­larly blown up by Que­bec sep­a­ratists. They want the St Lawrence River. They want the walls of the ci­tadel and the cop­per roof of the Chateau Fron­tenac.

I dan­gle from a lamp­post to get it all in. ‘‘ This city is an anachro­nism,’’ Mavis con­fides, tak­ing back her cam­era. ‘‘ The whole coun­try is an anachro­nism.’’ ‘‘ How do you mean?’’ I ask. ‘‘ You know. The Bri­tish thing. Th­ese are French peo­ple,’’ she ex­plains.

And so I tell them the story of the wash­er­woman who was re­spon­si­ble for the fate of Bri­tish North Amer­ica. They leave shak­ing their heads.

Canada has al­ways seemed a slightly un­con­vinc­ing idea. It was never go­ing to be easy to get the English and the French to­gether inside a sin­gle na­tion.

Con­fed­er­a­tion sounds sus­pi­ciously like cabin fever, an idea brought on by a mil­lion square miles of trees. It is prob­a­bly worth not­ing that John Macdon­ald, the first prime min­is­ter, was an al­co­holic who suf­fered from delu­sions.

It does not add to the grav­i­tas of the na­tional dream to learn, as I did in grade five in an Angli­can town in On­tario, that the con­quest of Que­bec, and thus the whole bi­cul­tural ex­per­i­ment, came down to a ques­tion of pink sheets. I have come to Que­bec City to check out the po­si­tion of the laun­dry line to which Canada owes its be­ing.

Que­bec City is North Amer­ica’s brush with con­ti­nen­tal glam­our. In the ho­moge­nous stew of the New World, Que­bec is dis­tinc­tive, its dif­fer­ences en­riched with age. Wrapped within 17th-cen­tury walls, Que­bec City was founded in 1608, 60 years be­fore New York was New York, 200 years be­fore Chicago was any­thing more than three leaky tents. It has all the ac­cou­trements of a Euro­pean city: cob­bled streets, gra­cious parks, ter­race cafes, a so­phis­ti­cated cul­tural life and di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal is­sues.

Chief among the last is sep­a­ratism. For the past 30 years it has dom­i­nated the pro­vin­cial po­lit­i­cal agenda. With the slimmest of mar­gins in a se­ries of ref­er­en­dums, Que­be­cois have only just opted to re­main in Canada. While English Canada trum­pets bi­cul­tur­al­ism, French Canada re­mains trou­bled and di­vided about the mat­ter, re­mem­ber­ing that it be­gan as a shot­gun wed­ding.

It was Wolfe who wielded the gun. In early Septem­ber 1759, he was en­camped with Bri­tish forces on the Ile d’Or­leans, a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres down­stream from the heights of Que­bec. Their mis­sion was to dis­lodge the French from the city and thus from North Amer­ica. Wolfe was keen to be home by Christ­mas. He missed his mother, his dogs and his fi­ancee, in that or­der.

I fol­low Wolfe’s trail to Ste-Petron­ille where he pitched his camp. To­day it is a vil­lage of gra­cious white­washed houses with wide porches of wicker arm­chairs and swings be­neath the maple trees in the yard. It in­hab­its some time­less world of eter­nal sum­mer. I dine at La Goeliche, an old inn over­look­ing the river. What­ever the out­come of the bat­tle for Que­bec, the French clearly won the culi­nary war. Din­ner at La Goeliche is divine: raw scal­lops dressed in lime juice and bal­samic vine­gar, and rolled chicken breast with fresh tagli­atelle cooked in squid’s ink.

Rather less well pro­vi­sioned, Wolfe spent two months here mulling over his op­tions. In the opin­ion of Gen­eral LouisJoseph de Mont­calm, his French op­po­nent, he didn’t have any. ‘‘ We need not sup­pose,’’ Mont­calm wrote home, con­fi­dent about the im­preg­nabil­ity of Que­bec’s ver­tig­i­nous po­si­tion, ‘‘ that the en­emy have wings.’’

They didn’t have the fu­nic­u­lar, ei­ther, which car­ries me up the cliff from the cob­bled streets of lower Que­bec to the feet of the mag­nif­i­cent Chateau Fron­tenac, surely the world’s most pho­tographed ho­tel. From the wide board­walk, I watch rafts of sun­light float down­river from up­per Canada. A long wooden stair­case brings me to the Plains of Abra­ham where Wolfe and Mont­calm met and died.

I meet both at the in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre, a splen­did his­tor­i­cal ex­hibit known as Odyssey. The au­dio­vi­sual pre­sen­ta­tions in­clude the two gen­er­als in vir­tual re­al­ity, hov­er­ing, trans­par­ent as ghosts, as they ex­plain their po­si­tions. This be­ing his­tory writ­ten by the de­feated, the Bri­tish do not come off well. There is no men­tion of the wash­er­woman. It ap­pears his­tory has dis­missed her as hearsay. It is up to me to keep her flame alive.

The Bri­tish may not have had wings but they had sharp eyes. Wolfe’s scouts no­ticed a wo­man early one morn­ing wash­ing pink sheets in the river be­neath the cliffs of Que­bec. An hour later, pink sheets were hang­ing to dry at the top. Clearly there was a path up that for­mi­da­ble cliff face.

Un­der cover of dark­ness, Wolfe landed his troops and lo­cated the cliff path. At first light, they were wait­ing on the Plains of Abra­ham be­fore the walled city. The bat­tle did not last long: 30 min­utes if you read the French ac­counts, 15 if you be­lieve the Bri­tish. It may have been short but it was fe­ro­cious. Both Mont­calm and Wolfe died of wounds sus­tained in the fight­ing. By mid­morn­ing, French author­ity in North Amer­ica had ended. Wolfe was pick­led in a whisky bar­rel, from which sailors took re­spect­ful nips, and shipped back to Eng­land. He was home by Christ­mas.

I take the Chemin du Roi, the old King’s High­way, along the north bank of the St Lawrence to Mon­treal.

Que­bec City may be the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal but Mon­treal has al­ways been the prov­ince’s eco­nomic, cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual heart.

Mon­treal is fre­quently de­scribed as the largest French-speak­ing city in the world af­ter Paris. But this rather misses the point. While Que­bec City is Fran­co­phone, Mon­treal is bilin­gual and mul­ti­cul­tural, the only city in Canada to live the Cana­dian dream. Peo­ple slip from English to French here in mid-phrase, de­pend­ing what they need to say.

Ar­chi­tec­turally the city has el­e­ments of Lon­don and Paris, of New York and Chicago, and reg­u­larly stands in for all four in nu­mer­ous film pro­duc­tions.

Per­haps most ap­peal­ing is its sense of ca­ma­raderie. This is a city whose many selves not only get on with one an­other but en­joy one an­other. It is where Canada be­gins to work.

Up in West­mount there is a fa­mous house, pointed out by ev­ery guide, that has been cut in two. The cou­ple di­vorced and, to keep mat­ters sim­ple, they di­vided the fam­ily home.

Canada may well go the same way. There will be other ref­er­en­dums on whether the prov­ince should stay in Canada and no one wants to call the out­come. As usual Que­bec City will vote for sep­a­ra­tion, re­claim­ing the au­ton­omy it lost on the Plains of Abra­ham more than 200 years ago. Mon­treal will vote to re­main in Canada. It is too big a place to be trou­bled by nar­row na­tion­al­ism.

Check­list

Que­bec will cel­e­brate its 400th an­niver­sary next year with a range of spe­cial events and dis­counts. A Que­bec City mu­seum card costs $C40 ($44) and in­cludes ad­mis­sion to 24 at­trac­tions for three con­sec­u­tive days, two one-day passes of free lo­cal buses and dis­counts at tourist at­trac­tions. More: www.museo­cap­i­tale.qc.ca. www.myque­bec2008.com www.que­be­cre­gion.com www.tourisme-mon­treal.org www.canada.travel

Head and heart: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Mon­treal awash with au­tumn colours; mu­ral on a Que­bec City build­ing; shop­pers in Que­bec City’s Petit Cham­plain quar­ter; mu­ral in Mon­treal’s bo­hemian Plateau Mont-Royal neigh­bour­hood

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