Stanley Stewart muses on the Gallic connections of Quebec and Montreal
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.
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