O Canada, au Québec
by Nathaniel Hunt, French and Russian:-
If you reduce all that Canada is into two adjectives, it is unfathomably big and unquestionably beautiful. Flying into Montreal from the UK in late June, both of these truths became evidently clear from my viewpoint thirty thousand feet up. While the entirety of the British Isles had passed like a blur, for what seemed like hours our trajectory traced the blue sliver of the Saint Lawrence river far below, peppered with the white sails of yachts plying its waters and framed by the majestic Laurentides as far as the horizon. A month later and my admiration for this country, with its myriad of lakes and peaks, unabated nature, and buzzing metropoleis, has only grown more and more.
But I am not in Canada.
On a farm in the tree-covered foothills of the Laurentian mountains, half-way between Montréal and the ski resort of Mont-Tremblant, and firmly in Francophone territory, I declared to Juliette, a girl I was working with that I had fallen in love with Canada. As far as I was aware, I had. Yet instead of the expected smile and nod of agreement over what I considered an infallible truth, she stopped and stared at me in disbelief. “But its not Canada that you’re falling in love with, its Québec.”
Before crossing the Atlantic, I knew that the relationship between Québec and the rest of Canada was somewhat complicated. Canada is a bilingual country, but the only province with a majority population of native French speakers is Québec. This linguistic rift alone is sufficient to create a division between the two communities. Most Québécois can trace their family line back three or four generations, and often back further until their ancestors arrived from France itself. Proud and independent are the key words here – traits that have consistently caused Québec-Canada relations to fluctuate since the country was created in 1867. In 1995 the situation climaxed with the Québec sovereignty referendum; which saw voters reject independence by 50.58% to 49.42%, a margin of merely 60,000 votes.
Arriving in Québec, it is clear that the fiercely independent spirit that pushed for such a referendum twenty years ago has not abated. You would be forgiven for thinking that someone unable to speak French but fluent in English would have no trouble getting by in this part of bilingual Canada, but you’d be mistaken. Nowhere else in the country is signage solely in French, and while years of extra-provincial immigration has made Montréal a much more cosmopolitan and bilingual city, beyond this metropolis finding someone who is capable of speaking good English is more difficult. Finding someone who is happy to speak English is a whole different question. Nowhere else in the world, not even in France itself, is the KFC brand name translated to PFK (Poulet Frit à la Kentucky.)
While French-language signage is a practical necessity for the majority Francophone population, attitudes and convictions are more fickle and a much better demonstrator of public opinion. July 1st is celebrated each year as Canada’s take on July 4th, and Ottawa sees increasingly complex and expensive firework displays year on year to mark the occasion. Coming from the UK, where even St. Patrick’s Day is a huge deal in England, the fact that at my rural Laurentian farm on July 1st Canada Day wasn’t even mentioned until someone overheard an evening radio broadcast came as a shock. No one stirred. When I jokingly wished the group “Bonne Fête du Canada” the response was muffled grumbles and rolled eyes.
In contrast, the day after I arrived in Montréal was Jean-Baptiste Day – a celebration of all things Québec. At the annual parade it became increasingly clear as to why the pride and enthusiasm for autonomy hasn’t disappeared over the years – babies here are practically born with blue and white fleur-de-lys flags in their hands and painted on their cheeks. Children here aren’t reluctant to hold these flags, they run around and wave them with pride. The scene before me is a sea of blue and white t-shirts, flags, banners, wigs, and even painted dogs. Along the side of the crowded avenue an elderly entrepreneurial man is driving his mobility scooter along and selling fleur-de-lys adorned merchandise from the back of it. The parade begins, a procession of floats that stretches as far as the eye can see. There are dance displays, reenactments of key Québec historical moments, a stand that gives out fresh vegetables, and another that gives out ready-to-plant trees. Some key members of the Parti Québecois, one of the province’s major political parties, made an appearance and, judging by the reactions of some, was a highlight for many.
In English this once-annual celebration is referred to, as above, as Jean-Baptiste Day; a tradition still celebrated in many countries in Europe and brought over to Québec by the original French colonists. In French, it takes on a whole new meaning – La Fête Nationale. Canada, like the USA, Russia, and Germany, is a a federation comprised of smaller, self-governing entities – known as provinces and territories in Canada. Québec, however, holds the title of being the only one of Canada’s parts that is legally allowed to refer to itself as a Nation. As such, Québec City is not the capitale provinciale – it is the capitale nationale.
Keen to learn more about this frankly fascinating socio-political situation from a Québécois, I tried couch-surfing for the first time in Montréal and was hugely successful, not only in finding somewhere to stay, but also in gaining an eye-opening insight. Cédric is a young independent musician, hailing originally from the fiercely Francophone Gaspésie, a part of Québec so far from Montréal in this enormous province that it is almost closer to London than it is to Vancouver on Canada’s Pacific coast. Talking to him, it becomes immediately clear that he holds a deep love and reverence for Québec – his “pays” – and is very adamant that it stays Francophone and true to its historical roots. Juliette on the farm is similar: she lives in somewhat bilingual Montréal but sticks firmly with her native French and advocates that independence is the way forward for Québec’s 8 million people.
Despite the proud maple leaf stamp in my passport confirming that I am legally in Canada, I might be inclined to choose one last adjective to describe my experiences here. After meeting these wonderful people and witnessing such a distinctive culture, it seems appropriate to use the term “uniquement québécoises”.
Before Nathaniel’s expériences québécoises, he lived in Yaroslavl, Russia for the first stint of his year abroad. See some of his thoughts from then in his previous article, Looking Back at the Frozen North East. Also on the note of places with their own cultural identity, see our previous article My New Favourite Non-Country by Simon Posner.