Quebec is the largest province of Canada, and the only one populated primarily by speakers of French. This phenomenon has caused no end of trouble for both Quebecois and residents of the rest of Canada, and is expected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Quebec was the first part of Canada, indeed, the first part of North America, to be settled in any significant way by Europeans. This occurred after Canada was mapped with some rigour by the French explorers Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain. They, and subsequent explorers and colonial authorities, demonstrated a rather ambivalent attitude towards the native Iroquois and others who had got there before them. The colonists alternately shot at the Iroquois and formed alliances with them against the British. This sort of behaviour is similar in spirit to the approach taken by modern Quebec and Canadian authorities in dealing with the same natives that remain there three centuries later.
When New France fell to British invasion in the mid-1760s1, all the colonists of means packed up and went back to France, leaving their less fortunate compatriots behind. The descendants of those left behind insist that they are not upset about this.
The British left in place much of the civil administration, the fiercely Catholic religious authorities, and the system of land distribution, which was founded on the principle that everyone should own a bit of the river, even if it led to plots of land a mile long and 30 feet wide.
However, they cleverly replaced the men in large hats who'd just boarded boats bound for Calais - with names such as Corbeil and Laval - with men in kilts - with names like Mackenzie and Alexander.
The predominance of English speakers in positions of authority in Quebec was deeply problematic for the Quebecois psyche, and the fact that the situation was allowed to fester for more than two centuries has not helped matters. Increasingly stridently nationalist leaders have come to power in Quebec in recent years, and the trend shows no signs of abating.
Speaking French in Quebec
The predominence of fiercely-defensive French speakers can pose certain problems for the English-speaking visitor, who should bear in mind these vitally important rules:
Learn a certain amount of Quebecois French before attempting to travel there. Note that Quebecois French bears only a passing resemblance to the French approved and promoted by the Academie de la Langue Francaise. Vowel sounds are broadened significantly and nasalised; the French word oui, for instance, comes out much more like the sound a duck makes than the English word we. The vocabulary of Quebecois French borrows heavily from English, especially in technical and technological matters, where English is the lingua franca. In its extreme form, as spoken by fishermen and other hard manual labourers far from Quebec's urban centres, Quebec French is known as joual, and it is quite possible that a Frenchman would be unable to understand a fluent speaker.
Pretend that the above-mentioned difference does not exist. This cannot be stressed enough. More importantly, do not in any way suggest that the French spoken in Quebec is at all inferior to or 'a corrupted version of' the French spoken in France. This is one of the sure ways to start a fist-fight in Quebec.
Always attempt to begin a conversation with a Quebecer in French, no matter how broken. He or she will immediately become aware that you do not speak sufficient French and the conversation will continue in English, but the goodwill thus engendered will serve you well. This will be true even if you grew up in Lyons; a Quebecer will assume that you are from Vancouver and learned French in school. No matter what, you will wind up speaking English.
Particularly in the joual dialect, profanity is more offensive than obscenity, and the most extreme forms of rude expression draw upon religious, rather than scatological sources. It is tempting for an English speaker to make enthusiastic use of such apparently innocuous exclamations. If you are travelling in Quebec, resist the temptation. Invoking God when you swear in a deeply Catholic region is likely to get you into much deeper trouble than invoking body parts in a place where Puritanism went out of fashion a hundred or more years ago.
Tips for Travellers
It is useful, particularly if you are an American, and especially if you are an English Canadian, to consider lying about your place of birth. One common ploy is to claim that you come from Toronto. Otherwise, for the most hassle-free visit, consider the following list, and choose the highest placed region that you think you can get away with.
- Any French-speaking country other than France
- Any non-English-speaking country
- Canada, Maritimes
- Canada, Ontario
- Canada, Territories
- Canada, British Columbia
- Canada, Praries
- Canada, Alberta
Quebec cuisine is substantially similar to American food, but has not yet been affected by the trend towards healthier eating that is becoming prevalent in the United States. The Quebecois invented poutine (a combination of french-fried potatoes, beef gravy, and cheese curds) sometime in the 1960s, and do not seem inclined to relinquish their attachment to it. Lurking within an average poutine is more than two-thirds of an adult's daily recommended fat intake. It does, however, surpass even Middle-Eastern pita-bread sandwich products as a post-binge digestive aid.
Be warned that most drivers have a deathwish. If you are indeed hitch-hiking in Quebec, be careful if a driver slows and moves to the side of the road in your direction. He might merely be hoping to get you and get another 50 points on his weekly scorecard.
Places to Visit
The main tourist attractions in Quebec are to be found in Quebec City, which is old, built on a hill, and straddles the St Lawrence River; and in Montreal, which is old, built on a hill and straddles the same river. Both cities are profoundly picturesque, but are famed largely for their European-ness, which is rather a big deal in North America. If you are already in Europe, you can arguably save a lot of money by just stepping outside and looking around for a bit, rather than getting on a plane. Quebec City is worth visiting if you like ancient2 fortifications or climbing up and down steep hills.
The peak of Montreal's status came in 1967, when it hosted possibly the most significant World Fair. It enjoyed another burst of popularity when it held the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, but no major civic construction has been undertaken since, and the buildings constructed for those two events are firmly set on the road to quick and messy dereliction.
Montreal is worth visiting in the summer (which its residents call the 'festival season'). It hosts a world-renowned jazz music festival, a continentally-renowned comedy festival, the only Formula 1 car race in North America, and innumerable other cultural festivals throughout the summer months.
Montreal is so cold during the winter months3 that the Montrealers have built there the world's largest underground city. Many of the inhabitants can to go from home to work, the theatre, a hotel or a game of the Montreal's Canadian Hockey team without ever going outside.
Hockey in Quebec
No discussion of Quebec and its culture is complete without a discussion of Hockey4. Les Canadiens du Montreal - also known as The Habs, Les Habitants, or simply Bleu, Blanc et Rouge - are the most famous team, and have won the Stanley Cup5 more often than any other. They have many fans even outside of Montreal. Even in English-speaking Canada. Their greatest rival is Toronto, which has won the cup the second-most-often. The fans in Montreal are undoubtably the most fervent followers of the game, even compared to those in other Canadian cities, and playing for The Habs is almost every young boy's fantasy. Back in the 1950s the city suffered a riot, complete with burning cars and scattered violence, when their star player Maurice 'The Rocket' Richard was suspended from a key playoff game.
Our thanks to Tav's Dad for the photograph.