One of the first signs (literally) that you’ve arrived in proudly French-speaking Québec is the octagonal red traffic warnings displaying “ARRÊT” rather than “STOP”. Québec is the only French-speaking society in North America, and from the language to the cuisine, it’s distinct from the rest of the continent – so distinct, in fact, that its political elite have long been focused on secession, though voter views have shifted of late. The province was ceded to the British after the conquest of the French in 1759 and yet more than two hundred years later the legacy of “New France” is as tangible as ever. After the colony was transferred to British rule, the Québécois were allowed to maintain their language and Catholic religion, which ensured large families and a prevalence of French-speakers – a political move termed the revanche du berceau (“revenge of the cradle”). Centuries later, the result is a unique blend of North American and European influence and a province with an interesting dual personality. Nowhere is this more evident than in Montréal and Southwest Québec. Within striking distance of Ottawa, and nudging up against the US border, this corner of the province has led both the economic and political resurgence of French- speaking Canada throughout the last century.
Home to over a third of all Québécois, the island metropolis of Montréal celebrates both its European heritage and its reputation as a truly international city. There can be few places in the world where people on the street flit so easily between two or more languages – sometimes within the same sentence – or whose cafés and bars ooze such a cosmopolitan feel.
From downtown Montréal, the mirrored skyscrapers that vie for space with colony-era cathedrals are privy to views of the St Lawrence River and the wilderness beyond that was once the source of the city’s wealth and power. These days, though, the vast wilds of Southwest Québec are admired for their natural beauty rather than their promise of furs and minerals, and there are several carefully groomed rural getaways just an hour’s drive out of the city. To the north, the hilly and forested Laurentians offer outdoor activities year-round, including cycling, hiking and horseriding trails in the summer and downhill ski centres and 2000km of cross-country ski trails in the winter. To the south and east of Montréal, the Eastern Townships (Cantons-de-l’Est), which spread across the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, lure city dwellers into the country with a more opulent approach to the outdoors. Originally a place of refuge for Americans wanting to stay loyal to the British Crown during and after the American War of Independence in 1775–83, within two generations the majority of the area’s population were French Canadian. Today, although the townships maintain an anglophone veneer (and very British-sounding names), they are 94 percent francophone. The Gallic ancestry of most Townshippers is clear in their attitude towards hedonistic pleasures: surrounding themselves with specialized restaurants, vineyards and expert cheese-makers, they eat and drink in a style that combines the simplicity of the first Norman settlers with the rich tastes of the contemporary French.
Train services within the region run from Montréal to Ontario, New Brunswick and into the US as well as connecting Québec City and the north of Québec. For most destinations, buses are your best bet for getting around, with the major places connected by regular services, supplemented by a network of smaller local lines.
Although various First Nations have lived in pockets of the province for millennia and there was sporadic European contact to the east, Québec’s history really begins with Jacques Cartier’s 1535 voyage. He sailed up the St Lawrence stopping at Stadacona and Hochelaga – present-day Québec City and Montréal, respectively. The early days of the colony revolved around the fur trade and attempts to convert the Aboriginal peoples, to Christianity. The priests’ tasks were made more difficult by the fact that the French had aligned with the Algonquin and Huron nations to gain access to their fur-trading networks, while those groups’ traditional enemies, the Iroquois Confederacy, had formed alliances with the Dutch and then the British. Louis XIV made New France a royal province in 1663 dispatching troops and, subsequently, unmarried Frenchwomen, the so-called filles du roi. Periodic skirmishes between the French and British and their Aboriginal allies continued to be a destabilizing factor, stunting the growth of the colony. Matters were resolved somewhat when twelve hundred colonists met with an even greater number of Aboriginal peoples from across eastern North America at Pointe-à-Callière in Montréal to sign La Grande Paix, the Great Peace treaty of 1701.
The Seven Years’ War and its aftermath
It wasn’t until mid-century that further serious conflict broke out, with the British and French again at odds in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War). The turning point took place in 1759 with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The British consolidated their hold with the 1774 Québec Act, a pre-emptive move that helped resist American attempts to take over the colony. After the Americans won independence from Britain, a flood of United Empire Loyalists fled across the Canadian border, settling primarily in the Eastern Townships and present-day Ontario.
The creation of Lower and Upper Canada in 1791 emphasized the inequalities between anglophones and francophones and later led to rebellion. Investigating its causes, Lord Durham concluded that English and French relations were akin to “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state”. His prescription for peace was immersing French- Canadians in the English culture of North America; the subsequent 1840 Act of Union joining Lower and Upper Canada can be seen as a deliberate attempt to marginalize francophone opinion within an English-speaking state.
Industrialization and urbanization
French-Canadians remained insulated from the economic mainstream until nineteenth- century industrialization, financed and run by the better-educated anglophones, led to a mass francophone migration to the cities. By the mid-twentieth century, a French-speaking middle class had begun to articulate the grievances of the workforce and to criticize the suffocating effect the Church was having on francophone opportunity. The shake-up of Québec society finally came about with the so-called Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, spurred by the provincial government under the leadership of Jean Lesage and his Liberal Party of Québec. The provincial government took control of welfare, health and education from the Church and, under the slogan Maîtres chez-nous (“Masters of our own house”), established state-owned industries that reversed anglophone financial domination.
The rise against federalism
In order to implement these fiscal policies, Québec needed to administer its own taxes, and the provincial Liberals, despite being staunchly federalist, were constantly at loggerheads with Ottawa. Encouraged and influenced by other nationalist struggles, Québécois’ desire for recognition and power reached a violent peak in 1970, when the terrorist Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a provincial government minister and a British diplomat in Montréal. Six years later, a massive reaction against the ruling provincial Liberals brought the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) to power. Led by René Lévesque, the PQ accelerated the process of social change, particularly with unilingual language law Bill 101 and held a referendum on sovereignty that 6.5 million people voted 60:40 against.
In 1993, Québec’s displeasure with federalism was evident in the election of the Bloc Québécois – a federal party committed to shattering federalism – to the ironic status of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in Ottawa. The separatist cause received added support in 1994 when the PQ was returned to provincial power after vowing to hold another referendum on separation from Canada. The 1995 vote was so close – Québec opted to remain within Canada by a margin of less than one percent – that calls immediately arose for a third referendum (prompting pundits to refer to the process as the “neverendum”).
In 2003, the PQ lost to the Liberals, which at the time left little hope of achieving the dream of independence. Yet the “National Question” rumbled on, as evidenced by the PQ’s return to power in 2012, helmed by Pauline Marois, the province’s first female Premier. But the victory was short-lived: in the 2014 general elections, the PQ lost heavily to the Liberal Party. The PQ’s focus on secession was partly blamed for its failure by an electorate seemingly less interested in independence. In May 2015, the controversial Pierre Karl Péladeau was elected head of the PQ, proclaiming “Independence is more alive than ever!” as he accepted the leadership. However, public enthusiasm for an outright split seems to be dwindling, and indeed Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, whose campaign headquarters were in Montréal and who is a champion of the province, has long spoken out against secession. Nonetheless, Trudeau believes that Québec needs to be more involved in the governance of Canada to keep the country culturally and politically relevant.