I’ve written before about my summer in Quebec City — and how six weeks is a nice chunk of time to get to know a place. Even so, I was surprised last year during my visit to Vieux-Québec at how familiar the place was.
Still. After all these years.
I arrived from Montreal by train around midday, and the funny little man at my budget hotel offered to outline a nice walking tour for me on his map.
“Non, merci!” I said, smiling. I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
He looked up from his map, a little surprised and, I think, a little insulted. But he shrugged, handed me the map, and off I went.
Encircled by its original ramparts, Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec) is divided into an Upper Town and a Lower Town. I chose to stay in the Lower Town, just a few steps from the train station to make my arrival more convenient for me, but it turned out to be a serendipitous choice.
I was close enough to the action, so to speak, but far enough away that I had some enjoyable late evening walks back to my hotel through quiet streets.
The name “Quebec” comes from an Indigenous word meaning “where the river narrows.” That narrowing river is the mighty Saint Lawrence.
The first permanent European settlement at Quebec City was established in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. Le Petit Champlain, the oldest quarter of Vieux-Québec, is named for him, and Rue du Petit-Champlain (shown in this next photo) is its main drag.
Vieux-Québec is filled with stone buildings dating back to the seventeenth century, with their characteristic French-style roofs.
Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, in Place-Royale, is the oldest stone church in North America. It was built in 1688.
At the edge of the Upper Town, Dufferin Terrace lets you walk from the foot of the Citadelle to Chateau Frontenac, and provides a magnificent view over the Saint Lawrence River, the Lower Town, and, on a good day, the Laurentian Mountains.
A sign of the not insignificant role of the Catholic Church in Quebec’s history are the many church spires scattered throughout Vieux-Québec.
And then there’s this grand building, the Séminaire de Québec, which takes you by surprise when you round the corner. The seminary was founded in 1663, and this building declared a national historic site in 1929.
Vieux-Québec is the only walled city in Canada or the United States.
I wrote above about how familiar Vieux-Québec was for me, even after all these years. For my mother, not so much. I happened to be with her on her first time back in Quebec City, some 40 years after her arrival by immigrant ship. I remember watching her as she leaned over the railing that lines Dufferin Terrace, intently scanning the waterfront below us. I could see how much she wanted to recognize something … anything.
Finally she stepped back and shook her head. It was no good; nothing about the port looked familiar to her.
I doubt it was because she was too young to remember — a child’s memories can be quite vivid, and I suspect that her first impressions of a new country were imprinted on her mind. What it does speak to is that there are parts of Vieux-Québec that have changed over the years, after all, and a port that greeted new Canadians for more than 200 years looks quite different from the port that now greets tourists arriving by cruise ship.
Vieux-Québec was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. It is indeed a special place and should really be visited by every Canadian.
Six weeks, if you can. But if that’s not possible, then a couple of days will do nicely.
At the start of my Canada 150 series, way back when, I said that a cross-Canada train trip should be on the Travel Bucket List of every Canadian. I myself haven’t quite completed that, but I came pretty close when I took the train from Vancouver to Quebec City.
It took me four days to cross five provinces. I was a student, so I had more time than money and back in those days taking the train was cheaper than flying. But still, it was the cheap seats for me, which meant I did not have a sleeping berth at night. When I finally disembarked, the conductor joked that I was starting to look like part of the furniture.
But travelling slowly across three-quarters of the country was so worth it. It gives you a sense of the scale of our country, and an appreciation for the regional differences.
Another way to appreciate regional differences is to spend a good chunk of time in other parts of the country. I travelled to Quebec City that summer to study French. The French didn’t much stick, but my perception of Quebec was changed forever.
It was the 1980s, the height of the Quebec sovereignty movement and the middle of a decade of constitutional conferences and accords that were the aftermath of the federal government repatriating Canada’s Constitution without Quebec. Yes, that’s a mouthful and I won’t get into explaining it here because if you’re old enough, you lived through it, and if you’re too young to remember, there are books you can read. But I mention it to explain the context for my summer.
My goal that summer, besides learning French, was to get to know the province of Quebec, so to speak. As a history major, I knew all about Canada’s two solitudes, but history doesn’t really, truly come alive until you walk its streets. And here’s what I learned: the difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada isn’t just its language, but also its culture and its history.
Language is obvious, of course. But it’s because of that language difference that Quebec has its own music scene, its own TV and film stars, and its own literature. I read a lot, but I can’t remember the last time I picked up a novel by a Québécois author. I think we English-speaking Canadians could do a lot better in appreciating and acknowledging Quebec culture.
And then there’s the history. What I most remember about that summer is realizing exactly what je me souviens means to Quebeckers. Its literal translation is “I remember” and it is the province’s motto. It’s said to refer to how Quebeckers will always remember their culture, their traditions, and their history. But when I saw one of those sound and light shows for tourists of a model-sized re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the penny dropped for me. Je me souviens means “I remember 1759.”
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham took place on September 13, 1759. The British soldiers, led by General James Wolfe, climbed up the cliffs from the Saint Lawrence River to the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City, taking the French troops, led by the Marquis de Montcalm, completely by surprise. It was all over within an hour. The French loss marked the turning point of the Seven Years’ War. France gave up control of its colony in New France, but was allowed to keep two small islands off the coast of Newfoundland (Saint Pierre and Miquelon) and its holdings in the West Indies (the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique).
Keep in mind that New France at that time consisted of present-day Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and what is now the American Mid-West from the Great Lakes south to Louisiana. It was a far larger land mass than Britain’s Thirteen Colonies. Some historians like to draw a straight line between France losing New France and the American Revolution a few years later.
I’m getting lost in the history here, I know. But the point I want to make is this: if Montcalm had not lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, if France had not ceded its holdings in New France to the British, if the American Revolution had not been fought, if the Loyalists had not moved north into Canada, there is a pretty good chance that Canada would be a French-speaking nation. So when someone in Quebec says “je me souviens,” they are remembering all that.
I put all these thoughts into a short essay I read aloud to my French class on our last day of classes that summer. We met on the Plains of Abraham, of all places, for a class picnic and after I finished reading my essay, my teacher said to me, “Tu pense comme une Québécoise.”
You think like a Quebecker.
I don’t know about that, but I do know that my summer in Quebec City gave me a better understanding of how Quebeckers see their place in Canada.
I don’t have a photo of the Plains of Abraham, but here’s one of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, a small church in the Lower Town of Quebec City. It is less than two kilometres from the Plains of Abraham and was almost completely destroyed by the British bombardment that preceded the battle in 1759.