Quebec City is In My Soul

I took a trip to Quebec City recently that reminded me how much my writing is influenced by my travel experience.

One of the oldest cities in Canada, at least as far as European settlements are concerned, I hadn’t visited since my high school years. Apparently I hadn’t been paying attention back then, because the city was far more charming than I remembered.

If you’re ever in Quebec city, la Musée de la civilisation is well worth visiting, especially the main exhibit on the history of Quebec City and the Province of Quebec thrilled me. I was born in Montreal, but we left when I was young, so I missed that part of my education that would have grounded me in the history of my province of birth. My Ontario and British Columbia schools gave me the highlights, but not in a way that brought the story to life.

The museum corrected that. In a few short hours, I followed the story of Quebec from its pre-Western indigenous cultures, through the exploration expeditions of Jacques Cartier; the founding of Quebec City by Samuel de Champlain in 1608; the building of the town; the traders who explored the interior; the First Nations peoples who both competed and cooperated with the French settlers; the taking of Quebec City by the English in 1759 led by General Wolfe; the attempts to “Britishize” the citizens, and the eventual decision to allow people to retain their culture in exchange for loyalty to the British crown.

Quebec’s modern history is no less fascinating for me, having lived through one of its more violent episodes. La Belle Province has always had its separatist factions, one of which resorted to kidnappings and bombings to force their point of view. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and an agreement was brokered between the leading separatists and the federal government (led at the time by a Quebecois) to allow for peaceful debate and an eventual referendum on what was called “sovereignty-association”, essentially meaning home rule. Although narrowly defeated, the vote solidified in some people’s minds the idea of an independent Quebec, a vision that for many remains a viable concept today.

Later, I walked alone around the old city while my spousal unit attended her conference, past old hostels, restaurants, and signs proclaiming which famous person lived in this historic building. My first destination was the Chateau Frontenac, a gorgeous and magnificent hotel first opened in 1893, and built in the “chateauesque” style (hence the name, I suppose). Hardly the oldest building in the neighborhood, it is, nonetheless, one of the most impressive.

de Champlain, looking over the city he founded in 1608

The area in question is the so-called “promontory”, the headland that overlooks the St. Lawrence river, making it the ideal defensive location for de Champlain’s fledgling settlement over hour hundred years ago. A fifty foot statue of him stands in a square, gazing over his city in an eternal vigil. Maybe he should have been looking over the river though, because only one hundred fifty years later, his successors watched the English fleet sail upstream in preparation for the battle of Quebec.

At the Plains of Abraham Museum, I was steeped in historical detail of Canada’s most famous battle. An offshoot of the Seven Years War between France and Great Britain, it was the seminal event for Canada as a nation, as it was then that the territory fell into British hands. Following the time line of the battle, and the history that followed, I gained a deeper insight into what makes my country unique, and how integral Quebec is to its culture.

A path, whether through space or time, implies two things: a point of origin, and a desired destination. Events with specific dates—battles, votes, discoveries—serve well as markers along those paths, but they say little about why the path is there in the first place. What social pressures pushed history along that route? What desires led people along that road? Was it inevitable, or were there choices and sacrifices involved? The two museums I attended did an excellent job in describing what life was like not just for the people who get mentioned in the history books, but also for the everyday person just trying to survive: the trappers, the soldiers, washer women, children, the farmers. It was their desire to prosper and their will to survive that first blazed those paths.

The history of Quebec encapsulates many of the same themes I enjoy writing about. In fact, it hits all the right notes: exploration, pioneering, survival, clash of societies, language, emergent industries, governance, and battles. And, of course, heroism, the idea that a single person can, with just an idea and the charisma to deliver it, change the course of history.

The discovery of a planet and its subsequent colonization is the premise behind the world in which William Whitehall lives, a premise echoed in the trans-Atlantic voyages of Cartier and others, and the settlements their successors founded. The sheep farms and iron trade with the dragons parallel the fur trade and maple syrup farms of les habitants of old Quebec. And the collision course between Zander Bertrand and the current regime mirrors that of the British and French, albeit for different reasons.

But more than this, the fate of everyday people caught in the middle of momentous historical forces is something I’ve tried to capture in my own stories. The poor farmer who loses a child to starvation; the young man seduced by revolutionaries to unwittingly fight against his own interests; the trapper who seeks the solitude of the wilderness to find his fortune.

These themes are, of course, universal. They are the story of humanity itself. But where else are they put on such elegant display? Where else do we see all these colorful threads woven together at once? Perhaps all our homelands have similar stories, and I’m simply unaware of them, but my visit to this beautiful city reminded me—no, taught me—that I’m much more a product of my country’s history than I once believed.

2 Comments

  • Angela Crane

    November 11, 2019

    Erik, once again your writing had me enthralled! I know very little about Canadian history much to my shame, But I do know that the Norman’s conquered Britain and much of the medieval literature and documents etc were written in French. Unfortunately the many battles fought between the countries have left their mark even to present times. eg. ( The French still refuse to use English
    even though it is an almost universal language.) So silly but wars have begun over smaller issues I’m afraid to say…
    As you say so elegantly ‘the idea that a single person can, with just an idea and the charisma to deliver it, change the course of history’ rings true with us all. Martin Luther King, Einstein, Darwin and the quiet revolution that Richard Attenborough is now waging for Nature; reiterates your thoughts.
    Thank you for sharing your nostalgic trip.

    • Erik Christensen

      November 13, 2019

      Hi Angela,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are absolutely not alone when it comes to Canadian history. Aside from the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the war of 1812, ours is not a history of warfare, so it seems less exciting than American or European history. And while I can hardly claim to be an expert now based on just a couple of museum visits, I think it’s safe to say that the stories of regular working people are just as fascinating as those of warriors.

      I like your example of Attenborough as a quiet revolutionary. Absolutely non-confrontational, but his influence is undeniable.