400 candles for Québec City

Portrait of Québec City: A blending of traditions

An encounter with the Blair family

By Louisa Blair – Québec City, Quebec

Ten-year-old Miriam Blair’s classmates in Québec City didn’t even know she was Anglophone until she’d been in her new school for several weeks. She’s been speaking French every day since she was two, and her accent is impeccable. But the minute she gets off the bus and walks into her house, she switches to English, and when she sits down to read it’s as likely to be a Harry Potter book in English as a Noémie book by Gilles Tibo in French––she devours them equally.

Miriam Blair is my daughter and she is the eighth generation of our Anglophone Quebec family, who settled here in the 1770s. Our Quebec ancestors include a political refugee from New England, an economic refugee from the Isle of Mull, Scotland, and a missionary from Northern England. They settled in Quebec and made their lives alongside the Francophone majority. Their descendants have been doing so ever since.

Voices from the Crossroads
Are you intrigued by the English-speaking community of Québec City? Voices from the CrossroadsWorld Wide Web site celebrates the richness of an undeniable heritage that greatly shaped the landscape of Québec City.

Québec City is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, and the media is eager to highlight the Anglophone contribution to the city’s history.Those contributions have been underplayed for the last few decades, and Quebec Anglophones have a reputation for discretion, but signs of life are still visible if you know where to look (see Québec City—the Anglophones that show).

Once nearly 50% of the population, Anglophones in Québec City are now a tiny minority—1% and shrinking—who pride themselves on being a different breed from those anywhere else in Canada, culturally, politically, and even linguistically. We even have our own dialect, and are not ashamed of our heavily-Gallicized spoken English. We are so integrated into the Francophone majority that many Quebecers don’t even know we exist. Some even say we’re on our way to assimilation: 40% have Francophone partners, and an increasing proportion of Anglophones don’t speak English at home.

Until astonishingly recently, religion divided the people of Québec City far more than language did. In New France, adult Protestants were forced to abjure their faith to receive their freedom, and children were baptized into the Catholic faith. Three hundred years later, a young person of my parents’ generation was still likely to be rejected by her family or community if she married someone outside her religion.

There were exceptions, however, among several 19th-century bicultural Quebec families. Biculturalism in their case meant not just speaking both languages, but being steeped in both cultures, and even in more than one religion. Novelist Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé, author of the first French-Canadian novel Les Anciens Canadiens, was as conversant in one culture as he was in another. Historian James MacPherson Lemoine (1825–1912) was a member of two learned societies, the Literary and Historical Society (English) and the Institut Canadien (French), and wrote prolifically in both languages. He, too, was deeply ecumenical: baptized a Catholic, he married in the Presbyterian Church, was given a Catholic funeral service and was buried in the Protestant graveyard. John Neilson (1776–1848), the perfectly bilingual publisher of Canada’s oldest newspaper (a bilingual one) traversed the religious divide by bringing up his girls as Catholics and his boys as Presbyterians. These people are my models and my inspiration.

The religious chasm that nevertheless continued to yawn was perpetrated by the education system, which only in 1998 stopped dividing children down denominational lines and separated them instead according to language.

Religion may have divided schoolchildren, but the Protestants brought the idea of universal public education to Quebec. In Scotland, from which immigrants were flocking in droves, the high rate of literacy (75% of males were literate in 1750) was due to a belief that as the Holy Spirit speaks through the Bible, people—and that meant everyone, not just the rich—had to be literate so that they could read the scriptures for themselves. Education is still a perennial concern for Québec City Anglophones—should we send our kids to school in English or French? The irony of the Charter of the French Language is that it gives us more choice than our Francophone neighbours have. Another irony of the Charter of the French Language is that it has been a victim of its own success: more and more Anglophones—now almost universally bilingual—are falling in love with Francophones and expanding the pool of children eligible to be schooled in English. While the population of Anglophones in the city declined by 14% between 1991 and 2001, in 2002 the English primary schools were so full that a new one was opened.

As for the religious divide, already people seem to have forgotten the old acrimony. When the British took Quebec they built an Anglican cathedral that was very deliberately one metre higher than the Catholic cathedral, and with more bells so they could make more noise. But when my daughter was confirmed in that very same cathedral last year, the children’s choir of the Catholic cathedral came to sing. No one commented on this fact, although it was the first time such a thing had happened in Québec City’s entire 400-year history.

Québec City—the Anglophones that show

French Fountain
Credits: André Kedl
The Fontaine de Tourny is being presented by La Maison Simons as a gift to the City of Québec for its 400th anniversary.

Québec City’s Anglophones have a reputation for discretion, but they’re around if you know where to look. The Price family, whose ancestor arrived in 1810, was the mainstay of the forestry industry in the province for more than a century. The family now runs a magnificent museum-hotelWorld Wide Web site that has recently been voted the best in Canada. Peter Simons, whose ancestor came to Quebec in 1812, now runs an expanding fashion store. He has given his hometown a magnificent 19th-century French fountainWorld Wide Web site as a 400th birthday present. The fountain, picked up in an antique shop,  now stands in front of the Parliament building.

Morrin Centre
Québec City's Anglophone cultural centre, the Morrin Centre

The city’s newly-restored Anglophone cultural centre, the Morrin CentreWorld Wide Web site, is currently staging Rosina, an opera written in 1782 by Francis Brooke, who wrote North America’s first novel in Québec City; and an exhibition recounting the never-told history of the city’s (Anglophone) Jewish communityWorld Wide Web site is about to open. The city’s English newspaper, the Quebec Chronicle TelegraphWorld Wide Web site, continues to be published, the English schools and health care services continue to operate, the Fraser HighlandersWorld Wide Web site still march about playing their bagpipes, the Irish pub still has some of the best live music in town, and congregations of no less than eight churches still talk to God in English.