Quebec-not your “typical” Canadian experience

If you’ve ever visited Canadian cities like Toronto or Niagara Falls, you’ll find they feel remarkably similar to any major American city. The English language is spoken (excluding the ubiqitious Canadian “aye”) and at some popular and large tourist venues you may even be able to use American dollars. (Yes Canada, I know, you have your own everything but I’m writing this from my perspective as an American.) However, a visit to the province of Quebec will make you feel as if you’re in a separate country and for many Quebecoise, that’s how they want it. 
Although Quebec started out as French colony in the 17thcentury (its name at the time was New France), France lost official control of it to the British in the mid-1700s. And ever since then strife between French and English speaking Canadians has been a source of contention between the two. The Quebec Act of 1774 provided the people of Quebec their first Charter of Rights and made it possible later on for official recognition of the French language and culture and also sanctioned freedom of religion, allowing the Roman Catholic Church to remain (versus forcing the Anglican church upon the French speaking Catholics). 
More recently, the 1960s and 1970s brought turbulent times to the Quebec province over the matter of independence from the rest of Canada. In 1963 a paramilitary group that became known as the Front de Liberation du Quebec launched a decade-long series of propaganda and terror attacks that included bombings and robberies directed mainly at English institutions, as well as the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte, a provincial minister and Vice-Premier. Support for the FLQ by the public was lost after Laporte’s death. Then in 1977 a newly elected government (Parti Quebecois) introduced the Charter of the French Language (often referred to as Bill 101). It defined French as the only official language of Quebec in areas of provincial jurisdiction. And while numerous attempts have been made since then to promote the secession of the Quebec province from the rest of Canada, it’s never been passed (although it has come close).  On November 27, 2006, the House of Commons passed a symbolic motion declaring that “this house recognizes that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.” However, debate rages to this day along with uncertainty over what this means. The Constitution Act of 1867 requires both French and English for the enactment of laws and regulations; however, French is the language of Quebec (both officially and unofficially) and it is the only Canadian province whose population is mainly francophone.

At tourist facilities like our hotel, restaurants we ate at, and attractions we visited, English was spoken by the workers (some with truly impeccable English even though you could tell French was  their native tongue). On a few instances, workers approached us speaking French until they saw our moment of hesitation and asked “anglais?”  However, on public transportation, French ruled. Prior to going I read a story in which a rider on Montreal’s metro were basically mistreated as she was not a native French speaker and had addressed a metro worker in English, prompting indignation from the fiercely proud French worker (You can read about these two incidents here and another related story here.) This made me majorly worry that we would run into the same. While neither bus driver spoke any English, they could seem to at least understand enough of my little French to answer my questions. (One time we actually got on the wrong bus but after asking the driver if he was headed to our destination, he promptly replied in English that we needed to get the bus on the other side of the street.) The incident I mentioned was from last year and while I had read that public transportation workers are not required to know English in their jobs, I can only imagine the “training” the workers had to go through so as never to put such negative publicity on the public transportation system again.

When I traveled to New Orleans, I really didn’t feel anything “French” to it. Yes, signs were in French, along with French sounding names, but I was in America through and through. To me, any “living” sign of French life that harkens back to Louisiana’s days as part of New France are long gone. However, in Montreal (and I’m sure the rest of Quebec, perhaps even more so), I felt like I was in a French city somewhere. No, Montreal is no Paris and shouldn’t be thought of as a “substitute” for it, yet I couldn’t help but feel transported to the country while in a country with an English speaking majority. 

The flag of the Quebec province-one sees it everywhere in Montreal


Things to remember

-A little French goes a long way in terms of appreciation by the locals. Be sure to say the basics like “bonjour” and “merci” to people you interact with.

-Although most likely at tourist venues you will be able to find someone who speaks English, don’t always assume this and instead be polite by asking, “parlez-vous anglais?” (Do you speak English?)

-While this probably wouldn’t come up, don’t start any “nationalistic” debates. And just remember that the Quebecois people are fiercely proud of their culture and heritage and don’t necessarily like being lumped in with English speaking Canada’s.

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  • Reply
    Jo Ann M.
    August 21, 2013 at 12:21 am

    Julie this is a great post! I learned so much about the history of Quebec that I did not know.

    I can appreciate how the French people feel about Quebec. I love that they hold on to their culture so strongly. I’m sure it makes the Quebec “experience” much more satisfying.

    It’s a shame that New Orleans is not more “French”.

    I hope to visit Quebec someday. I would like to try out the French I took in college. 🙂

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    August 21, 2013 at 1:09 am

    I know the “basics” of Canadian history (and that’s probably stretching it a bit) but yes I had no idea about Quebec’s rather tumultuous past.

    Having been there and now learned some about it, I wish there could be a peaceful agreement reached between the English and French factions but it seems like it will always be all or nothing.

    Yes, New Orleans I feel is as American as can be. I think it’s probably a bit more authentic in Cajun country especially where the Acadian culture is still strong.

  • Reply
    June 15, 2015 at 5:38 am

    Another one for my upcoming trip which appears to have a French feel to it (Paris, Montreal and New Orleans). I should have done French Polyenesia to end the trip off (Taipei instead)
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    • Reply
      June 18, 2015 at 5:49 pm

      Your upcoming trip sounds amazing! I love doing “themed” stuff and nothing is better than one that is Francophone. I keep hearing awesome things about Taipei (especially its food scene) that is making me really want to visit there!

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