Ville de Québec, 1608-2008


The once-abandoned Iroquois village of Stadacona celebrates it’s 400th anniversary today, now a historic and storied place which began its life as a European settlement under French explorer Samuel de Champlain.  Champlain tried to fortify the settlement by constructing three buildings, each two stories tall, ringing them with a moat; he called his settlement, iconically, “l’Habitation”.

Québec is also well-known in Taylor lore as the place where my mother, then a scrawny 16-year-old girl, fought off a drunken would-be rapist under the benevolent gaze of Bonhomme Carnaval.  Also the place where I and other underage drinkers retreated to get (relatively) sober after spending the day drunk or hungover on the ski slopes of Mont-Sainte-Anne.  Of course, modern Quebec City has many other things going for it besides Bonhomme, proximity to ski resorts, drunkenness, and the possibility of sexual assault.

But to be perfectly honest, it’s not the present Québec that I find most fascinating.  As the only walled city in North America, Vieux-Quebec and Basse-Ville are fairly alive with the ghosts of Bourbon France and (very faintly, despite enormous effort to eradicate it) Georgian Britain.  There are times when one can look at the Old Town and feel what C.S. Lewis called “inconsolable longing” (or the Germans call “Sehnsucht“):

You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw—but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported . . .

— C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1940.

Québec is not such a place for me now, but it hints that it might have been, once upon a time.  Visible on the Cap-Diamant are battlements and sturdy, symmetrical 18th century architecture.  One feels as if you can almost peer through time and see the city as it was, post-conquest.  There are times when I wish I could see it as Champlain saw it (and as it’s depicted on the commemorative silver dollar), three modest buildings set below a forbidding promontory, several months and a few thousand miles away from the mother country.

I have a certain respect for those early habitants, who gave up the much gentler weather of the Continent for deadly Canadian winters and long isolation from the known world.  There is no doubt that if not for their tenacity, we would not be celebrating the continued existence of Québec today.

While I have mixed feelings regarding the modern inhabitants and their attitudes to non-francophone Canada, I have nothing but praise for the architectural and historic significance of the city itself.  Here’s to a happy 400th anniversary, Québec, may you have at least 400 more.

Category: Amor Patriae, Historica
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