Will Ferguson's Canada


Old Quebec’s memories go straight to the heart

September 30 2002
Will Ferguson's Canada


Old Quebec’s memories go straight to the heart

September 30 2002


Will Ferguson's Canada

Old Quebec’s memories go straight to the heart

WE MOVE THROUGH life trailing our former selves behind us like images in a multiple-exposure photograph. In many ways, we are our memories. Individuals, much like nations, are defined as much by their scars as their aspirations.

Early autumn and I am chasing memories and former selves down the narrow streets of Old Quebec, where every corner, every angle, offers a snapshot photograph of who I used to be. Here I am, hunched over a cup of coffee at the Nostradamus Café, scribbling away and smoking furiously. Here I am, in the rain. Here I am, disappearing down an alleyway...

I first came to Vieux-Québec at the age of 19, back when I still considered “poet” to be a viable career path. I followed a girl to Quebec (as you do)—and I immediately fell in love, both with the city and the girl. She lived in Lévis, on the other side of the St. Lawrence, but we spent most of our time in Old Quebec, where the allure of the city folded itself around us.

We would squander our evenings in small clubs, and then run to make the last ferry across to Lévis. And when we got to that far shore, she would bound up the stairs ahead of me, up to the top of the cliffs, up to where her apartment was perched. Quebec City is a city of stairs— with 29 outdoor public staircases, it has more than any other city on the continent—but Lévis was almost as bad. The stairs of Lévis were a true test of one’s mettle, and I never once made it to the top without having to stop, hands-on-side, panting, as she slipped out of sight. In my memory, I am always falling behind, always trying to catch up.

As the summer cooled and autumn crept in, I realized that I was out of my depth, both linguistically and romantically. Like some clumsy country cousin from the backwoods of Alberta, I was immune to jazz and the nuances of la langue d’amour and was constantly stum-

bling headlong over French syntax. (The situation has hardly improved. On my last visit to Quebec City, after a stint in South America and several years in Japan, I ended up speaking a bizarre hybrid language: “Sumimasen, una cerveza s’il vous plait. ”)

The summer ended and so did we. She dumped me in the Nostradamus Café and left me for dead, deep in the heart of the city’s Latin Quarter. You would think, what with Nostradamus’s reputation for precognition, that I would have had some inkling of what was about to happen, but no. I was sandbagged and Nostradamus was no help. And now, when I stumble upon that grotty little café on rue Couillard, even after all these years, I am instantly hurled back in time, into the stunned silence of that awful moment. (Years later, a producer at CBC Radio told me his Québécoise girlfriend had left him at the very same café. “It must be where they bring their English boyfriends when they want to break up,” he said.)

From the small room in Lévis, I moved into the Old City itself, into the Auberge de la Paix, “the Peace Hostel,” just a few doors down from Nostradamus.

It was on rue Couillard, in a blond brick building across the street from peace and prophecy, that the composer Calixa Lavallée wrote the music for O Canada back in 1880. The song was meant to be a staunch French-Canadian anthem, written in honour of St. Jean Baptiste Day. But like the maple leaf and the word

The imagery of French and English Canada has long had male/female overtones. Even ‘two solitudes’ that ‘touch and greet.’

To which I say, ‘Há!’

“Canadian” itself, O Canada would later be co-opted by English Canadians and applied to the country as a whole.

But to hell with Lavallée. Who cares about O Canada when you are young and mortally wounded? I staggered down the alleyways of Old Quebec, numb and miserable. I basted in my own self-pity and I wrote profoundly bad poetry—the type of solipsistic verse that only a 19-year-old can conjure up. (Every poem I wrote seemed to begin, “Alone, I wander the streets...” and stopped just short of exclaiming, “Woe is me!”) And I should probably also take this opportunity, almost 20 years after the fact, to apologize to the hapless couple from Massachusetts who made the mistake of sitting beside me at the Nostradamus Café one evening and saying, “How are you doing?” It was a question they would long regret.

The imagery of French and English Canada has long had male/female overtones. Even Hugh MacLennan’s famous description of “two solitudes” is taken from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote about “a love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” To which I say, “Ha!”

The cultural two-step of English/ French, either/or, has crumbled in the wake of Aboriginal resurgence and allophone realities, but this central duality still remains a central fact of life in Canada. We live in a house divided, a Mighty Duplex of the North, so to speak, with separate entrances and parallel views. And it started right here, in la vieille capitale.

THE BEAUTY OF Quebec City is the beauty of stone. It is the beauty of garrisons and watchtowers and armed citadels. The only walled city left in North America, Quebec forms what is, in essence, a closed circle. And like any circle, it is both inclusive and exclusive.

Today, the Old City welcomes you with a kiss on the cheek, if not the lips. The open-air art gallery of the rue du Trésor, the breakneck stairs that tumble down to the Lower Town, the endless overpriced cafés, the horse carriages that clatter over cobblestone. This is the Quebec City of Holiday Romance, but the real roots of Quebec lie not with the cafés and love affairs, but in war and commerce. After all, the upper city is situated atop high cliffs not because it affords better views and prettier sunsets; it was built there with military tactics in mind.

For me, the image that best sums up Quebec City is not the glorious faux-castle of the Chateau Frontenac, but something smaller: a single cannonball. If you walk west along rue Saint-Louis you will come to rue du Corps-de-Garde, where you will find an iron ball embedded in the roots of a tree, a souvenir of battles past. In Quebec, the very trees are wounded.

It brings to mind what the poet Miriam Waddington meant when she wrote about the central illusion of Canadian identity: “We look like a geography, but just scratch us/and we bleed history.

SEPT. 13,1759. The British forces of Gen. Wolfe have scaled the cliffs under the cover of darkness and have massed here, on the Plains of Abraham, directly behind the city’s walls. It is a desperate ploy, but it works. The French general, Montcalm, forsaking the protective circle of the city, sends his men forward in a mad rush. The British form a thin red line, two men deep. Bagpipes are playing. Bodies begin to fall. And then, when the French are just 30 paces away, the British raise their muskets and, on command, they fire ...

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham took scarcely 15 minutes, and yet it changed the direction of Canadian history forever. Wolfe died on the battlefield, Montcalm a few hours later inside a convent hospital—his dying words one of gratitude that he would never live to see the English inside the city. Still, Quebec wasn’t so much conquered as it was surrendered. The French troops abandoned the city with an unseemly haste, falling back to Montreal where they regrouped and counterattacked the following spring, coming within a heartbeat of recapturing the capital. But when British

supply ships arrived, it was all over.

The fall of New France is the lamentation of Quebec nationalism. Author Lyse Champagne has described the Conquest as “the Big Bang” of Canadian history, “hurling fragments of the past into the orbit of the future.” And she’s right. Even Quebec’s melancholy motto, Je me souviens, is a testament to the power of the past. In theory, Confederation, a century later, was a fresh start, a new arrangement, in which Quebec negotiated its entry into Canada with protective guarantees for its language, religion and education. But in spite of that, it is the Conquest, not Confederation, that burns sharpest in our national memory.

The effect of la conquête on Quebec society is something that has been examined in relentless detail. Less commented upon is the way it has been used—in an often unstated but implicit way—by English Canadians. Whenever another weary unity crisis rears up, the sentiment is there, just below the surface. “Didn’t we beat them on the Plains of Abraham?” Well, no. We didn’t beat anyone, because “we” didn’t exist. English Canada hadn’t

Will Ferguson’s Canada | >

been invented yet, and the only Canadians on the Plains of Abraham that day spoke French.

The Plains of Abraham. It sounds Biblical, evoking images of a child to be sacrificed and a god appeased, but the name itself actually refers to a habitant farmer who had once owned land on the heights in the 1600s. Undulating earthworks and forested lawns have transformed the battlefield into a rolling landscape, gentle and green. It is a place for family picnics and summer strolls. Residential streets have overlaid a grid on the northern half of the Plains as well, further reducing the site.

I have come here, on the anniversary of the original battle, to walk the field and try to map out the memory of what has happened here. Using a battle plan and a city map, I have managed to project the past onto the present, and I pace it out, starting with the monument to Gen. Wolfe, marking the spot where it is believed the thin, anemic young Englishman died. Whenever separatist tensions arise, this is the first monument they blow up. It sits, sword and helmet, in the middle of a small traffic circle.

From the Wolfe Monument, if you walk north to the Grande Allée and turn right, you will soon come to Avenue Cartier, with its cozy croissant shops and small cafés. This is where the British soldiers stood, muskets levelled like pikes. If you look straight down Cartier, past the sushi bar and the gelato stand, you are looking across the British front lines. Continuing up the Grande Allée at a quickening pace, you are now ahead of the volley. This is where the bullets would have been flying, where the cloud of acrid smoke would have rolled across the dead and dying. Do you smell it? The taste of blood, the scent of gunpowder and glory?

Running now, past the Baptist church to rue Salaberry—and you have crossed over to the French side. This is where the great surge forward would have faltered, this is where the French advance was broken. Move along Grande Allée and you are picking your way around corpses, you are walking among ghosts. Between Avenue Cartier and rue Salaberry lies one of the great chasms of Canadian history, the central fault line upon which our country is built.

The sentiment is there, just below the surface. ‘Didn’t we beat them on the Plains of Abraham?’ Well, no. We didn’t beat anyone, because ‘we’ didn’t exist.

EARLY EVENING. Dusk has fallen as imperceptibly as dust. The day has bled away, and the smoke of battle has long since faded. I’m not really sure why I am here, in the Lower Town, boarding a ferry to Lévis. The sky is the colour of a deep bruise and the clouds are heavy with rain. There is a cold chill coming off the St. Lawrence as the ferry crosses over.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been 19. I’m married now. I have a lovely wife and two wonderful children. So I’m not really sure what I hope to find here or why I am seeking out the landmarks of my own failed conquest of Quebec.

Perhaps it is simply nostalgia. Or perhaps curiosity. I want to know if I can still find my way there in the dark. Out of the ferry and to the right, past the warehouses and then up the long stairs to the top of the cliff. Left down the first lane and right on the next. Third door up, second window from the left. Perhaps I am hoping to run into one of my former selves along the way. Or perhaps, a glimpse of a girl ahead of me, disappearing around a corner as I make my way up the stairs.

I stop, halfway up and out of breath, and look back across the St. Lawrence to the darkening silhouette of Quebec’s skyline, a shimmer of lights, a castle keep. And when I finally do reach the top, nothing is quite as familiar as I had hoped. It takes me almost an hour, retracing one side street and then the next, to find the doorway and the window: a square of light, warm against the night.

I want to throw a small stone against the pane and see who peeks out from inside, but I don’t. The last ferry is leaving soon and I have to go. I have a cliff to descend and a boat to catch. And yet, even now, after all these years, I remember. I remember...

Will Ferguson is the author of Bastards & Boneheads, which includes a section on Montcalm and Wolfe. wferguson@macleans.ca