Will Ferguson’s Canada


Myths and history enliven Tadoussac on the Saguenay

October 27 2003
Will Ferguson’s Canada


Myths and history enliven Tadoussac on the Saguenay

October 27 2003


Will Ferguson’s Canada

Myths and history enliven Tadoussac on the Saguenay

HALFWAY ACROSS THE SAGUENAY RIVER, the landscape simply... disappears. First one shore and then the other, dissolving into the mist, like whales in a fog.

At the river’s mouth, great currents clash. Here, where the deep-running Saguenay empties into the St. Lawrence, the river’s water is pushed up and over the colder briny depths, creating layers of liquid strata: warmer freshwater currents above, the denser salt water below. It is an ideal breeding ground for fog. And whales. The waters are rich in plankton and krill, which attracts the whales, which in turn attract the tourists. It’s the chain of life and we are part of it, on board a ferry groping its way to the other shore.

There are three of us: my brother, Sean, his eight-year-old daughter, Aidan, and me. We have come in search of a lost kingdom, Canada’s own El Dorado: Royaume du Saguenay. We have followed the St. Lawrence northeast from Montreal: Sean drives and I navigate, while Aidan hunkers down in the back seat like a particularly studious hamster, a nest of books, pillows, blankets and snack wrappers around her.

Sean has been in Montreal forever; all three of his children were born in Quebec; he speaks French fluently and he works deep within the francophone music community, which makes me wary. I am always watching him for signs of Stockholm syndrome, but no. He has not transformed into a strident separatist citing a litany of humiliations and historical grievances, nor has he become that other dread extreme: the Angry Anglo, endlessly carping about minority rights and French oppression as though he were living under a Stalinist regime.


On the drive up, I make the mistake of commenting on the recent demise of the separatist threat. “Nice to have that particular knife taken away from our neck,” I say to Sean.

“It’s just a lull,” he replies. “That’s all. The separatist movement will never die, so you had better get used to it and try to understand it.” “Understand it?” I say, scoffing at the very notion. How can one ever hope to understand something that is so fundamentally irrational?

“Irrational?” says Sean. “Of course it’s irrational. Passion is irrational. Fear is irrational.” But I refuse to budge. “Which is why you will never really understand Quebec,” he says. “You know your history—but you don’t understand the heart of the matter.”

He may very well be right, but I will be damned if I’ll concede defeat graciously. “Stooge,” I mutter.

“Redneck,” he replies, with a grin.

“Are you fighting?” asks Aidan from the back seat.

“Not fighting,” I say, sweetly. “Just discussing why your father is wrong.”

THE FORCE OF THE PAST History surrounds us. History defines us, and nowhere is this truer than in Quebec. We breathe it in, as wet as mist, as heavy as fog. We are on our way to Tadoussac—the oldest community in mainland Canada and gateway to the mythical Kingdom of Saguenay. The kingdom started out as a tall tale, one spun by kidnapped native guides for a credulous and grasping Jacques Cartier.

Cartier was the first European to explore the St. Lawrence. He came in 1535, searching for a passage to the Orient. Which is to say, Canada began as an obstacle, a road block on the way to Somewhere Else.

The Kingdom of Saguenay was an intoxicating story: a mysterious faraway land, rich in gold and copper and rubies, and ripe for plunder. Cartier and his men seemed destined to become northern conquistadors, but as they wintered among the St. Lawrence Iroquois, the stories their Native hosts told grew more and more fanciful. There were other lands as well, you see. There was one where people didn’t have any anuses and another where the entire population was one-legged. Cartier dutifully inscribed all of this in his journals and— using selective judgment—decided that at least the Kingdom of Saguenay was real.

It wasn’t, though some historians have suggested that the legends may have been referring to the copper deposits of Lake Superior. No matter. Cartier never found his passage to the Far East or his lost kingdom. And what little “gold” and “diamonds” he brought back to France turned out to be fool’s gold: quartz and pyrite, mainly. In France, the incident gave birth to the expression “Faux comme un diamant du Canada.”

Cartier initially identified the Saguenay River as the route to the mythical kingdom, but later located the realm further west, near the Ottawa River, always tantalizingly out of reach, always a horizon away: a golden apple that was forever just beyond one’s grasp.

The Saguenay region was rich—very rich. But not in rubies or gold. The river was a natural funnel in the northern fur trade, flowing as it did into the St. Lawrence, and long before Europeans ever arrived, Native trade routes had been established along these waterways, from Tadoussac to James Bay.

WE HAVE fought our way past hairpin turns, foul-smelling smelters, dangerously distracting scenery and arteryclogging poutine just to get here

Norman whalers were already using Tadoussac as a stopping point when Pierre Chauvin de Tonnetuit, a captain in the French merchant marine, was granted a monopoly to the fur trade in 1599. The following year he built a small outpost at Tadoussac, the first such trading post in Canada.

FURS, CHURCH AND TOURISM When the three of us arrive in Tadoussac, the village is shrouded in mist and we walk through streets rendered as hazy silhouettes and disembodied voices. The St. Lawrence can be heard, it can be smelled—it can be tasted, even—but it cannot be seen that day. The great river lies hidden in a wet grey autumn cloud bank.

Not far from the shore, the red-roofed steeple of the Indian Chapel rises up, a milky watercolour in the mist. Built in 1747, it is the oldest log chapel in Canada. From it, we follow a boardwalk past the Hotel Tadoussac, ghostly in the fog, down to the wooden palisades of Chauvin’s re-created trading post, built not far from its original foundations. And thus, in this short stroll, we take in three of Tadoussac’s historic lifelines—furs, the Church and tourism. Four, if you count the wooden planks we are walking along.

Wood played an important role in Tadoussac’s development—greater than furs, in fact. Chauvin’s trading post and the Jesuit mission aside, the present community really only dates from the 1840s, when a series of sawmills was built in the region. Attracted by the scenery, tourists followed in the 1860s with hotels and cruise ships catering to the newly created leisure classes. Indeed, some of the scenic homes in Tadoussac were originally built as summer villas: Fletcher House, Bailey, O’Neil, Tudor-Hart, even Ferguson (though no relation, alas).

The English names attached to these simple yet elegant homes are revealing, for this was—and in many ways still is—the playground of Anglo elites. When Lord Dufferin, the governor general of Canada, chose Tadoussac as the site for his summer residence in 1872, the village’s upper-crust status was set. Even today, the anglophone residents form their own summer subculture, a village-within-a-village whose most visible sign is its Anglican chapel. An AngloProtestant church in the heart of a FrenchCanadian village: it’s a symbol for something, but I’m not sure what.

STUCK IN THE SAND The following day, when the weather clears, we make a trip out to the sandy plateau and wood sage dunes of Moulin-Baude, where blond cliffs slide down into the green-blue waters of the St. Lawrence. This was the site

of the original village, and it once supported farms and fields and a thriving lumber mill. But the lumber lords systematically cut down every tall tree, the soil eroded and the farms disappeared.

The sand dunes of Tadoussac are easy enough to walk down. You simply let gravity and momentum tumble you along, rivulets of sand sliding before you with every step. Coming back is harder. Hands on knees pushing against pliant ground, steps halfsinking: it’s like trying to run in deep snow. It’s like trying to swim against a current.

From Tadoussac, we drive inland along the southern shore of the Saguenay, across the worn serrated edge of steep cliffs and down through sudden valleys. The lower Saguenay is classified not as a river, but as a fjord: a saltwater cleft between sheer mountainsides, with waters that are 275 m deep in places and two kilometres wide at times. We skirt the twin heights of Cape Trinity and Cape Eternity—the unknowable and the unimaginable—which earn their heady names with sheer 500 m drops. (I apologize for throwing these numbers at you, but the Saguenay demands it; it is a region slathered in superlatives.)

THE LITTLE WHITE HOUSE Autumn is in the air, and the road threads its way through villages that are blazing in the cold fire of fall colours, past rolling hills of glowing gold and smouldering reds. The Saguenay River is one of Quebec’s main industrial engines, and we pass the metallic intestinal tubings and plume-spouting smokestacks of pulp mills and aluminum smelters that are wedged in among the scenery.

And then, on the north shore of Chicoutimi, we find it. Perched on an outcrop of rock, defiant, heroic, alone: the Little White House. “It looks like a castle,” says Aidan, as she—there is no other word for it—scampers about, leaping from rock to rock.

In the summer of 1996, the Saguenay boiled over in a churning flash flood. The torrent swept through the valley. Rivers burst through dikes and retaining walls. Buildings were torn away, entire villages were cut off from the outside. Almost 500 homes were destroyed. But not the Little White House of Chicoutimi. As the buildings around it fell, this modest little home somehow survived, alone against the deluge, even as raging floodwaters crashed against it. By the time the floodwaters receded, the house had become iconic, and it is now preserved as the centrepiece of a city park.

We spend a night and a day in Chicoutimi and then go deeper inward, toward the headwaters of the river and Quebec’s “inland sea,” Lac St-Jean. If the Quebec separatist movement has a heart (it certainly doesn’t have a head), then we are in it. The Saguenay is the central circulatory system and Lac St-Jean is the main pulmonary muscle of the pure laine. It is a beautiful place: understated after the vistas and mountains of the lower Saguenay, but beautiful nonetheless. The lake lies pooled in a shallow glarial pan, calm and unassuming. Low among the silos and farmyards, Lac St-Jean is like a watery continuation of the fields themselves, a mirage. At dusk, the lights of several small towns stutter along the shore. It hardly feels like a kingdom although, like travellers in a fairy tale, we have fought our way past obstacles—hairpin turns, foulsmelling smelters, dangerously distracting scenery and artery-clogging poutine—just to get here.

Our journey ends at the ghost town of Valjalbert. Founded in 1901, it was a planned community, very modern in its day, and prosperous. At one point, the population reached 1,000. But Valjalbert was a company town, and in 1927 the pulp mill closed. The homes were abandoned, and the people simply disappeared.

Today, the houses, laid out in tidy rows not far from the high tumble of a waterfall, sit silently as tombstones. They are collapsing inward in a slow-motion study of decay. Some of the homes are listing, many are sway-backed and teetering, others have surrendered completely to time and gravity. Second floors have fallen into first floors, and stone fireplaces have toppled. But the grass is trimmed and the paths are wellmaintained. “Well-maintained ruins”—a contradiction, perhaps, but an accurate description of Val Jalbert.

The night descends in layers of blue, and a stark tranquillity has settled upon this empty village. We have arrived at the end of the season and the end of the day, and there is no one else around. It has been a good trip, even if the magical Kingdom of Saguenay has eluded us. Even if our debate on Quebec nationalism has ended in a stalemate.

Aidan runs ahead, trailing laughter as she goes, and Sean and I follow her down the hill, past the eerily empty homes of Val Jalbert. And Sean turns to me and says, “Here you go, Will. Two insights for the price of one. The Little White House, alone against the deluge? That is how the Québécois see themselves. And Valjalbert?” He gestures to the tidy yards and crumbling abandoned homes. “This is what they fear.”

And like a tumbler turning in a lock, it all starts to make sense ... I?]

Will Ferguson is the award-winning author of several books on Canadian topics, including the national best-seller Canadian History for Dummies. For more on Ferguson, visit his Web site at www.willferguson.ca.