Reason #3 to come to Montréal: French immersion!
Yes, you read me right… life in Québec happens in French! But don’t you worry, Montréal, the province’s main metropolis, is very cosmopolitan and you will have no problem being served in English.
The history of Québec shaped it into a truly distinct and different society than the rest of Canada or the US for that matter.
Giovanni da Verrazzano, explorer for French King Francis 1er, first mapped the Atlantic coast from Florida to Newfounland in 1524 and named the lands he discovered Nouvelle France (New France). So began the colonization of North America by the French. Later, in 1534, Jacques Cartier explored the Fleuve St-Laurent all the way to modern day Montréal and named those lands Canada. At its greatest, in 1750, New France reached as far as Alberta, the Dakotas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississipi, Alabama and part of the New England States all the way to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and bordered the 13 Colonies lining the Atlantic shore. French, the Civil Code and Catholicism were the rules of the land.
In 1759, the British empire launched its conquest of New France and by 1763 France, defeated, officially ceded Canada, Acadia and Florida to the British and the rest of its colonies to the Spanish.
So began the British rule of what is today Québec.
As expected, the British embarqued on a politic of assimilation of its new subjects. But despite the many attempts at assimilation, the French culture and language endures ’til today. This being said, the change of rule has had profound and lasting effects on Québec.
– A massive emigration of the French elite back to the mainland drained the nation of its greatest minds.
– The ban on French immigration and books imposed by the British cut the inhabitants from the evolution of the French language in the mainland. So don’t look for a Parisian accent while visiting, what you will hear is closer to 18th century French with a North American twist.
– Public education was only available in English, so the literacy rates of French Canadians fell to unprecedented lows.
– An oath of allegiance to the British Sovereign and repudiation of the Pope was declared mandatory to hold Public offices and exercise many trades. As Catholics that posed a serious problem to French Canadians who ended up relegated to agriculture.
– All judiciary proceedings and laws were applied in English, basically a foreign language, which was perceived as a denial of justice by the locals since they could not understand a thing.
– The Catholic Church filled the cultural void created by the situation and spread its tentacles into every aspect of everyday life for French Canadians. And in a bid to save its riches, the Church actively strived to quell any dissent or grievances from locals, thus cementing the marginalization of French Canadians.
Still, up to 1840, the British remained a minority and eventually had to accomodate the locals by reinstating the Civil Code as a basis for ruling, accepting French translations of laws and rulings and restoring the feudal distribution of lands.
And then the Union Act happened (1840) and later the Confederation (1867), by which the French Canadians became a minority and the struggle to maintain their French culture became even more arduous. Even though some accomodations were offered here and there to the French, the system was still set up in a way that put the political and financial powers in the hands of the English. Simultaneoustly, the industrial revolution was shifting the economic growth away from agriculture (dominated by the French) towards industry (controlled by the English).
So by the early 1900s, English had taken over the public space in Québec. Signage was written exclusively in English, business was owned by the English and conducted in English, while workers were mostly French who had to speak English to secure a job. Immigrants, lucidly, were enrolling in English schools to ensure their economic future (not that they were welcomed by French Catholic schools).
Meanwhile, a certain French elite was starting to realize that to preserve the French culture, a fundamental change in the system had to happen. With their publications and interventions, they had started to plant the seeds of the Révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution) of the 1960s. That’s when Quebecers finally decided to put the government at the service of the people. The Révolution tranquille was the start of a true Québec state. The government gave itself the legislative and financial tools necessary to control the destiny of the nation. The Education ministry was created and the Church was “booted” out of schools. It also voted the controversial but necessary laws making French the official langue in Québec, French commercial signage compulsory and mandating that non-anglophone immigrants attend French schools.
Some, as you may know, still want to go a step further towards total independence from Canada. Québec society is in fact quite divided about that. But separatists or not, all Quebecers are very proud of their French heritage and culture and will always strive to preserve it.
So get ready to practice your Bonjour, Merci and S’il vous plait. And if you happen to arrive between August 5th and 9th, why don’t you go by the city of Québec and complete your immersive experience with Les Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France (reenactment of life at the time of New France).
You can find the information at http://www.nouvellefrance.qc.ca/en/
Many thanks to Jeannine for her contribution.