Log Cabin Chronicles

Old Quebec City

Photograph/John Mahoney



Saturday Night Hogslop

On the wall in my basement I have a framed scroll from a Quebec magazine association awarding honorable mention for an article I wrote for a Montreal magazine extolling the joys of being an anglophone in Quebec City. (As I recall, my piece was beaten out by a feature on Mordecai Richler as the nemesis of nationalist Quebec.)

I felt then, and I feel now, that for English speakers who make the effort to acquire a functional level of the local lingo, Quebec City can be an absolute paradise, offering an easily accessible range of cultural, recreational, historical, and commercial attractions unrivaled in the country.

The place isn't too hard on the eyes either.

So imagine the surprise of your average QC "bloke" as he or she picks up the March edition of Saturday Night magazine to discover they are living in the Quebec equivalent of the Deep South where the white folks run the coloureds and Jews out of town.

At least that is the impression left in the article titled "Colder and Whiter: In Vieux Quebec, ethnic cleansing occurs by attrition," by Daniel Sanger, who spent a couple apparently unbearable years in Selma North a few years back, and a couple distasteful hours in the city more recently, "researching" his essay.

Without giving further publicity to the author, who may face a press council complaint from a somewhat defensive nationalist body, a few qualifications might be offered to Sanger's theory of incremental homogenization in Quebec City.

The first is that true enough -- Quebec City is not what it was 20 or 30 years ago.

The anglophone population has taken a huge hit as sons and daughters moved on to other parts of the country and the world. Certainly many of these left because their language skills were not adequate for the job market here.

The reality, though, is that Quebec City is still a smallish city and most big time opportunities for either official language group lie elsewhere, whether that is Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Halifax, or Vancouver.

The premise of the Sanger piece seems to be that people ethnically different from the 93 percent francophone majority are made to feel unwelcome as if by some organized conspiracy, by government policy even ("... the provincial bureaucracy was ethnically scrubbed.")

The art work for the article shows toque-sporting, "pure woollies," as our friend Richler likes to call them, whispering and mocking as an Asian-looking person flees, suitcase in hand.

I personally find that while Quebec City is certainly no Montreal or Toronto in its ethnic diversity, it is far from the purified notion portrayed in the Saturday Night piece.

As has been the case with any city in North America, various ethnic groups go through a process of evolution, disbursing or regrouping in another area, another city, another province. Eventually every group assimilates to a certain degree into the majority.

If Sanger mourns the loss of QC's Chinatown, he could have taken solace in a stroll on St. Vallier Street with its fine array of Vietnamese and Cambodian restaurants. In 20 years time, when he returns for another brief but enlightening stay, the Vietnamese may be less visible, replaced perhaps by Russians, Kosovars, or whatever group is seeking a new start.

Neil Bissoondath, the noted Canadian author of Trinidadian origin, has lived in the Quebec City area for the past four years, is fluently bilingual, and was included in a delegation to Paris last year celebrating Quebec literature. He says he has never experienced anything akin to the ethnic chill claimed in the article. Your average urban Quebecer, he observes, is open to and curious about different cultures.

As for the ethnic English community "hunkered down in their diminishing strongholds of Sillery, Shannon, or out on Ile d'Orl"ans, my experience is that amidst the hunkering the 12,000 or so who claim mother-tongue status manage to keep an amazing variety of their institutions alive despite it all, including an historic library, theatre groups, church and school organizations, a health and social services network, a weekly newspaper, and there's even a new anglo chamber of commerce.

No one will ever mistake Quebec City for a cosmopolitan, ethnically spicy melting pot. Never was, probably never will be.

But to suggest it is a Quebec version of apartheid, populated by bigots and ethnophobes, as Daniel Sanger clearly does, is, to say the least, a cold bit of whitewash.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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