We (by “we,” I mean my wife and I) recently spent 3 days in Quebec. It was our Christmas present to each other: we have plenty of “stuff,” but we figured we can never have too many memories. “Pourquoi, Quebec?” you ask. “Pourquoi pas!” we answer. I mean if you want a winter getaway, why not head north?
We (by “we,” I now mean we Americans) tend to take Canada for granted; it’s kind of like the 51st state so there just doesn’t seem to be a need for a wall along the 49th parallel. Plus, we like hockey, Alex Trabek seems like a nice enough fellow, and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen (RIP) recorded some great music back in the day. And that national anthem; “O Canada!”? Pretty stirring, eh?
I have to say: we’ve got it all wrong. Canada is a special place. It’s got a very young, hip Prime Minister who makes President Obama look like an old guy. Everybody gets along with everybody else, the cops aren’t armed, and health care is universal. And free. Sure it’s cold and covered in snow for a few—OK; more than a few—months every year, but just bundle up: everyone sports a parka, scarf, sweater, boots, gloves, and hat, at least one of which is sure to be emblazoned with that familiar red maple leaf. And it’s OK to go heavy on the carbs: have a LaBatte’s Bleu and some poutine for lunch. What’s poutine? French fries smothered with cheese or gravy—no wonder there’s universal health care!
Trust me: Canada IS different, but in a good way. It’s both foreign and familiar. And as different as Canada is, Old Quebec is even more so. It’s like France without all those rude French people. It’s a city with walls (the good kind), winding, cobblestone streets, charming bistros, stunning views, happy-feet music, and beautiful women (sorry, dear) wearing exotic fur hats. Everyone is so polite, so helpful, so cheerful, so…Canadian, or in the case of Old Quebec, French Canadian—Quebecois, s’il vous plait et merci beaucoup!
History abounds. The bluffs of the old city dominate the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the great river that was once the gateway to the interior of a whole New World. The fur trade and timber industry made fortunes for some and rekindled Old World rivalries for others. Samuel Champlain founded Quebec City in1608, right about the same time Henry Hudson was discovering the immense bay that bears his name today, and pretty soon, the New World was just as bellicose as the old one. The Seven Years War (known down here as The French and Indian War) came to a quick Canadian conclusion in September, 1759 when General Wolfe and his British troops scaled the heights of Cap Diamond above Quebec on a moonless night and surprised General Montcalm and the French garrison on the Plains of Abraham, now a city park. In fact, the assault was such a surprise that the British troops needed to fire only one volley. The battle lasted all of twenty minutes, but both generals, Wolfe and Montcalm, were killed. For the next 109 years until it became independent in 1867, Canada would be British, not French.
Believe it or not, we (by “we,” I still mean we Americans) have invaded Canada twice, once in 1775 and again in 1812. We didn’t fare so well. The 1775 invasion came to an abrupt conclusion when the American forces (commanded in part by the soon-to-be-infamous Benedict Arnold) suffered disastrous defeat at a battle in a blinding snowstorm outside Quebec on New Year’s Eve. The American soldiers, exhausted and half-starved after a grueling march over rough terrain, were still in their summer uniforms; I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
The second American invasion of Canada kickstarted the War of 1812. Dreaming of Manifest Destiny and figuring England would be distracted by that little Napoleon fellow, Thomas Jefferson thought the conquest of Upper Canada would be quick and easy—a “matter of mere marching.” Needless to say, it wasn’t. Three different generals tried, none were successful. General Hull surrendered at Detroit when a cannon ball came whistling through the officer’s mess; General van Rensselaer was delayed when one of his officers disappeared with the oars to his boats; and General Dearborn, well, his troops accidentally fired on each other in the dark and he retreated before ever entering Canada.
We (by “we,” now I mean the United States and Canada) have, thankfully, been friends ever since. (However, shortly after the ill-fated invasions of 1812, England built a fort at Quebec in case the United States ever got the itch again.That fort still garrisons the Royal 22nd Regiment, the only French-speaking regiment in the Canadian army.) As for Kat and me, we learned that getting to Quebec can still be problematic for Americans—winter travel, even by air, never was, nor will be, a “matter of mere marching.” Never mind; we’ll go back. And next time, we’ll stay longer.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”