A Contrast of Cultures in Upper & Lower Canada
To visit Canada, the eastern provinces in particular, you really do need to know a little of the European history of this vast country to understand the people and culture that you will encounter. While the First Nations have lived in North America for up to 15,000 years, Europeans have occupied Canada for just over 400 years. Our experiences during the fourth section of the tour from Toronto to Quebec City showed how the French & British history in Canada has shaped the culture today.
The section name – Upper and Lower Canada – refers to the distance along the St Lawrence River and as we moved eastwards towards Lower Canada from Toronto, the riding days passed through picturesque countryside along the St Lawrence River. This had us passing through Prince Edward County Wine Region that while very young is producing some good quality Pinot Noir & Chardonnay amongst many others varieties. I find it fascinating that vines are buried to survive the well below freezing temperatures of winter!
With scheduled rest days in the big cities of Ottawa, Montreal & Quebec City, this section was going to be busy both in terms of the cycling environment and also the endless opportunities for sightseeing! With the big cities came traffic and thankfully, as full tour rider Maureen stated in her blog, “Bike paths! Through most of Ontario and Quebec, our route was about 90% on bike paths. Such an extensive network is mind boggling! It would be wonderful if other provinces would take up the challenge and emulate their example. “Most of the paths are extremely well maintained, and – since entering Quebec, they include rest stops (called “halte”), toilet facilities, signage for distances to next rest stops and towns – including what facilities the rest stop has. As many of the trails are converted railway lines, they have even transformed the old railway stations into cafes and facilities for cyclists/pedestrians. It is so amazing and would make anyone want to bike/hike tour!”
As I cycled along the trails I passed runners, cyclists, rollerbladers and saw signs for snowmobiles & cross country skiers! While we cycled on many trails, we spent the most time on the La Route Verte 1 or The Green Route, a 5000km+ network of Trails throughout the province. Its fair to say that Quebec is miles ahead of the other provinces in this regard!
As we quickly reached Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, I immediately thought of Canberra in Australia. Decided upon as Australia’s Capital city as a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne, Ottawa was the compromise between Toronto & Montreal and is a pleasant city featuring a beautiful downtown with many sights to see that are easily reached via the extensive network of cycle trails. Many riders visited the impressive Northern Lights sound and light show at Parliament Hill Building and dined in the at one of the many restaurants in Byward Market.
Crossing into Quebec province evoked many feelings throughout the group, with Maureen stating: “Quebec! Quebec! La belle province, and where I grew up. Such a sense of coming home as soon as we crossed the border. The sound of the French language. The unique homes, food, habits and customs, and the French culture. And, of course, the ocean and the smell of the ocean air. It is truly unique in Canada, and I still miss it after 45 years away.”
To attempt to understand or explain the French & British history of North America today, from the perspective of a foreigner is unrealistic and crossing into Quebec it became immediately apparent that ‘Je me souviens’ or ‘I remember’, the official motto of Quebec that is displayed on vehicle registration plates, accurately reflects the culture and attitudes of many locals. The original meaning of this motto is described as “to remember the history of Québec and its renowned historic figures” and refers to not only the notable Quebecers of the past such as Jacques Cartier whose names are enshrined throughout the province, but also the memories of past conflict with the British and struggles for French Canadian autonomy in the centuries that followed.
With French being the only official language in Quebec, the sound of the unique French Canadian language heard and seen everywhere in conversation, on street signs, newspaper was refreshing. As a traveller, English is definitely the most widely spoken language and it surprised most of us that so many of the people we encountered had little or no English. While this was usually in middle aged to older people I found this fascinating in a country such as Canada with majority English speaking population. English & French tourist signs were common in the rest of Canada but in Quebec seeing an English translation was much less common. Sometimes I wondered who these signs were intended for! Unsurprisingly, as tourists, we managed to get by and with the help of Tour Leader Max & some of the French speaking Canadians on the trip the language became more of a point of interest. During the trip so far we have seen many Canadian flags and Canada 150 flags. However these were replaced almost immediately with the flag of Quebec after we entered the province.
A highlight for the section was visiting Montreal & Quebec City. Shortly after arriving in Montreal we were enjoying our best heritage meal yet at Gus Restaurant. While Quebec is the world maple syrup capital, home to the love it or hate it poutine, we were instead treated to a wide range of delicious courses that aptly reflected their Gourmet French dishes with a Tex Mex Twist! Montreal lived up to expectation of a diverse, culture rich city, filled with high quality restaurants and cafes with the world famous Montreal bagels that had me seeing many similarities with Melbourne. Views the of the innumerable Nationals Historic Sites of were best seen from Mont Royal that offered amazing views for those that made the effort to walk or cycle to the top. Highlights of Quebec City were strolling through the cobblestoned streets of the Old City, visiting the Citadel, or visiting the Plains of Abraham to mention a few.
Having seen the stark contrast between Quebec & other parts of Canada, the French Culture of “La Belle province” was the highlight of the trip for almost all of us and as we leave Quebec City for the Gaspe Peninsula, many of us are already planning a return trip!