One of the first signs (literally) that you’ve arrived in proudly French-speaking Québec is the octagonal red traffic warnings displaying “ARRÊT” rather than “STOP”. Québec is the only French-speaking society in North America, and from the language to the cuisine, it’s distinct from the rest of the continent – so distinct, in fact, that its political elite have long been focused on secession, though voter views have shifted of late. The province was ceded to the British after the conquest of the French in 1759 and yet more than two hundred years later the legacy of “New France” is as tangible as ever. After the colony was transferred to British rule, the Québécois were allowed to maintain their language and Catholic religion, which ensured large families and a prevalence of French-speakers – a political move termed the revanche du berceau (“revenge of the cradle”). Centuries later, the result is a unique blend of North American and European influence and a province with an interesting dual personality. Nowhere is this more evident than in Montréal and Southwest Québec. Within striking distance of Ottawa, and nudging up against the US border, this corner of the province has led both the economic and political resurgence of French- speaking Canada throughout the last century.
Home to over a third of all Québécois, the island metropolis of Montréal celebrates both its European heritage and its reputation as a truly international city. There can be few places in the world where people on the street flit so easily between two or more languages – sometimes within the same sentence – or whose cafés and bars ooze such a cosmopolitan feel.
From downtown Montréal, the mirrored skyscrapers that vie for space with colony-era cathedrals are privy to views of the St Lawrence River and the wilderness beyond that was once the source of the city’s wealth and power. These days, though, the vast wilds of Southwest Québec are admired for their natural beauty rather than their promise of furs and minerals, and there are several carefully groomed rural getaways just an hour’s drive out of the city. To the north, the hilly and forested Laurentians offer outdoor activities year-round, including cycling, hiking and horseriding trails in the summer and downhill ski centres and 2000km of cross-country ski trails in the winter. To the south and east of Montréal, the Eastern Townships (Cantons-de-l’Est), which spread across the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, lure city dwellers into the country with a more opulent approach to the outdoors. Originally a place of refuge for Americans wanting to stay loyal to the British Crown during and after the American War of Independence in 1775–83, within two generations the majority of the area’s population were French Canadian. Today, although the townships maintain an anglophone veneer (and very British-sounding names), they are 94 percent francophone. The Gallic ancestry of most Townshippers is clear in their attitude towards hedonistic pleasures: surrounding themselves with specialized restaurants, vineyards and expert cheese-makers, they eat and drink in a style that combines the simplicity of the first Norman settlers with the rich tastes of the contemporary French.
Train services within the region run from Montréal to Ontario, New Brunswick and into the US as well as connecting Québec City and the north of Québec. For most destinations, buses are your best bet for getting around, with the major places connected by regular services, supplemented by a network of smaller local lines.
Although various First Nations have lived in pockets of the province for millennia and there was sporadic European contact to the east, Québec’s history really begins with Jacques Cartier’s 1535 voyage. He sailed up the St Lawrence stopping at Stadacona and Hochelaga – present-day Québec City and Montréal, respectively. The early days of the colony revolved around the fur trade and attempts to convert the Aboriginal peoples, to Christianity. The priests’ tasks were made more difficult by the fact that the French had aligned with the Algonquin and Huron nations to gain access to their fur-trading networks, while those groups’ traditional enemies, the Iroquois Confederacy, had formed alliances with the Dutch and then the British. Louis XIV made New France a royal province in 1663 dispatching troops and, subsequently, unmarried Frenchwomen, the so-called filles du roi. Periodic skirmishes between the French and British and their Aboriginal allies continued to be a destabilizing factor, stunting the growth of the colony. Matters were resolved somewhat when twelve hundred colonists met with an even greater number of Aboriginal peoples from across eastern North America at Pointe-à-Callière in Montréal to sign La Grande Paix, the Great Peace treaty of 1701.
It wasn’t until mid-century that further serious conflict broke out, with the British and French again at odds in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War). The turning point took place in 1759 with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The British consolidated their hold with the 1774 Québec Act, a pre-emptive move that helped resist American attempts to take over the colony. After the Americans won independence from Britain, a flood of United Empire Loyalists fled across the Canadian border, settling primarily in the Eastern Townships and present-day Ontario.
The creation of Lower and Upper Canada in 1791 emphasized the inequalities between anglophones and francophones and later led to rebellion. Investigating its causes, Lord Durham concluded that English and French relations were akin to “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state”. His prescription for peace was immersing French- Canadians in the English culture of North America; the subsequent 1840 Act of Union joining Lower and Upper Canada can be seen as a deliberate attempt to marginalize francophone opinion within an English-speaking state.
French-Canadians remained insulated from the economic mainstream until nineteenth- century industrialization, financed and run by the better-educated anglophones, led to a mass francophone migration to the cities. By the mid-twentieth century, a French-speaking middle class had begun to articulate the grievances of the workforce and to criticize the suffocating effect the Church was having on francophone opportunity. The shake-up of Québec society finally came about with the so-called Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, spurred by the provincial government under the leadership of Jean Lesage and his Liberal Party of Québec. The provincial government took control of welfare, health and education from the Church and, under the slogan Maîtres chez-nous (“Masters of our own house”), established state-owned industries that reversed anglophone financial domination.
In order to implement these fiscal policies, Québec needed to administer its own taxes, and the provincial Liberals, despite being staunchly federalist, were constantly at loggerheads with Ottawa. Encouraged and influenced by other nationalist struggles, Québécois’ desire for recognition and power reached a violent peak in 1970, when the terrorist Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a provincial government minister and a British diplomat in Montréal. Six years later, a massive reaction against the ruling provincial Liberals brought the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) to power. Led by René Lévesque, the PQ accelerated the process of social change, particularly with unilingual language law Bill 101 and held a referendum on sovereignty that 6.5 million people voted 60:40 against.
In 1993, Québec’s displeasure with federalism was evident in the election of the Bloc Québécois – a federal party committed to shattering federalism – to the ironic status of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in Ottawa. The separatist cause received added support in 1994 when the PQ was returned to provincial power after vowing to hold another referendum on separation from Canada. The 1995 vote was so close – Québec opted to remain within Canada by a margin of less than one percent – that calls immediately arose for a third referendum (prompting pundits to refer to the process as the “neverendum”).
In 2003, the PQ lost to the Liberals, which at the time left little hope of achieving the dream of independence. Yet the “National Question” rumbled on, as evidenced by the PQ’s return to power in 2012, helmed by Pauline Marois, the province’s first female Premier. But the victory was short-lived: in the 2014 general elections, the PQ lost heavily to the Liberal Party. The PQ’s focus on secession was partly blamed for its failure by an electorate seemingly less interested in independence. In May 2015, the controversial Pierre Karl Péladeau was elected head of the PQ, proclaiming “Independence is more alive than ever!” as he accepted the leadership. However, public enthusiasm for an outright split seems to be dwindling, and indeed Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, whose campaign headquarters were in Montréal and who is a champion of the province, has long spoken out against secession. Nonetheless, Trudeau believes that Québec needs to be more involved in the governance of Canada to keep the country culturally and politically relevant.
Francophone–anglophone relations may be the principal concern of most Québécois – eighty percent of them have French as their mother tongue – but the province’s population also includes eleven nations of aboriginal peoples, the majority of whom live on reservations. Aboriginal grievances are particularly acute in Québec as most of the province’s tribes are English-oriented – the Mohawks near Montréal even fought on the side of the British during the conquest. Still, relations are even bad between the authorities and French-speaking groups. The Hurons near Québec City battled in courts for eight years to retain their hunting rights; while around James Bay the Cree fought and won the right to block the expansion of Québec’s hydroelectric network which, had it been completed as planned, would have covered an area the size of Germany. Begun in 1971, the project nonetheless resulted in the displacement of Cree and Inuit.
Aboriginal peoples have categorically voted against separation and have used mostly peaceful methods to register their land claims, which amount to 85 percent of the province’s area. There was violence at the Mohawk uprising at Oka near Montréal in 1990, which, though condemned by most Canadians and aboriginals, drew attention to the concerns of aboriginal Canadians.
The Eastern Townships were once Québec’s quietest corner, with swaying fields and farmland punctuated by time-capsule villages. But these settlements – many spruced up with luxury inns, art galleries and antique shops – have since become a readily accessible country getaway for Montréalers: the Cantons-de-l’Est begin 80km east of Montréal – a leisurely drive – and extend to the US border. A continually growing ski industry – concentrated around Mont Sutton, just north of the Vermont border – is making its mark on the land. Yet the region’s agricultural roots are still evident, especially in spring, when the maple trees are tapped for syrup. At this time of year, remote cabanes à sucre offer sleigh rides and traditional Québécois treats such as maple taffy – strips of maple syrup frozen in the snow. You can also sample Québécois wines on La Route des Vins, which snakes through the region’s lush vineyards, and eat at superb restaurants: look for the designation of Créateurs de Saveurs Cantons-de-l’Est (Eastern Townships Creators of Flavour; wcreateursdesaveurs.com), a network of local, home-grown restaurants and cafés.
The land of the Eastern Townships, once the domain of scattered groups of aboriginal peoples, was settled by United Empire Loyalists hounded out of the US after the American Revolution. Their loyalty to the Crown resulted in freehold land grants from the British, and townships with very English names like Sherbrooke and Granby were founded. In the mid-nineteenth century the townships opened up to industry, which attracted an influx of French-Canadians seeking work: today, nearly 95 percent are francophone. For the most part, relations between the linguistic groups have been amicable, though pockets like the towns and villages around Knowlton and North Hatley remain staunchly tied to their anglophone heritage.
The serene, leafy township of Lac Brome, named after the lake in its centre, encompasses several hamlets, the most inviting of which is the petite Knowlton, known for its Loyalist history. Knowlton’s main draw is the chance to spend a peaceful weekend just milling about, sipping coffee and perusing antique shops and art galleries, which you’ll find on the two main thoroughfares, chemins Lakeside and Knowlton and other smaller streets. Knowlton also buzzes with performing arts thanks to Theatre Lac Brome (9 chemin Mont-Écho; t 450 242 2270, w theatrelacbrome.ca), which showcases English-language plays, often comedies, in July and August. Among the various lively festivals throughout the year is the late-September Lac Brome Duck Festival, with culinary demonstrations, a fragrant produce market and plenty of local libations.
Sip your way through the Eastern Townships on the 120km La Route des Vins (w laroutedesvins.ca), connecting the region’s lush vineyards, many of which are notable for their ice wines. The tourist office and the route website have an easy-to-follow map. The wine route snakes across the southwest wedge of the townships, and along the way you can indulge in Québécois wines at over a dozen vineyards. The Wines of Québec group (w winesofquebec.com) also features several wine routes throughout the region, including in Cantons de l’Est.
Domaine Les Bromet 450 242 2665, w domainelesbrome.com. West of Lac Brome, in Ville de Lac-Brome, this features a superb array of wines – and a gorgeous view of vineyards with the lake shimmering in the distance. May–Oct daily 11am–6pm; Nov–April Sat & Sun 11am–6pm.
Union Libre Cidre & Vin t 450 295 2223, w unionlibre.com. Near Vignoble L’Orpailleur in Dunham, this lively spot produces sparkling cider, ice cider and, uniquely, fire cider, made from heated fermented apples. Half-hour guided visits daily 11am–2pm & 3.30pm (includes tasting for three ciders).
Vignoble L’Orpailleurt 450 295 2763, w orpailleur.ca. Southwest of Knowlton near the village of Dunham, this friendly vineyard is well primed for visitors, with a small museum and sunny restaurant. Guided tours June to Oct three or four times daily.
Looming mightily on the north side of the St Lawrence from the Ottawa River to the Saguenay River, the Laurentians are one of the world’s oldest ranges. Five hundred million years of erosion have moulded a rippling landscape of undulating hills and valleys, and a vast sweep of coniferous forest dotted with hundreds of tranquil lakes and rivers. The most accessible stretch lies north of Montréal, even though settlement in the upper Laurentians did not begin until the 1830s, when the construction of the P’tit Train du Nord railway tracks let in the mining and lumber industries. When the decline in both industries left the area in a depression, salvation came in the form of the recreational demands of the growing populace of Montréal. The region is now one of North America’s largest ski areas, helmed by the esteemed, stylish Mont-Tremblant, and the train tracks have been replaced by a terrific cycling trail. Even with the ski crowds, much of the land has remained relatively untouched – like the Parc National du Mont-Tremblant – and the area is a must-see when autumn colours arrive. Other than Tremblant – which is pricey – rates for ski passes are around $45 a day in the decent areas, a few dollars more at weekends.
MONT-TREMBLANT (w tremblant.ca), some 130km north of Montréal, is the Laurentians’ oldest and most renowned ski area. The impressive range is crowned by its highest peak, Mont-Tremblant (960m), so called because the indigenous population believed it was the home of spirits that could move the mountain. In the 1990s, the company that developed British Columbia’s ski resort of Whistler pumped large amounts of money into Tremblant, and the resulting European-style ski village has made it a premier ski destination. The ski runs cater to all levels, with a maximum vertical drop of more than 650m and the longest ski run in Québec. One-day ski passes cost $76.
Mont-Tremblant comprises the ski resort itself plus the merged town of St-Jovite, the area’s commercial centre (now referred to as Centre-Ville Mont-Tremblant) and the pedestrian-only Mont-Tremblant Village, 10km north, which has the feel of a Québécois “toy village” and is dotted with ritzy boutiques, cute little walkways and après-ski bars. Around 5km northwest of the resort is an area that was once the town centre, which is often called the old village of Mont-Tremblant. The resort also hosts the excellent Mont Tremblant Snow School and a glitzy Casino de Mont-Tremblant (Mon–Wed & Sun 11am–1am, Thurs–Sat 11am–3am; w casinosduquebec.com/mont-tremblant), which you can reach by an aerial gondola or daily shuttle.
Québéc is prime cycling territory, as wonderfully exemplified by the Le P’tit Train du Nord trail. This disused railway line, which once ferried Montréalers to the Laurentians’ resorts, now is a major bicycle trail, running up to 230km, north from St-Jérôme to Mont-Laurier, with sweeping mountain vistas along the way. The route forms part of the superb Route Verte (Green Route; w routeverte.com), a nearly 2500km bike network that snakes its way across the province. Le P’tit Train du Nord’s former rail stations have been renovated and now often house information centres, some with facilities such as showers and snack bars. In winter, the route is used by cross-country skiers who can explore numerous side-trails branching off into the hills between St-Jérôme and Val-David, and to snowmobilers. For more information, maps and a list of services (including cycle repair, baggage transport and accommodation), check out w laurentians.com/parclineaire, or visit the regional tourist office.
The small town of MONTEBELLO, 135km west of Montréal on the scenic Hwy-148, in the lush Outaouais region, has a distinctive claim to fame: the world’s largest log building – the Fairmont Le Château Montebello. The town was named after the grand estate of seigneur, politician and Rebellion leader Louis-Joseph Papineau, which abuts the Château. Montebello also draws plenty of holiday-makers, thanks to a resort-friendly atmosphere that includes horseriding and boating. The largely wilderness stretch of the Outaouais region begins around 130km west of Montréal and extending along the north side of the Rivière Outaouais (Ottawa River). Once the domain of Algonquin tribes, the region was not developed until the 1800s, when it became an important centre for the lumber industry. The bulk of the activities here are of an outdoorsy nature – hiking, snowmobiling, cycling and cross-country skiing.
In the early 1800s, British immigrants to Lower Canada were offered townships (cantons), while francophones were not allowed to expand their holdings, exacerbating the resentment caused by the favouritism extended to English-speaking businesses in Montréal. The situation was worsened by high taxes on British imports and a savage economic depression in 1837. Wearing Canadian-made garments of étoffe du pays as a protest against British imports, the leaders of Lower Canada reform – known as the Patriotes – rallied francophones to rebel in Montréal. As Louis-Joseph Papineau, the Outaouais region seigneur whose speeches in the Assembly had encouraged the rebellions, fled the city, fearful that his presence would incite more rioting, the government sent military detachments to the countryside, the hotbed of the Patriotes. Two hundred Patriotes took refuge in the church of St-Eustache, a town that lies about 35km west of Montréal. Eighty of them were killed by British troops, who went on to raze much of the town. The bloody rebellion became known as the Battle of St-Eustache, and the town’s riverside historic centre, Vieux St-Eustache, still holds the scars of this tragic past. The church, Église St-Eustache (123 rue St-Louis t 450 974 5170), restored in 1841 after the battle, offers free guided tours (mid-June to mid-August: hours vary, but generally Tues–Fri 9.30am–4.30pm, Sun noon–4.30pm). St-Eustache can be reached by driving through the suburbs northwest of Montréal by Hwy-13 or 15, then southwest on Hwy-640.