Quebec, often called “La Belle Province”, is Canada’s second-most populous province and the second largest French-speaking state in the world (after France). Quebec is also the largest province in Canada by area, although most of the people live along the St. Laurence seaway in first-class cities like Montreal and Quebec City.

Quebec was originally founded as a French military-mercantile colony near the fort of Quebec in 1601. The fort grew in size and importance over the course of a century, becoming a small town and then a bustling New World city by 1730. In 1763 Quebec was given to England after the British defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham during the Seven Years War (also called the French & Indian Wars).

Today Quebec city remains a bustling city. It is the provincial capital of the province and has retained the old-world European charm. Vielle Quebec (Old Quebec) is still a stone-walled fort on an imposing hill in the center of the city, and narrow 18th-Century stone staircases and cobbled roads criss-cross each other around cafes and gardens and tourist shops. Outside of the center the city has a very 21st Century feel, complete with gigantic plasma screen advertisements and gridlocked traffic at rush hour.

The fortress Vielle Quebec

Old Quebec streets

Quebec City in winter

West of Quebec City lies the most famous city of the province, Montreal. The second largest city in Canada, with 3.5 million inhabitants, Montreal is considered one of the cosmopolitan cities in the world, and is a hub of fashion and the arts, music, film and cuisine. The cities sprawls across both banks of the St. Laurence seaway and the core of the city covers the massive island of Montreal in the middle. Montreal has its own subway system (the Metro) and the fourth largest deep water sea port in North America.

Montreal at night

French is officially spoken in Montreal, as in the rest of Quebec, but the latest census demographics show that only 59% of people speak French at home (compared to over 88% in the rest of the province). Instead, hundreds of different languages are spoken in Montreal as it remains one of the most popular immigrant destinations in Canada, although English is by far the most popular second language.

The Montreal Olympic Stadium, host to the 1969 Summer Olympics

The Province of Quebec (PQ) was officially formed in 1867 as one of the founding four members of Confederation that created the nation of Canada. Before 1867, however, it was known as Lower Canada (because geographically it is lower in altitude than Ontario, which was known as Upper Canada).

There has been a long struggle with French nationalism in Quebec. Ever since 1763 a large proportion of Quebec’s population has tried to ascertain independence for the province. This movement became even more heated once Confederation was formed and many Quebecois have felt that their traditional French culture and language is threatened by the much more influential English-Canadian provinces.

This nationalism flared up in 1917 when the federal government announced universal conscription to replace increasing losses in the First World War. Riots broke out across the province and Montreal was nearly burned to the ground. The French MPs in Parliament walked out in protest to what was seen as French people being forced to fight for English Canada, and the government almost fell. As a result the government backed down and conscription in Canada was avoided.

The same issue reared its head in 1944 but this time the Quebecois quietly went along with it, as the threat to the world posed by the Nazis and the Japanese was much more obvious than the imperialist war of a generation earlier. Quebec nationalism, however, continued to quietly grow.

Successive seperatist governments were elected and students groups and fervent nationalists became more mobilized in what has become known as the “Quiet Revolution”. In 1963 this led to a new danger never-before seen in Canada, the terrorist organization who called themselves the Front du Liberation de Quebec, or FLQ for short.

Members were sent to Algeria for training along with Muslim extremists, IRA soldiers and European Communist fanatics, and when they returned to Quebec they unleashed a rain of bombs and kidnappings throughout the province. In 1969 Prime-Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act in Quebec and the cities of Montreal and Quebec City were placed under strict curfew. The army was mobilized throughout the province and individual rights were temporarily suspended. Nevertheless, bombs continued to explode in restaurants and English-Canadian schools, and in 1970 the Vice-Premier of Quebec, Ernest Laporte, was kidnapped and strangled with his own rosary beads.

A soldier stands watch on the streets of Montreal during the FLQ Crisis

The government crackdown on the FLQ was too intense to resist, however, and by 1972 over 400 suspected terrorists had been arrested, including all the leadership and the members of the cell who had murdered Laporte. The FLQ had ceased to exist by 1975.

In its place rose a political entity who would spend the next 40 years trying to gain Quebec independence from Canada through democratic means: the Parti Quebecois and its federal offshoot, the Bloc Quebecois. In 1978 the Parti Quebecois was elected into the Provincial legislature and brought in the contraversial “Language Laws”, in which all signage and official correspondence has to be in French. This led to a mass exodus of the Anglophone community and businesses out of Quebec. In 1995 Quebec’s seperatist government held a referendum on Quebec sovereignity and lost by a margin of only 0.5%. Since then seperatist ambitions have settled down but they still bubble just under the surface of Quebec society, particularly in the rural areas of the province.

During the 1995 Referendum Quebec nationalism and Canadian patriotism met on the streets of Quebec City and Montreal in one of the most memorable moments in Canadian history.

Despite the long and complicated history of Quebec, the province has been one of the movers and shakers in Canada, and is considered by some to be the one place where a uniquely Canadian culture exists. Quebec gave the world maple syrup and coffee cream, and Montreal is considered to be the modern home of the bagel. The only University in Canada that can be considered an “Ivy League” school in the American sense is McGill University in Montreal. Numerous artists and singers and actors that are known throughout the world hail from Quebec, and the world-famous Cirque De Soleil is one of Montreal’s exports. With all the cultural gifts Quebec has given the world, it’s time we forgave them for Celine Dion.

Small town on the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec
McGill University, among the best schools in the world.
Quebec license plate. “Je Me Souviens” is French for “I Remember”.

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