We had some friends over to the house yesterday, and for whatever reason Canada came into the conversation. One of our guests immediately piped up saying that she could name all nine provinces. With a bit of help, she did name all ten, even though she was sweating a bit when I told her that the Northwest Territories weren’t a province. Better than the average American, in any case.
What prompted this post was her mention of Quebec City and what a wonderful place it is. Well, that brought back a flood of memories from forty years ago. At the beginning of May 1974, I quit working for the CNR, packed up my stuff on my Honda CB350, and headed east. By the time the end of June rolled around, I was in Quebec. First in Montreal, and then in Quebec City, just in time for the St. Jean Baptiste long weekend. I haven’t been to Quebec City since then so I can’t say what it is like now, but forty years ago it wasn’t a very welcoming place for an Anglophone armed only with really crappy high school French.
But before I go on, a bit of a history lesson is needed. Americans seem to think they have a monopoly on terrorism, but back in the late 60′s, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) was fighting for Quebec independence. At first they bombed mailboxes in predominately Anglophone areas, but ratcheted up the violence by bombing the Montreal Stock exchange and a few other public institutions. They supported themselves by robbing banks and using the proceeds to buy arms and explosives. I don’t think they actually killed anyone until October 1970 when they kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner James Cross and the Quebec Justice minister Pierre LaPorte. At that point, Prime Minister Trudeau essentially declared martial law. A huge constitutional crisis erupted while the Canadian Armed Forces patrolled the streets in various cities in Ontario and Quebec. Eventually Pierre LaPorte was strangled by his captors, James Cross was released, and the kidnappers were put on a plane to Cuba. Federal troops were finally withdrawn from Quebec in January 1971. The separatists switched from violence to politics, and even though the separatists have lost several referenda, separatist emotions run high to this day.
So in June 1974, 3-1/2 years after the end of the crisis, with anti-English sentiment still running high, I was in Quebec City. Just in time for the celebrations for St. Jean Baptiste, the patron saint of French Quebec. The welcome was cold. And wet. I had ridden in that day from Montreal in the driving rain, and was soaked to the skin. As I was headed into town, I stopped at a traffic light, and was surprised when the guy in a car plastered with TV logos (I think it was channel 9) pulled up beside me and rolled down his window and asked, “Did you really drive that thing all the way from Alberta?” I nodded yes as the light turned green. He told me to follow him. Wondering what I was getting into, I followed him. Having been raised in a conservative Mennonite family in a conservative Saskatchewan city, I was still uncomfortable with with guys hitting on me. I know, I know. It’s hard to imagine me being attractive to males of a certain sexual orientation, but judging by the number of times I had been hit upon, I must have been reasonably hot stuff way back in the day. In any case, I followed him all the way into the heart of Old Quebec City. We parked in a narrow street about a half block from the Chateau Frontenac, and I followed him up a couple of flights of stairs to a tiny apartment. Once we got in, he grabbed a couple of packed suitcases off the bed, told me that he had been in Alberta a couple of years ago, had been treated really well, and wanted to return the favor. He said he had to go to Montreal for the weekend, but on the way out he tossed me the apartment keys saying, “Have a good time and don’t rip off anything.” I never did get his name, and was so flabbergasted I didn’t thank him properly.
So that was the beginning of a great weekend in potentially hostile territory. I’ll never forget that random act of kindness.
Here, for your viewing pleasure, is a shot of me and my faithful steed that same summer in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
And for an extra added bonus, here’s a shot from the same trip that I took of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaking to a crowd on a street in Ottawa.