Quebec City culture in the spotlight

Date 03/11/2016

Written byTaylor Ireland

If you’ve lived in Quebec City for an extended period of time it’s easy to forget – or take for granted – what is probably the most extraordinary thing about the place: It is a relatively large island of French in a sea of English that is North America – excluding Mexico, of course.

Census figures put the population of the Quebec City metropolitan area at more than 800,000, placing it seventh in Canada and in the top 20 in the United States. Nearly 95 percent of that population live, work and are entertained exclusively in French. It’s staggering to think how this is possible given the overwhelming influence of the English language and culture on the continent and much of the world.

While Montreal is firmly entrenched as a cosmopolitan crossroads of French, English and multitude of other ethnicities, Quebec City, for better or worse, is a remarkable example of how the iron will to preserve the French language has been a roaring, though hard-won, success.  The large number of buildings in the city’s old business district with signage only in English is a testament to that struggle to preserve French.

And perhaps the most eloquent example of how well the city has succeeded in preserving and promoting its identity is its truly amazing proliferation of cultural offerings.

It was obviously in recognition of that unique reality that Quebec City recently won the Leading Cultural Destinations award for the year, beating out Los Angeles and Lyon, France. The city’s deputy mayor, Michelle Morin-Doyle, attended the awards ceremony in London, England, last month.

Mayor Regis Labeaume had this to say about this global honour: « Our unique character and knack for innovation were deciding factors. But most of all, the jury was impressed by our bold cultural initiatives, like the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion at Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. We did not solicit this award—we were recommended by ambassadors from around the world. That makes this international recognition truly exceptional. »

The Lassonde Pavilion the mayor mentioned is an interesting example of how Quebec City’s culture is a reflection of its history. Globally-renown architects designed the elegant, ultra-modern structure, sheathed in special glass manufactured locally. It is integrated with a historic church, and connects the museum’s other main structures, a castle-like former prison from the 1800s and a classic exhibition building from early in the last century. It’s also somewhat symbolic of Quebec’s abundance of natural resources, that the base funding for the $100 million pavilion was a large donation from philanthropist Pierre Lassonde who made his fortune in gold mining.

The Lassonde pavilion allows hundreds of works of Quebec art to be viewed in a stunning setting, works that would have stayed in storage otherwise due to lack of space. While the pavilion is the shiny new gem in the city’s cultural showcase, it is just one of countless world-class attractions devoted to visual and performance arts.

 While we’re on the topic of impressive arts buildings, we must mention the Palais Montcalm, located just outside the walls of the old city in Place d’Youville. The original art deco-style building opened in 1932 and contained a concert hall, a library and, believe it or not, a swimming pool.

In 2007, the building underwent major renovations which blessed it with what has been described as perfect acoustics – all the better to appreciate the world-class Violons de Roy ensemble that makes its home there. The Palais is also the very classy main screen for Quebec’s annual film festival in September.

The city’s largest concert hall is the Grand Theatre, opened in 1971, with a seating capacity of 2,600. Over the years it has welcomed performers of all types, from David Copperfield’s magic shows to some of the world’s greatest singers, musicians and actors. The theatre is home base for the top notch Quebec Symphony Orchestra as well as several other performance ensembles. The theatre also hosts outstanding opera productions and the popular summer opera festival. Another festival it welcomes is the annual comedy extravaganza, which has become so popular a year-round comedy club has just sprung up. By the way, comedy in the English language is increasingly present in the city. In recent years stars like Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg have played for large crowds here.

Speaking of festivals, there seems to be one to please just about anybody’s tastes. Of course, the biggest one is the annual July summer music festival, Festival d’étè, which offers the biggest names in music performing on stages around the old city, including the monster one on the scenic Plains of Abraham.

There are other smaller-scale festivals dedicated to jazz, ancient music, alternative and emerging artists, theatre, visual arts, magic and circus performance. The Fêtes de la Nouvelles France takes place in August and is a celebration of the culture, traditions and food of the early years of the French colony.

All of the attractions mentioned above can be enjoyed no matter what language you speak – though some of the comedy might be harder to digest than the food. But there’s plenty of culture available in English, or through English-language institutions. The Morrin Centre, operated by the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec – one of the oldest learned societies in the western world – has an outstanding programme of cultural offerings year-round. The ImagiNation writers festival, for example, has welcomed authors of renown from Emma Donaghue (Room), to Phillip Kerr (Berlin Noir), to Lawrence Hill (Book of Negroes). We should note that the Morrin Centre houses a fascinating museum exploring the building’s origins as the first British prison in Canada.

Which brings us back to where we started, with museums, and befitting a city with so much history, there are plenty of them, from small and obscure, to the big and sweeping. I’ll mention just two here. The Ursulines Museum in the old city is a beautifully presented look at the life and times of the religious order that played such a crucial role in Nouvelle France, including the school it runs to this day. The museum on the Plains of Abraham is an excellent look at the famous 1759 battle on the field, including a powerful multimedia presentation of how that skirmish must have felt.

The above is literally merely a sketch of the full panoply of offerings in a city with global-class culture – with yet another international award to prove it.