Salute to a city armed with a forceful military presence

Date 08/11/2019

Written byTaylor Ireland

Quebec City is well-known as a wonder of historic, scenic, bucolic, gastronomic – we could go on and on – attractions. But what almost gets taken for granted is that the place was originally and continues to be a vitally important military town. In fact, if the city didn’t have so many other things driving its economy, the military presence alone would be a major engine.

Quebec’s military history is more than obvious to the many thousands of visitors who flock here; after all, one of the most distinctive and exceptional features of the city is its impressive stone walls. Though a modern city sprung up and expanded outside the fortifications, it’s worth bearing in mind that long ago the walls were built, at huge expense and effort, to keep invaders from capturing the city.

Another example of the living presence of the city’s military history is the extraordinary Plains of Abraham park that runs between the steep cliff along the Saint Lawrence River waterfront to Grande Allée, the city’s majestic main boulevard into the Old City. The sprawling greenspace, managed by a federal government agency, the National Battlefields Commission, was indeed the site of a battle in September, 1759, a rather game-changing one, in which New France ultimately became British North America. 

Almost all the surviving military installations in the city were built by the British, initially to repel French attempts to retake the highly strategic river gateway to North America; that never happened, but later on, as the American colonies flexed their muscles, they made several failed attempts to capture Quebec – although they did succeed in briefly claiming Montreal.

That said, none of the cannons along the ramparts of the Old City has ever been fired in combat – which is interesting for a city known for the response of  Governor Frontenac (for whom the famous hotel is named) to British invaders in 1690 asking him to surrender: “I will reply with the mouths of my cannons!” (The French won this battle).

On the other hand, most of the amazing collection of cannons and other artillery on display on the Plains of Abraham have seen battle, from colonial wars, to wars in Europe in the 20th century.

The “star” attraction, though, of the city’s multitude of military features, would certainly be the Citadel, the star-shaped fortress within the Old City, overlooking the river high up on Cap Diamant. Since the French regime in the 17th century, the site has been the strategic cornerstone of the city, earning it the name Gibraltar of North America. 

The British built the current Citadel beginning in the early 19th century  and since then it’s been maintained and refurbished to fit the complex’s current role as headquarters for the fabled Royal 22nd Regiment, which operates a fascinating museum in one of its buildings. It is also an official residence for the governor general of Canada whenever he or she is in town. The changing of the guard, by bearskin-hatted soldiers, is a popular tourist attraction.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s first French-speaking prime minister, and a long-time member of Parliament for the city, romanticized about Quebec’s military history: “At every step you take, a monument, a building, stone or patch of sky at the end of a narrow street brings to mind a world of heroic events.”

It’s a bit of a miracle that the vestiges of Quebec City’s military past are so evident and so well-preserved. For example, at various stages of the city’s development there were movements to demolish the walls because they were an impediment to urban growth. While the two main gateways, Port Saint Jean and Port Saint Louis, were indeed widened to make way for burgeoning motorized traffic, the fortress-like walls themselves have been maintained and enhanced, to the delight and amazement of the throngs of tourists who marvel at such a powerful reminder of the past.

The historical military aspect is an essential element of the city’s character, and an important revenue-generator for tourism, but the present day military presence is one of the major economic pillars of the area. The Valcartier Canadian Forces Base, about 30 km north of the Citadel, has been described as a “city within a city.” That’s because some 6,500 armed forces personnel and 1,500 civilian employees work there on a daily basis. Including family members, the military population in Quebec City is about 20,000, the majority of whom live off the base.

CFB Valcartier is home to three regular forces battalions of the Royal 22nd Regiment – the Van Doos, in colloquial English – plus two reserve battalions and one of the best military bands around. The base, founded as a training centre in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, is considered the fourth largest employer in the city behind the Desjardins financial company, the combined hospital network, and Université Laval.

The base purchases directly from city suppliers some $130 million in goods every year, and much of the nearly $600 million in salaries for employees finds its way into the city’s economy. 

Besides the major army operations in the city, it is only natural a key maritime city like Quebec should have a significant navy presence. The city is the home of the Royal Canadian Navy’s  Naval Reserve Headquarters, overseeing the 24 naval reserve divisions in cities across the country, including Quebec’s own HMCS Montcalm. It is also home to a Navy fleet school to train mostly reservists in essential skills.

The Naval Museum of Quebec, located at the naval complex on the shorefront, is stocked with a fascinating array of artifacts, photos and displays telling the story of Canada’s naval history along the Saint Lawrence River and overseas.

We’re leaving a lot of things out, but I hope this “salute” to the military in Quebec City makes the point that those who have served in uniform have always been, are now, and will continue to be an essential part of the heart and soul of the city.