Canada: Dan Snow finds Quebec full of British history and Gallic charm

Written by Rachel on April 1st, 2010

From the Mail online:
I arrived in Quebec on the trail of a famous British victory. Just over 250 years ago on a plain above the city, a British army in the heart of enemy territory, and wholly outnumbered, fought a battle which would change the world.

The Battle of Quebec was a triumph for British General James Wolfe, who died from musket wounds at the glorious moment of victory.

The battle is now largely forgotten but it is a story that was once familiar to every British schoolchild and a founding myth of the British Empire.

The details are relatively simple. The British Government sent a fleet of nearly 200 ships carrying 20,000 men on an extremely hazardous mission through uncharted waters.

The battle would become the template for how Britain would go on to conquer vast areas of the world and British victory at Quebec led to the creation of modern America as we know it today.

It was the pivotal encounter of the Seven Years War in which the world’s two great superpowers, Britain and France, fought over the future of the American continent. At the centre of the conflict lay Quebec, the capital of what the French called New France. At its peak in 1712 the territory of New France was vast, extending from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

Travelling back in time: Half-Canadian Dan Snow has always been fascinated by country's history

I am half-Canadian (my mother comes from Toronto) and I’ve always been fascinated by the events of 1759. During my schoolboy summer holidays in Canada I used to hear stories of that battle, tales of the British army’s daring exploits on the water and on the battlefield.

Recently I spent three years writing a book – Death Or Victory – on the subject of the battle. Last year I was fortunate enough to spend time making a film which relates the events outlined in my book.

Working on the film gave me another very welcome chance to remind myself just what a fantastic country Canada is for a holiday.

As a boy I spent much of the time in Toronto but as I grew up I went out West, like all young Canadians seem to do. Those were good times: we had the chance to hike and live life to the full – it was great fun.

Now I don’t understand why so many young British people choose to head to New Zealand for their gap-year adventure. Half of my friends tell me that their great ambition in life is to head Down Under.

It takes ages to get there and once you arrive, because of the jet lag and the time difference, you feel terrible for the first week.

New Zealand is very nice but pretty empty. For the most part the scenery isn’t great. People get excited about the prospect of going bungee-jumping in Queenstown on New Zealand’s tiny South Island, but Canadian towns such as Banff, Canmore and Jasper are so much more fun, much more accessible and a whole lot more exciting. Canada or New Zealand? To me it’s a no-brainer.

Canada is beautiful on an epic scale: from the lovely eastern seaboard and the wonderful lakes of Quebec and Ontario through the prairies to the Rockies, it’s all simply wonderful.

The Canadian Rockies, in my opinion, is one of the best places on Earth. Jasper and Banff are unbelievable. I don’t know why young people aren’t hiring cars to drive up and down the Rockies.

The weather is reliably good on the west of Canada – hot in the summer, and with amazing skiing in the winter. The people there are wonderful and the ambience is safe and friendly – crime, for example, isn’t a problem.

As a student I worked as a guide in the Rockies. Without a doubt, it was the best time of my life – a simply wonderful experience. For those three months that I was guiding, I didn’t watch TV once.

I used to be outside every day hiking with the lovely guests who were staying at the Mount Xiboine Lodge next to Banff National Park, a three-hour drive from Calgary. Assiniboine is a historic log lodge on the Great Divide which forms the border between Alberta and British Columbia.

There were unforgettable nights spent drinking whisky under the stars. I blush to remember that I used to try to kiss all the girls . . . they, of course, wouldn’t kiss me. But, hey, I was 19 and it was all quite natural back then.

It was a wonderfully formative experience: growing up and being away from home and being very healthy from hiking all day (even if drinking whisky all night wasn’t a particularly good idea). We thought nothing of getting up at six in the morning after just three hours’ sleep and going for a long day’s hike. Life doesn’t get much better.

But I also love the Canadian cities: places like Edmonton and Calgary or Montreal and Toronto are all highly cosmopolitan and very cultural – they make Auckland look like a village. Actually the best Canadian cities are as good as New York and Chicago in many ways.

There is a strong British feel to Canada, but it manifests its Britishness in a much more vibrant way than New Zealand does. New Zealand is British in some dreadful frozen-dead-and-stored-up way. In Canada the country is British in an exciting, slightly evolved way, which I love.

Unlike the US, which broke away from Britain at the end of the 18th Century, Canada maintained its connection with the mother country and evolved with us. The Canadians fought alongside us with great distinction in the First and Second World Wars.

And then there’s Quebec. The amazing thing about the place is that it’s like a microcosm – a tiny pocket of what history might have been like, a controlled experiment: this is what all of North America might have been like if France had defeated the British forces 250 years ago.

Quebec is absolutely French: there are French restaurants, people speak French, they listen to French music.

In the villages of Quebec province, there’s a peasant French way of life where they keep the old Catholic faith. It’s amazing to think that the whole of North America – not just Quebec – could have ended up like this.

The US city of Pittsburgh, for example, began life as a French city. It’s easy to imagine that the United States might have become French rather than British. The fact that it didn’t was due entirely to the events of the Seven Years War.

And now the major part of what remains of that French history is Quebec. Just as Wales and the Welsh is what remained after the ancient Britons were pushed out of England when the Saxons moved in, so in Quebec you are offered a tantalising glimpse of how things could have been.

In many places in the world you have these little pockets which have clung on to their original culture and language after the rest of the country was swamped by newcomers. This is what is so interesting about Quebec – the last bastion of the original French colony.

Today, Quebec is an absolutely stunning place: it’s a city, after all, with 400 years of wonderful history – in terms of the buildings you see, it is older than Glasgow or Manchester.

And there’s not just fantastic history – visitors can also enjoy great culture and wonderful food. Quebec is a brilliant walking city: you can walk the old battlements of the town. The Plains of Abraham, where the decisive Battle of Quebec took place, is now a superb national park with incredible views over the St Lawrence river below.

Another must-see is the Montmorency Falls situated about seven miles from the heart of old Quebec City. The falls, at 275ft high, are the highest in the province of Quebec and 98ft higher than Niagara Falls. Nearby are the remains of earthen forts built by General Wolfe which were constructed in 1759. The landings below Quebec City were repulsed by General Montcalm at Montmorency Falls, costing the British 440 men.

And while people in Britain may have forgotten about the battle, not surprisingly it remains an emotive subject for the locals. For the French the prevailing opinion about Wolfe’s victory, not surprisingly, is: ‘We was robbed’.

One of Quebec’s great attractions is the amazing annual ice festival. Activities include a race across the frozen St Lawrence river and the chance to slide down in a bobsled from the highest part of the city to the lowest.

You also get the chance to eat Quebec moose. These incredible animals, huge and powerful with hauntingly beautiful calls that can be heard for miles, are found in great numbers in the wilderness that makes up most of Quebec province. The Quebecois also love to eat them. I found the meat very gamey at first but it definitely grew on me.

Every July Quebec city also hosts the Summer Festival, the largest French-speaking cultural festival in North America, which features a wide range of performing arts events held on the city’s streets and squares.

Another great adventure is to head north from Quebec into the Laurentian mountains, a fabulous wilderness area. People flock here in the autumn for the fiery array of colours of the trees. I enjoy the drive north, watching as the lush farmland slowly gives way to rock and trees – there are very, very old trees up here and breathtaking views around almost every turn.

Vibrant Montreal, the second largest city in Canada and the largest in Quebec province, is 150 miles from Quebec. Montreal is a truly dynamic place. Thanks to immigration from francophone countries, you can – for example – enjoy amazing West African food. In the winter there is great skiing north of Montreal: Mont Tremblant, the highest peak in the Laurentians, is 70 miles from Montreal and a popular winter sports resort.

I don’t get an awful lot of time to take holidays these days as, fortunately, I’m always travelling for work. So when I have a break I tend to want to stay in Britain. I love going to Devon, I adore Scotland and Cumbria.

I love Britain – all of it is fantastic, the people and the food: eating is a special pleasure when I’m on holiday.

What I don’t want to do is to go to some tropical place and just lie on a beach – this is the most dreadful pastime that I could possibly imagine.

I love sailing, I don’t mind heading to very hot destinations, I adore getting out on the sea (or skimming over it while kite surfing). I’m very fond of coastlines – but doing nothing but lazing on the sand seems to me like a farcically wasted day.

I do like sitting in the shade somewhere near the beach and reading a good book: point me to some shady rocks or pleasantly located trees, fine. But don’t put me on an industrial beach with a million other people.

And while I also love sailing in the Caribbean or relaxing in Thailand, they really can’t match the delights of Canada.

As a holiday place Canada has everything. It’s time more British people discovered its extraordinary charms. They could do worse than start their journey in Quebec, a city where a small British army stunned the French and changed the world.


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