So, You’re From Canada… Montreal?

Backpacker: So, where are you from?

Me: Canada

Backpacker: Ooh… Montreal!?

Me: No, Alberta.  It’s in the west.

Backpacker:  But you speak French, right?

Me: Well… no.

Over the past six months of traveling, I’ve been asked at least three times per day if I’m a) from Montreal, and/or b) speak French.  Although I have caught the association between Canada and our French-Canadian culture on previous backpacking trips, I am more used to people relating Canada more with the U.S., and had never before noticed the Québécois connection to this extent.  It’s something that I find very perplexing.

My initial reaction is to consider the people who are making this assumption.  The people I have met in South American hostels have been almost exclusively European.  In Rio de Janeiro, I ran into some businessmen from California, in which case the conversation went something more like this:

Them: So, where in Canada are you from?  Toronto?  Vancouver?

Me: Edmonton, actually.  In Alberta.

Them: Nope… can’t say I know Alberta.

Me: It’s above Montana.  You know, the Edmonton Oilers?

Them: Ah, the Oilers.  Of course.

Clearly, Americans have a different perspective of Canada than the rest of the world.  But that leads to a better question… why does the latter identify Canada primarily with Montreal?

Cartoon from The New Yorker
Cartoon from The New Yorker

As a Canadian, I think I can safely say that we would not consider Quebec representative of our nation as a whole.  In particular, Albertans have a special place in their personal political platforms for French-Canada.  “Quebec isn’t Canada” seems to be the reigning attitude.  The average Albertan’s understanding of French-Canadian culture is very limited, and ideas like language rights, separatism/sovereignty, and Catholicism are largely at odds with the Conservative West.

This lack of understanding contributes to what I would call a fractured Canadian identity.  Yes, we are a multicultural nation, which is in many ways a wonderful concept.  A policy of multiculturalism helps immigrants integrate (as opposed to assimilate) into society, discourages racism and instead enforces respect and tolerance.  However, multiculturalism naturally prevents a true, unified Canadian “identity.”  When asked about typical Canadian foods or music, I struggle for an answer, and list off  a couple of items by province.   (Steak and potatoes in Alberta, salmon in B.C.; country music in the west, Celtic music on the East Coast). When pressed for details about the Canadian identity, I toss around abstract terms like “progressive,” “tolerance,” “overly-apologetic,” “multicultural” and “non-American,” without painting a real picture of our people.  We are a patriotic nation, but do we even have a solid understanding of our own culture?

Maybe that’s why many foreigners relate Canada with Quebec/Montreal — unlike the nation as a whole, the Québécois have a definable cultural identity.  Although Quebec is, as most places, a province in transition, many aspects of French-Canadian culture (such as language, nationalism, and religion), have strong historical roots.  Although the same could be said about the existence of British culture, British culture has not been retained to the same level as French culture in Quebec.  In my opinion, this is because French-Canadian culture has largely been developed and preserved in defense against or opposition to British culture.  After the conquest of New France in the Seven Year’s War, the British governor sought a way to secure allegiance of the new French citizens to the British monarch.  In 1774, the government passed the Quebec Act, which guaranteed the Québécois’ rights to practice Roman Catholicism; reinstated the French seigneurial land-use system; and preserved the use of French law for civil cases.  This act was the first step in the protection of a unique French-Canadian identity, an identity which continued to develop as a foil to British domination.

After Confederation, the government increased foreign immigration in hopes of filling the new provinces.  Although Britain retained political control, Anglo culture slowly became diluted with the arrival of these immigrants and the subsequent integration of new cultural subsets alongside that of the Québécois.   Over the years, the new nation of Canada moved towards an official policy of multiculturalism, while within the evolving Canadian identity, French-Canadian culture continued to hold strong.  In this sense, Québécois culture has been in development for almost 500 years, whereas Canada is still in its adolescence.

With all of this in mind, I am now trying to reconsider my view of Canada.  Perhaps, in order to construct an understanding of the Canadian identity as a whole, I need to have an appreciation for its various parts and explore it as a tourist instead of as a resident.  Eat the foods, listen to the music, visit new places.  Where to start?  I can think of no better place than Montreal.