Monday 12 January 2015

"Je Me Souviens" But Not Enough: Finding History in Vieux-Québec

 Je me souviens.

"I remember." That's the motto for the province of Quebec, and something that resonates in the hearts and minds of Canadians everywhere. Rightly or wrongly so, Quebec and its people have a strong association with the country's history; they are the proverbial guardians of Canada's French heritage. And whether you see it as a good thing (as a rallying cry to maintain history and culture) or a bad thing (as a means to hold on to old grudges from centuries past), there is no denying that something is being remembered in Quebec City, at all times.

So when I had the chance to finally visit Quebec City in October 2014 for a family vacation, I was very excited. This was something I had been wanting to do for a very long time. Sure, I had been to Quebec numerous times in the past, growing up - but the last time was over ten years ago, back when I had little respect or appreciation for Canada and its history.

This time, especially with a secret desire to glean some firsthand knowledge for historical fiction-writing purposes, would be different. This time, I thought, I would be inspired.

Just a small bonus: This is the hotel that I stayed at on one of my earlier childhood trips to Quebec. It's right on the edge of the Plains of Abraham.
In the past, I have had some very fruitful "research trips," as I like to call these excursions. I'd been to Boston and London, and while neither was a fully immersive experience, I came home with a deeper sense of the history and culture of these places and the significance they had to the people who lived there. In Boston, walking the Freedom Trail, I could see the birthplace of the American Revolution; meanwhile, in London, I felt myself transported to a different world.

Quebec, for me, was going to be the mother lode. What else could it be? This was where I wanted my stories to be set. I was a history enthusiast with a mission: to show the world that Canada was - and still is - important. That even two hundred years ago, we were something, and all one had to do was go to Quebec, the pinnacle of Canadian historical preservation, to see it.

For the most part, I wasn't disappointed. There is, in Vieux-Québec (i.e. the Old City of Quebec), a certain quaintness that I could easily envision working in the 18th century. There were old houses (some dating to the 18th century or even earlier - a rare sight, given the British bombardment of 1759), cobblestone streets, and the same narrow alleys and steep pathways that the city's past inhabitants navigated on a daily basis.

One of the several routes connecting the Upper Town and Lower Town. And yes, it is as steep as it looks. That doesn't deter locals, though: I saw a whole group of schoolchildren running down the sidewalk after their classes let out for the day.

Part of the foundations from some of Québec's historic buildings.
Not only that, but if I was willing to look closely, there were some very overt nods to a time gone by. For instance, in the Upper Town, I stumbled across one of Vieux-Québéc's odder landmarks.

This, mes amis, is a cannonball stuck in the roots of a tree in an otherwise unspectacular alleyway. There are two different stories as to how it got there: one is that it was a cannonball left from the British bombardment of Québec during the Siege of 1759 around which the tree grew; the other is that the ball was deliberately placed there when the tree was younger and smaller to discourage vehicular traffic from running over the roots. Both versions of the story are equally plausible - although I am rather romantically inclined to go with the first. After all, that was what I was in Quebec for: to discover some hint of what life was like in the 18th century. And finding an authentic cannonball from the period would certainly help there.

I also discovered, not surprisingly, that Canada and its government could have a rather biting sense of humour and irony. For evidence of this, I present to you the Duke of Kent House.

This building now houses the French Consulate in the city of Québec. And while it has certainly been expanded from its original 18th century size, this was also the place where the French signed the capitulation documents in September 1759, formally surrendering Québec to the British. Perhaps no offhanded jab was intended in the Duke of Kent House being adopted by the French Consulate, but given that many Québécois still bear resentment towards France for giving them up all those years ago...I can't help but wonder if there was. Either way, this simply could not be coincidence, in my mind, and would be a worthwhile avenue to explore.

All this being said, given my interest in Quebec during the Seven Years' War - and the 1759 campaign in particular - it's only fair that I really go to the mother ship itself: the Plains of Abraham. Now called Battlefields Park, this area just outside of the city walls has been preserved and is open to the public, serving as a site for many events great and small throughout the year.

Sculptures of Generals Wolfe and Montcalm - the British and French commanders respectively during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham - on the façade of Québec's parliament building. These were two out of many such sculptures depicting famous figures from the province's history.
This was not my first visit to the Plains of Abraham. Like many other Canadian schoolchildren, I came here on a trip with my classmates, and took part in a rather half-hearted re-enactment of the battle. So I was definitely looking forward to returning here to get a renewed look at the place.

And this was when my dream veered sharply off course.

I've been on a historic battlefield before: Bunker Hill in Boston. There, I remember being able to stand on top of the hill, look down towards the harbour, and have the whole battle just mentally "click" into place. I could envision the British assault, the colonial defence...the actual hushed solemnity that one associates with a site of bloodshed.

Surely, given my passion for the subject and my strong sense of mission re: Canadian history, this would be almost like a sacred site for me. If I could bring myself to feel for a battle fought on foreign soil - and feel sympathy for the side I was raised to revile - then doubtless I would feel that again here. At home. And many times more.

Instead, I felt nothing.

I can't explain it. Even now, a few months later, I still can't put into words what came over me. When I stepped out from the city walls to look at the Plains, all I saw was a public park. No more, no less.

I tried to feel more than that. Really, I did. I started walking slowly and determinedly along the edge of the park, staring intently into it, earning strange looks and prodding questions from the others in my party. "Do you want to go down into the park?" they asked. I wanted to. But the slope going down into the field was steep, it was about to rain, and I knew that in everyone else's eyes, this really was just a park. So instead, I kept walking and staring, caught up in my own existential crisis on the Plains of Abraham.

What sort of a Canadian history buff would I be if I couldn't bring myself to feel? What sort of a Canadian would I be, altogether, if I could feel more for an American battlefield than my own?

I will say, however, that I found myself inexplicably drawn to this copse of trees. Perhaps I subconsciously remembered it from that school re-enactment all those years ago.
I still don't know why I was unable to feel the same sense of transportation into the past that I did at Bunker Hill. Perhaps I was choked by my own expectations - feelings, after all, could not be forced, and if there was one thing I knew, it was that I was forcing them. Perhaps I felt that the site I saw simply could not be what I had had in my imagination. Perhaps, on some subconscious level, I felt that the Plains had been changed, somewhere in the intervening two hundred and fifty years, into a tourist attraction: a place far removed from its bloody beginnings.

Whatever it was, all I know is this: in the moment when I ought to have felt it most, "Je me souviens" did not happen for me.


Fortunately for us, the story does not end here. I did find something to honour and remember in the end - just not what I expected. There was, near the Plains of Abraham, a war memorial dedicated to Canadians who had fought and died in the World Wars and the Korean War.

And there, I saw that it was not just past conflicts, but more recent ones, that Québec was remembering. At the base, I found a bouquet of flowers dedicated to Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian who, just days earlier, had been killed in a terrorist attack in Ottawa.

Je me souviens, indeed.

Image Credits

All photos (c) Kita Inoru

Monday 5 January 2015

A Canadian's Review of the Canada Pavilion in Disney World's World Showcase

It's that time of year again: Christmas has passed, and everyone is getting back into their old grind of school and work. I hope everyone here among my readers has had a safe and enjoyable holiday season - I know I have. And that's why I'm here: to talk about where I was.

Shouldn't take a genius to figure out where I was if I got photos like this!
From December 22 to 27, 2014, I was on a family vacation to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. That's close to a week, and I still wasn't able to even scratch the surface of what the parks and resorts had to offer. However, I was able to, fortunately, check out my favourite part of the entire complex: the World Showcase in Epcot.

For those of you who aren't aware, the World Showcase is designed to feel like a one-stop-shop trip around the world. There are areas - called Pavilions - focusing on 11 different countries: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the USA, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK, and Canada. Naturally, being a very patriotic Canuck myself, I made a point of paying particularly close attention to the Canadian one.

It should be very obvious that, with the sheer amount of possibilities inherent in every nation's culture, the representations in the World Showcase are kitschy at best, and downright stereotypical at worst. That still didn't detract from my enjoyment, though - not this time, nor the first time I went back in 2010.

So...what was it like for this Canadian to see how Disney chose to show my country to the world? Let's find out!

I ended up approaching the Canada Pavilion from the side of Epcot known as "Future World"; in other words, this was the first "country" I visited in the World Showcase. However, before I even got into the Pavilion proper, there were already clues that I was in "kitschy Canada":

See those? They were in a kiosk promoting the Disney Vacation Club, and the first thing I saw entering the World Showcase. If you think those look an awful lot of Northwest Coast First Nations art, you'd be correct. In fact, that was a running theme throughout the Canada Pavilion: just like any proper souvenir shop back home, you can't say "Canada" without some nod to our First Nations, particularly those from British Columbia. Take a look at some of these other examples - this time from the actual Pavilion:

First Nations totem pole and a Haida house as a storefront.

Not only does this give a good view of the wall artwork in the gift shop, but you can also see how the staff at the Canada Pavilion were dressed. The cashier is wearing a white shirt, a leather fringed vest, and a red plaid skirt. Guys word red flannel plaid "lumberjack" shirts.
Carving on the front door to the gift shop.
The shop that these photos is from is also worth mentioning. Oftentimes in the World Showcase, the stores for each "country" are connected internally: you walk through them as one cohesive unit, but there are various different storefronts on the outside all along the way. The one for the Canada Pavilion, for instance, was made up like an old fur trade post in one part, and a Haida house (see above) in another.

Inside these stores, there are many souvenirs that are meant to be reminiscent of the nation being represented (although, with the recent boom over Frozen, "Norway"'s shops seem to have lost some of that in favour of being Disney's latest place for more Arendelle-related merchandise). And the Canada Pavilion is no different. Here, I found more than my fair share of maple-related goods, hockey paraphernalia, etc.

Maple-flavoured goodies - Yum!
Winnipeg Jets gear for sale in the gift shop. There were shelves like this for all of Canada's NHL teams (the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets - shown here - Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens). This is my nod to Canada's newest :)
Also, because it was the Christmas season, the entire store was also decked out with holiday gear: wreaths, garlands, snowshoes....Yep, there were snowshoes worked into the garlands here.

Perhaps I really shouldn't be so sardonic about all of this. In all honesty, I really liked what Disney did in this Pavilion, and I get a good laugh out of it every single time. But, let's be honest: no Canadian I know works snowshoes into their Christmas decor. Then Again, "We Are Winter" (Team Canada slogan and all that), so I suppose it only makes sense that we'd be associated with ice and snow all the time.

Speaking of snow, nature in general is a huge running theme in the Canada Pavilion, at all times of year. And it makes me really proud to see my country being associated with such gorgeous (albeit man-made) vistas as this:

That, mes amis, is an artificial mountain formation that acts as a backdrop for the entire Canada Pavilion. It is absolutely stunning to see in person - and very easy to forget that it's all man-made. I am very, very glad that Disney decided to think of "wilderness" when they thought of "Canada", because that is something many Canadians, too, are proud of. Yes, the wilderness is tough, and winters are tough, and we gripe about them all the time. But, all the same, we Canucks won't have it any other way.

There is also a nod to one of Canada's most well-known man-made landscapes. Victoria Gardens, as this area is called in Epcot, is directly inspired by the very real (and very famous) Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia.

Now, Canada is not just about the First Nations, hockey, and nature. There has also been a long history of European (predominantly French and English) settlement, and that is marked in some of the architecture here as well, inspired by buildings seen in Ottawa and Quebec.

Reminds me of the houses I saw in Quebec City
This building is inspired by the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa
So...are there any rides in the Canada Pavilion? No. However, there is, if you ask me, one heck of a good show: "O Canada". It's a Circle-vision movie, meaning that you stand in the centre of a room and images are projected on a screen that wraps all the way around you, and shows a lot of what Canada has to offer, narrated by one of our many comedians: Martin Short.

And, perhaps as a nod to how Canada's economy relies predominantly on its natural resources, the theatre is inside an old mine:

Just how good is this movie? Well, it can be a bit disappointing, after spending a long day walking, to discover that it's just standing-room only in the theatre. However, everyone in my family thought it was great, and that our country was certainly worth "standing on guard" for. (And, yes, that's a very lame attempt to work the actual "O Canada" into this!)

So what's my overall verdict? As a Canadian, I could see this pavilion for being the mishmash of stereotypes it is - more so than I could have for any other Pavilion in the World Showcase. However, I do commend Disney for choosing the particular set of stereotypes it did: these are all things that many Canadians, myself included, do feel proud about, and I, at least, am more than happy to use them as markers of our distinctiveness as a nation.


Just for the record: the question of "Where are you visiting from?" is a huge icebreaker while you're in Disney World. Everyone asks it of everyone else: characters during autograph sessions, other visitors whilst you're in line, the cashiers in the stores. Naturally, I joined in the fun, and had some great conversations this way. Here are my top picks for "I'm a Canadian!" moments at Disney.

1. Waiting in line for Winnie the Pooh's autograph in the United Kingdom Pavilion, I started chatting with the family in front of me in line. It turns out they're from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and were happy to have a fellow Canuck in their midst. As we waited, we remarked on the irony that Winnie the Pooh was considered a British character by Disney when Winnie, the actual bear that inspired the story, was Canadian and named for Winnipeg. Seriously - look it up. Granted, A. A. Milne was British, and he saw Winnie at the London Zoo, but, well, the Canada Pavilion has no character greetings, and the UK already has Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins - let us join in the fun, why don't you, Disney?

2. The first thing I did when I arrived at Disney World was buy an autograph book at the gift shop in my hotel (the All Star Sports Resort). Every single time I buy something in the States, I have to wrap my head around all the bills looking almost exactly the same. I told the cashier as such, and he asked me where I was from. I answered, "Toronto, Canada. I'm used to the technicolor money we have there." He thought that was funny, and it did break the ice a bit.

Speaking of "ice", here's a very famous Canadian whose photo was featured on a "Wall of Fame" in the hotel: Wayne Gretzky, NHL hockey player from the Edmonton Oilers (aka "The Great One").
3. Meeting Elsa from "Frozen" at the Magic Kingdom Park. Yes, I was one of those who got the coveted Fastpass+ to see her (book early, guys, or you'll be in line for HOURS). She asked me, while signing my book, where I was from, to which I answered that I was from Canada. She then said, "I've never been to the Kingdom of Canada before," and then said that she'd like to go because of all the ice and snow. Actually, both she and Anna remarked on how cold it must be there. I deigned from telling Elsa, however, about how Toronto quite literally froze over last winter; don't know how she would have reacted if I did.

Edit: I've been notified via e-mail by a reader that I accidentally left out the Ottawa Senators from my list of Canadian NHL hockey teams. That's been fixed, and I apologize - no offense was intended to the Sens or their fans.

Image Credits

All photos (c) Kita Inoru