Sunday, 25 January 2015

Quebec - My Country is Winter

It's hard to blog about Quebec at this time of the year and not notice how cold the temperature there is right now. I always have quite a few cities around the world displayed on the weather apps on my phone. (What, weather obsessed? No, not me!) With a low today of -19 Celsius (-2.2 Fahrenheit) Montreal is the second-coldest place on my list and only Ulan Bator in Mongolia has a lower temperature (-21 C/-5.8 F)

With an average 141 days of snow per year, Schefferville, on the border with Newfoundland and Labrador, is the snowiest place in Quebec and Quebec itself is one of the snowiest places in the world, its main rivals being Kamchatka and northern Japan. 

Quebec City hosts a winter carnival every year, this year's carnival is starting next week, on the 30th of January 2015. As well as events, workshops and bemused tourists, the carnival also has a mascot, Le Bonhomme - a kind of gigantic snowman - and was first held in 1894. It attracts around a million visitors a year and is one of the world's biggest winter festivals. 

Rue Pontiac in Montreal by Jonathan Malboeuf
Winter plays a very important role in Quebecois culture and, traditionally, it was a time when people would retreat to their log cabins and live off fruits they'd preserved after one of the world's shortest harvests. In a modern age, where year-long productivity is the norm, it's hard to imagine a whole society going into hibernation in this way and, indeed, one of the things that shocked me most about Quebec was the fact that people only get around 10 days paid holiday every year!

In his book, Sacré Blues: An unsentimental journey through Quebec (2000) Taras Grescoe talks about this period of retreat and how it quite possibly led to the creation of great art - people in Quebec love their actors, poets and musicians. He also claims that people in modern-day Quebec have declared war on winter. Montreal has one of the world's most aggressive snow-removal policies and it costs the city around $54 million dollars a year to keep the streets snow-free. 

Un appel etrange by Jonathan Malboeuf
Grescoe provides even more evidence than Quebec is at war with winter, for example, he highlights the fact that modern movies about Quebec tend to be set in summer and winter is no longer celebrated. Thinking of the movies I've watched as part of my research, this is definitely true and I can think of very few winter scenes and, even when winter scenes are included, they represent a low-point, psychologically, in the narrative. 

Grescoe also points out that around 10% of the Quebec's population heads south during the winter months, mostly to resorts in Florida like Hallandale and Hollywood Beach. Winter costs a lot of money; people have to buy medicine and winter clothes, cars deteriorate quicker in Quebec than in other parts of Canada and roads need constant repair after the winter season.  

But winter encourages a sense of community life over individualism and, surely, this is a very Quebecois characteristic, at odds with other North American cultures, which seem to put the needs of the individual above all else? 

In one of his most famous and popular songs, the singer Gilles Vigneault proclaims:

Mon pays c'est ne pas un pays, c'est l'hiver
(My country is not a country, it's winter)

And it makes one wonder what ever happened to the love of winter in Quebec? 

Given the evidence of global warming and the fact that we modern generations have been experiencing much milder winters than our predecessors experienced (even in places like Canada!), winter is fast becoming an 'endangered season'. 

I know it's easy to say for me to say this, sitting in the pleasant and relatively balmy winter of southern England, but I kind of wish we could all appreciate winter a bit more. Okay, it causes inconveniences, meetings need to be cancelled, business grinds to a halt, but why not throw another log on the fire, start reading a good book and just enjoy the break from constant activity?

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the photography of Flickr member. Mr Urbain, aka Jonathan Malboeuf. You can see more of Jonathan's pictures on his photo stream. Thanks Jonathan for sharing these with us, using the Creative Commons license.  

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