At this time of year, Quebec City celebrates its cold climate and rich heritage with Winter Carnival. It’s a celebration of winter and all that entails; especially those pastimes beginning with ice – palaces, canoeing, sculptures, skating and fishing. People from around the world descend on this historic walled city, the only in North America, revelling in the unique atmosphere. It’s my first visit in the winter and I admit; it is bone chillingly cold, often windswept and the icy sidewalks can be precarious.
Yet the cold seems to subside, if only just a little, when you stroll the vibrant streets. They’re still resplendent with Christmas greenery and décor, enhancing the already romantic streets.
And there is much to romance you here: the French language, the mix of French, British and Canadian architecture, the delicious cuisine and of course the statuesque Chateau Frontenac. It is a treasured beauty, dominating the upper town, evoking the chateaus of the Loire Valley of France and on this visit, I was fortunate to add my humble name to its storied guest list.
Completed in 1893, the Chateau was the first of the iconic tourist hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On my third day I join a tour of the hotel, guided by the charming ‘Ms. Emily Post’. The young lady is in costume and character, portraying Ms. Post, an author and daughter of the hotel’s architect Bruce Price.
The tour begins on the long cliff-top boardwalk where squeals of delight from tobogganeers on the swooping wooden-framed run peal in the chilled air. Above us, the sharp crack of ice, breaking like glass under ice-picks of intrepid déneigeièrs clearing the Chateau’s impossibly steep rooftop. Roped in and rappelling down the treacherous facade, they clear the roof of accumulated ice. It’s an arduous and hazardous task which I see repeated throughout the city. Managing this city in frigid temperatures brings myriad challenges not least of which is avoiding dagger-like shards of falling ice from the charming buildings.
As much as I appreciate the hotel’s storied history during the tour– including the somber hosting of the top-secret conference in which Roosevelt and Churchill planned the D-Day invasion – I am drawn to the much more distant past. During my five days in Quebec City, it is the Filles du Roi, the ‘King’s Daughters’, and the founding Jesuit and Augustinian Sisters who capture my attention.
The strength and fortitude that was required of these founding women intrigues me. And I reflect that the country might never have developed as it did without them. First, allow me to set the scene…
The First Explorers and Samuel de Champlain
The vastness of the Atlantic Ocean mingles with fresh waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence river and, in the hinterland beyond, lie the lake-strewn lands of eastern Canada. First Nations who had called this home for over ten thousand years witnessed, in the arrival of European traders and settlers, the advent of modern Canada. As early as the late 15th century, they had mostly welcomed trade with various nations who visited their shores. The dominant commodity was fur from the Castor Canadensis,the humble Canadian beaver. They were as gold; European demand for their luxuriant pelts helping transform small trading outposts into a vast nation.
European and First Nations trappers braved the harsh, unforgiving environment to supply ever increasing merchant fleets. Locals bartered for kettles, knives, cloth, blankets, buttons and beads, trading endless stacks of beaver pelts that would be fashioned into hats once in Europe. The Continental, Navy, Clerical, The Paris Beau and the tall dignified Wellington – these names may no longer be familiar but it was unthinkable for any man of standing in the 17th to 19th centuries not to wear a head covering fashioned from beaver.
Archaeology suggests that Viking explorers had been unable to build lasting settlements; explorers Cartier and Roberval had failed too. But after a number of visits, Samuel de Champlain had a vision. He had fallen in love with the wilds of the New World and was determined to build a settlement for France. On July 3rd, 1608, Champlain’s three vessels docked at Kebec – ‘the place where the river narrows’.
It was a place of dense forests, lush with butternut trees; a strategic location on the St. Lawrence River where flora and fauna promised survival. Here, Champlain built the first ‘habitation’ with planted gardens, stocked cellars and a palisaded fortress. And unlike previous colonisers, he befriended the First Nations. Their knowledge and friendship was crucial to the new settlement’s success.
Yet hardships from the cold, scurvy, hunger and understandably hostilities from some tribes, would continue to threaten Quebec and it grew slowly. In 1620, Champlain brought his new Parisian bride to the settlement on the St Lawrence. Unsurprisingly, she found life in the isolated outpost difficult and remained only a few short years before returning to France. Champlain would live the rest of his life without her. He was fiercely dedicated to his dream and although the surrender of his New France colony to the British, more than a century later in 1760 signalled the end of his vision, many refer to Champlain as ‘The Father of Canada’.
History books devote volumes to this fascinating, volatile period, recording exploits of the mostly men who blazed the trail. Yet a nation cannot be built without women and for me, it is an equally intriguing chapter in the history of Canada.
The King’s Daughters – Les Filles du Roi – and The Sisters
As the colony grew, New France, was largely a man’s world: soldiers, fur traders, voyageurs and, hoping to convert the First Nations to Christianity, Franciscans priests who arrived in 1615. The Jesuits followed in 1625 and ten years later, the year of Champlain’s death, they began offering classical education. Yet education would begin in earnest with the arrival of Sisters. At the Ursuline Convent and School, I encounter a remarkable woman of faith.
Marie of the Incarnation, as she would come to be known, was from Tours, France. From the age of seven, she knew that she would devote her life to God. Resistant to her wishes, her family demanded that she marry a silk merchant. She was widowed not long after bearing a son and, at the age of nineteen, a vision came to her that she could no longer ignore. It was a vision of saving souls in a foreign land. Giving her son over to a foster family, Marie entered an Ursuline Monastery. She remained steadfast – even as her son could be seen crying at the convent gates and as she was accused of parental neglect. An inheritance designated for her son was also revoked. Yet still, she dreamed of winning souls for Christ in that foreign land. Resolute, she began correspondence with the Jesuits in Quebec.
Funding for the journey and a new convent materialised in the form of a pious widow, Madeleine de la Peltrie. By arranging a sham marriage, Madeleine overcame her family’s strong opposition to her traveling to New France. With the official seal of a royal charter, she signed over the bulk of her estate to the Ursuline Order. Marie and Madeleine set sail in May of 1639. To their new life in Quebec, they would take a fellow Sister, a young commoner, three nurses and two Jesuit fathers. It’s believed they were the first Catholic Sisters in North America.
In the Ursuline Convent Museum, I gaze at the painting of Marie. She is a vision of steadfastness and devotion to her mission – to convert and educate, ministering initially to the First Nations and later to French settlers. After three years in the lower town of Quebec City, the nuns moved to a new monastery and in a painting of the settlement, I see Madeleine’s wooden home depicted. It is just below the monastery, surrounded by tents; the Catholic Church of that era marvelled at their progress – despite the scarcity of provisions and lack of basic necessities, and the oft hostilities with some First Nations.
Marie quickly learned the languages of the Huron and the Algonquin and even as she became a decorator, an architect and a teacher, the Sister also remained a devoted mother. Her son became a Benedictine monk and in their vast correspondence, until Marie’s death in 1672, the unwavering love between a mother and a son is poignantly evident.
And of being a mother… Marie of the Incarnation would fulfil yet another role in the making of New France. The filles du roi were sailing her way.
As the colony grew, a problem arose. In 1663, the King of France decided to take more control of his far-flung colony and one of his first actions was to address the severe imbalance between men and women. For every woman in the colony, there were at least seven men. Sponsored by the King himself, a program was proposed to increase the population – with shiploads of young women from France.
Initially, it was agreed to sponsor five-hundred women, but it would total some eight-hundred over ten years. In actual fact, many were still young girls, some as young as twelve. Believing that girls ought to marry young, King Louis’s filles du roi were sent to New France for the sole purpose of marrying and populating the land. Often they were orphans or poor, so a dowry was provided. As the the ships arrived at Quebec City, it’s said that some were selected even before they could disembark. Those not chosen would sail further to the next ports-of-call, the fledging city of Montreal being the last stop.
It seems Marie also took a supporting role in this new scheme. Some of the younger girls were first housed and prepared for their new role as wives and mothers. The nuns taught them cooking, embroidery and sewing. They were also chaperones in the selection process. Likened to old-fashioned speed dating, eligible men would enter the room and with the steadying presence of a nun, the young women would ask appropriate questions to the eligible bachelors: How old are you? Do you own property? Do you have any vices?
The letters Marie wrote during the 1660’s reveal much of the hardship that these new settlers faced. In 1668 she wrote, “When they have eaten the barrel of flour and bacon the King has given them, they will suffer greatly until they have cleared the land. It has been decided that only country girls should be sent here. They can work like men and experience shows that those not brought up on the land do not fit in as they don’t know how to cope with poverty and hardship.”
In another letter to her son, dated Oct. 1669, Marie confirms, “As soon as the ship arrives, the men go to meet them in search of a wife… sometimes there are thirty weddings at a time. Wiser people begin by getting a house and place first. The first question the girls ask is if they have a house and property, because those who haven’t suffer greatly.”
In the days I spend in the city, I think often of the these women. I’m empathetic to the hardships and transition most of them would have faced. No doubt some of them did find happiness in marriage and knowing that all were encouraged – through promise of a pension from the King – to have a minimum of ten children, I can only imagine the fortitude and resilience this required on top of the privations and isolation of a settler’s life.
It is commonly held that two-thirds of the province of Quebec are descendants of the filles du roi. Some would also eventually migrate south into what is now the United States. People including Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion, Hilary Clinton and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trace their ancestry back to these courageous women.
For me, the beauty and romance of old Quebec City is very much alive. The perseverance and fortitude of the Sisters, the king’s daughter’s and all the women who braved the deprivations in those formative years, add to its rich past. Go, if you get the chance. Find their stories… in the monasteries, in the museums, in the lively character of today’s women.