A Return to Quebec…. 35 Years Later

Quebec City
9:47 AM

Greetings from La Place de la Gare, a hideous park featuring a rusted sculpture, set before the beautiful old train station of Quebec city to honour the 390th anniversary of the founding of this, the oldest city in North America (if you don’t count anything south of Texas). I’ve just spent the last half hour trekking here on my way to catch my train home, after 4 days spent with my mother and sisters.

Train station in Quebec City

I have not been in this city in about 35 years. Yes, 35 years. The last and first time was with my grade 7 class. We had come just after one of the historic sovereignty/separation votes. And back them, my political mind awakening, one of the first things I noticed was that the poorer neighbourhoods had the “oui” signs up, and the richer ones the “non” signs. (Now, I might have it reversed, with “oui” signifying a desire to stay in Canada; I really don’t remember. The point is that, as I remember it, those wishing to separate from Canada were more working class.)

Life was so much different back then. We kids of 11 or 12 years of age, were free to run about the city on our own, both day and night (with a curfew, of course). We explored on our own, tried out our poor French on our own, got lost on our own, and made it back to tell the tales. I cant imagine so much freedom granted to children of that age group today, especially not in a strange city.

I also remember, with great disappointment, how many kids had asked the teachers before the trip, “Will we have to exchange any currency?” See? Stupidity is not confined to any one generation.

Now, I’ve had the great fortune in my life to have been able to travel widely and on my own. I have many special memories, and tales that will astonish, shock, titillate and bore you. But, strangely, one of my fondest memories is of being 25 years old, on my way to Pointe-de-l’Eglise, Nova Scotia, to commence six weeks of French immersion studies I had made my way there from Toronto with no particular idea of how exactly to get there. I had flown into Halifax and had found a local bus that would take me to the place, several hours hence. For someone who, at that age, did not have a lot of travel experience, and who was navigating in a language he did not speak wel, this was quite a feat.

But the memory I’m referring to is one of waiting for the bus to depart. I’d had a couple of hours in Halifax, and had found myself in some shipyard. I had a knock-off Walkman (yes, kids, a portable device that played cassette tapes) and a few minutes of battery time left. So I lay on the grass, listening to whatever I was in to in 1991, and contemplated the many adventures in life that awaited me.

Yes, that is exactly what I thought about. And I remember being so grateful and happy for the chance to walk about new places and just inhale their histories.

Here I am, 22 years later, with a bad back and deadlines looming. Instead of a knock-off Walkman, I have a bluetooth headset linked to my smartphone, which is streaming podcasts about some ancient war. And once more, I find myself happy and grateful for the chance to walk about a place and inhale its history.

Indeed, perhaps one of the more pleasurable things I’ve done this year was to leave the hotel at 9:AM, and take the long slow saunter to Quebec train station, through Old Quebec, past the stables, Parliament, the old artillery units and battlements, past the original city hall, a neighbourhood famous for its Irish immigrants, a spot where Canada’s first munitions factory once sat, and the onward to the gorgeous train station itself, likely also a remnant from Canada’s Victorian era history.

If you live in Canada, particularly Eastern or Central Canada, and you have not yet been to Quebec city, I strongly advise that you do. It’s a cheap way to experience old Europe without having to endure a trans-Oceanic flight.

This day is particularly special, mind you, because it is a holiday, Victoria Day. Well, at least that’s what it’s called in English Canada. Here…. could be anything. But it’s still a holiday. So there’s almost no one else on the street. It’s like I’ve been transported to a parallel universe where the Napoleonic era never ended, but all the people disappeared.

Fontaine de Tourny

And might I add… what a glorious time in history it is now, when someone like me can sit happily in an outdoor garden, and type an entire document on a lightweight computer. You kids just don’t know how far we’re come.

Some fun things happened in Quebec.  While enjoying a leisurely overpriced drink on a patio, a protest arrived (with excellent drumming), with participants shouting at we privileged elite in the restaurant.



However, after a few chants, a group of them dropped their signs and joined us on the patio for more drinks.

Then I saw this cute doggy on the rue de Tresor:


Then I saw this sign, which clearly means, “Don’t know if you’re in a wheelchair? Come down here and find out!”


Then I saw this sign, for Mr Herman Bedard, who is clearly an avocado who procures stuff:


So now you know.

In Other News….

I’ve a couple of anecdotes to share with you before I shut down this post…. mostly because I don’t want to forget them myself. Both happened earlier this week.

In the first, I was in the rooftop garden of my condo with a friend and her dog. The dog kept sniffing about the elevator. Then a bell went off in the elevator. We ignored it. It went off again. Then I was sure I heard a voice. I went to the elevator and shouted at it, “Hello?”

“Hello!” the voice shouted back. “I’m stuck in the elevator!”

“What floor are you on?” I asked.

“The parking level!” Came the reply. Now, this was a shock to me. We were in the roof, about 12 floors up. His voice sounded like it was coming from right next door. That’s the power of acoustics travelling up an empty shaft.

“I’m coming down!” I shouted.

We made it to the parking level, and sure enough there was an elevator trapped there. But what to do? Another woman was there, too. She offered to phone the elevator company, which she did, but had to go to her apartment to do so.

Meanwhile, I attempted to force open the doors. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We’re not leaving you.”

“That’s okay,” he replied. “The elevator people said they’d be here in half an hour. You can leave me.”

“No I won’t,” I replied. Now, this was sort of weird. On the one hand, I can understand how it would be embarassing to have strangers hanging about outside an elevator in which one is trapped. On the other hand, I would want assurances that someone was looking out for me. On the gripping hand (look it up; it’s a thing) there might be a reason he wanted to be alone… like he needed to relieve himself, or something.

In any case, long story short, working together from both sides, we managed to pry open the elevator doors. The dude was trapped halfway between floors. He did not hesitate, but slid out onto our floor, even though I was about to warn him to wait until I found something to lodge the door open with…. last thing anybody wants is the door to slam shut, or the elevator to suddenly fall, and slice this guy in half.

“Oh my God,” he said, “Thank you for saving me!”

Well that was a bit awkward. No one saved anybody. If anything, he saved himself. But it was nice of him to be gracious.

The end of the story: we waited with him for a while for the elevator people to come. But we eventually gave up and went home. I don’t know if they ever did come.

The second anecdote happened the next morning when I was having breakfast with a former student in a well known deli on Elgin street in Ottawa. We were discussing her pending application to pharmacy school. I asked her if she was ready for the application interview questions, one of which would likely be something about where the profession is going.

She answered smartly that she was interested in clients being up front about their recreational drug usage, so that interactions with prescription drugs could be better anticipated.

As she said this, I looked over to a table not far from us. There was a young man, perhaps in his early 30s, looking something like Inspector Gadget, but with a plaid fedora. Right there, at 10 in the morning and in front of everyone, he snorted a line of cocaine… or at least what looked like cocaine.

Then the best thing happened. He jumped out the window (we were on the ground floor), ran to his car and drove off.

I swear, if this wasn’t boring old Ottawa, I would assume it was a piece of idiotic performance art. But no. Just a cokehead.

In other other news…

Join us this coming Wednesday May 21 at 5pm at The Ottawa Civic Hospital’s Amphitheatre for a public discussion of the new Canada Health Accord.


Dr. Jack Kitts, CEO and President, The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Chris Simpson, President-Elect, Canadian Medical Association
Dr. Michael Rachlis, Adjunct Professor, University of Toronto
Dr. Ray Deonandan, Assistant Professor, University of Ottawa


Dr. Alykhan Abdulla (President of Academy of Medicine Ottawa)

If you can’t make it, view the live webcast at http://webcast.otn.ca/. We will be using the Twitter hashtag #HealthLeadershipMatters if you want to join the online discussion.