I’m in Quebec City late on a Sunday morning, having a latté at one of my old haunts, listening to Brassens and getting some work done. Why? Because last night, on the same wind that blew my plane into town, a blizzard arrived.
It’s kind of a surreal experience, wandering around my old hometown where I had so many good times. It hasn’t been that long, really, but considering that my next vacation is in August and I’m hoping to be able to go overseas, this really might be goodbye.
Hard to believe that this might be the last time for a year or more that I feel the snow in my face walking down Rue St-Jean, that I feel the pull in my calves walking up Honoré-Mercier against the wind, that my arms close around old friends, that I see the elegant shops of my old neighbourhood and exchange “bonjours” with everyone out clearing their walks, that I see the fleuve or the cobblestone streets of the Vieux, or that I shout breathlessly along to the lyrics of “La Danse à Saint-Dilon” as a few friends of friends perform on fiddle and voice.
I need to get the maximum out of the next 7 days…because this really might be goodbye.
I want to take this opportunity to share an abridged version what might be the most personal piece I’ve ever had published, which appeared in the Québec Chronicle-Telegraph shortly before Christmas…
It’s Sunday evening and I’m writing an article for the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, having of course waited until the last minute. It’s exactly like almost every Sunday since I moved to Quebec City. Only… I’m not here (or there) anymore.
Earlier this fall, I became a full-time reporter at La Liberté, the French-language weekly newspaper in St. Boniface (the eastern, historically French-speaking part of Winnipeg). I said goodbye to my pad on Rue Saint-Jean, goodbye to our lovely fleuve, and goodbye to three years of reaching all of you through the QCT, CBC Radio and other media, in both official languages. That was on a Friday in October. I arrived in St. Boniface on a Saturday. The following Tuesday, I called Régis Labeaume’s office.
Yes, our Régis Labeaume.
Mayor Labeaume, as you may or may not know (I didn’t), is the co-founder of the Réseau des Villes francophones et francophiles des Amériques, which St. Boniface has just joined. The network’s founding conference was that same week, a five-minute walk from where I used to live in Quebec City.
About a week later, Newfoundland musician Séan McCann came to Winnipeg with his one-man Help Yourself tour, which I had covered when it opened in Quebec City’s Le Cercle (link paywalled but worth it). I wasn’t able to go to the Winnipeg show, but I’ve started listening to McCann’s music a lot more.
As the famous winds of “Winterpeg” blew around me, something about his raw, one-man-against-the-waves style struck a chord. I went to an Irish concert and a bodhran player performed one of McCann’s songs: “We were far from the shores of England / far from our children and wives / to play our hand in the new-found land where the wind cuts like a knife…”
Later that week, I was in a cab heading back from a story, and I told the driver I had moved from Quebec. “Oh, I was in Montreal once!” he said. “We flew out and drove back. Thirty-six hours!” I hadn’t realized it was quite that far. The fleuve seemed very far away indeed.
“We came ashore in Carbonear / with nothing but our rights / and I wondered if I ever again / would see my London lights…”
But the next few days would show me I wasn’t nearly as far away or disconnected as I’d feared. I called the Canadian Federation of Municipalities in Ottawa for a story about a twinning cities in Ukraine with cities in Manitoba, and heard the familiar voice of former CBC Quebec City newsman Shawn Lyons. One of our former colleagues at 104.7, Alex Freedman– and let it go on the record that these guys are two of the most talented people in a massive clutch of talented people who “jumped ship” from the CBC during the last round of Conservative government cuts– was the guy who encouraged me to move to Winnipeg in the first place.
Québec connections are everywhere. I saw a play by Robert Lepage at our local French-language theatre. It was coproduced by a gentleman who lives in my old neighbourhood and had flown halfway across the country to see it open.
As the Manitoba government was considering stronger legal protections for French-language services, I called Voice of English-speaking Quebec and the Quebec Community Groups Network to compare the services available to Franco-Manitobans with what English-speaking Quebecers have. I noticed that, like the Quebec Anglophone community, the Franco-Manitoban community has a higher-than-expected proportion of writers and artists, almost as if having a minority language sharpens creativity, gives people the urge to shout, “Hey, we’re here!” (or, if you’re from St. Boniface, On est là!).
I’ve also learned that “Friendly Manitoba” is not just a licence plate slogan. The lady behind the counter at my new ostensibly bilingual neighbourhood café may not know what an allongé is, but she probably stops for pedestrians at every intersection.
Winnipeg is also much more cosmopolitan than Quebec City, with large populations of Filipinos, Ukrainians, Chinese, Icelanders, West Africans (who make up part of the backbone of the Francophone community) and Aboriginal people, in addition to English- and French-Canadians. Although there’s definitely still room for improvement in the area of intercultural relations, Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman invited Donald Trump here to see how diversity is supposed to work.
I felt a rush of pride at Bowman’s gesture and there’s certainly a lot to love in this city, but I can’t quite bring myself to call Winnipeg home yet. I still have to find a balance between “Je me souviens” and “Friendly Manitoba.”
The people of my new community are opening up their homes, workplaces and public events to me as a journalist, neighbour and friend, just as all of you did, and I’m eternally grateful. I suppose it goes to show that, as Séan McCann sang, “Good people aren’t hard to find / they’re right around the corner at the end of the line…we’ll never run out of good people.”
At left, a view of the Chateau Frontenac from the fleuve St-Laurent. At right, a view of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights from the St. Boniface side of the Provencher bridge.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some sound editing to finish and a river to go visit.