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In Vieux Quebec, ethnic cleansing occurs by attrition


Saturday Night March 2000

There aren't many cities in the western world that, in the absence of a war or a serious bout of ethnic cleansing, have become substantially less diverse over the past century, that have bucked the global trend and gone from being cosmopolitan and multicultural to being homogeneous and insular. Quebec City - regardless of all its claims to be a "world-class" capital - has. That doesn't mean it isn't a nice place for a ski weekend or a summer getaway. Just that, however charming the euro-feel old city, however enticing the real-estate prices, however noble one's aspirations about bridging the divide, a person, especially a non-white, non-Catholic, non-pur-laine-Québécois person, might want to think twice about living there. As the exodus of many of the city's ethnic communities in recent years shows, thousands have.

The best place to go to travel into Quebec City's past is not the Disneyfied, UNESCO-approved Vieux Québec within the walls, but Mount Hermon cemetery, overlooking the St. Lawrence. There, what was and what isn't any more is chiselled into every stone: vibrant English and Irish communities, a Chinatown. Diphtheria, shipwrecks, death in childbirth. Farquhar, Piddington, Denoon, Wong Chow King Tai, Seto Henry Duck Him. Only the Jewish community - in life excluded from the Catholic schools, barely tolerated in the Protestant ones - is absent; it has its own cemetery, a kilometre away. Another kilometre from that graveyard, for those Jews not yet in the ground or moved to Toronto, New York, or Jerusalem, there's the Beth Israel Ohev Sholem Synagogue. It's a discreet, white-brick, single-level suburban home, a pleasant building, a step up from the last place the Jewish community held its services - a borrowed room in the Masonic Lodge - but barely a shadow of the old synagogue. That temple occupied a large corner lot in what has become the chicest part of town. It is now a theatre. Inside the synagogue on this early winter day, a minyan, the quorum of ten Jewish men required to hold a Shabbat service, has been rounded up. But just barely. Even so, it's a mix: younger, Sephardic francophone students studying at Laval, a visiting New Yorker-turned-Newfoundlander professor, a very chatty if stuttering pur laine fundamentalist of sorts. "J-J-J-J-J?ésus était un j-j-j-j-juif," he tells me, by way of explanation. Actual born-and-bred-and-still-living-here Quebec City Jews? One or two.

"The old synagogue, it had four hundred seats. On holidays, every one was full," Rabbi Samuel Prager tells me, as we drink Manischewitz and eat pastries after the service. Until the late 1960s, there were as many as 100 families in the community, and Prager gave Hebrew lessons five days a week to a packed classroom.

"It used to be that the sons would take over their fathers' businesses," Prager laments. "But now it's 'my son the doctor,' 'my son the lawyer,' 'my son the dentist.' " Educated in English - those Protestant schools - the children moved away and the parents often followed. Prager's own life fits the pattern. When his daughters moved to Montreal in the 1970s, he and his wife trailed along behind. But Prager didn't give up on his congregation. For twenty-two years, he's been taking the bus back to Quebec City every Thursday, coaxing out a minyan on Friday, celebrating the Shabbat service on Saturday, and, if there's a student or two, giving a Hebrew class on Sunday before returning to Montreal. "I could have bought the bus company for all my trips," he says.

The Jewish community is depleted, but the Chinese community is effectively erased, both from the Quebec City topography and the province's usually long and deep collective memory. Robert Lepage did help write La Trilogie des Dragons, a play that begins and ends with the words: "It used to be Chinatown - today it's a parking lot." Still, when I ask a PR person at Lepage's Quebec City company for a copy of the play, she responds, incredulously, "There used to be a Chinatown here?"

There did, just a ten-minute gravity-assisted trot down the hill from the National Assembly and the gates of the old city. In the 1950s and 1960s, remembers hairdresser and restaurant owner Napoleon Woo, there were at least a half-dozen restaurants, several laundries, a couple of food and medicine stores. Three hundred households in total, Woo figures.

They used to get together for Chinese New Year and the spring festival to worship the dead. "We'd first wake them up with firecrackers, then give them food and then burn fake money for them," remembers Woo. "It used to be a big picnic and party. Everyone would go. It was a lot of fun. It doesn't happen any more." One reason why is the Autoroute Dufferin-Montmorency, an arching, snaking series of overpasses, the centrepiece of quite probably the worst bit of urban planning in post-war Canada. It rolled right through Chinatown, razing most of it, casting the rest in a concrete shadow. Now there's just a dilapidated building with a fading sign that reads "Chinese Nationalist Party (Quebec Branch)." And, down the street, the restaurant Woo's father founded, unchanged except for a new name: the Wok 'n' Roll. "I was sick of the names that all Chinese restaurants have. This garden. The gates of that. Something something palace. Plus we've got really big egg rolls." Woo's French has the nasal drawl of someone born and bred in Lower Town, as he was. Still, he knows better than to expect to be treated as a native of the city. "Whenever I take a taxi, the driver always asks me, 'How long are you here for?' With my customers it's always, 'When did you come here?' And if they see that I'm cold, they say, 'You'll get used to it.' " Woo laughs. "I always tell them that not only was I born here, I was born here in January."

Woo is forty-three now; the daughter he raised with the help of his grandmother is twenty. People don't think big enough in Quebec City, his daughter tells me, and she'll probably be leaving soon. Woo says he won't be following her as other parents have followed their children to Montreal, Toronto, even the States. That doesn't mean he'll be sticking around. After all, forty-three is still young, his best carousing years were spent changing diapers, and he has a good haircut. "I got things to do," he says, mentioning New York.

It's a similar story for the city's increasingly invisible Greek and Portuguese communities. A few names in the phone book, barren, dusty pews in a church, an empty restaurant, sons and daughters far away. And it is the same, it seems, for the immigrants coming these days. Examined closely, provincial statistics on immigration reveal an odd trend: about 5 percent of the foreign immigrants to the province head first to Quebec City, but only half of those end up living there. It's a nice place. To visit. Of those immigrants who stay, a disproportionate number are born and bred in France, a fact behind an ugly report I heard from two friends in Quebec City: certain French, of the Jean-Marie Le Pen school, are packing up and moving to Quebec City in search of purity, having concluded that their own patrie is too tinted.

Then there are the English and Irish communities, both the most reduced and the most present. Together they made up about 40 percent of the city's population a century and a half ago. But steamships took business up-river to Montreal, two world wars devastated the regiments that English Quebecers joined, the provincial bureaucracy was ethnically scrubbed. Now English speakers make up less than 2 percent of the greater Quebec City population, an older-than-average 2 percent, hunkered down in their diminishing strongholds of Sillery, Shannon, or out on Ile d'Orléans.

The older ones meet at church and perhaps the Garrison Club, reminiscing about days gone by, grousing about how everything has turned out. The young anglos that remain are more proactive: they're busy planning their escape, says Lorraine O'Donnell, who was hired by the feds to do a survey of Quebec City's English. Their families may have been in Quebec City for generations, but "they don't feel at home here," she says. "There isn't a lot of room here for difference. It's a white, francophone, pur laine town," she says, "and people here like it that way."

Daniel Sanger investigated Montreal’s telemarketing scams for the November, 1999, issue.