Soldiers of New France scamper by with muskets in hand, their quick steps suddenly muffled by the raging booms of cannon fire echoing through narrow 17th century streets. They’re dressed in full, bright-red uniforms with pointed black military hats. Gold-trimmed swords dangle from their tight belts. The cannon blasts don’t break their stride as they lead away a woman whose fate is to be determined on this day by the whims of an imposing dark figure.
“What is her crime, what is her crime?” a voice cries out. The muddled sounds of confusion from the anxious crowd quickly hush as a tall man wearing a ruffled wig and black robe emerges. He’s the “crown attorney,” and all fear him.
“I am ordered by the King to punish this woman for sex crimes,” he shouts. Drums start to beat in slow unison, adding a melodramatic tinge of fear. “The woman is a witch,” he continues. The drums beat even louder, when the roar of yet another cannon blast echoes off the stone-walled buildings of Québec City’s Lower Town. The woman is then sentenced. Her neck and hands are bound by a pillory, where she is humiliated for all to see. The crown attorney now retreats, his every step eyed by the fearful crowd who just watched justice being carried out in New France.
This scene, under the shadow of Québec City’s landmark Le Château Frontenac Hotel, is one of many likely scenarios that took place about 300 years ago, when the French dominated the area for its flourishing fur trade and controlled passage on the mighty St. Lawrence River. Such dramatic moments, however, spring back to life every summer with the annual “New France Festival,” where actors portray real life 17th and 18th century French settlers who helped forge this city’s proud heritage and the European ambiance that remain today.
“He was a very arrogant man,” actor Patrice Charbonneau Brunelle says of his real-life character, the mean-streaked crown attorney. Brunelle, who researched the historical figure before donning the robe, describes him as a disciplined man for order in the colonies. “Especially at the end of his life, he became vengeful and cruel,” Brunelle continues. “He wanted to humiliate people in front of others so they would be too scared to commit crimes.”
During the five-day festival, the streets are alive with music, dance, shows and parades. Revelers pack the quaint streets and squares of Québec City’s Lower Town and Upper Town. They wear period costumes—from noblemen and noblewomen with fine fabrics and feathers in their elegant hats, to peasants dressed in just plain and even tattered garb. Actors, who have been preparing for their parts for months, take part in a seemingly non-ending string of skits that reveal this community’s fierce passion for its history and culture. And unlike other festivals, this one is rooted in historical accuracy.
“For a long time, New France was the Golden Age of Québec history,” explains Alain Laberge, Professor of History at Québec’s Laval University. “So I think people attending the festival, consciously or not, are participating in that pride. They enjoy re-enacting and telling our history.”
“With the re-enactments, it feels like things haven’t changed a whole lot from the Old Québec. There are still the historic buildings that are what they were like more than 300 years ago,” says New France Festival coordinator Florence Bourg. “And it’s very important for me to get dressed up for it, or I feel like a stranger.”
The festival takes on a unique theme each year, with the theme announced just a few weeks before the event. This year’s festival runs from August 4 to 8 and will spotlight the economic, commercial and industrial life in New France. Preceding the festival by about two weeks, the annual Les Grands Feux Loto-Québec fireworks competition takes place against the spectacular backdrop of the 272-foot-high (83 m) Montmorency Falls.
New France’s “Golden Age” began in the early 1600s when the French established Québec City as a base for its fur trade. Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, the city attracted fur merchants and others who—despite harsh winters—eventually settled the area along the St. Lawrence now known as Lower Town. Upper Town was built atop the steep 300-foot (91 m) high hill with its dramatic views of the river. It was explorer Jacques Cartier who first named the hill Cap Diamant, or “Cape of Diamonds,” as he unsuccessfully searched the area for precious stones.
Québec City is the only remaining walled city north of Mexico City. Two and a half miles (4 km) of the sturdy fortifications encircle the historic “Vieux Québec,” or Old City, built along Cap Diamant. Lower Town’s narrow streets sit below the steep cliffs and date back to 1608, when the city first emerged as a small harbor village with trading posts.
As the festival continues, the cobblestone streets of Lower Town’s Place-Royale—described as North America’s most European quarter—are filled with costumed colonists, Indians and fur trappers. It’s a scene that likely took place in New France during a busy midday market, where two “traveling merchants” set up shop side by side.
“The festival is important for our history,” says actress and comedienne Marie Francine Godin, who portrays a gruff merchant with a sharp tongue. “We’re here to live it for five days. I play my character from noon to eight at night. It’s important for me to tell and show you what really happened and how difficult it was to live at that time.”
“When I put my hat on my head, I cannot think and live in the present day,” says actor David Mayer, who plays the other merchant. “You forget to smoke, to eat pizza. You forget your credit card. You become another person. You live someone else’s life to make people learn about history.”
And as darkness settles over New France, the blaring music of a rock band sets the stage for a touch of romance. A couple approaches a man in a Jesuit priest costume complete with a broad, black-rimmed hat and robe — indicative of the many missionaries sent to New France by the Catholic Church. The man and woman ask to be married on the spot. “She’s the woman of my life,” says the man.
The priest agrees to perform the ceremony. But is he really a priest? Will it be a real marriage?
“Of course,” he retorts. “Everyone here wearing a New France costume belongs to the colony. So of course it’s real.”
If You Go
Québec City and Area Tourism and Convention Bureau
New France Festival
866-391-3383 or 418-694-3311
Sights and Attractions
Lower Town is home to one of North America’s oldest shopping streets, Rue Petit-Champlain, lined with shops, restaurants, and elegant boutiques and galleries. Other Lower Town points of interest include the Old Port, the Museum of Civilization, and North America’s oldest stone church dating back to 1688, Eglise Notre-Dame-Des-Victoires on Place Royale.
From Rue Petit-Champlain, you can take the funicular, or outdoor elevator, to Upper Town. Built in 1879, the funicular allows pedestrians to avoid walking up the so-called “break-neck stairway” or along an ascending and winding street. The steep elevator opens its doors upon Dufferin Terrace, with its splendid views of Lower Town and the St. Lawrence. Dufferin Terrace stretches from the base of the Château Frontenac to the edge of the Citadelle, the star-shaped fort perched atop the hill.
There are two monuments on the terrace—one honoring city founder Champlain, and the other noting that Québec City was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
Other historic sites within the walls not to be missed include Notre-Dame Cathedral with its ornate gold interior. The Museum of French America, built on the old Québec Seminary site dating back to 1663, is the oldest museum in Canada and highlights the development of French culture in North America.
Leave the walled Old City through the St. Louis Gate to the “Grande Allée” area, which includes the Parliament Buildings and the Plains of Abraham Battlefields Park, where the British conquered the French colony in 1759.
Where to Stay
Auberge St Antoine, 10 rue Saint-Antoine, Old Port area. 418-692-2211. www.saint-antoine.com. A luxury hotel in buildings dating back to 1720. A museum in itself, the hotel is located on an important archeological site and has 300-year-old artifacts from Québec’s early settlement on display. The settlement’s original stone dock is still intact and runs through the lobby area and garage. Seasonal summer rates from US$ 165.
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, 1 rue des Carrieres, Upper Town. 418-692-3861. www.fairmont.com. World famous luxury and landmark hotel dating back to 1893. Seasonal summer rates from US$ 261.
Hotel des Coutellier, 253 rue St-Paul, Lower Town. 418-692-9696. www.hoteldescoutellier.com. Seasonal summer rates from US$ 129.
Accommodations and Packages: Hospitality Canada,
Where to Eat
Le Saint-Amour, 48 rue Sainte-Ursule. 418-694-0667. www.saint-amour.com. Fine French cuisine
Le Champlain, in Le Château Frontenac. 418-692-3861. Fine dining, 4-Diamond-rated by CAA/AAA.
Les Voutes du Cavour, 38 rue Saint-Pierre, at Place-Royale in Lower Town.
418-694-1294. www.voutescavour.qc.ca. Buffet and groups.