Quebec Culture in the Midst of Canadian Culture
1 July, 2018: Happy Canada Day! In Canadian culture, this day celebrates the creation of the Dominion of Canada on 1 July, 1867, when various independent provinces were united together to form a country. (That’s right, Canada is only 151 years young!) In Quebec culture, on the other hand—specifically in Montreal—this day celebrates…the acquisition of new homes as it is Moving Day and is characterised by the massive exchange of rented accommodation throughout the province. But that’s just one way in which Quebec culture differs from the wider Canadian culture!
Quebec Culture in Francophone Canada:
Canada is a huge, mostly empty country, but nonetheless one filled with not one uniform Canadian culture but a diverse collection of Canadian cultures. And as is the case in most other countries, Canada experiences many regional differences in cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic expression. In order to make a more specific and valuable contribution to a discussion of Canadian culture, this article will focus on Quebec culture—particularly Montreal culture—and a few ways in which it may be similar to or different from cultural trends in other parts of Canada or the rest of the world. Do keep in mind that, as with all cultural insights, these generalizations describe overarching trends and do not apply to every single individual living in the province of Quebec! There will always be plenty of exceptions to cultural generalisations.
Canadian Culture from a Quebecois Perspective
1. The celebration of childhood. Children are treasured and celebrated in Canada, including in Quebec culture. There is a lot of government support for children’s welfare and activities, such as child protection services, tax credits for childcare, savings programs for child education, tax exemptions for welfare expenses, and subsidized child care. In Quebec, public daycare is accessible to all and costs as little as $8.05 (2018 rate) to average-income families. Public infrastructure also caters to child play activities, with great investment in parks and playgrounds. Additionally, there are many child- and family-focused non-profit groups and a good number of festivals and family activities catering to children all year round, such as the Fête des enfants de Montréal in July. All in all, Quebec is a great place to raise a healthy and happy child.
2. Civil freedoms and human rights. Overall, Canada is very progressive in terms of granting fundamental human rights and civil freedoms to citizens. Quebec was a late starter on some important causes, such as women’s rights and religious freedoms. However, today in Quebec, women enjoy equivalent freedoms to their male counterparts including the right to vote, to drive, to own property, etc. In addition, women have the right to and are in fact are legally obligated to keep their maiden name after marriage, and both women and men are entitled to a leave after the birth or adoption of a child (5 weeks for paternal leave, 18 weeks for maternal leave, and 52 weeks for parental leave). Furthermore, homosexual couples have the right to marry, and all couples whether LGBTQ or heterosexual have the legal right to equal freedoms (ie, conjoint de fait) even if they choose not to marry. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done, particularly in terms of equal pay for men and women, sexual harassment, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and racism. Further, the controversial Quebec Charter of Values (Bill 60), subject to ongoing debate, remains a source of concern. But relative to most parts of the world, Quebec is a huge proponent of universal civil freedoms and human rights and has a very civically engaged population.
3. Individualism and personal space. Both socially and professionally, Quebec tends to have a very individualistic culture, whereby the idea of minding your own business is prevalent and the idea of doing something for nothing is generally lacking. This mindset manifests in situations such as interaction-avoidance with strangers, expecting something in return for helping out a friend, relative, or stranger, and the reluctance to share personal space or possessions. For example, giving someone a lift somewhere or going on a day trip together may include the expectation that they will pay for the gas/petrol; or staying in someone’s home for a few days may include the expectation that they will give their host/hostess some money at the end of their stay. Equipment may be “rented” for money to friends, and guests coming over for dinner are expected to contribute a dish/dessert/wine to the meal. In general, acts of generosity are carried out conditional to a “what’s in it for me” mentality, and some financial compensation at the very least is expected regardless whether the person in need is a friend or a stranger.
In the workplace, being greeted in the morning by your coworkers when you arrive at work is a rare luxury. And unfortunately, applying for a job as a non–francophone Quebecker (ie, someone from outside the ironically communitarian network of silent solidarity) is widely acknowledged as a challenge; Quebec’s network-oriented job market makes it harder to break into even for candidates with strong French-language skills.
Within the public transportation system, you might witness commuters fail to hold the door open for the person behind them, or young men who rush to grab seats on the commuter train without yielding their places to a lady, senior citizen, or family with young children left standing.
The sense of individualism extends to the concept of personal space. In Quebec (as in the rest of Canada and many other Western countries), individuals value their personal space and demonstrate this by, for example, sitting as far apart from other people as possible in public seating areas such as buses or waiting rooms, or not standing too close to others when waiting in line or speaking to someone. If you are visiting from another country with a different concept of personal space and you notice that the person next to you looks uncomfortable, starts acting strangely, or moves away from you to stand or sit somewhere else in the vicinity, it is likely you got too physically close to them and invaded their personal space.
4. Tight friendship circles. Generally speaking, it is very difficult to break into pre-existing friendship circles and make friends with local Quebeckers when you are new in town. While Quebeckers are typically very warm and friendly people, quick to smile and make conversation, they share a common trait with adults in most other Western countries in that it is quite difficult to enter their iron-clad circle of long-time friends and be invited to, or have your invitations accepted for, social activities. This experience may be common to many expats and immigrants who arrive in a new country as a working professional rather than as a student. Thus, casual acquaintances whom you may fraternize with and laugh with for days and weeks and maybe even years may remain enigmas, the personal lives of whom remain a mystery despite the extended period of your mutual acquaintance. Expect to grow your new group of friends and intimate friendships mostly among other immigrants, expats, and visiting foreigners.
5. Lack of veneration for the elderly. Generally speaking, similarly to other Western nations, the elderly population is not venerated in Quebec culture, meaning that they are not respected, cared for, and prioritized with the high level of reverence accorded to them in many Asian and African cultures. Elderly parents do not live with and are not cared for by their children and grandchildren. They live alone (with or without hired domestic or medical help) or are sent to retirement homes, allowing all the generations concerned to maintain their private and independent lives. Throughout the lifecycle, elders are treated not much differently than peers and, for example, are called by their first names by children and young adults, or in rooms where there is limited seating, are left standing by persons much younger than them. This may well be a result of the culture of individualism, but perhaps is also influenced by the values of a society that favours informality and, even, equality between age groups.
6. Commercial etiquette—One bill or separate? Depending on where you hail from, you may or may not be fazed by the ubiquitous question in Quebec businesses selling food and beverages—”One bill or separate?”—normally asked at the end of your meal with a friend, colleague, date, or family member, when it is time to pay the bill. Depending on your particular situation (out to dinner with your spouse and children or on a romantic date, versus out with a colleague or with a casual acquaintance), this question that is meant to take a respectful, unassuming approach to service may in fact have the opposite effect of eliciting embarrassment or irritation. You can’t change it, but you can better prepare yourself by expecting it. Everywhere. In Quebec.
7. C’est pas mon affaire. This literally means, in French, “It’s none of my business,” and is an attitude taken by much too many Quebeckers, particularly those in service occupations (with the exception of the food service, tourism, and hospitality industries). If you have a problem and need help resolving it, you should prepare yourself to run circles around all the offices and individuals you consider responsible for solving it, as they will all likely proclaim that your problem is none of their business and so-and-so in another office probably can help you more. My advice is to document all the steps you have taken and the people you have seen, so that you have some evidence to present to each person in the chain of service to prove that you are covering all your bases and perhaps they (the person in front of you) are in fact responsible for solving your problem. And if that doesn’t seem to be working, escalate the situation and go straight to/ask to see the top manager. Ultimately, the person at the top of the management ladder should have the power and responsibility to solve your problem. And generally speaking in North America, that person is very accessible to the customer and service end user.
8. Lack of privacy. In public-service establishments in Quebec, there appears to be a dire lack of privacy. Privacy concerns seem to be a blatant afterthought in the design thinking of building plans and public service behaviours. And in fact, in most cases, privacy concerns are not even privy to a moment’s thought in the “after” phase of the design. So the result is, for example, individual stalls in public restrooms that are characterized by wide, gaping holes all around the door hinges, giving onlookers an unparalleled view of all the activities within the stalls. In hospitals, you may expect to have your medical complaints, pharmaceutical prescriptions, drug indications, or medical diagnoses announced out loud to you for all the room to hear. Or you may have to scuttle down hallways and across public waiting rooms as your standard-issue flimsy paper hospital gown flaps in the breeze on your way to your next room to receive further medical care. Of course, if you’re lucky, you may not be visiting the medical centre that day with an embarrassing ailment or may not have to wear the threadbare gown. But one can only hope. Public offices such as government service centres are not much better, as attending agents tend to be more concerned about clocking out than about giving you the chance to air your issues discretely and privately. Perhaps, could it be that they consider all conversations in a public office to be exactly that—public?
9. Early dinners. Generally speaking, Quebeckers eat dinner around 5 pm. It is unclear whether the extremely early hour is a lingering result of time schedules from a historically farming populace, or of daylight savings routines involving the sun setting at 4 pm, or some other compelling but mysterious reason. Nevertheless, if you are invited to dinner by a Quebecois family and are from a different country where normal mealtime is around 7 pm or later, be sure to have plans for a second dinner for later in the night.
10. Gastronomy and imported produce. There are many seasonal ingredients and delicious recipes available to prepare tasty Quebecois dishes. However, if you don’t know what the seasonal ingredients or local recipes are, that’s a different story. The end result of long winters, sweltering summers, and not much temperate climate in between is very little seasonal produce being available in most supermarket chains. You can generally find an astonishing variety of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets all year long, but most of it is imported. In exchange for this diversity, shoppers can generally count on expensive produce of poor quality. Therefore, if you are a picky shopper or food snob, prepare to either eat seasonally or adapt your palate to better accommodate the regional produce offerings, which if you allow it may send you on a delectable culinary journey of exciting new Quebecois recipes and flavours.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of cultural aspects of Quebec society or of cultural differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada/the world. And as already mentioned, being generalizations they of course do not apply to every single individual living in the province of Quebec! However, cultural characterizations of general patterns are a useful way to overcome culture shock and better integrate into a new society if you choose to visit or immigrate or stay awhile, so this overview of Quebec culture will hopefully be of use to you in helping you gain clearer insights into Canadian culture from a Quebecois perspective. For other perspectives on culture specifically in Montréal, the most populated city in Québec, read these cultural insights into life in Montreal.