Canada’s Two Cultures: English Toronto and French Montreal/Quebec City

Mural on building, Toronto, Canada

“Canada’s Two Cultures” suggests the fascination with one of North America’s most remarkable cultural mixes: English Toronto and French Montreal/Quebec.

By Lee Foster

Canada always has been and always will be two cultures, separate English-speaking and French-speaking peoples. This periodically causes anxiety among Canadians as competing visions of togetherness are put to a test.

However, the differences are also part of the reason why Canada has an enduring fascination for travelers.

From time to time, French-speaking separatists in Quebec Province promote referendums calling for the province to become an independent country. A referendum in 1980 lost 3-to-2, and in 1995 lost by only 1 percent of the voters. For many Canadians, separation would be a darkly anxious event, as they contemplate the future of their society. Separation would be passionate and deeply traumatic.

For a traveler, the tension between the English and French in Canada creates a cultural energy. Moreover, this dynamism gives the country a special appeal and makes it different. The dispute between the two language groups has been simmering. In short, the argument began when the English General Wolfe defeated the French General Montcalm. That battle occurred on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City in 1759.

How to Experience Canada’s Two Cultures

If you want to contemplate this Canadian culture, a suitable plan would be to sample these major cities–Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City. Start with predominantly English Toronto, then proceed to French-English Montreal, and finally end at all-French Quebec City.

The transport mode  to use while you ponder Canada’s identity is the entity that tied the country together–the railroad. VIA Rail service can take you in first-class comfort between Toronto and Montreal, then from Montreal to Quebec City. A Canadian airline, such as Air Canada, can also whisk you in and out of these cities.

While you absorb the special attractions in each of these great cities, you may experience an underlying meditation about what it means to be a Canadian.

Toronto, English Capital of Canada’s Two Cultures

Toronto is the #1 visitor destination in Canada. Travelers come to see this temple of skyscraper commerce, view the theatre, and marvel at such wonders as one of the world’s tallest freestanding structures–the CN Tower. Be sure to travel to the top of this tower on the speedy elevators and get a view of the downtown buildings. Greater Toronto is the most populated area in Canada, with roughly 2.5 million residents.

Near the CN Tower, allow time to walk the Harbourfront, a lovely outdoor space devoted to cultural activities. Stop in at York Quay Centre to see contemporary, working craftsmen, such as potters and glass blowers.

Toronto strikes a traveler as a city more focused on the business of today and tomorrow than on the legacy of the language past, which absorbs Montreal.

Both Toronto and Montreal have vast, underground “complexes.” These sophisticated northern-climate escapes help citizens endure the wind-chill winters. A traveler who sees these miles of underground life may recall something. That something is an identity that Canadian tourism would like to obliterate. For decades, in U.S. media, Canada was the place from where the cold weather comes. Toronto has large, interior atrium spaces, such as the Galleria at BCE Place or the lobby of the CBC Building. The Toronto and Montreal subways are marvels of efficiency.

Downtown Toronto 

Toronto has managed to locate some housing in its downtown area. Consequently, the city remains alive in the evening and on weekends. The market in the St. Lawrence neighborhood is an example. Intact neighborhoods are a characteristic of Toronto. First, look at the Chinatown tea shop Ten Ren’s on Dundas Street  Second, peruse the second-hand garments at Kensington Market. Finally, meander past the brick houses of Cabbagetown on Metcalf between Carlton and Winchester. Another aspect is the youngish feel of Queen Street, home of City TV.

Toronto is a major center of theatre, surpassed in the English-speaking world only by London and New York. Vital musicals enjoy long runs at new and historic theatres. I remember fondly seeing Miss Saigon here, in its second year of performance.

Toronto also nurtures a strong tradition of satire and comedy, especially at the Second City theater company. One biting skit in an earlier presentation I attended years ago suggested the English-French tensions. The skit concerned a champion hockey player from Quebec Province who played for the top team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hockey player goes back to his province to visit his mother after the winning season in Toronto. The mother can’t focus on his achievements. However, she expresses stress over his sacrilegious act of playing hockey for the infidels, the Torontonians.

Another witticism at Second City that night: If Quebec ever pulled out of Canada, they should be allowed back in every fourth year, so their athletes can help Canada in the Winter Olympics. To sum up, the shows will change, but the wit remains constant.

Art Gallery of Ontario

One cultural venue in Toronto at which to ponder the Canadian character is the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is a major museum rather than a gallery. Here you can see a permanent exhibit of the Group of Seven artists. Early in the 20th century this group of painters forged a new consciousness of the Canadian landscape, depicted with vibrant colors and painterly technique that challenged the academic art of the era. Citizens discovered in art Canada’s rugged wilderness. To sum up, art commonality was an important factor in the country’s maturation and psychological development. Art furthered the shared national identity.


Both Toronto and Montreal are relatively safe places to walk at night. Toronto is said to have one-sixth the homicides of Detroit. This is a land of few handguns.

Toronto vs Montreal on Language Purity

In Toronto the language of choice is clear–it’s English. Some English-speaking people from Montreal moved to Toronto in the time of troubles because they were more comfortable as language pressure mounted in Montreal. However, Toronto also prides itself on accommodating foreign tongues, beyond the French that is also an official language of the country. Toronto claims to deliver its city services in multiple languages. Immigrants speaking Chinese and Italian are major components of the Toronto mix.

On the other hand, consider Montreal’s position on language purity. Montreal contrasts with Toronto’s comfortable accommodation of French, Chinese, and other language groups.  Montreal strives from time to time to require use of French. An acquaintance described how, at one time, her home tax bill came in French and would be sent in English only if a special effort were made. The bus driver may be less inclined to offer you information if you ask in English rather than French. A movie theater owner in Montreal described to me how the Language Police, prompted by a citizen complaint, came to his theater to indicate that the English word “cash” was on his tickets. He had 60 days to remove “cash” or he would face a $350 fine.

Character of Torontonians

The character of a Torontonian is also different from that of a Montrealer. Toronto gets ribbed a little for its Victorian primness, its waspish reserve. One senses the suppressed rage of upright morality behind the moniker Toronto the Good. Toronto has been called “New York run by the Swiss.”

However, Toronto boasts many amenities that will insure its premier place as a travel destination. The city’s expertise in hostelries and dining expresses itself in the Four Seasons Hotel, with its five-diamond status.

Montreal’s Joie de Vivre Contribution to Canada’s Two Cultures

Montreal exudes joie de vivre, the Gallic assertiveness that makes French culture so delicious. This city is a daughter of France, France without jet lag, Paris minus the rudeness. Montreal is a city with a soul, a place with European atmosphere and North American casualness. Above all, Montreal is the largest French-speaking city outside France. Most English-speaking travelers who arrive in Montreal come to celebrate the motto, Vive la difference.

An interesting place to start here is the Cirque du Soleil circus performance. Imaginative performance of the dancers and acrobats proclaims a zest for life. Cirque du Soleil is one of the most successful cultural exports of Montreal. Itinerant companies of Cirque may be seen in major U.S. cities. Resident Cirque companies in Las Vegas deliver experiences that pack in the crowds night after night, providing some of the least-derivative entertainments you will ever experience. Cirque shows in Montreal, Las Vegas, and elsewhere are far more than circus acts. Viewers tend to describe them as spiritualistic dance expressions of the joy of life.

Mural on building, Toronto, Canada
Mural on building, Toronto, Canada


Walking in Montreal

Montreal is a pleasing city to walk. The downtown has its handsome enclosed spaces, as in Toronto. Montreal’s parallel to the Galleria is the World Trade Centre, with its huge atrium and sea goddess statue above a pool.

Be sure to tramp over the heights of the city, on Mont Royal Park, to catch the views at the belvedere of the chalet. Then meander in Old Montreal, near the waterfront, with a stop for a glass of wine at the sidewalk cafes on Place Jacques Cartier.

Meditate on the Catholic presence inside the Notre Dame Basilica. Peruse the neighborhoods, such as Chinatown and Plateau Mont-Royal. The latter offers a fashionable milieu for outdoor cafes.

Explore the more than 20 miles of underground city. Services and goods offered underground are so varied and complete that it is said you could live in the underground city from birth to death without ever having to leave.

Savor the view of the city from Ile Sainte-Helene in the river (get there via subway to Parc Jean-Drapeau station. Then walk out to see the panorama alongside the huge Alexander Calder sculpture).

Public art is present in large amounts in Montreal because one percent of each construction budget must be spent on art. Raymond Mason’s white “The Illuminated Crowd” sculpture in front of the Banque Nationale de Paris is a striking example.

Montreal is a much older city than Toronto. In 1992 Montreal celebrated its 350th anniversary. A clock on the St. Sulpice Seminary has been keeping the time since 1700.

Culture in Montreal

One of the enjoyable places in Montreal at which to contemplate Canada is the McCord Museum of Canadian History. Wander both the permanent and changing exhibits. During one of my visits in the past, for example, the changing exhibit was a series of composite photos of Montreal in the 1870s, by William Notman. He portrayed the Snowshoe Club, depicting the hundreds of men who would don snowshoes for social outings in that era.

The McCord’s permanent exhibits on Canada’s Amerindians is informative. A chamber music concert during my visit provided aural stimulation to parallel the visual pleasures of the afternoon.

Montreal is famous for its annual cycle of festivals. The summer begins with a bang during the international fireworks festival. Festivals follow celebrating jazz, comedy, and cinema.

Overall, Quebec Province is rich in natural resources, especially hydroelectric power. It is also the largest province in the extent of its land. A high rate of birth among the French Catholics has contributed to a large population, about 8.5 million, out of the total Canadian population of 37.6 million. The first priority of these large families was to feed their children, with extended formal education seen as a luxury.

The educational system among the French in Quebec has also changed markedly since about 1970. Formerly, a bright French Catholic boy, educated in the classics, might proceed, if not to the priesthood, then to the professions of law, medicine, or other intellectual pursuits. The world of business was seen as a tawdry place, better left to the English and Scots, who made fortunes and dominated the scene. All this has now changed, as the French Canadians compete in all fields.

Quebec City

The walled bluffs of Quebec City were–and still are–one of the strongest natural fortifications in the Americas, commanding the St. Lawrence River. Be sure to see the sound-and-light show in the Musee du Fort, where a diorama and narration depict the comings and goings of French, English, and American troops here in the first two hundred years of the city’s life.

Then walk along the boardwalk Promenade by the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac and climb finally to the top of the Citadel, which is still manned by an elite Canadian garrison. From the Citadel, with its historic cannons, you can imagine how formidable a defended Quebec could be.

The business worth fighting for in the early days was furs. By the end of the 18th century, there were 2,600 fur traders shipping a half-million beaver and deer pelts annually from Quebec .

To get a profile of the fortifications, cross the river on the ferry from Place Royale to Levis and back. Then stroll the Lower Town, full of restaurants, shops, and special attractions. Rue Saint-Paul has numerous antique, art, and craft shops. You’ll find exquisite hand-knit wool sweaters. Galleries display prominent Quebec artists, with some of their finer paintings reproduced also as cards.

A major museum, called the Musee de la Civilisation, has both permanent and changing exhibits. One of the interesting permanent exhibits shows the collective memory of Quebec.

The Upper Town, on top of the bluff, has walks as intriguing as the Lower Town. In Upper Town stop in at Boutique Sachem to see Canadian Indian crafts. Jazz fans gather nightly around a piano bar at the Clarendon Hotel. The most celebrative times here are a summer fest and a winter carnival.


Quebec Countryside

To get a sense of the countryside, rent a car and drive out to Ile d’Orleans, the food basket and summer cottage getaway place for the city. Small farmers on Ile d’Orleans have firm opinions on the taste of their strawberries as compared with those of nearby Beaupre.

At an island village, St. Jean, river pilots of the St. Lawrence have a cemetery running to the water. Red-metal roofed houses and numerous church spires dot the birch-wooded landscape. Fall colors are ravishing. Thirty-seven families here have ancestors going back to the 17th century.

The power of the Church is ever present in the region, and Quebec City is sometimes called the “City of Many Steeples.” A few miles beyond Ile d’Orleans, in Beaupre, the massive Basilica Sainte-Anne is a major Fatima-like pilgrimage site, piled high with crutches left after miracle cures.

Quebec City is a more relaxed and restful place than Montreal, more provincial and quaint, relatively remote. The people of this provincial capital are blessed with the stability of assured government employment. On the language issue, Quebec City is also more at ease because it can afford to be. In Quebec City about 96 percent of the people are French speakers, so the language issue is decided, as it is for English in Toronto.

Moreover, the French were here first, before the English, so there is some cultural security in the primacy of French. There is less of the tension that is evident in Montreal. In Montreal, speaking English is a political statement, an uneasy concession to the outsider from the dominant culture. In Quebec City, speaking English is a transparent gesture to accommodate the traveler, the lifeblood of the tourism economy.

Culinary Legacy of France

The culinary legacy of France, so much in evidence in Montreal and in Quebec City, is one aspect of the cultural division about which there is unanimous appreciation. Start your culinary research in Montreal, where the many French restaurants are not necessarily expensive.

In my introduction to French Canadian cuisine, both the rabbit and the salmon salad were delicious. On another occasion I savored a  lobster bisque, followed by the lobster itself, from the waters off eastern Canada.

The Railroad that Unites

The railroad offers an opportunity to see the Canadian landscape at a pleasing pace, without the stress of having to drive your car. Birch forests, corn or hay fields, and many swift rivers characterize the terrain. If the country ever actually separated, the question of who would own the huge investments in hydro power in Quebec Province and who would pay what portions of the billions national debt would be among the thorniest issues to be negotiated.

Service on the train is genial, especially in first class. Take the later afternoon trains between these major eastern cities. You glide along, lulled by the click of the rails, drinking your wine, lingering over the sunset, choosing from among three entrees for dinner. If Amtrak could emulate these rail standards, rail travel in the United States might have a brighter tourism future.

The train across Canada is a concept for travelers to consider. There are also specialist luxury trains, such as the Rocky Mountaineer. I have celebrated that ride, based on one on my trips, in an article.

Great hotels built by the historic Canadian railroad are excellent bases from which to explore Canada. The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto and the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in Montreal are located immediately adjacent to the train stations, conveniently providing lodging in the downtown area, mercifully close to the trains during the cold season.

The Fairmont Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City ranks as one of the most romantic hotels in North America, perched high on a bluff as a castle. It makes one think of Ludwig of Bavaria’s famous “Disneyland” castle, Neuschwanstein, transposed and modified to a North American setting. Also, all three cities have experienced a boom in new boutique hotels. The choice of accommodations is considerable.

In Conclusion: Canada’s Two Cultures

A traveler coming to Canada from the United States views the country and the language struggle of its people with both affection and concern. The border between Canada and the United States is said to be the longest undefended border in the world, no small achievement. Canada is larger than all of Europe and larger than the United States, even though the country has only 37.6 million people, compared to 328 million in the United States.

If the United States is a melting pot, Canada is a salad bowl. The ingredients in Canada will remain distinct, if not separate. Only the Canadians can decide whether the country will continue to be served up to the traveler as a single delicious dish.


Canada’s Two Cultures: If You Go

For Toronto information, contact the Toronto Convention and Visitors Association, www.seetorontonow.com.

When seeking Montreal information, contact Tourisme Montreal at https://www.mtl.org/en.

For Quebec City information, contact Quebec City Tourism, www.quebecregion.com.