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Montréal and Québec City, the twin cities of the province of Québec, have a stronger European flavor than Canada's other municipalities. Most residents' first language is French, and a strong affiliation with France continues to be a central facet of the region's personality.

The defining dialectics of Canadian life are culture and language, and they're thorny issues that have long threatened to tear the country apart. Many Québécois have long believed that making Québec a separate, independent state is the only way to maintain their rich French culture in the face of the Anglophone (English-speaking) ocean that surrounds them. Québec's role within the Canadian federation has been the most debated and volatile topic of conversation in Canadian politics.

There are reasons for the festering intransigence, of course -- about 250 years' worth. After France lost power in Québec to the British in the 18th century, a kind of linguistic exclusionism developed, with wealthy Scottish and English bankers and merchants denying French-Canadians access to upper levels of business and government. This bias continued well into the 20th century.

Many in Québec stayed committed to the French language and culture after British rule was imposed. Even with later waves of other immigrant populations pouring in over the cities, there was still a bedrock loyalty held by many to the province's Gallic roots. France may have relinquished control of Québec to Great Britain in 1763, but France's influence, after its 150 years of rule, remained powerful -- and still does. Many Québécois continue to look across the Atlantic for inspiration in fashion, food, and the arts. Culturally and linguistically, it is that tenacious French connection that gives the province its special character.

Two other important cultural phenomena have emerged over the past 12 years. The first is an institutional acceptance of homosexuality. By changing the definition of "spouse" in 39 laws and regulations in 1999, Québec's government eliminated all legal distinctions between same-sex and heterosexual couples and became Canada's first province to recognize the legal status of same-sex civil unions. Gay marriage became legal in all of Canada's provinces and territories in 2005. Montréal, in particular, has transformed into one of North America's most welcoming cities for gay people.

The second phenomenon is an influx of even more immigrants into the province's melting pot. "Québec is at a turning point," declared a 2008 report about the province's angst over the so-called reasonable accommodation of minority religious practices, particularly those of Muslims and Orthodox Jews. "The identity inherited from the French-Canadian past is perfectly legitimate and it must survive," the report said, "but it can no longer occupy alone the Québec identity space." Together with 70,000 aboriginal people from 11 First Nation tribes who live in the province, immigrants help make the region as vibrant and alive as any on the continent.

Geography 101: Telling Mountains from Molehills

Montréal is an island that's part of the Hochelaga Archipelago. The island is situated in the St. Lawrence River near the confluence with the Ottawa River.

At Montréal's center is a 232m (761-ft.) hill, which natives like to think of as a mountain. It's called Mont Royal, and it's the geographic landmark from which the city takes its name.

Real mountains, though, rise nearby. The Laurentides, also called the Laurentians, comprise the world's oldest range and are the playground of the Québécois. Their highest peak, Mont-Tremblant, is 968m (3,176 ft.). Also, the Appalachians' northern foothills separate Québec from the U.S., adding to the beauty of the bucolic Cantons-de-l'Est region on the opposite side of the St. Lawrence. This area was once known as the Eastern Townships and is where many Montréalers have country homes.

Long May They Wave: The Flags of Canada

With a relatively small population spread over a territory larger than the continental U.S., Canadians' loyalties have always tended to be directed to the cities and regions in which they live, rather than to the nation at large. Part of this comes from the semicolonial relationship the nation retained with England after the British North America Act made it self-governing in 1867 (Queen Elizabeth II is still on all the currency). Part comes from the fact that Canada has two official languages. Canadians didn't even have an official national anthem until "O Canada" was given the honor in 1980.

Local loyalties are reflected in the flags. Québécois began asserting themselves and declaring their regional pride after World War II and officially adopted their national flag, the Fleurdelisé, in 1950. It employs blue-and-white crossbars with four fleurs-de-lis (one in each resulting quadrant) and is flown prominently in Québec City.

In 1965, the red-and-white maple leaf version of the Canadian flag was introduced across all of Canada, replacing a previous ensign that featured a Union Jack in the upper-left corner.

In the face of decades of hurt and outright hostilities between French and English Canada, there must be occasional sighs of longing in some quarters for the diplomatic display of the flag of Montréal. Adopted way back in 1832, it has red crossbars on a white background. The resulting quadrants have depictions of a rose, a fleur-de-lis, a thistle, and a shamrock. They stand, respectively, for the founding groups of the new nation -- the English, French, Scots, and Irish.

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