Montréal and Québec City, the twin cities of the province of Québec, have a stronger European flavor than Canada’s other municipalities. French is the first language of most residents, 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, both 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 mid-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 into 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 two decades. The first is an institutional acceptance of gay rights. 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 the continuing influx of a wide variety of 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 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.

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