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A trip to Quebec City on the Unity Train

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Unity Train riders with flags
Gare Centrale, Quebec City

by Carl Stieren

When the price of a ticket went down from $85 to $49, I decided to ride the Unity Train to Quebec City as a reporter for Peaceweb. Although I hadn’t intended to, I had been up most of the night before in Ottawa, getting the first part of Peaceweb’s new issue out. With bleary eyes, I boarded the bus on Parliament Hill at 6:15 Sunday morning, October 27, bound for Montréal.

Arriving in Montreal several hours later, we merged with hundreds of others boarding the train and waving both Canadian and Québec flags. It was the first anniversary of the giant pro-Canada rally in Montréal, just before Québec’s second referendum on sovereignty. That referendum lost, with 50.6 per cent voting No.

We were met at the station by four Canadian Prime Ministers from the past - Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier, Sir Wilfred Laurier, and “Uncle Louis” St-Laurent, all played by actors dressed in period costume.

The atmosphere on the train - where we were supposed to have seminars - was more like a political rally, with the same shallowness of thought and predominance of slogans and songs. Fortunately, I was sitting next to a francophone woman from Montréal who thought for herself. She said the source of sovereignist feelling in Québec for members of her generation lay in the rejection of French Canadians by English Canadian society in the early 1970s. She told of her expiences in Montréal more than 20 years ago. “My sovereignist friends all warned me,” she said, “They told me, ‘Go on, ask for service in French in Eaton’s and see how they treat you.’ I did, and they were right - I was treated terribly.” (Toronto-based Eaton’s, the largest department store in Montréal, is a symbol of the English-Canadian economic presence in Québec.)

Security was tight on the train going down - our bags were inspected and security agents were everywhere, but coming back, security seemed almost non-existent. But the train was just the prelude.

In Quebec City, the crowd filed out of the station, carrying the flags of all ten provinces as well as hundreds of Canadian and Quebec flags. When we marched up the hill from lower town to the old city, I was surprised to the see Guy Bertrand, the separatist-turned-federalist, address the crowd. Bertrand, who had taken the Québec government to court to try to prevent them from ever holding another referendum, is seen by many in Québec as a vengeful person. The reaction of people on the streets of Quebec City was polite. There were no incidents. A few people smiled, but most just looked astonished at this throng carrying Canadian flags as well as those of Québec. In Québec City, you can usually count the Canadian flags on the fingers of two hands.

The effect of the Unity Train in Québec City was probably minimal.. But if you count the TV news clips and headline coverage across Canada afterward, it was significant.

After an hour, I quit the flag-waving crowd and wandered off across the Plains of Abraham, where 237 years ago the English troops of General Wolfe had defeated the French and Canadian forces of General Montcalm and had changed the future of Canada. Suddenly I remembered I had been here before. It was 27 years ago, and I had been walking across the battlefield with my friend Jacques and his friend Marie and talking about how destructive a force nationalism had been. I wonder: have we changed since then?