O Canada / Au Canada

Just across the river from Ottawa is the city of Gatineau, Québec. Looking across the Ottawa River from Gatineau, the view of the city of Ottawa is really breathtaking.

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In the foreground, you can see Jacques Cartier Park and the Alexandra (interprovincial) Bridge. Behind that you can see the Chateau Fairmont Laurier hotel and Parliament Hill.

If you ask a Canadian person, “what is the only bilingual province?” they may unthinkingly say “Québec”. But it’s a trick question: Québec is officially monolingual French. (The correct answer is New Brunswick.) While Ottawa is in Ontario and mainly anglophone, Gatineau is very much a French-speaking city.

Although Québec is French-speaking, North American French is not exactly the same as the French spoken in France. For example, a corner shop is known as a dépanneur, which must seem a little odd, if not comical, for French people.

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On the other hand, in Canada liqueurs means soft drinks (and in English-speaking Canada, they call soft drinks “pop”).

And while French stop signs say “Stop”, in Québec they say “Arrêt” (which sounds altogether less commanding and more like a simple statement of fact).

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Most surprising to me was to hear bienvenue to mean “you’re welcome” (in response to merci—thank you). The first time I heard this I was really taken aback; it seemed to me like the kind of elementary error that results from over-literal translation of an English idiom. But I quickly learned that in North American French, this is normal and correct.

The accent also takes some getting used to. For example, “ti” is pronounced like “tsi” – septSième instead of septième, and “tu” like “tsu”. Dessert sounds (to me) something like dessart. And nasal vowels are all shifted – vin in metropolitan French has the same vowel as the English word “van”; in Canada it sounds more like the vowel in the North American pronunciation of the English word “van”.

One of the highlights of Gatineau is Gatineau Park. While one corner of the park reaches down near to the city’s downtown area, it is a vast area of forest, lakes and rolling hills that stretches for 50 or more kilometres into the wilderness to the north-west of the city. Wild mammals living in the park include black bears, wolves, fishers, otters, beavers, chipmunks, moose and white-tailed deer.

On a visit to the park today we perused a leaflet called “black bears and you” which reassuringly points out that the chance of being killed by a black bear is less than that of being struck by lightning. Well, that may be true on your daily commute or in the office. But once you walk into the forest where the bears live, I suspect the odds swing markedly in the bears’ favour. Anyway, there was good advice for managing black bear encounters (don’t play dead! Look big! Make noise! Retreat!)

In the end we did not meet any bears or wolves on our walk around Pink Lake. This was probably due, at least in part, to a very loud group of schoolgirls walking the trail ahead of us, whose incessant screeching laughter and rendition of One Direction songs presumably frightened off (or deafened) any wildlife within a radius of several miles.

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So in the end we saw no wildlife apart from a lone chipmunk, cowering under the boardwalk and probably traumatised, and a turkey vulture riding the thermals high overhead.

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We didn’t get a picture of the chipmunk, but here’s a cute little guy we saw a few days ago in Burlington, Ontario.

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However, in Jacques Cartier park in front of our hotel (called after a Breton explorer whose home we have seen in Saint-Malo) we were able to see black squirrels and groundhogs. They’re pretty tame.

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On our way back from dinner this evening, we had another reminder of French culture in North America; a game of pétanque in a nearby park.

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