The Quebec Winter Carnival

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It is the most famous winter carnival in Canada and quite possibly the world. It is also the biggest winter carnival in the Western Hemisphere and even if you haven’t ever attended, you know all about the Quebec Winter Carnival. It also happens to be the third, sometimes fourth, largest festival in the world after Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

The idea for the carnival was born in 1893 when a group of businessmen and the premier of Quebec, Joly de Lotbiniere, wanted to find a way to promote Quebec culture and also brighten up the dark days of winter. The man behind the idea was Frank Carrel, who was the owner of the Quebec Daily Telegraph.

By November of 1893, it looked as though things were moving towards having a carnival, if enough money could be raised for it. At first it was believed that $8,000 would be needed for the carnival, but that was deemed insufficient by November. Several high-profile businessmen including the vice president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, as well as the mayor of Quebec City, were all on board with the carnival. The first carnival would be planned for Jan. 15 to Jan. 29, but that would change as the date neared.

The Governor General would consent to act as patron for the carnival as well. The Montreal Gazette would report on Nov. 11, 1893, quote:

“Lord Aberdeen’s acceptance of the patronage of the Quebec Winter Carnival will encourage the gentlemen who have taken up the work of carrying the scheme through.”

The first Quebec Winter Carnival would be held from Jan. 29 to Feb. 3, 1894.

At that first carnival, an ice palace was constructed in front of the legislature and the streets were decorated with ice sculptures and arches. The festival also featured a masquerade on ice, a canoe race on the frozen St. Lawrence and a parade. In attendance would be Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General of Canada, and his wife Lady Aberdeen.

After the carnival was finished, the Winter Carnival committee was able to return $945 to the city thanks to a surplus.

It would be another two years before another carnival was held. The Gazette would report on this new carnival, quote:

“The winter carnival will eclipse anything of the kind ever held in Canada. No expense will be spared to make it a success.”

As before, Lord and Lady Aberdeen would both attend, and an ice sculpture would be built. The Montreal Star reported quote:

“The principal ice structure will be erected on the walls facing the Parliament Buildings and at the same spot as the ice palace of 1894 but instead of the palace the committee decided this year to build a spiral tower 130 feet high.”

In all, over 2,000 blocks would be used to build the structure.

For its first half century, the carnival was held only on an intermittent basis. The carnival tended to be smaller as well during those years. It was not held at all during the First World War. When The Great Depression hit, the carnival was stopped altogether, and would not pick up again until the 1950s.

In late October 1954, the suggestion was made to bring back the winter carnival on an annual basis and Quebec City got down to work to make it happen. Louise Pare, the director of the Municipal Tourist Bureau would state that they planned to spend $4,000 on an ice sculpture for the event. He would then state quote:

‘We merely mentioned this publicly and the next thing we knew, statues were being erected all over the place. I really think we uncovered a lot of hidden talent. I’m sure there must be 1,000 statues around town.”

An ice palace would be built, as high as St. John’s Gate in the city. The Montreal Gazette would write quote:

“The monument will surpass in splendor the ice palaces which made Quebec famous during the carnival days of the early 1900s. A flood of lights will be played on the transparent structure, giving the old square a gay air.”

The carnival committee would even invite the Chicago Black Hawks to shift their Jan. 23 NHL game against Montreal to Quebec City. Unfortunately, this would not happen.

In 1955, the Quebec Winter Carnival became an annual event, and it was that same year that Bonhomme, the symbol of the winter carnival, made his first appearance. Bonhomme is the official ambassador of the festival and is said to be the castle lord of the Ice Palace, who is seven-feet tall and weighs 400 pounds. His outfit, which includes a red cap, black buttons and a ceinture flechee (SANTURE FLESH-EH), are in honour of traditional French Canadian and Metis clothing.

Bonhomme would become a symbol of Quebec and in 1994, his likeness was featured on a Canada Post stamp.

In his first carnival, Bonhomme was presented with the keys to the city by the mayor of Quebec City. Mayor Wilfrid Hamel would state that he gladly relinquished his authority to Bonhomme.

In 1957, Bonhomme, in his role as mayor and King of the Carnival, issued a proclamation that citizens with long faces would be punished with a prison term.

Certain things from the past also returned including the canoe races, the ice palace and the masquerade ball. At the ball, people dressed as Samuel de Champlain, Count Frotenac, Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette. The Montreal Gazette would report quote:

“Quebecers turned out by the hundreds and those who didn’t attend the dance came to watch those who did. The costumes and decorations were worth seeing. People either had the costumes made or obtained from a Montreal theatre costume house, which sent representatives to Quebec for two days to take orders.”

Throughout the city, people left up their outside Christmas trees and decorations. Some even changed out their lights for white ones or added decorations.

The entire event would end with $4,000 fireworks display and a huge parade through the city.

The Montreal Gazette would report on the carnival quote:

“This year it has attracted wide attention in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. It is hoped that some of those who read about it this year will be part of it next year.”

The Duchesses of the Carnival were chosen for the first time in 1955, and from the Duchesses, a Carnival Queen was chosen. Estelle Cote would be the Carnival Queen that first year. Bonhomme would lead a group of 2,500 torchbearers with Cote at his side, through the city, past crowds estimated to be 150,000 in size in Quebec’s Lower Town.

This tradition would last until 1996. It would be criticized as something that didn’t belong in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1975, Robert Favreau would reveal in a film called The Sun Was Out of Luck that the young women were expected to demonstrate made-to-measure behaviour and had to spend hours moulding themselves for the role.

In 1994, two men would present themselves as Dukes among the Duchess candidates, which caused an uproar. They were rejected after their interviews, but this started a debate in the media and would lead to the end to the Duchesses of the Carnival as part of the festival a few years later. Over the course of 42 years, 12,000 young women had applied to be Duchesses. Part of the reason the Duchess contest ended was also it was not popular. In a survey done on behalf of the carnival, people were asked to name their favourite event and the duchesses came in last. Less than 10 per cent of respondents even mentioned it.

That being said, in a phone-in survey, 65 per cent of callers were against the decision to end the duchess contest but many of the callers were ex-duchesses themselves, or family and friends. The total number of calls was also less than 1,000.

The carnival would often be visited by local dignitaries and celebrities, including Anne Murray and several Governors Generals, much as Lord and Lady Aberdeen did during the early years of the festival.

After the first annual carnival in 1955, there was optimism for the event after so many years without it but also some who worried about what the festival would be in the future. Archbishop Maurice Roy would state quote:

“There is an effort to attract tourists to our midst to make commercial affairs prosper. This can be an excellent thing, on condition that the city does not hide its Christian face behind a veil of paganism. We must not copy what in other cities may have caused amusements to degenerate into organized debauchery.”

This was in relation to the Queen and Duchesses of the Carnival. One Quebec City newspaper would write quote:

“Some personages had to refuse certain invitations in order to not run the risk of being in the presence of scandalously undressed women.”

The first two carnivals, in 1955 and 1956, were done on an experimental basis but proved to be extremely successful. In 1956, the festival brought in $3 million to Quebec City, and hotels were booked for two months. As a result, in 1957 it was decided that the festival would be a permanent festival for the community. The Windsor Star would report quote:

“The notable success of the first two years has been a great inspiration to them. Moreover, the Quebec people are so fond of their carnival, under the present circumstances, they would not tolerate being deprived of it.”

Through the years, the winter carnival was a perfect place for the prime minister to raise their profile at a major event. In 1969, Pierre Trudeau, who had been prime minister for only a year at that point, would visit the carnival but death threats would be called in on the new, popular prime minister. One caller said they would be putting 25 bullets into his head. He would attend the masquerade ball and there were reports that several federal, provincial and municipal police were also at the event watching for anyone who wanted to do the prime minister harm.

Provincial politicians, like Ontario Premier Bill Davis, visited the carnival in the 1980s. While the Queen has never been to the Carnival, Princess Grace of Monaco has. She would attend the carnival in 1969. She would spend five days at the carnival and would attend many of the main events including a peewee hockey tournament and the costume ball.

In 1979 when Governor General Edward Schreyer spoke at the carnival, he spoke a bit of English in the speech, earning boos from the crowd despite the fact most of his speech was in French.

That same year, a stamp was issued to honour the carnival. By this point, the carnival was costing $1.8 million, and organizers were pushing businesses to donate to help cover the costs. Warm weather that year wasn’t helping either, making it hard to keep the ice palace from melting. There was some debate whether or not the carnival would happen in 1980 and government officials debating staging the event every two years instead. It would continue on annually though, and still does so to this day.

Carnival president Jacques Paradis would state tourism revenue, not folklore is what counted, amid government pressure for cultural consistency. He would say quote:

“If Florida can sell its sun, sand and beautiful girls in bikinis, we can sell our snow.”

By 1986, the carnival cost $2.5 million to put on with 2,000 volunteers helping to keep everything running. This is a huge rise from the $40,000 that the 1955 carnival cost, even adjusted for 1986 funds. One year later, 500,000 people came to the festival thanks to its pairing with Rendevouz 87, a celebration of sports and culture with hockey players from Canada, the Soviet Union and the United States coming to the city. In that year, Good Morning America broadcast from the carnival to 10 million Americans. Host David Hartman would state on air quote:

“These people sure know how to have fun in the cold and the snow.”

As the carnival progressed into the 1990s, it began to develop a party atmosphere that kept some families away. Some saw it as one long drinking party. The partying image of the festival caused attendance to fall, reaching 300,000 by the mid-1990s. In 1995, the carnival had a record deficit. There were many incidents of violence, including one man who lost his eye after being hit by an icy snowball.

Even Bonhomme wasn’t safe. In the 1994 carnival, people threw ice and bottles at the symbol of the festival. One year later, the producers of the porn film Quebec Sexy Girls attempted to make a movie featuring Bonhomme. This was prevented with a court injunction from the festival.

Denis Rheume, the general manager of the festival, would say quote:

“Bonhomme has an international reputation and its evident that a movie like that would have negative consequences for the carnival. We don’t want anything to do with them.”

By 1999, officials were cracking down on excessive partying and organizers were trying to give it a more family friendly atmosphere. That year, the organizers also invested $7 million in advertising in the United States. That carnival saw an increase in attendees, rising to 350,000.

Daniel Gagnon, of the tourism board, would say quote:

“Without the change of course and image, we could not have attracted so many people here for the carnival.”

For the 50th anniversary of the carnival, future prime minister Stephen Harper would come out to the carnival to drum up support for his leadership run. Five years later, he was at the carnival, this time as Prime Minister, where he was met with boos at the opening ceremonies. Harper would say that he was going to be meeting President Barack Obama soon but that quote:

“The most important meeting is with Bonhomme.”

The Winter Carnival today is made up of many events, including a masquerade ball at the grand ballroom of the Chateau Frontenac, outdoor sporting events such as hockey, snowshoes, dogsledding, as well as free public banquets and snow sculpture contests on the Plains of Abraham.

 It is also tradition to drink Caribou, which is a hot alcoholic French-Canadian beverage composed of a spirit such as rye whiskey, maple syrup and red wine. The drink is carried around the festival by visitors in plastic walking canes. According to legend, Caribou comes from a drink that consisted of caribou blood and whiskey, which was consumed by hunters and loggers centuries ago to keep the cold at bay when working.

Of course, the drink is 48 proof and each year a couple dozen people end up in police cells to sleep off the potent drink.

One thing that has also returned is the Duchesses, but it’s not the same as before. Men could apply to be Duchesses now. An entrepreneurial competition was also held. Applicants would submit proposals for projects related to selling the most carnival candles. The only restriction on becoming a Duchess is the applicant has to be no more than 35 years old.

The carnival is still going strong and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 1 million people were coming out for the festivities. For organizers, the most recent 2021 carnival required some special planning.

Melanie Raymond, the Winter Carnival CEO would say quote:

“It’s like finding something new, rethinking our carnival. We had to give up all the activities that gather a lot of people at the same place, the activities which would provoke a lineup.”

There would be no parade or ice palace in the 2021 version and many festivities would be held online through the carnival’s YouTube channel.

Information from Carnival.QC.CA, Canadian Encyclopedia, The Culture Trip, Wikipedia, Montreal Star, Montreal Gazette, Macleans, The Sault Star, The Windsor Star, Owen Sound Sun Times, National Post, Victoria Times Colonist, Ottawa Citizen, Regina Leader-Post

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