The 400 th Anniversary of the arrival of Samuel Champlain on the shores of the St. Lawrence, is certainly cause for celebration for les Quebecois and all Canadians.
The pride and 'joie de vie' of the descendants of Canada ’s first European settlers are on display for all to experience. What is impossible to separate from the thrill of the year-long celebrations is the gracious hospitality of the present day inhabitants, and their joy at sharing this celebration with the rest of the world.
Unquestionably one of the most beautiful, historic cities in the dominion, a visitor cannot help but reflect on the military heritage of the city, born at the moment the first sailor stepped ashore, on July 3, 1608 .
As I stood beside the statue commemorating the wonders of Champlain’s achievements and peered into the architectural excavation of the original 400 year old fort and governor’s home, I was overcome with a sense of living history. This is not who we were – this is who we are.
I stared over the cliff at the home of the Naval Reserve Unit, HMCS Montcalm, and reflected on the great contributions Quebec has made to the navy, as well as the army, throughout the past 400 years. The thousands of sailors who ‘signed on’ to serve on Canada’s ships, Navy and Merchant, and the thousands of civilians who built great ships throughout the centuries, and added so much to the mystique that is Canadian maritime history. Tied up alongside was the tall ship, “le Belem”, having just completed the crossing of the Atlantic to replicate Champlain’s voyage in honour of the anniversary. It was on these very grounds that thousands of new Canadians would have landed before taking the arduous journey to all points across this great land.
Almost touching “le Belem”, stem to stern, was a modern-day ship of the line – the HMCS Ville de Quebec, visiting her city in honour of the anniversary and bidding farewell prior to deployment overseas in support of Canada ’s United Nations commitments.
Of special interest, the original Ville de Quebec was built and commissioned at Morton Engineering and Dry Dock in her namesake city. She commenced duty in the first week of July, 1942 and decommissioned on July 3 rd, 1945.
The Ville de Quebec shares more that just a name with this great city, many of the ships officers and crew are from this area. In fact, the ship’s Captain, Commander Christophe Pierre Dickinson, started his military career as a volunteer militia soldier in Canada’s oldest Quebec infantry regiment - Les Votigeurs de Quebec. To add to their glorious history of 146 years of service to Canada, Les Voltigeurs very proudly celebrate their official affiliation with the ship and her crew. On Tuesday evening, July the 1st, the ship’s Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers hosted their counterparts from their affiliated regiment in a celebration of the camaraderie and respect each for the other. This gathering was a first hand example of the bonds that bind military personnel from all services in a fraternity unlike any other.
The ship’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant-Commander Josee Kurtz, also a native of the area, reminded me that she graduated from her Basic Officer Candidate Course in December, 1988 when I was on staff at the Officer Candidate School in Chilliwack, B.C.
Thousands of people, residents of Quebec and tourists alike, made great use of the opportunity to tour the ship and meet the crew as she hosted an open house on the afternoon of the 1st and again on the 3rd of July. But, the afternoon of the 2nd of July was special. In a tradition dating back further than living memory, the ships crew hosted their families and friends on board for a floating bar-b-queue.
In the realm of thrills, that afternoon ranks with the best, as parents, children and friends of the ship’s company were taken for a short cruise up the St. Lawrence River. She is fast, with a top speed of 30 knots, (60 kms/hour), this warship can certainly kick up a rooster tail and a wake. When the Ville de Quebec arrived at its anchorage and ‘laid chain’, bar-b-queue and socializing began. To add to the interest, as if any needed to be added, the ship’s crew had to deploy a small rescue party to assist a small civilian boat in distress – believe it or not, the boat had run out of gas in a major shipping lane.
We cruised back down the river, past the anchorage of the Bluenose II and under the shadow of the great walls of the Citadel. I was again touched by the sense of re-living history, as we tied up alongside in Quebec at the end of the afternoon to the music of a great naval band. While bidding farewell to the crew and the ship, I came to the realization that this gathering of family and friends was stepping down onto solid ground not far from the very spot that Champlain and his crew would have landed, 400 years earlier.