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Visiting Gatineau, Quebec at Night: Remembering the Past and Probing Quebec's — and Canada's — Future

Updated on March 30, 2020
Flag of Quebec
Flag of Quebec | Source
The sun sets on downtown Gatineau, as seen from Ottawa.
The sun sets on downtown Gatineau, as seen from Ottawa. | Source
The Ottawa River at night - Skyglow in Ottawa-Gatineau
The Ottawa River at night - Skyglow in Ottawa-Gatineau | Source

'Parfum' of Hull's history, happily subsumed into Gatineau?

To get to know somewhat a city at night as well as by day gives a more complete sense of a locality. Gatineau by night is a different place when its famed Portage office blocks — the responsibility of the government of Canada under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1) in the 1970s — are largely divested of their huge Federal workforce. Not a small proportion of this workforce resides over the Rivière des Outaouais / Ottawa River in Ontario. Gatineau's well lit Centre-Ville / Downtown is thus a suddenly more eerily empty environment to the late-working Federal employee finally setting off home in more comfortable anonymity, the relatively deserted bus shelters offering now more private and longer backdrops for personal reflection than at rush-hour, when frequent OC Transpo buses efficiently whisk away momentarily juxtaposed Federal co-workers — well or vaguely familiar to each other or not at all.

So: here in Gatineau at night, is the real city more fully present or more fully absent? ... because wrapped up in this most awkwardly phrased question may lie — in a manner of speaking — the future of Quebec, and of Canada.

We must never forget that it was the Federalist votes of Outaouais, in which Quebec's fourth city is dominant, which prevented Quebec from becoming independent in the knife-edged result of Quebec's 1995 independence referendum. For it is on the real thinking — whatever it may ultimately be — of those who belong to the night-time Gatineau, that is, those Federally-employed workers who live there or in the surrounding Outaouais, that the future of Gatineau and of Quebec and thus of Canada in its present territorial form may depend. Another way of stating this question would be: Is the night-time soullessness of Downtown Gatineau's massive Federal complex a good thing? a question I cannot answer, but can only ask (2).

Le Petit Chicago

Fast back several decades to the later considerably altered and in part demolished Downtown Hull (now Gatineau-Secteur de Hull). Far from still and in that sense far from soulless, its very liveliness then is still a subject of hesitant civic memories about decades when the consequences of Prohibition by forces external to Quebec turned Hull almost literally overnight into le Petit Chicago, with its preponderant Downtown real estate pressures reflecting vested liquor, and linked illegal gambling interests. (Indeed, Al Capone's rural residence may be seen at Quadeville, Renfrew County, in the Ottawa Valley, Ontario.) (3)

Thus after World War One, a paroxysm of single issue moralizing by the neighbouring Anglophone province — which had also just supplied conscripts in World War One who machine gunned civilian campaigners against conscription in la Ville de Québec / Quebec City — suddenly turned the former Hull Centre-Ville / Downtown into an embarrassment. This occurred as Dominion (as they were then called) workers based in Ottawa in daytime suddenly developed herd-like instincts in flocking across the Pont Alexandra / Alexandra Bridge to pour some of their wages into the forbidden attractions of le Petit Chicago, even as Ontario single-issue moralizers would doubtless have continued to deplore the consequences to Hull of their own actions effected through the Ontario legislature.

Because make no mistake that le Petit Chicago at Hull was substantially the direct consequence of forces external to Quebec.

(Even if those combined forces external to Quebec, which were brought to bear on Hull, were as dissimilar as fellow-travellers of Al Capone and single issue moralizers in Ontario.)

Something of the character of le Petit Chicago endured at the former Downtown Hull after the repeal of Prohibition over the river, which from a practical perspective divided zones with different licensing hours. This was evidenced by the fact that a judge found that Hull's Mayor Moussette (4), some échevins and the local police were responsible for failing to enforce licensing laws — with M. Alphonse Moussette being subsequently reelected, even as some suspicions lingered about the circumstances of the apparently deliberate oversight.

When some decades ago, however, Ontario changed its own licensing hours to those which were similar to the ones in force in Quebec, much of the residue of social issues relating to the effects of their previous disparity disappeared; again: substantially the direct consequence of forces external to Quebec.

Furthermore, the manner in which the huge developments at the Portage complex, which altered the face of Gatineau almost beyond recognition, were again the responsibility of the Federal government: again, the responsibility of forces external to Quebec.

...and a rude historian

And now laterally to the Canadian historian Michael Bliss: who was rude enough to quote critics of Federal Canadian politicians alleging their flair for 'manoeuvring to bribe voters with their own money' (5).

Which brings one back to the Portage Federal complex at Gatineau. Given that Outaouais's Federal votes kept Quebec in Canada in 1995, it surely comes back to the night-time Gatineau and to how Gatineau-resident Federal workers opine in the privacy of their minds.

Leaving aside interpretations of Mayor Moussette's term of office, and with the endearingly acerbic historian Michael Bliss's words in view, one is thus tempted to ask: Was the massive injection of Federal resources for the Portage complex in Gatineau — in some legally watertight, obliquely metaphorical sense — a benign incentive?

March 18, 2020


(1) Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000) served as Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 until 1979 and from 1980 until 1984.

(2) It is indeed probably unfair to call the Portage complex soulless, because its common area provides various useful services and has a well-appointed Francophone bookstore, with various strengths including those in books of Quebec interest.

(3) The interior of the rural residence of Al Capone (1899-1947) at Quadeville, near Renfrew, Ontario, is not open to the public. Al Capone's presence here at Quadeville was the subject of an Upper Madawaska drama production. See also:

(4) Alphonse Moussette (1892-1951) served as Mayor of Hull, Quebec, from 1936 until 1940 and from 1948 until 1951. While controversy remains about significant aspects of his record, he has been remembered as a Mayor identified with a period of a certain prosperity in Hull, whatever some of that prosperity's origins may have been. Today, Mayor Moussette is honoured in the naming of both a local beach and a local park.

See also: ; ;

(5) Michael Bliss, Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, Toronto, Ontario: HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., 2004, Footnote, p. 223.

Some sourcing: Wikipedia

Portrait of Alphonse Moussette, Mayor of the City of Hull between 1936 and 1940  as well as 1948 to 1951. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, fonds Alphonse Moussette, 07H, P45, S1, D1. )
Portrait of Alphonse Moussette, Mayor of the City of Hull between 1936 and 1940 as well as 1948 to 1951. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, fonds Alphonse Moussette, 07H, P45, S1, D1. ) | Source
Signature of Al Capone.
Signature of Al Capone. | Source

Also worth seeing

In Gatineau itself, the Musée canadien des civilisations / Canadian Museum of Civilization is Canada's most visited museum. Gatineau's Masion du citoyen / Citizen's House has a noted art gallery and the Hall des nations / Hall of the Nations containing valuable cultural artifacts from around the world. Parc de la Gatineau / Gatineau Park has exceptional recreational and scenic possibilities.

In Ottawa (distance: 2 kilometres from Downtown, Gatineau) possesses cultural treasures, structures of architectural excellence and noted museums which are too numerous to mention properly here; but a few of these include Parliament Hill, Rideau Hall, the Chateau Laurier, Laurier House, the Rideau Canal, and the Bank of Canada's Currency Museum.


How to get there: Air Canada flies from various North American destinations to Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport / Aéroport international Macdonald-Cartier d'Ottawa, where car rental is available. However, travellers may prefer to use OC Transpo public transit for travel within Ottawa / Gatineau. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

Map location of Gatineau, in Quebec
Map location of Gatineau, in Quebec | Source

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