One of the challenges of being a tour guide in Québec City, or in any historic city for that matter, is that you must find a way to do justice to the sights that are no longer there, the dozens of important, long-gone buildings that once graced the city. It can be tricky business trying to get tourists excited about things that do not exist anymore. Tourists are, understandably, drawn to what they can see. A clearly visible Chateau Frontenac is inherently more interesting than the Chateau Haldimand that stood on the same site for over a hundred years. The grandiose Notre-Dame-de-Québec draws more attention than Notre-Dame-de-Recouvrance, which burned in the middle of the seventeenth century.
And yet, these buildings that have disappeared or been replaced have a very real presence in the minds of the people who know the city well. There is a persistence of place about them. They may not be visible to the tourists, but the initiated know they are there. They are a fourth dimension of the city if you will – one that can be perceived with a little imagination and a good tour guide. Together they constitute a city that might have been, and they allow us to better understand the various hazards of Québec City and the shifting priorities of its residents over the years. We refer to the historic district here as the Old City, but it is really an Old City, one of many possible outcomes, created by choices and chance over the course of 413 years.
To their credit, city authorities have done an exceptional job of giving life to these buildings that once were. Throughout the historic district, there are visible reminders of their presence. Paving stones show us the foundations of the Champlain’s Habitation. A rock pediment recalls the Jesuit College that stood for over two hundred years. A lone speaker’s chair marks the seat of nineteenth-century Canadian democracy.
Come see the Québec City of today and discover the Québec City of yesterday.