Polyglot Piste hits the Eastern Townships of rural Quebec, otherwise known as l’Estrie, and explores the seedlings to the inception of PolyglotPiste.
On a recent trip home to Quebec, I had the luxury of spending a afternoon biking though a raging torrential downpour over rolling green hills of the area in which I spent my weekends growing up. Perhaps it was the electricity in the air, but charged moments like these seem to send currents of clarity into our consciousness that doesn’t otherwise pulse in the regular daily routine. On my bike ride, I was gifted one view after another of Appalachian lakes, animals, and thick forests unfolding before my wheels in sodden wet beauty. Between burly gusts of wind, random lightening set a series of exhilarating electrical synapses into motion. That or, being away from my small children for 3 hours can also allow the mind to flourish. Either way, I felt more euphoric than I had in a long time which led me to question the significance coming home has on our inner psyche.
I spent my childhood summers picking berries at my great Aunty Bashaw’s cottage on Sugarhill in the Eastern Townships, one and a half hours southeast to Montreal. In the winter, we spent our weekends cross country skiing across my uncle’s property up the road, and alpine skiing at Owl’s Head, Mont Glen, our favourite night-skiing spot, and eventually at Jay Peak just across the Vermont border.
Historically, the Townships goes way back as a British loyalist holding prior to the war of 1812. It somehow managed to escape the wraths of the war and always remained a stalwart, old English territory. Aside from the natural beauty of this area, my brother and I were privileged to grow up in a place that was very freehold, and still undeveloped compared to its northern counterpart ski hills in the Laurentians of Montreal. Like the briar bushes at my great auntie’s, our time there felt untamed and lush. I remember looking up one evening out front of the tiny shoebox cabin we stayed in, and my father pointing out my first aurora borealis in the night sky. I looked up to see a massive swirl of stars whirled into a bowl of milky way batter. Esconsced in the thrumming night sky, it shimmered back at us pulsing permanently into my memory.
Not only were we privy to an amplitude of outdoor activity, but to a budding community of friends and family that my parents put significant energy and time into building. Aside from -18 degree days on the slopes, this is perhaps what I remember the most–spaghetti dinners for the kids, martini hour for the parents, and late night tobogganing in the dark for everyone willing to brave -20 degrees celsius under an incandescent township moon. We were together every weekend on the slopes, feasting in the evenings, and sharing good times with 7 or 8 different families.
The townships introduced us to skiing and planted the seed in both my brother and I for higher vertical challenges. We both went on to seek even wispier altitude air , with both our work and our lives in mountain ranges. On this particular trip home however, I realized it did more than that for me. The foundation of growing up between Montreal and the Townships set the stage for me to seek out a parallel platform for my own family; one whose credo prioritized outdoor recreation, family and friends, and a multi-cultural environment that nurtured doing what we loved.
What makes the Townships special is that whether through simple geography, or the will of its hard-working rural population, it covertly managed to avert much of the political caucophony that a city existence otherwise left its occupants submerged in throughout history. L’Estrie often stood out for its lagging loyalist population and resistance to the commercialism that plagues the Laurentians north Montreal. Throughout the century, somehow the community managed to keep the land as a central tenet to the people. Though arguably politically exclusive by some, many argue that it maintained a rustic lifestyle whose values held up a basic, but noble existence. Apparently at one time, the Easter Townships included extended areas into the states 20 km across the border, and were considered to be frontier communities with most of their energy dedicated to farming, family and basic survival. It is said that much of this lower Canada zone was disinterested in the war and the greater conflict being pushed from the capitals. What was considered a ‘neutral bloc’ existed along much of the Canada US border. In fact , as recently as 50 years ago, many mothers would drive across the border to have their children at the closest hospital in the town of Newport, instead of at home in Canada.
For my family, we would come out on the weekends to play in the slow lane that was the Townships. There was, and still is an amazing recreation for all levels, including families and professional athletes such as Clara Hughes, three time Olympian who calls Sutton home today. The townships caters to families who want to be outside in the long Quebec winters; it does not have mega-infrastructure, shopping, or the bling of the Laurentians, but it does have a simplicity, and self-propelled integrity that draws us to venture outside. In its sleepy border lined communities, l’Estrie was always a place where people got together and stuck together in their diversity. You could have the best of both cultural worlds where French and English are now spoken by most people there.. without forgetting other immigrant hamlets such as the Ukraininan Bokopta village off Lakeview Road, or the strong Polish community in and round Mansonville. Politics was certainly discussed, but it never monopolized the party or took precedence over eat, drink, and be merry. The sense of community that was engendered for those of us growing up there, was one of outdoor recreation, good times, exquisite food, and barrels of both wine and laughter.
The role that language played was somewhat secondary, but no less important. It offered and alternative path and a means to see things in a binary world; we were exposed to duality from the start and came to understand that it not only existed in everything, but it could be positive. Many people today in the communications world and the current political landscape of Quebec hope that the benefits of this binary mentality will move the province into a more progressive stance on language rights. Those of us that grew up with the ever simmering French English dispute, already know that speaking two language has done nothing but benefit us. When I left Quebec to see the world, I understood very quickly that one of the best things my parents did for me was send me to French Immersion school, and force me to study only in French until I was 14. Living out west now, I realize I will have to work twice as hard to attain a similar, multi-cultural existence for my own children.
As I pedalled past Lake Memphremagog wrapping up my ride, I whispered a few words of gratitude for the chance to reconnect to the surrounding Appalachian beauty. It became evident to me that the splendour of the natural environments we grow up in ultimately forms the bedrock of our subconscious minds. No matter where we find ourselves, if we chose to dig deep for those green pastures we can find them lining even the smallest moments of our day.