Day 13: Grenville, Quebec
Province sets itself apart as distinct society for smokers
Saturday, August 19, 2000
If there is one thing other than language that distinguishes Quebec from the rest of Canada, it must be the simple cigarette.
In isolated villages and Montreal restaurants, in department stores and offices, pubs and ferries, the act of smoking is alive and well across Quebec. Unlike Ottawa or Toronto, smoking is not banished to glassed-in closets or street corners. Unlike Calgary or Vancouver, it is not sneered at as unhealthy, even unnatural.
Of the 21 drivers who gave me rides in Quebec, 11 were smokers, not apologetic smokers or mindless addicts but people who enthusiastically lit each Export A or Player's. Some suggested Montreal and Quebec City's continental style for the habit. Others pointed to the province's history of mill towns and logging camps and hockey heroes such as Guy Lafleur who could skate like the wind, and smoke, too.
Christian Bigras, one of those drivers, blamed something else, a general contempt he sees for the body in Quebec. "People in Quebec like beer and smoking. That's the way it is here," he said, lighting another Export A regular. He smokes an average of 15 cigarettes a day, which is low, he acknowledged, for western Quebec.
Along the Ottawa River, where Christian works in construction, most public places seem designed for smokers. "In Lachute [a nearby farming town], 60 per cent of the restaurant tables are reserved for smokers," he suggested.
New laws for smoke-free restaurants have fallen victim to a lack of inspectors, Christian said, adding that most Quebeckers don't want restrictions anyway. He finds the province's lack of emphasis on health so appalling that he prefers to take his only child, a son, to an Ontario hospital across the river when he is ill. "In Ontario, when you go to a hospital, they talk to you," he said. "In Quebec, you're just a number. The system here is not working."
Christian's theory about health priorities may seem out of synch with the bicycle trails and rollerblading grounds that are now more common on the Quebec landscape than church steeples. Then again, restaurants here seem to assign their worst tables to non-smokers, away from the window seats that are invariably reserved for the most refined smokers: the women who can slowly inhale, the men who can talk and exhale without mixing the two, and the odd cigar smoker for an after-dinner effect.
In the Casino de Montreal, the slot machines are fitted with ashtrays, and only five of 16 blackjack tables are reserved for non-smokers. One night, when a gentleman reminded a fellow gambler that smoking was not allowed at the table, everyone else at the table frowned -- at the non-smoker.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on globeandmail.com, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.