We’re a couple of storeys underground, sitting on benches in a small, round ampitheatre. Above us, beyond a spiralling ramp hugging an outer wall decorated with images of suffragettes, sled dogs and hydroelectric dams, a 19th century clock tower looks down upon us through a clear, glass dome.
The tower belongs to the Second Empire-style Hôtel du Parlement, home to Quebec’s provincial parliament, the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale du Québec). The ampitheatre in which we sit is at the base of the brand-new, $60.5 million “reception pavilion”, the first stop for visitors to the assembly.
There are certain attractions some travellers will seek out upon arriving in a new city or country. Maybe it’s a local beer, or an observation tower, or even the region-exclusive McDonald’s menu items. But Courtney and I make a beeline for the nearest parliament.
Why that is, I cannot say. Perhaps it’s because the two cities in which we have lived together, Canberra and Ottawa, owe much to those architectural centrepieces from which international recognition, Instagram photos, tourism dollars and, well, laws, flow. They can also be a useful way of gauging how a country or state asserts its democratic tradition, and is usually a free way to kill a couple of hours in climate-controlled comfort during hot, cold or wet days.
In many of the legislatures we’ve been to, the need to cater for visitors has been seen as an afterthought at best and an annoyance at worst (I still remember the hostility, aggressive security guards and tension at the dedicated United States Capitol visitor centre in Washington, DC).
The need to retrofit parliament buildings with security checkpoints means that in a lot of cases, instead of walking into a grand entrance hall through the front door as intended by the architect decades or centuries ago, visitors emerge through a nondescript side door only after navigating a bland rabbit warren of X-rays, metal detectors and flourescent lights.
That security process is the same at the National Assembly: you enter through modern glass doors below the old entrance, go through security, provide proof of identification, and so on.
But rather than spitting you out into the centre of the building or a drab holding pen to await your tour, you emerge into the aforementioned reception pavilion, designed especially for visitors. As you walk down the spiralling ramp of the “agora”, you pass exhibitions about the history of the province and an area for children to learn about the democratic process.
On the walls lining the ramp, images of Quebec’s recent history emerge from the wooden panels, such as the construction of hydroelectric dams, the suffragette movement (women were only granted the right to vote in the province in 1940), and Expo 67 in Montreal.
At the base of the agora, where we sit and look up through the glass dome of the clock tower, footage shot around Quebec plays on a white wall across from us, next to a solitary provincial flag. The space was designed to be used both for waiting, and for speaking: it was hoped that lectures and other public forums could be hosted in this pavilion.
All this, and we haven’t even entered the parliament building itself yet.
Once our guide arrives for our English language tour, we make our way to the path that will grant us access to the building. This, too, showcases a new feature: a “singing tunnel”. As you walk through a series of white lights, the colours of the bulb change around you to those of a rainbow, and music plays. The more people there are in the tunnel, the more colour appears, and the more it “sings” to you.
It’s an interesting, engaging way of transferring you from the ultra-modern pavilion to the elegance of Hôtel du Parlement’s interior.
Architect Eugène-Étienne Taché intended for the building to tell the story of Quebec’s history and culture. Its facade is adorned with statues, busts and reliefs of significant people and events, while the interior is decorated with the coats of arms of Quebec’s colonisers and settlers, as well as stained glass artwork of moments in history (Indigenous history, while not entirely absent, certainly seemed sidelined in a lot of places) .
For this reason, the guided tour grants lesson in architecture, art, history and democracy in equal measure.
The tour does not shy away from contemporary controversies, either. Our group, made up of anglophone Canadians from other provinces or foreigners like us, discuss at length the controversial secularism bill passed earlier this year that bans some public servants (including emergency service workers and teachers) from wearing religious symbols at work.
As he shows us a crucifix removed from above the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly chamber as a consequence of the legislation (it now rests just outside the chamber door), our guide takes us through the arguments for and against the bill, as well as Quebec’s turbulent history, both within the province and with the rest of Canada.
In this way, the tour is refreshing in its frankness and in explaining the Assembly’s relatonship to the everyday. Many of the tours we have taken at other parliaments stick to hypotheticals and the basic theory of a legislature’s role.
In tying the building and its workers back to laws that will visibly affect citizens (especially, in this case, religious and ethnic minorities), the tour allows the parliament to become grounded in the society around it.
Quebec’s relationship with the rest of Canada is complex and can be difficult to decipher. This could be why the provincial parliament, of all places, in which the province can best make its collective voice heard, is at pains to describe its history, its culture, and its values in an easily accessible way.
The province could have saved its money on the reception pavilion, making the necessary security upgrades to the building in a basic entrance hall resembling the inside of an airport terminal. Instead, the province has given its guests a greater insight into the self-image it wants to project, and its citizens a better understanding that the parliament belongs to them (regardless of what is being debated upstairs).
Where: Hôtel du Parlement, 1045 Rue des Parlementaires, Quebec City, QC
When: Year-round, seven days a week; hours vary through the year.
How: Guided tours of about 75 minutes each are provided in French or English. Joint tours of the parliament building and the library take about 90 minutes. Reservations can be made online. You can also take a self-guided tour, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re fluent in French.
More info: National Assembly’s website
We visited in: July, 2019