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The Unknown Story of Québec's Red Roofs

Red roofs under the blue skies of Tadoussac, Québec.
Photo credit:

August 10, 2016

In Québec, the old red-roofed houses have a history of their own. They have become over time must-see sites. These red roofs stimulate and direct the visual perception embellishing in turn the province's tourist circuits from Percé in the east to the Ottawa River in the west. Today there are hundreds of them. In Old Québec, the red roofs are everywhere. They make us realize the importance of being attentive to our surroundings. Together, they constitute a true national treasure and even a cultural heritage.

These wonders have been portrayed by several artists from here and elsewhere. They have also been photographed by millions of visitors from the four corners of the earth. Their digital images found on websites are devoid of any clarification as to their origin. Moreover, there is no register or listing of these hidden treasures. They must be discovered one by one. Even the travel guide books are devoid of any mention of these red roofs.

What is the history of the red roofs that appear unexpectedly in the streets of Québec City and well beyond its ramparts? Some say that red was intended to imitate the famed terra cotta tiles of Poitou, France. Others argue that red was used for the identification of the New World's prosperous families or upper class merchants. They say further that the sailors relied on the red roofs as landmarks for navigation. According to a legend of the St. Lawrence River Valley, bright red allowed to more easily locate the 'cabins in Canada' during blowing snow.

The most likely version of the story is that of some farmers from the Island of Orleans who explained to me one autumn day that a long time ago the "Canadians", also called the "habitants", wanted to give their house a distinctive character without changing the Normandy architectural design that was highly adapted to the cold climate of the northern landscape. After public consultations, the scarlet red of the isle's strawberries, whose reputation was well established, was chosen by the local peasants to achieve distinction from a faraway mother land. With this simple and inexpensive change, America's Francophones could then be easily recognizable among themselves and from a distance. It is obvious that this way of thinking continues to be displayed with pride across Québec.

About the author

Jean-Pierre Bernier is a retired executive from the financial sector with a burning passion for America's Francophonie and its fraternity.

A Québec City native, he now lives in Aurora, Ontario.

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