The Québec Winter Carnival

The Québec Winter Carnival is the oldest of the winter events hosted in Canada each year. The popular tradition of a winter festival may be traced back to New France.
The Québec Winter Carnival is the oldest of the winter events hosted in Canada each year. The popular tradition of a winter festival may be traced back to New France. Until break up the monotony of winter, residents would meet and rejoice before Lent (see Religious Festivals), from the end of January to the middle of February.
Frank Carrel, proprietor of the Québec Daily Telegraph, created the first planned winter carnival in Québec City in 1894. The event was conducted in succeeding winters, although it was not held on a regular basis due to two World Wars and the Great Depression. The festival was reintroduced in 1954 as part of attempts to revitalise the province capital’s economy, and it has been conducted every winter since then.
In 2014, the Québec Winter Carnival celebrated its 60th year. To commemorate the event, the organisers decided to revive an old practise. The Carnival duchesses returned after an 18-year hiatus and some controversy.
From 1955 through 1996, seven young ladies were chosen to represent the seven districts of the Québec area, referred to the Carnival organisers as duchies. Duchesses, who had to be unmarried, were chosen based on their physical characteristics. They were obliged to undergo language and etiquette classes, as well as attend multiple fitting sessions. Following the sale of candles in each of the city’s neighbourhoods, one of the duchesses was chosen at random as Carnival Queen (the sale of Carnival candles is a fundraising campaign that benefits many charitable organisations and community groups). The Carnival Ball and the coronation of the Carnival Queen were the celebration’s highlights. During the two-week celebration, the duchesses would take part in a variety of public activities, conduct television and radio appearances, and perform philanthropic work. Being a duchess or Carnival Queen was the start of a public career for several of these women.
However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the feminist movement (see Women’s Movement) and several sponsors who thought it sexist opposed this “personality contest”. In Le soleil a pas d’chance (The Sun Was Out of Luck), film director Robert Favreau disclosed in 1975 that the young ladies were required to exhibit “made-to-measure” behaviour and that many hours were spent moulding them for their part. In 1982, the group Les Folles Alliées (Fit to be Tied), which included Agnès Maltais (now a member of the Parti Québécois in the National Assembly), ridiculed the tournament in their play Enfin duchesses! (Finally, Duchesses!).
The notion of bringing back the duchesses has come up on occasion since then. In 2010, a Radio-Canada-sponsored poll found that 82% of Québec people supported their return but wanted the contest structure to be modified. However, during the 2000s, the Carnival has grown more family-oriented, and many people believe that a personality contest is incompatible with this approach.
From 2010 till the present, a group of feminists protested the reintroduction of the duchesses by organising La Revengeance des Duchesses on the outside of official Carnival festivities (Revenge of the Duchesses). Instead of being concerned about their appearance, these ladies used social media to introduce tourists to Québec neighbourhoods. More unique was the fact that males could be duchesses. The competition was also available to females of any age.
The 2014 edition of the Québec Winter Carnival duchess contest was an entrepreneurial competition that combined tradition and renewal. Aspiring duchesses aged 19 to 35 (mothers, pregnant mothers, students, and professionals) submitted suggestions for Carnival-related initiatives. The project’s goal was to sell the most Carnival candles. The projects were completed in January 2014 and were utilised to assist in the selection of the Carnival duchesses.
Despite protests, the Carnival duchesses appear to be here to stay. However, many observers see the competition as a relic of age and gender discrimination. Men and women above the age of 35 are not permitted to enter the competition for the simple reason that those categories were not permitted to participate 60 years ago. Let us hope that this “tradition” is abandoned and that a more inclusive approach is offered for future carnivals.

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