Montreal, Quebec Great American Railroad Journeys


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Montreal, Quebec

In the metropolis of Montreal, Michael Portillo discovers how French and British colonial roots have influenced the city's construction, cuisine and culture.


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I have crossed the Atlantic to ride the railroads of North America

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with my faithful Appletons' guide.

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Published in the late 19th century,

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it will lead me to all that is magnificent, charming,

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confusing, invigorating

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and wholesome in the United States and Canada.

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As I journey through this vast continent,

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I'll encounter revolutionaries and feminists, pilgrims and witches,

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and ride some of the oldest

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and most breathtaking railroads in the world.

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I've swapped my usual Appletons' for a special 1899 Canadian edition

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to explore a brand-new railway destination.

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Please have your tickets ready now, thank you for travelling.

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My rail journey through North America resumes in Canada, which,

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in 1867, attained Dominion status, with its own government,

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but still part of the British Empire,

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with Queen Victoria as Head of State.

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That British domination was irksome to a large majority

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of French-speakers concentrated in Quebec, who, until the

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British conquest, had owed their allegiance to the King of France.

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My journey will begin there in the largest city, Montreal.

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"Mon-ray-al" to French speakers.

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I hope to discover how the railways helped to unite a newly-minted

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nation, and how Canada's French and colonial roots continue to shape

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the country today.

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My North American tour commenced in the United States,

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at the birthplace of the American Revolution - Boston.

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Having explored the New England coast, I travelled north,

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via the resort of Lake Placid, towards the Canadian border.

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I'm now embarking on a journey through French-speaking Quebec

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Province, before crossing into English-speaking Ontario,

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bound for my final stop - Toronto.

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On this leg, I'll explore the island city of Montreal,

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where I'll plunge into the history of the St Lawrence River...

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Imagine doing this in a paddle steamer!

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..uncover some surprises in Montreal's top university...

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As far as I know,

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I'm the only librarian whose library has a body count.

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..and run away to join the circus.

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Time to put the sunshine in the Circus of the Sun!

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My Canadian journey will follow the route of the Grand Trunk Railway,

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which, by the time of my guidebook,

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linked the Eastern Seaboard of the United States with Toronto.

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First stop is Montreal,

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which Appletons' calls "the great railway centre of Canada."

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I'm alighting at Montreal Central,

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and going in search of the city that an 1899 tourist would have seen.

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What a beautiful view.

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Appletons' says, "Before undertaking to do this city,

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"one should view it from the mountain,

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"to get a proper realisation of the magnificence of the city's island

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"throne. We stand on what was once an active volcano.

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"Far below, between the mountain and the river, lies the broad confusion

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"of the city roofs and towers."

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The Royal Mountain, le Mont-Royal,

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was named after the French King Francis I.

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And, today, with all its skyscrapers,

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nearly 500 years later, it remains a symbol of the pride and the success

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of French Canada.

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The first French explorer arrived in Montreal in 1535,

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and it soon became an important trading post for New France.

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Conquered by Britain in 1760,

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my guidebook describes it as "the commercial metropolis of Canada."

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And goes on... "With 250,000 inhabitants,

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"an unrivalled site at the head of ocean navigation,

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"with enormous wealth and with all the resources of the north-west

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"seeking an outlet through her port."

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But Appletons' also makes clear that Montreal posed a menace to sailors.

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Here is a terrifying description of the infamous Lachine Rapids

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on the St Lawrence River.

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"Waves are lashed into spray by the submerged rocks.

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"You pass with lightning speed within a few yards of rocks which,

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"did your vessel but touch them, would reduce her to an utter wreck.

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"Before us is an absolute precipice of waters.

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"On every side of it,

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"breakers like dense avalanches are thrown high into the air."

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And here is a harrowing picture of a steamer making its way through.

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I believe that today you can still negotiate the rapids.

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But surely only the most irresponsible thrill-seeker

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would do so.

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I have a feeling that someone thinks I'm going to get wet today.

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Michael, you look absolutely great. Let's go!

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Jack Kavalsky has been navigating these waters for 30 years.

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He's taking me upriver, towards the rapids.

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OK...

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Jack, tell me how Montreal sits in the waterways around it?

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Well, Montreal is an island port.

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And all the big ships from the ocean can access Montreal by coming up

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the St Lawrence River.

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How do these rapids that we're going to negotiate

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-fit into it all, then?

-Well, the rapids are the birthplace

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of Montreal. It was the first natural barrier,

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forcing all the French explorers to port dodge the rapids,

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which means carrying their canoes around the rapids,

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and heading west across the Great Lakes by canoe.

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So, you could get further west by canoe,

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but presumably not by any size of ship?

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A canoe is about the only thing that would go.

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In the 1820s, the first of several shallow canals was built,

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providing a through route for cargo.

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But some vessels still ventured into the treacherous waters.

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In my guidebook from the end of the 19th century,

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I have this extraordinary picture of a paddle steamer negotiating

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the rapids. What was going on?

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They would bring a tour down to Montreal and up to Quebec City

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on these paddle ships. And the most interesting thing about it,

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to negotiate the rapids,

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they would start at the Indian reservation, Kahnawake,

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and they would put on an Indian captain who would take the boat

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through the rapids and bring it down to the Port of Montreal.

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The rapids still appeal to intrepid tourists,

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who today take their chances on a jet boat rather than a steamer.

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Awesome, let's rock on!

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To begin with, the ride seems smooth enough.

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Here we go!

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Up and down and side to side.

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Oh, my goodness!

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Here we go!

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I was drenched to the skin. My boots were full of water.

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I'm frozen. And it was absolutely thrilling!

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By the time of my guide,

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Montreal was not just a port city but a railway hub, too.

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It was the headquarters of the great transcontinental railway,

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the Canadian Pacific,

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built in 1885 to unite the far-flung provinces of this vast new country.

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These days, the city is home to railways on a smaller scale.

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But just as handy to the tourists.

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The elegant art nouveau porticos are a lovely feature of the Paris Metro.

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But here is one in Montreal.

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And the reason is that this metro was built in the 1960s,

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a collaboration between the French and the Canadians.

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And so Paris gifted one to the city.

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Well, this platform, it reminds me of a Paris station.

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And another thing is, the trains have rubber tyres.

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And then the cars and the sound is very similar, too.

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Let's face it, this could be an underground Paris.

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My Appletons' says of Montreal, "First it was the fur trade,

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"then came the lumber, grain and cattle trades,

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"all pouring their wealth into the city's lap."

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In the 19th century,

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Montreal's prosperous merchants founded institutions which continue

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to make their mark.

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Appletons' tells me that the most important university is of course

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McGill, "..which has grown to a worldwide fame and influence.

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"The pride of the city,

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"its buildings stand in the midst of fine grounds."

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I'm privileged to be in an institution now renowned

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particularly for medicine, and especially neurology.

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Founded thanks to a bequest from a Scottish-born fur-trader,

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James McGill, in the 1820s, by the time of my guidebook,

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the university had already established a reputation as a centre

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for medical excellence.

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I'm meeting librarian Christopher Lyons to hear the story.

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Chris, what a superb library. Absolutely beautiful.

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It is one of the premier history of medicine collections in the world.

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But more than that, it's a memorial to its founder, Sir William Osler,

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as well as his mausoleum.

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-Mausoleum?!

-Mausoleum.

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The focal point of the library contains the ashes of not only

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Sir William Osler, but his wife, Lady Osler, who died in 1928.

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I'm the only librarian I know whose library has a body count!

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William Osler, born in 1849, graduated from McGill in 1872.

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Two years later, he returned to teach medicine.

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What was his distinctive contribution?

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It's hard to believe, but at one time you could get a medical degree

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at a great many schools just by attending lectures, written exams,

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and never having seen a patient, never having touched a body.

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Osler did fight to get as far away from that model as possible.

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When the faculty of medicine had one microscope for the whole faculty,

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he moonlighted, got a job at a smallpox hospital, and,

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with the money he made, went out and bought his own microscopes,

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15 of them, for his students, so he could teach histology to them.

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That's how important it was for him.

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Osler established the precedent that medical students

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should learn their trade on the wards, with real patients.

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In that spirit, I'm volunteering to be a human guinea pig for Benjamin

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Gold, who's researching how music affects the human nervous system.

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One of the things I'm going to measure is your breathing,

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the rate and the amplitude of your breaths.

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I'm just going to wrap this around.

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All right, now we're going to have these two electrodes measure your

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skin conductance.

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Benjamin believes that he can gauge my musical preferences...

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Now, I'm going to give you these headphones here.

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..simply by monitoring my physical response.

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Frankenstein's Monster in headphones.

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Enjoy!

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All right... I think I'll start with the Wagner first.

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MUSIC PLAYS

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Oh, already there's a skin conductance response. He's, I guess, a bit excited about it.

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The pulse has actually sped up and gotten a little shorter,

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so he's pumping blood more quickly already.

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This music gives me a tingle that can be measured.

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I'm perspiring more, so my skin conducts electricity better.

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So now I'm going to play this loud clashy music that I don't really

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expect him to like, and we'll see what happens.

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ELECTRONIC MUSIC

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Already a big skin conductance event.

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Small heartbeats there.

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And the breath is becoming a bit more jagged, I think.

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-Hello, Ben.

-How was it?

-It was fine, it was fine.

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Now, do you know which I liked the more?

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I have a suspicion. I think it was the first one.

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-Was I right?

-It is right. How did you know that?

-So, the first piece started right around here,

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and I could see immediately there was a skin conductance event.

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And then, as we continue, look,

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there are all of these other skin conductance events.

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So even after the initial surprise,

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I think you were still pretty excited by this music.

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If we go to the one that you liked less, here again is the beginning,

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and there is another skin conductance event at the beginning.

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But then, if we keep going forward,

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it gets pretty stable after a few seconds.

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So I think after the initial surprise,

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you were pretty stable throughout the rest of that stimulus.

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Yes, but not excited by the music, not attracted by the music.

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-Exactly.

-What is the practical use for this?

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My hope is that by understanding how the brain derives pleasure,

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then we can understand a bit more about what makes people happy and,

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while that might not treat a certain disease,

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at least it can improve the quality of life for a lot of people.

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At the time of my Appletons', the area around Montreal's major

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railway stations was home to a thriving black community.

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Slaves from the southern United States had been smuggled to Canada

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on the so-called underground railroad.

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The real railroad offered a rare

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decent work opportunity for black men.

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Today, Montreal is still famous for the music

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that emerged in that community.

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Tori Butler will introduce me to the city's jazz legend.

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-Hey, Tori, I'm Michael.

-Hey, Michael, how are you doing?

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Nice music! What was that you were playing?

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Oh, well, that's not really a piece, it's just a style of one of my heroes, Oscar Peterson.

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He used to play a lot of boogie-woogie.

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-Tell me about Oscar Peterson.

-Incredible jazz musician.

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He was born near Montreal. His father was a porter that worked on the railroads.

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-Why is he such a hero to you?

-I started piano when I was young,

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and I quit because I couldn't find what I was looking for musically.

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And when I was in high school,

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my band director had given me a recording of Oscar Peterson.

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And I heard that recording

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and I said, "The piano can sound like this?! Oh, my goodness!"

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One of Oscar Peterson's best-loved albums was called Night Train.

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And a bit of boogie-woogie

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is the perfect lullaby for a weary railway traveller.

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PLAYS JAZZY PIANO

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According to Appletons', here in Montreal, French Canada

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and English Canada come into close and perpetual contact.

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And yet maintain their individuality.

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That seems just as true today.

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-Hello, guys.

-Hello.

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May I ask you, are you principally French speakers or English speakers?

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We are French speakers.

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It's my mother tongue, it's the first language that we learn,

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most people in Quebec.

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But we need to speak English to work, too.

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It's very important.

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Is the French language very important to you?

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-Yes.

-Yes. It's part of our culture.

-Do you think it's going to survive?

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I absolutely believe it's going to survive.

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The French language has been a very important language, especially here in Quebec.

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And I believe that it's never going to disappear.

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It won't disappear, I'm sure of that. Because there are always people to keep it.

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In the Gallic-sounding Place Jacques-Cartier,

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historian Brian Young briefs me on Montreal's duel heritage.

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Brian, I had to do a double-take when I saw this column.

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Horatio Nelson, victor over the French, and this is in Montreal,

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a French-speaking city. What's going on?

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Our Trafalgar Square, if you wish,

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built 50 years after the British conquest of Canada,

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representative of British victory over the French, over Napoleon.

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Britain officially took control of New France in 1763.

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French-speakers were allowed to maintain their traditions.

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But the English-speaking population built monuments like this one,

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erected in 1809. I suppose that when it was built,

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there were loyalists to George III who had come up after the American Revolution to take refuge here.

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Quite true. Always been an important American presence here in Montreal.

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First, loyalist to George III, opposed to the American Revolution,

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but then subsequently all sorts of professional merchants in particular

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who came to Montreal.

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During the 19th century,

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Canada's French and English-speaking populations vied for power

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and influence.

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In 1867, three of Britain's North American colonies were united

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into a single dominion, but, as this monument can attest,

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it was not enough to overcome division.

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Did French-Canadians ever try to tear it down?

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Persistent attempts to tear it down, to graffiti it.

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At least on one occasion, had it taken down and had it stored away

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in the name of renovation. But it's gone back up.

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How would you describe the attitude of French-Canadians to this British,

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particularly English, domination?

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Very hostile. And it's basically obviously at the root of what we

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call the national question,

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the long-standing French attempt to win autonomy.

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It has led to two referendums.

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One in 1980, a very, very close one in 1995.

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So this has really been our focal point of the national question

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here in Montreal.

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Tensions reached a head in the 1960s

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when the separatist Front de liberation du Quebec

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launched a campaign of bombing and kidnappings.

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In today's calmer times,

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language and culture are the focus of Francophone identity.

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A plateau of Quebec cheeses.

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And these cheeses appear to be absolutely French.

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Many of the cheesemakers, as with the breadmakers and the winemakers,

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learn their profession in France.

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It's an extremely important part of French cultural life.

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Well, vive le Quebec. Sante, monsieur.

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French-speaking Canadians today make up just one-fifth

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of the country's population,

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but for such a small minority, they punch above their weight.

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I'm heading out of the city centre to the home of a phenomenally

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successful Quebecois export.

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This utilitarian building in the suburb is the headquarters

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of Cirque du Soleil,

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whose magical performances have helped to reinvent circus.

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Here, the visionary team create all the costumes, sets and music,

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and put the shows together before sending them out across the globe.

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I've been granted a backstage pass, accompanied by Frederique Gagnier.

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-Frederique.

-Bonjour.

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-Michael, enchante.

-Hi, welcome to Cirque du Soleil.

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Le Cirque is now an enormous global enterprise. How did it start?

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In the early '80s, a bunch of street performers got together and created a street festival.

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There were fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, jugglers, musicians.

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And in 1984,

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Quebec City was celebrating the 450th anniversary of the discovery

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of Canada by Jacques Cartier.

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And it needed a show to carry around the province.

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And Cirque du Soleil was born.

0:23:560:23:59

Today, the company is the world's biggest theatrical producer,

0:24:020:24:05

with 4,000 employees and a turnover of 850 million per year.

0:24:050:24:12

This artist is working with two people.

0:24:120:24:14

-Why two?

-He's working with an artistic coach for the emotion,

0:24:140:24:19

and the acrobatic coach for the technique.

0:24:190:24:22

It's really a combination of the two

0:24:220:24:24

that makes a Cirque du Soleil artist.

0:24:240:24:26

I'm neither an artiste nor a sportsman,

0:24:260:24:29

but the coaching team has invited me to learn some circus skills.

0:24:290:24:33

Time to put the sunshine in the Circus of the Sun!

0:24:330:24:37

So, are you ready to be transformed into a cricket?

0:24:440:24:47

-Oh, is that what I am?!

-Yes! So, here we go.

0:24:470:24:49

I'm quite lucky to be a cricket.

0:24:510:24:53

-I could have been a dung beetle, couldn't I?!

-Yes, you could have!

0:24:530:24:57

-Even my lips?!

-Yes!

0:24:590:25:01

I may look the part, but is the team ready for an artiste of my calibre,

0:25:060:25:10

I wonder?

0:25:100:25:13

Ah, hello, gentlemen, I'm Michael.

0:25:130:25:16

Mitch, Andre and Jerry will put me through my paces.

0:25:160:25:20

-How do we start?

-So, first thing we're going to do is we are going to just get you to stand

0:25:200:25:24

on these two blocks here.

0:25:240:25:26

I'm going to hold it to keep it stable for you.

0:25:260:25:29

And Andre here is going to tie you up.

0:25:290:25:31

Often people think the straps are for safety,

0:25:350:25:38

but it's actually just in case you have second thoughts!

0:25:380:25:40

I just want you to rock back and forth.

0:25:430:25:45

You can use your arms a bit.

0:25:450:25:47

And just kind of feel it in the legs.

0:25:470:25:51

But control it with the arms.

0:25:510:25:52

Straightening. Oh!

0:25:530:25:55

-That's it!

-It's so easy to go over.

0:25:550:25:58

-Ah!

-What we're going to do is you're going to do a full circle.

0:26:010:26:05

-Your hands, you need to keep them tight.

-Tight...

-Ready?

0:26:050:26:08

-I'm holding on tight.

-So we're going to go this way. Here we go.

0:26:080:26:11

Oh, my God! I'm holding on tight.

0:26:120:26:16

Oh, my God! I can't believe it!

0:26:160:26:19

You lived!

0:26:210:26:24

-Now, try to be stiff.

-In the arms?

0:26:240:26:29

-Everywhere!

-Try to be stiff everywhere, right.

0:26:290:26:31

Because now you are a bit soft and you wiggled yourself.

0:26:310:26:34

-OK, I'm stiff everywhere.

-You're stiff everywhere, OK.

0:26:340:26:37

OK, ready? OK, watch forward.

0:26:370:26:40

-Still a bit soft.

-Much better!

0:26:450:26:47

Really? Still a bit soft.

0:26:470:26:49

Now, when you're upside down, instead of having your weight to

0:26:490:26:53

-push...

-Yeah.

-You just hang, and it's easier for you to move.

0:26:530:26:56

OK. There we go.

0:26:560:26:58

Ex-politician involved in spin!

0:27:010:27:04

I shall not easily forget Montreal.

0:27:150:27:18

I've been strapped to a wheel and sent spinning at Cirque du Soleil,

0:27:180:27:22

and I've been buffeted by tonnes of water on the St Lawrence River.

0:27:220:27:27

From its origins as a staging post

0:27:270:27:29

at the entrance to the Lachine Rapids,

0:27:290:27:32

the city has grown into a metropolis, with a fine university,

0:27:320:27:37

and a distinctive French-Canadian culture.

0:27:370:27:41

Since the British conquered the Quebecois nearly 250 years ago,

0:27:410:27:46

there's been tension between the two cultures,

0:27:460:27:49

and questions about how the French language can best survive,

0:27:490:27:54

and whether the two parts of Canada can hold together.

0:27:540:27:58

Next time, I have an authentic taste of a national delicacy...

0:28:050:28:09

It's magic!

0:28:100:28:12

..get to grips with my Scottish heritage...

0:28:120:28:14

Argh!

0:28:140:28:17

..and find a parliamentary home from home.

0:28:170:28:20

If only I'd had a desk to bang on.

0:28:200:28:22

All I could do was say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Or, "Rubbish!"

0:28:220:28:26

Subtitles by Red Bee Media

0:28:480:28:50

Following a special 1899 Canadian edition of his Appleton's guide, Michael Portillo has left the United States and crossed the border to embark on the next leg of his rail journey in Canada.

In the vibrant metropolis of Montreal, he discovers how French and British colonial roots have influenced the city's construction, cuisine and culture. Undaunted by his guidebook's description of the treacherous Lachine Rapids, Michael gets a thorough soaking on a white-knuckle boat ride down the St. Lawrence River.

At the city's prestigious McGill University, Michael learns of its role as a pioneering medical establishment in the 19th century. He unearths a mausoleum amidst the text books and volunteers as a guinea pig at the university's cutting-edge neurology department. In search of the city's black Canadian heritage, Michael is introduced to the dazzling piano playing of 20th-century jazz legend Oscar Peterson.

His Montreal tour ends with a visit to Cirque du Soleil HQ for a very special behind-the-scenes tour of an icon of modern French-Canadian culture.