This article may contain affiliate links which help support the site. If you click an affiliate link and make a purchase then we receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.
History of the Québec Winter Carnival
The Québec Winter Carnival, which began officially in 1955, is the largest winter carnival in the world. The carnival tradition actually originated much earlier though, dating back to a time when the early inhabitants of New France got together just before Lent from the end of January through mid-February to celebrate. From late in the 19th century through 1954, a carnival was held sporadically until a group of business people decided that organized festivities could provide a winter boost for the tourism industry.
The official Winter Carnival was launched in 1955 and has continued to grow and increase in popularity year upon year becoming an event that Québec is known for around the world. In 2016, the Carnival spread out across town with themed activities on several sites within walking distance of one another: place de l’Assemblée-Nationale, the parc de l’Esplanade, the parc de la Francophonie, the parc de l’Amérique-Française and Grande Allée.
The Winter Carnival in Québec is fun for everyone with a diverse program of activities each year that will appeal to all ages. Here are my picks for 10 things you must do at the Québec Winter Carnival.
Meet Bonhomme and Visit His Ice Palace
The first time I attended the Winter Carnival in Québec, my number one priority was meeting Bonhomme Carnaval, a jovial snowman wearing a red toque and an arrow sash who acts as the carnival's official representative. Each year on the opening night of the carnival, the mayor of Québec presents Bonhomme with the key to the city to symbolize his role as King of the festivities.
I had learned all about the Québec Winter Carnival and Bonhomme in my French classes as a kid so he had bona fide celebrity status as far as I was concerned. Fortunately, it didn't take long to find him as Bonhomme spends his days visiting carnival sites. The Ice Palace, across from the Parliament Building at Place de l'Assemblée Nationale, which is designed and built for Bonhomme each year and open for tours is a must for anyone attending Carnival.
Meeting Bonhomme at his ice palace
Inside Bonhomme's Palace
Bundle Up and Attend a Night Parade
The two night parades (the borough of Charlesbourg Parade and the Upper Town Parade) that take place during Carnival are among the festival's most anticipated events. Be sure to dress warmly for the parade as Québec is one of the coldest cities in North America and and you will be out in the colder night air for some time. If you're over 18 then a cane filled with caribou, the traditional festival alcoholic drink made from a secret recipe which includes red wine and hard liquor, will help keep you warm. The parades are free for anyone to attend - no Effigy required.
Night parade during Carnival
Eat Maple Taffy
Trust me - you will be very sorry if you visit the carnival and don't sample some maple taffy. This tasty winter treat is made by spreading maple syrup on blocks of snow and the delicious sweetness will make you forget about the cold for awhile at least. Visit a cabane à sucre (sugar shack) to get your fix.
Watch a Canoe Race on the Frozen St. Lawrence River
One of the highlights of the carnival is the traditional canoe races which take place on the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River. Spectators cheer on elite athletes who race their canoes across the river to Lévis and back again multiple times through a mixture of ice, slush and water. When the St. Lawrence is partially frozen the competitors have to alternate between rowing and jumping out of their canoes to push it across the ice floes. Historically, canoes were the only method of transportation across the St. Lawrence but once other viable methods of transportation became available ice canoeing transformed into an extreme sport unique to Québec and a popular event in each year's winter carnival.
Ice Canoeing on the St. Lawrence
Photo Credit: Carnaval de Québec
Check Out the Snow Sculpture Competition
The International Snow Sculpture Contest takes place each year at the carnival and features snow sculpting artists from several countries around the world. It is incredible to view the masterpieces that are created from snow and ice.
Photo Credit: Carnaval de Québec
Witness a Snow Bath
Without a doubt, the craziest thing that I have ever witnessed is the Bain de Neige (Snow Bath) which is one of the carnival's most popular annual events. I wasn't brave enough to participate (and have no regrets) but it was fun to watch! Participants don bathing suits to frolic in the snow with Bonhomme for a few minutes at a time, return inside to warm up and repeat. As much as I love Bonhomme, there is no way that I could be convinced to do this. Believe it or not, this event requires advance registration and sells out well in advance so if you have always dreamed of playing in the snow in your bathing suit then plan ahead!
Frolicking in the snow bath with Bonhomme
Go Skating Outdoors
There are a few locations where carnival goers can skate outdoors in the city but one of the loveliest is Place d'Youville in Old Québec across from Porte Saint-Jean and Capitole de Québec. Bonhomme, the carnival's ambassador, skates with the public on specific days and times at the Place d'Youville site (check the website for details on ice skating with Bonhomme). The Québec Region website also lists locations for outdoor ice skating in the city.
Photo Credit: Ville de Québec
Enjoy Fun Outdoor Games and Activities
There's always fun to be had outdoors during the Winter Carnival - activities at past carnivals have included tubing, a ferris wheel, giant foosball, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, sleigh rides and more. Dress in layers an head out to the carnival sites - this is your chance to have fun playing in the snow.
Snow Tubing during Carnival
Sleigh rides during Carnival
Take a Thrilling Toboggan Ride
Take a thrilling ride on the Dufferin Terrace toboggan slide located on the boardwalk by the historic Fairmont Château Frontenac. A toboggan slide first appeared on this spot late in the 19th century before construction of the Château Frontenac. It was closed in 1981 but reopened in 1992 and has operated every winter since. There are three toboggan lanes that riders race down at up to at speeds up to 70km/hour (43 miles/hour) for just $3 a ride and hot chocolate nearby to enjoy after your run. Weather permitting, the slide is open mid-December through mid-March so can be enjoyed when visiting Québec anytime during the winter season.
During the Carnival celebrations, there is a second ice slide on the Grande Allée (in front of Parliament) where carnival-goers can rent a sled on site and ride down this 90-meter (300-foot) slope made entirely out of ice.
Sliding on Dufferin Terrace
Explore the City and Region
As much fun as all of the Carnival activities are, you should take the time to do some sightseeing around the city as well. The provincial capital of Québec was founded more than 400 years ago by Samuel de Champlain in 1608 and the historic district of Old Québec (Vieux Québec), surrounded by the only fortified city walls remaining in the Americas north of Mexico, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the very least, plan to visit Quartier Petit Champlain and Place Royale in Basse Ville (Lower Town). Quartier Petit Champlain is a neighbourhood of quaint boutiques and bistros with a decidedly European atmosphere and twinkling decorative lights combined with a fresh winter snowfall will make you feel like you are walking through a scene taken from a postcard.
Snowy day in Quebec City
Anyone who is curious about ice hotels but isn't sure they want to book a stay can take a tour of Québec's Ice Hotel (Hôtel de Glace) which is located a short distance outside the city. The hotel is reconstructed each winter with a new theme and the craftsmanship involved in creating a hotel out of ice is an incredible thing to see.
Other nearby options include the winter playground at Valcartier Village Vacances which includes snow slides, skating paths, snow rafting and more; Wendake, a self-governing territory in the midst of Québec City where visitors can learn more about the Huron-Wendat nation's culture and history; and Montmorency Falls which is the highest waterfall in Québec and one of the highest in Canada.
Entrance to the Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) in Quebec
Visit the official Québec Winter Carnival website for additional information on events and activities.
Need to Know When Visiting the Québec Winter Carnival
- The upcoming Carnival will be held January 26 - February 11, 2018.
- The 2018 Carnival offers most of its themed activities over five sites that are within walking distance of one another: place de l’Assemblée-Nationale, the parc de l’Esplanade, the parc de la Francophonie, place George-V and the Grande Allée. All these sites are in the middle of Old Quebec City.
- The Carnival Effigy is your pass for 17 days of celebration at the main sites. The Effigy is A little plastic figurine of Bonhomme Carnival that you hang to your coat. Sales of this figurine are the Carnival’s main source of funding. There are some events such as the parades which can be enjoyed without an Effigy but most events require one for admission. Visitors 8 years of age and over require an Effigy to enter Carnival events.
- The regular price of an Effigy in 2018 is $15. (They are available at a discount prior to January 1st.) If you haven't purchased one beforehand, you can do so at the entrance to any carnival events.
- Dressing for the weather is the key to enjoying carnival activities as it can be bitterly cold and windy and the vast majority of events are outdoors. Layers are important and the first layer should be a wicking material (not cotton) because if you get sweaty then you will be cold. Fleece makes a good top layer. A thermal layer on your legs will help keep you warmer as well. Snow pants are also a good idea if you have them and a winter coat that will keep you warm and dry. Warm, comfortable boots are essential as you will be doing a fair bit of walking. A hat, mittens and scarf are essential. You might want to bring along pocket warmers as well.
The Québec Winter Carnival is the oldest of the winter festivals that are held each year in Canada. The popular tradition of a celebration in the dead of winter can be traced back to New France.
The Québec Winter Carnival is the oldest of the winter festivals that are held each year in Canada. The popular tradition of a celebration in the dead of winter can be traced back to New France. To relieve the tedium of winter, the habitantswould gather and celebrate before Lent (seeReligious Festivals), from the end of January to mid-February.
The first organized winter festival in Québec City, held in 1894, was the brainchild of Frank Carrel, owner of the Québec Daily Telegraph. The event was held during subsequent winters, but two World Wars and the Great Depression prevented it from being held on a regular basis. The event was reinstated in 1954 as part of efforts to revive the economy of the provincial capital, and it has been held every winter since then.
The 60th official edition of the Québec Winter Carnival was held in 2014. To mark the occasion, the organizers decided to bring back an old tradition. After more than 18 years of absence and amid some controversy, the Carnival duchesses returned.
Each year from 1955 to 1996, seven young women were chosen to represent the seven districts of the Québec region, called duchies by Carnival organizers. Duchesses, who had to be unmarried, were selected on the basis of their physical attributes. They were required to take courses in diction and etiquette and to attend numerous fitting sessions. One of the duchesses was chosen as Carnival Queen by random draw following the sale of candles in each of the city’s neighbourhoods (the sale of Carnival candles is a fundraising campaign that benefits many charitable organizations and community groups). The Carnival Ball and the crowning of the Carnival Queen were the highlights of the celebration. During the two-week festivities, duchesses would participate in various public activities, give television and radio interviews and do charitable work. For some of these women, being a duchess or Carnival Queen was the start of a public career.
In the 1970s and 80s, however, this “personality contest” was criticized by the feminist movement (seeWomen’s Movement) and by some sponsors who found it sexist. In 1975, film director Robert Favreau revealed in Le soleil a pas d’chance (The Sun Was Out of Luck) that the young women were expected to demonstrate “made-to-measure” behaviour and that many hours were spent moulding them for their role. In 1982, the collective Les Folles Alliées (Fit to be Tied), which included Agnès Maltais (today a Parti Québécois member of the National Assembly), parodied the contest in their play Enfin duchesses! (Finally Duchesses!).
In 1994, two men, Carl Brochu and Patrick Paquet, caused an uproar when they presented themselves as “dukes” among the 262 candidates. They were rejected after their interviews, but their attempt started a debate in the media and, in 1997, the duchesses disappeared from the Carnival program. In 42 years, more than 12,000 young women had applied to the contest. These two aspiring “dukes” later made the jump to politics. Carl Brochu was a candidate for the Action Démocratique du Québec in the riding of Chutes-de-la-Chaudière. Patrick Paquet was elected as a Québec municipal councillor and represented the district of Neufchâtel until 2012.
Since then, the idea of bringing back the duchesses has come up occasionally. In 2010, a survey sponsored by Radio-Canada showed that 82 per cent of Québec’s citizens supported their return but wanted the contest format to be updated. However, since the 2000s, the Carnival has become family-oriented, and for many people a personality contest is not consistent with this approach.
From 2010 on, a group of feminists expressed its opposition to the reinstatement of the duchesses by creating, on the fringes of the official Carnival activities, La Revengeance des Duchesses (Revenge of the Duchesses). Instead of worrying about their looks, these women introduced visitors to neighbourhoods in Québec using social media. More unusual was the fact that men were permitted to be duchesses. The contest was also open to women of any age.
Combining tradition and renewal, the 2014 edition of the Québec Winter Carnival duchess contest was an entrepreneurial competition. Aspiring duchesses from 19 to 35 years of age (mothers, expectant mothers, students and professionals) submitted proposals for projects related to the Carnival. The purpose of the projects was to sell the most Carnival candles. The projects were carried out in January 2014 and were used to help choose the Carnival duchesses.
Despite objections, it seems that the Carnival duchesses are here to stay. But for many observers, the contest is a throwback to discrimination based on age and gender. Men, as well as women who are more than 35 years old, are not able to enter the contest, for the simple reason that those groups were not allowed to participate 60 years ago. Let us hope that this “tradition” will be pushed aside and that a staunchly inclusive approach will be proposed for future carnivals.
Jean Provencher, Le Carnaval de Québec. La grande fête de l’hiver (2003).
Luc Nicole-Labrie, “Le premier carnaval « moderne » de Québec, 1955”, on Histoire engagée, 9 February 2011.
Links to other sites
Official website of the Québec Winter CarnivalLearn more about the history of the biggest winter carnival in the world!
"Le Carnaval de Québec de 1894"A description of the first winter carnival in Québec, taken from Monde illustré.
Le Carnaval de Québec, Jean Palardy, National Film Board of Canada, 1956This documentary takes us into the snowy streets of Québec during its famous winter carnival. Ice sculptures, balls and parties, sporting events, dog sled races, skiing competitions and an ice canoe race across the St. Lawrence River.
Carnaval de Québec, fête de l’hiverOn Radio-Canada’s website, consult this multimedia file of items from the archives.
Les duchesses du Carnaval de QuébecView a short video on the crowning of the first queen of the Québec Winter Carnival in 1955.
Le soleil a pas d’chance (The Sun Was Out of Luck), Robert Favreau, National Film Board of Canada, 1975In this documentary, Robert Favreau denounces the duchess contest and the Carnival’s use of the young duchesses for marketing purposes.