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of montreal

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

I grew up in Alberta, where waist-high snowdrifts are common, but I never once saw anyone clambering over them on snowshoes. For that, I had to move to Montreal – though when I first saw a snowshoer striding along the shore of the St. Lawrence near my place in Verdun, he was moving over the same well-tramped path that I was managing just fine with my winter boots.

When a strenuous activity that used to be necessary is done for fun, it becomes a sport. Snowshoeing is one such pursuit, though when it's done on terrain that makes the shoes' webbed surface unnecessary, the sport aspect yields somewhat to a more symbolic value. I could see at a glance that that lone Montreal snowshoer was not just doing a winter sport. He was performing part of his culture.

So were those who snowshoed up Mount Royal one night last month, during an annual 2.5-kilometre march from which the ostensible purpose was to raise money for Mount Royal Park. But Les tuques bleues, as the event is called, also continues a tradition of "charcoal and moonlight" meets that stretches back to the 1840s, when snowshoers could spend much of a night tramping over the mountain, stopping at inns for food and booze along the way.

The name Les tuques bleues refers to a key item in the uniform of the old Montreal Snow Shoe Club (MSSC), which was led by powerful anglophones such as Lord Stanley, known today mainly for a silver cup he donated for a hockey game. Showshoeing was much more popular than hockey in Stanley's day, both as a social activity and for racing. People speed-walked or sprinted in their raquettes, or even ran over hurdles. In 1916, the standing record for the 100-yard dash on snowshoes was 11.75 seconds, only a couple of seconds slower than the world record for running in footwear that wasn't a metre long. A robust gambling scene sprang up around the sport, in spite of the MSSC's boast that its activities kept young men "safe from the sins and temptations" of city life.

Last month's Les tuques bleues was part of the winter festival Montréal en lumière. The connection seems doubly apt, since clubs such as the MSSC also drove the early development of carnivals and winter concerts. The winter-carnival culture that's so well-established in Quebec today might never have come about if the province had skipped its romance with snowshoeing and gone straight to hockey mania, as eventually happened. Hockey won in part because the whole society was moving toward commodified leisure, in which getting a ticket to watch something became more important than doing your own activity.

Snowshoeing also had a profound indirect effect on filmmaking in Quebec. In 1958, a National Film Board team led by Michel Brault went to Sherbrooke to shoot footage for a three-minute film about a big meeting of competitive snowshoe clubs. Brault shot 10,000 feet of film, almost all of it hand-held footage, even though he was lugging a 19-pound Arriflex camera. According to film historian André Loiselle, when Brault showed his raw work to his anglophone supervisor, he was told, "You can't do anything with this. It's just good for stock footage!"

Undiscouraged, Brault and editor Gilles Groulx secretly shaped the Sherbrooke footage into Les raquetteurs, a 15-minute documentary that became the single most influential film in Quebec cinema. Brault's immersive shooting technique and pointed shot selection heralded the arrival of what became known internationally as "direct cinema." They were the basis for much of what subsequently came out of the NFB's francophone unit, and became the default aesthetic for many early Quebec feature films, including Brault's own Entre la mer et l'eau douce (1967).

Les raquetteurs is still enormous fun to watch, and easier than ever to find – it streams for free on the NFB website. The events it captures with affection and irony take place in a social space free of self-consciousness. Everyone has a defined role, and a uniform to wear while doing it, whether tramping hard past barking dogs or twirling a baton with a showshoers' marching band. But under the well-ordered surface, the occasion seethes with anarchic brio, amped up by Marcel Carrière's unruly sound montage.

"We wanted to find the snowshoers' Dionysus," Brault said, and he succeeded during the closing dance scenes, when the camera fixes on a wild-eyed man whirling and dancing while blowing a harmonica. But the film's greatest single moment may be a wide shot of a train cutting the parade in two. It rushes through the pageantry like a herald of the Quiet Revolution that was about to rip apart the certainties of Quebec's Duplessis era.

Montreal has been sparse for blizzards this winter, but after one decent snowfall I took a pair of brand-new metal snowshoes out for my first-ever trek. I tramped up and down the low slopes by the St. Lawrence, between the trees and through weeds taller than myself. It felt good to be able to walk anywhere, over almost anything. Snowshoeing may be the closest thing in pedestrian life to feeling like a monster truck. It kind of made me want to storm Mount Royal by moonlight, with a blue tuque and in good company, and with something strong to drink along the way.