Behind the Scenes: Carnaval de Quebec

CEO Mélanie Raymond dishes on free events, top draws and the history behind Quebec City's famous winter festival running Jan. 26 to Feb. 11.

Stéphane Audet/Audet Photo

As the former assistant director of Quebec’s Junior Chamber of Commerce, Mélanie Raymond has worked with non-profit organizations before, but never on something as big as Carnaval de Quebec. This 17-day annual winter festival, one of the largest in the world, takes place in Quebec City and welcomes more than 400,000 visitors. Raymond, who joined the Carnaval team in January 2016, was tasked with rejuvenating the nearly 65-year-old event. Last year, as part of that endeavor, Raymond moved Carnaval from its site of 20 years on the Plaines d’Abraham and spread it out over five downtown sites. “We wanted Carnaval to come alive again, and for people to walk the streets of downtown and get involved,” she says.

Mélanie Raymond, photo by Elodie Kergal

 Q: What’s the history of Carnaval?

The first modern Carnaval de Quebec took place in 1955. It was started by a group of business owners to fire up the city’s economic development during this quiet time of year. Today, we stick to traditions such as the arrow sash (a 19th-century sash that fastened clothing around the waist and prevented cold air from seeping in) and our king of festivities, Bonhomme Carnaval, but we carefully mix in innovation, too.

Q: When do you start planning?

We don’t stop. Innovation is always key and we also keep a place for tradition. Tradition and the celebration of our nordicity is part of our DNA. So, one of the challenges is to respect our long traditions and keep innovating with the program. It’s our mission to surprise our locals and visitors with something new and unexpected, so our main attractions are one-shot deals—if we did it last year, it won’t be back. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges?

Carnaval is held during the winter, and this introduces the challenge of dealing with cold weather, snow and even rain, so we have to be ready with a Plan A, B and C. I don’t work alone. I have a dedicated and talented team of 35 people working full-time all year for this event, and we have more than 900 volunteers helping. It’s a family, and everyone is ready to put in extra hours; I’m so proud of them.

Q: Who is Bonhomme?

Bonhomme is Carnaval’s official ambassador and the living representation of the Quebecois joie de vivre. Each year, on [Carnaval’s] opening night, the mayor of Quebec City gives Bonhomme the key to the city. Quebec is a winter wonderland and Bonhomme wants people to play outdoors and love the season as much as he does. People must have a Bonhomme effigy [a $15 Carnaval pin] to enter most of Carnaval’s sites.

Q: Are there free events?

Entry to Jos’ Camp in the Parc de la Francophonie is free. There
are activities like axe throwing, a lumberjack challenge and the mechanical moose, plus Snow Bath, where people in bathing suits play in the snow with Bonhomme.

Q: What are Carnaval’s top draws?

Bonhomme is the star, and during Carnaval, he lives in the ice palace. It takes almost a month to build the palace using from 1,800 to 2,000 ice bricks. We hold a contest in the fall, and students from the architectural program at Laval University [submit] designs for the ice palace. These students do a great job imagining unique designs for the palace, and it’s a great way to involve our citizens. 

Raymond’s Carnaval Must-Dos

Photo by Jean-FranÇois Hamelin

Hit the parades

“I can’t talk about Carnaval without mentioning the parades. The first, on Feb. 3 in Charlesbourg, is a favourite with families, and the second, held on Grande-Allée on Feb. 10, has a younger party crowd.”

Photo by Frédéric Lavoie

Get moving

“Head to the Videotron music box at Jos’ Camp [named for legendary logger Jos Montferrand] every weekend for live music until 10 p.m. There’s also Jos’ Shack, where you can enjoy beer and sausage pairings.”

Photo by Heidi Hartman Photography

Try the caribou

“There are many varieties of caribou, but ours is a sweet, alcoholic beverage made with mixed red wine, whisky and a touch of maple syrup. It’s served hot, so it’ll keep you warm. Another popular way to drink it is cold from a shot glass made of ice.”

Read more: Seven Things to Do in Quebec City This Winter

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