In Quebec City, there’s a library that used to be a college and, still earlier, a jail.
The Morrin Centre, an English-language cultural center operated by the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec in the heart of the old city, boasts a history as exciting as the tomes found within its library—the only one in town carrying a wide selection of books written in English.
Yet even more surprising than the building’s past is its current role within Quebec City’s cultural sphere. Given that only 2% of the population are English speakers, how is it that one of the most visited local attractions is completely dedicated to the language? And how do les Québécois—famously frosty about the use of English over French in town—feel about the destination?
The structure now known as the Morrin Centre was born as the Quebec Common Gaol, the first purposely built prison in the city, in 1812. By 1867, the jail had shuttered owing to overcrowding and was moved to where the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec stands today. “They actually integrated the old prison into [today’s] museum,” says Barry McCullough, executive director of the Morrin Centre. “It’s one of the [structure’s] wings.”
Thanks to large donations from Dr. Joseph Morrin, a man of Scottish descent, the building eventually housed Morrin College. Dr. Morrin’s Scottishness shouldn’t be overlooked: The chaussée des Écossais, where the edifice still stands, translates to “Scottish causeway.” A slew of Presbyterian churches also call the neighborhood home.
As the college moved in, the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec—the first scholarly society in Canada—struck a pact with the school: The organization would move its library within the college, granting students free access while still charging members a fee. Although the library remains open today, the college closed down in 1902 because of low enrollment numbers.
Though paying members still enjoyed access to the library, the building where it was housed remained vacant for decades. “There was a part of it that was used as an apartment for the caretaker for a number of years,” McCullough says. “But things really started up again in the 1990s” when local community representatives enlisted the help of the mayor to establish a “place for the English-speaking community to go and experience culture.”
The resulting restoration project converted the structure into today’s Morrin Centre—clearly an homage to the former college. “Even though we say that the Centre’s official inauguration date was in 2006, in reality it wasn’t fully operational until 2011,” McCullough notes.
The reconstruction—which involved an update of the library itself, the former prison cells, a lab that used to be part of the school, a ballroom, and some offices on the upper floors—transformed the building into a viable tourist destination.
Today, the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec operates the venue under an emphyteutic lease, effectively owning the building for 99 years without having to pay rent but responsible for upkeep and maintenance costs. (“A hefty sum,” McCullough says.) To meet those financial demands, the staff lead on-site tours—more than 25,000 people signed up for one just last year—and the building rents out the space for private events. The society also applies for government grants and benefits from private donations. Dues currently amount to $20 Canadian ($15 U.S.) a year for individuals and $25 Canadian ($19 U.S.) for families.
Although the entire structure is worth seeing, it is the on-site library that usually draws the most attention: Housing 26,000 books selected by a committee of volunteers, this is the only library in the city that carries works written in English—despite the fact that English is one of the two official languages of Canada (the other being French, of course).
According to McCullough, back in the 1860s, English-speaking locals amounted to 40% of the population. Today, that number has dropped to below 5%. That narrative continues as Quebec province happens to be home to the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF), also known as the Québec Board of the French Language and referred to by many as the “language police.” The organization seeks to enforce the province’s linguistic policies, as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in the case of Ford v. Québec, requiring that French be “markedly predominant” on exterior business signs.
Which raises the question: What role does the Morrin Centre play in a city that doesn’t necessarily identify with the English language?
According to McCullough, “the [task] of the Morrin Centre really is to provide entertainment and engaging cultural programming in English for the local community.” When confronted with the supposed local antipathy toward the English language, the executive director mentions a recent shift in attitudes, at least when measured within the Centre’s context. “We estimate, based on surveys, that somewhere in the neighborhood of 40% of our members are actually francophones,” he says. “So it’s not solely the English-speaking community that uses our services.”
McCullough goes on to mention that the Morrin Centre has become a meeting place for folks seeking English-related activities—whether they be talks with American authors or “story-time sessions” for children whose parents want to expose them to a different language and culture. “I like to say [this is] the place where you come to experience culture in English in Quebec City,” McCullough notes.