People & Culture

Our Country: Yann Martel

The Life of Pi author unpacks the feelings evoked by Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Que., on the St. Lawrence River

  • Mar 22, 2023
  • 343 words
  • 2 minutes
Image: Tara Hardy/Can Geo
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Home is a complicated word for me. My parents were diplomats, so I’ve lived abroad. Now I live in Saskatoon and have had spells in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. But when I return to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Que., in some ways, I feel like I’m home.

The town is part of the family history. My grandmother on my father’s side is from there, and the family — the Bourgaults — are a well-known little family. Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, about an hour east of Quebec City, is known for these small wooden figurines of fishermen holding lanterns and that sort of thing. My grandmother’s cousin, Jean-Julien Bourgault, started that tradition with his two brothers and did extremely well. They got the Order of Canada. 

I grew up visiting my grandmother there in her little house. Her house is the second-to-last house before the river — the St. Lawrence, which by then is actually a 35-kilometre-wide seaway. It’s a mixture of salt and freshwater, and quite dangerous. There’s a pier that juts out with a small lighthouse at the end. I remember as a child going out to the end and climbing the lighthouse. There’s a ritual in our family that every day, rain or shine, we go out to the end of the pier and look out. The sun sets magnificently here as the wind travels over the flat, cold water. At high tide on a stormy day, great sprays of water cross the whole pier, showering it. There’s this smell of ambient water — water below, water raining down from above and water being blown across.

Across from my grandmother’s cottage is a cemetery, a lovely place. A place where my family’s memories are made geographic. These weathered tombstones speak the history of not only the people but of the village. The village is green next to the seaway’s blue and there’s a beautiful wild element that always makes its presence known. 


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This story is from the March/April 2023 Issue

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