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Quebec City’s sole calèche driver keeps the tradition alive

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WATCH: Traditional calèche rides were once unavoidable in Old Quebec — at one time there were as many as 100 drivers. But, things have changed in recent years. Raquel Fletcher spoke with the last calèche driver still active in Quebec City – Aug 15, 2021

Traditional calèche rides were once unavoidable in Old Quebec — at one time there were as many as 100 drivers. Things have changed in recent years.

One of the main companies stopped operating after drivers went on strike in 2018 and the relationship with the owners deteriorated. Now there remains only one calèche driver currently active in Quebec City.

READ MORE: Retired calèche horses find new job carrying weight of stressed front-line workers

After 41 years in the business, Johnny Bissonnette isn’t slowing down.

“I’m going to retire when it’s going to be impossible for me to work,” he said, explaining he loves the job, which allows him to work outside and meet many tourists.

“People travelling are really happy. You meet a lot of people from everywhere in the world,” he said. “It’s like travelling, but you stay in the same place.”

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READ MORE: Visitors to Quebec City in summer 2021 exceed tourism expectations

It’s not just the tourists who keep him excited about coming to work everyday. It’s also his colleagues.

“I buy maybe $1,500 of carrots and apples each year,” Bissonnette said.

That’s money out of his own pocket.

“Each day I give maybe 10 pounds of carrots to the horse,” he said laughingly.

READ MORE: ‘It was just gut-wrenching’: Calèche horse dies on Montreal street

Calèche rides have gotten a bad rap in recent years. The City of Montreal banned them in 2020 after a series of incidents, including collisions with vehicles in which the horses were badly hurt.

But Bissonnette insists the horses he works with are well cared for. The owner ensures they are transported to and from the boarder in a trailer. And there are four in total so they can alternate days.

If you’re hoping to get a ride, don’t plan on reserving online. Bissonnette said as the only driver, he could field as many as 300 calls a day.

“I’m not a secretary. I’m driving a horse,” he said.

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The only way to experience this age-old tradition is to hope you cross Bissonnette along one of Old Quebec’s cobblestone streets.

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