It looks like the Wild West and it feels like the Wild West, but when these cowboys tip their Stetsons, they say "Bon jour" instead of "Howdy." The annual Festival Western in this Quebec town each fall usually attracts more than 200,000 spectators and 300 riders from all over the province of Quebec, western Canada and the northeastern United States.
This is rodeo with a French accent. The festival, and particularly the Western equestrian events, are expressions of the rural culture of French-speaking Quebec, which has an estimated 20,000 Western riders. They compete in regional horse shows, large and small, and look forward to St. Tite's annual festival, which boasts the biggest rodeo of the year around these parts. This year's event, the 23rd annual session, is set for Sept. 7-16.
Rodeo's most sensational spectacles are the "rough stock" events _ saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding and bull riding _ followed by calf roping and steer wrestling, also called bulldogging. Rodeo grew out of the cowboy's work _ moving livestock on the ranch during the great cattle drives of the 1800s. Breaking wild mustangs and rounding up cattle for birthing and veterinary treatment were everyday chores, and the thrilling sport of rodeo was born when ranch hands and buckaroos would test their roping and riding skills against each other.
Today, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in Colorado Springs, Colo., lists more than 5,000 members competing at 800 rodeos in 41 states and four Canadian provinces. Rodeo's National Finals, held each December in Las Vegas, offers a total purse of $2-million; the Cheyenne, Wyo., Frontier Days Rodeo draws the most entrants _ 1,200 _ and nearly 600,000 people attend the annual rodeo in Houston.
The prestigious Calgary Stampede, which has been a rodeo circuit highlight since 1912, draws about 300,000 spectators and pays $50,000 to each winner in five major events. The Festival Western in St. Tite attracted about 15,000 visitors and 50 riders in its first year, 1968.
The rodeo events at St. Tite are held on the last four days of the 10-day festival: barrel racing, calf roping, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, roping, and steer wrestling.
Animal lovers have complained that the events harm the animals. Rodeo defenders answer that the animals are treated well by stock contractors whose livelihood depends on providing healthy livestock. The rodeo people say, for instance, that bucking broncs are fitted with a sheepskin flank strap behind the rib cage and kidneys and that they buck, not out of pain, but because of their training to throw off the rider.
Among other events of the Festival are night-time shows by Quebec pop stars, a children's theater, a crafts show, a re-creation of a Western town and, on Sept. 8, a tractor pull in which Percheron horses, Belgians and Clydesdales compete. On Sept. 10, there will be a street festival with singers and dancers; on Sept. 11, a women's day conference and fashion show; on Sept. 12, a seniors' day.
IF YOU GO
St. Tite is 130 miles, or a two-hour drive, north of Montreal. Take Route 40 east to Trois-Rivieres and then Route 55 north past Shawinigan and Grand-Mere, turning south on 159 for about 15 kilometers (10 miles) to St. Tite.
The region is known for its forest products and leather goods, particularly the renowned Boulet cowboy boots manufactured in St. Tite and sold all over North America.
For information on the festival or lodging, call Festival Western St. Tite in Quebec, C.P. 95, St. Tite, Quebec, GOX 3HO, (418) 365-7524, or Association Touristique du Coeur-du-Quebec, 1180 rue Royale, Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, G9A 4J1, or (819) 375-1222.
The region's comprehensive guide has complete hotel listings for Shawinigan and Grand-Mere. Most rodeo participants stay on site in campers at St. Tite.