The Reford Gardens: The Old, the New, the Secret and the Provocative
23 August 2011
Beauty and tradition near Estevan Lodge
Photo: Louise Tanguay
Allée royale, Jardins de Métis.
Photo: Louise Tanguay

Bordered by the Mitis River to the west and the St. Lawrence to the north, the Reford Gardens in Grand-Métis, Quebec – also known as the Jardins de Métis ( -- are among the world’s great gardens. They are also a story of old and new.

Theirs is the story of some of great Anglo-Scottish Montreal families whose personal histories are inextricably linked with the story of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Unlike some of those stories which (like some of those families), have faded into the mists of time, theirs is the story of an institution renowned today not only in Quebec but internationally.

The leading figures in the story are George Stephen, the first President of Canadian Pacific, his niece Elsie Reford, who created the gardens, and Alexander Reford, the great grandson of Elsie Reford, who is not only Director of the Gardens but also a historian who has written the entry on Stephen (among others) in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (from which some of this material is drawn), as well as much else on his illustrious forebears, on some of their associates, on railways, and on gardens.

Robert W. Reford, Collection Jardins de Métis
Elsie Reford in her garden
Photo: Robert W. Reford, Collection Jardins de Métis

The story begins with George Stephen, who had been born into humble circumstances in Scotland in 1829. By 1876, he was President of the Bank of Montreal, resigning in 1881 to devote himself to the creation of Canadian Pacific. He bought land in Grand-Métis in 1886 and built Estevan Lodge on it as a fishing lodge, but spent little time there after 1891, when he was elevated to the peerage as Lord Mount Stephen, the first Canadian to sit in the House of Lords. A generous philanthropist, he directed his wealth to hospitals in Montreal (the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Montreal General Hospital) as well as in his native Scotland and in London.

George Stephen
Collection des Jardins de Métis

The name of the lodge is only a small part of this story, but it connects the property in Grand-Métis with western Canada and gives a hint of the high-stakes gambling, the air of intrigue as well as the camaraderie that marked Stephen’s spectacular career.

Estevan is not only close to “Esteban,” a Spanish variant of Stephen, as Alexander Reford reminds me; it is also the name given to a Saskatchewan town that was created by the extension west of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Stephen’s general manager (and his successor as President) was William Cornelius Van Horne, and the story goes that Estevan is a conflation of their surnames that was used for private telegraphic correspondence at the time when the Canadian Pacific Railway was being built. They communicated in code – Reford tells me – so that the telegraph operators (often associated with rival railways) could not pass on information on the company, which was in dire straits for most of its construction until completion and a succession of emergency loans from the government of Sir John A. Macdonald.

Van Horne would telegraph Stephen frantically to ensure that he had enough cash on hand to pay the contractors and workers, and Stephen would pass the hat once his line of credit had been exhausted.

Changing hats from historian to hard-pressed garden director, Reford notes that this “sounds like a lot of not-for-profits that I know.” (It sounds like a lot I know, as well.)

After Stephen left Canada to take up his seat at Westminster, the person who used the property at Grand-Métis most was Elsie Reford, who shared her uncle’s passion for salmon fishing and the outdoors. He gave the property to her in 1918, and she created the gardens over a period of thirty years, keeping detailed written notes to which her husband, Robert Wilson Reford, added an invaluable photographic record.

Photo: Robert W. Reford, Collection Jardins de Métis
The Reford Gardens
Photo: Robert W. Reford, Collection Jardins de Métis

The gardens were bought by the Quebec government in 1962 and opened to the public. In 1995 they were acquired by the Amis des Jardins de Métis, at which point Alexander Reford, then Dean at St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto, moved to centre stage. You might say the rest is history, except that it’s been history from the start.

Director Alexander Reford, with Estevan Lodge in the background
Photo: Claude Morin

As Director, Alexander Reford has managed to celebrate both the old and the new, for old and new are not mutually exclusive categories here.

Elsie Reford herself was not only the founder but herself an innovator. She cleared land, shaped it into a garden, built stone walls, moved boulders from nearby fields, and created the fine compost needed for exotic plants to flourish. She succeeded where no one else had succeeded in transplanting and propagating rare species – like azaleas and the Himalayan blue poppy – and adapting them to the Quebec climate.

Himalayan Blue Poppy.
Photo: Louise Tanguay

What Alexander Reford has done is take that heritage, his very own family heritage, and move it into the 21st century, with much of the old beautifully preserved in the Lodge itself and in the original gardens. And even here, in what today is the “traditional” garden surrounding the Lodge itself, you will find the new, as well, in the form of Jean Brillant’s sculptures and Claude Cormier’s Jardin des Bâtons bleus -- which was created for the very first International Garden Festival and returned in 2009 as a permanent installation inspired by the blue poppy. 

Jardin de Bâtons bleus
Photo: Louise Tanguay

Sculptor Jean Brillant’s huge metallic nib reminds me the pleasures of reading and writing. Especially so since I know Jean Brillant, who is not only the scion of a distinguished Rimouski family but owner of the building which houses his studio in Montreal – and the offices of Blue Metropolis – in the Saint-Henri district of Montreal. He wittily calls it the Centre artistique de Saint-Henri, or CASH.

Jean Brillant sculpture, Jardins de Métis
Photo: Linda Leith

The Lodge itself showcases some fine old family portraits, the upstairs living quarters, and an exhibition of recent photographs of the Gaspé taken by Quebec photographer Bertrand Carrière that itself includes both old and new. In Après Strand. Bertrand Carrière the Quebec photographer Carrière was inspired by the American Paul Strand to revisit the Gaspésie with his camera in 2010. Books with some of Strand’s photographs of Depression-era Gaspé landscapes and figures are exhibited along with other Bertrand photos in the Rimouski Regional Museum, a stone’s throw from rue Jean-Brillant.

The most obviously innovative aspect of the Reford Gardens is the International Garden Festival, open this year until October 2 and featuring a record 25 gardens created by 80 designers. With financial support from its partners (Hydro-Québec has, to its credit, been a partner since 1999), sponsors and government agencies, the Festival showcases gardens designed to prompt you to question, What is a garden?

The theme this year is Secret Gardens, with artistic director Emmanuelle Vieira posing the question, “What do Secret Gardens look like today?” Some references to the theme are direct – a handwritten note with the title of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett pinned inside the door of one of the garden sheds in Every Garden Needs a Shed and a Lawn ! Others are indirect, like the bed of salt that “hides innumerable secrets beneath its surface” (Fleur de sel). 

Fleur de sel
Photo: Martin Bond

Some are appropriately subtle (algae in the Algaegarden become “an object of secret beauty and curiosity”), others – the swing hidden from view in its dugout in Bascule – less so. One boldly addresses the “warzone of gardening” (Land Use Observatory).

Photo: Louise Tanguay
Photo: Martin Bond

What interests me in these gardens is their design and imaginative audacity, along with their thoughtful and often playful deconstruction of the garden into its constituent parts. As a writer, I am also intrigued by the power of the language used to describe them.

Among the most provocative – perhaps especially for a writer -- is the 100landschaftsarchitektur’s Jardin de la connaissance and its “secret and strange library” of walls, benches and floors made up of used books exposed to wind and weather – and varieties of mushrooms cultivated within some of the books. “The garden becomes a reading room that is at the same time secret and strange, sensual and mythical.”

Another new photograph of the controversial Jardin de la connaissance
Photo: Louise Tanguay 2011

The Reford Gardens are no secret. They have attracted more than 5 million visitors since they were opened to the public in 1962, and they have been written up in The New York Times, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ("Das ist Gartenprovokation!"), and countless other publications in numerous languages.

I know a bit about what it takes to organize a festival. The one I created is a literary festival, though. And yes, writers have egos, which sometimes complicated my life at Blue Metropolis. We all have difficulties raising funds, and that takes a toll. The elements have some impact on a literary festival, too (flights delayed because of snow; flights cancelled because of volcanic ash); these have presented a variety of challenges, some of them serious. They pale beside the impact that the elements have on gardens.

Blue Metropolis has presented a wide array of literary and educational programming over the years, and I’m the last person to downplay the staggering amount of work that goes into all that. But the Reford Gardens’ programme of horticultural, conservation, ecological, literary, and musical activities -- as well as museum displays and photographic exhibits – make me blanch, and that’s without even touching on the sheer scale of the operation, and just plain gardening this extensive landscape.

Chapeau! My hat’s off to Alexander Reford. What an extraordinary accomplishment.

Linda Leith


2012 is the 50th anniversary of the Reford Gardens

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