QUEBEC – It once was Canada's capital and a major North American trading post, where trappers climbed up from the St. Lawrence River to sell furs near the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church.
American revolutionary figure Benedict Arnold got shot here, just down the river bluff from where Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met almost two centuries later to work out D-day plans.
Now Quebec City, with its narrow, cobbled streets and European charm, again is the focus of the Americas as host of an upcoming summit of 34 heads of state from the Arctic to Argentina.
Presidents and prime ministers from every nation of the Western Hemisphere except Cuba are meeting Friday through Sunday to discuss expanding free trade and promoting democracy in North, Central and South America.
``It is ... fitting that in this city, one of the first places where the nation of Canada took hold and began to take form in the early 17th century, we will celebrate the realization of our full hemispheric identity, and the extension of a partnership to the furthest reaches of the Americas,'' Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley said in a speech last week.
Also coming will be thousands of protesters who complain the talks amount to little more than backroom business dealings that bolster capitalist profits at the expense of the poor majority.
Fears of violent demonstrations intended to undermine the talks — similar to street clashes that derailed World Trade Organization negotiations in Seattle in December 1999 — have caused officials to build a wall of concrete and wire fencing around several acres of the fortress-like old city.
That has angered protesters, along with many city residents and shopowners who consider the so-called ``wall of shame'' and plans for 6,000 patrolling police officers as overkill that suppresses free expression.
Mayor Jean-Paul L'Allier worries that the summit, with possible street clashes televised around the world, will provide a narrow and unfair perspective of his city. Still, he'd rather host it than have it elsewhere.
``We have in some way a privilege to be right in the middle of what is happening,'' he said.
Conflict has often been part of the history of what Britain's Duke of Wellington once called one of the world's best fortresses. Ramparts and towers surround much of the old city high on the river bluffs, with 198 cannon serving as ceremonial protection.
Quebec City boasts several landmarks attesting to its age and influence — Canada's oldest park, behind the Chateau Frontenac hotel that dominates the skyline; the country's oldest Catholic church in the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires; the former house of the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria, now an ironic site for the French consulate.
The French-British division that defines Canadian history is ever-present in the Francophone city, including a monument to the opposing generals who died in the British siege of 1759 that captured Quebec.
At the foot of the bluffs was the Sault-au-Matelot barricade, where Canadian militiamen and British troops turned back American forces led by Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery trying to lure Canada into the revolutionary war on the eve of 1776.
Arnold was shot in the leg down rue Sous-le-Cap, the city's oldest street, while Montgomery was killed on the other side of the bluff as the soldiers and militiamen held out until British reinforcements arrived a few months later.
Almost a century later, Ottawa in neighboring Ontario became the Canadian capital, eroding Quebec City's influence.
The Francophone atmosphere and distinct architecture continued to attract visitors, including U.S. President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill in 1943 to prepare for the allied invasion of northern France that turned the tide of World War II. The pair returned to Quebec City following the invasion for further talks.
Today's Quebec City confronts the modern political reality of amalgamating its previously distinct districts and neighborhoods into one municipality in order to promote economic growth. The union will create a city of more than a half-million — the seventh largest in Canada, L'Allier said.
``The population is aging. Young people were starting to move as well to be sure to have a good decent job,'' the mayor said. ``We have to straighten up the situation.''