Quebec (keh-BEHK) is Canada’s oldest city, founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. Its name was an adaptation of the Algonquian word meaning “the river narrows here”Champlain chose this spot for the settlement because the high cliffs and narrowing of the St. Lawrence River offered excellent natural and strategic defences.
Great numbers of French families to the New World. Further, many of the colony’s few settlers were migrantsCouriers de boiswho would come in from the wilderness with furs they had gotten in barter with Native Americans. While regarded as the centre of New France, the growing North Americ an empire of the French, the colony struggled. The harsh climate combined with the rough terrain failed to attract and no interest in taking up permanent residence in Quebec, and often ended up marrying Iroquois or Huron women.
At one point, King Louis XIV had French women sent to New France as wives for the men who inhabited the fledging settlement. These filles de roi exemplified the state of the colony in its early days. In 1666, 58 years after its founding, the population was only 547. Only with increased incentives and persuasion was France able to increase the number of permanent residents to 1,500 by the end of 1690, and to 34,000 by 1730120 years after the creation of New France.
In the 18th century, the city of Quebec finally began to grow. With a larger population, industry and trade flourished. Couriers de bois continued to bring pelts and furs into the marketplace to trade for other goods which they could take back into the wilderness. Stores and workshops were built on the river’s edge in the Lower Town.
This market area was Place Royale, still one of the Lower Town’s most popular landmarks, along with the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church. The latter is noted for having its altar shaped as a fort. It was completed in 1688 and stands on the site of Champlain’s very first settlement. Meanwhile, the Upper Town gradually began to take its current shape. Houses and schools sprang up within the city’s walls as French citizens began to put down roots in Canada. Today, the Upper Town is full of gourmet restaurants, fine hotels like the Château Frontenac, and numerous shops and boutiques. You will also find the Quebec National Assembly here.
As the city grew in size, so did its economic and military importance. The French knew they needed to create a strong system of defences to protect the capital of New France from the enemy British, ensconsed to the south in the American colonies. What they constructed was the Citadel. Perhaps the most famous of Quebec City’s landmarks, it stands 106 metres above the city on Cap Diamant. It was assumed that an attack would come from the river, the city’s most vulnerable point, and that is where the cannons were aimed.
Unfortunately for the French, the British surprised the French. General James Wolfe and 4500 British soldiers scaled the steep cliffs leading to the Plains of Abraham, under cover of darkness on September 12-13, 1759. The French commander, Lieutenant-General Louis de Montcalm, ordered his army (a combination of French regulars and poorly trained militiamen) to meet the enemy. In a battle that lasted 15 minutes, the British routed the defenders. They battered the city with cannon fire until the French army retreated to Montreal, where they would be defeated a year later and New France would fall to the British.
The surrender of Quebec was followed by a period of military occupation and martial law until 1763, when a peace treaty was signed in Paris. With New France now secured as British North America, immigrants arrived to occupy existing cities and to build new ones. The large influx of British, Scottish and Irish immigrants into Quebec City created considerable tension, but it also fostered the international flavour the city still retains. A mingling of cultures over time has resulted in a unique lifestyle and atmosphere.
With the British came order and wealth, and the city grew in leaps and bounds. New sectors of the city were built with their own architecture and character. Agriculture flourished and trade routes extended deeper into the heart of the continent and into the American colonies. But beneath all the British influence remained the “French identity.” Citizens refused to give up their language or their culture to the English speaking authorities.
This patriotic fervour has only increased over time. In 1774, the British passed the Quebec Act, which allowed the French citizens to practice Roman Catholicism and to use French civil law. Still, French-speaking citizens struggled to preserve their culture. During the debates on Confederation in 1867, Quebec representatives refused to join unless guarantees were made to protect the identity of French-speaking people in the newly formed Dominion of Canada.
Quebec City has continued as a hotbed of political activity for those who feel that the French influence in Canada is not strong enough, or that the French are poorly represented and supported by their government. But despite its strong French identity, Quebec remains a city rich in diverse cultural flavours, styles and history. It is a city of passion. Its residents are not only passionate about their politics, but about their desire to enjoy life to its fullest.