Quebec at Four Hundred: Patricia Cleveland-Peck Visits the Capital of French Canada Which Is Celebrating Its 400th Birthday This Year

By Cleveland-Peck, Patricia | History Today, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Quebec at Four Hundred: Patricia Cleveland-Peck Visits the Capital of French Canada Which Is Celebrating Its 400th Birthday This Year


Cleveland-Peck, Patricia, History Today


Quebec City is 400 years old in 2008 and is holding a birthday party which cannot fail to interest the history-lover. Hundreds of events are scheduled: tours, plays, concerts and exhibitions--including 'Passagers/ Passengers' which traces some of the five million people, Amerindian, French, Irish, Scottish Chinese and German, who have passed through the city. This will take place in the custom-built Espace 400e, a space somewhat reminiscent of an airport. A four-day celebration will begin on July 3rd, actual anniversary of the city's foundation, while in the Musee de la Civilisation, an exhibition devoted to the city's founder Samuel de Champlain runs from April to December.

Champlain was born in 1567 in Brouage on the Bay of Biscay. In 1599 he sailed to the West Indies, Mexico and Panama; on his return he received a pension from Henry IV and was encouraged by the governor of Dieppe to explore territory in the New World with a view to founding a colony.

He was not the first European to reach these shores. Norsemen had been there centuries before and in 1534 Jacques Cartier made the first of three journeys, searching for the Northwest passage together with 'gold and other precious things' for French king Francis I. He thought he had found the latter on the ridge of what is now Cap Diamant but the glittering minerals turned out to be quartz and iron pyrites--giving rise to the French expression 'un diamant du canada' for something false. Cartier discovered the St Lawrence river and established the first European settlement--but French interest waned, only to be revived when the potential of the fur trade became apparent.

It was then, in 1608, that Champlain chose the site of Quebec City (the name came from 'Kebec' meaning 'where the river narrows' in Algonquin language) on which to establish the first trading post. He recognized the strategic importance of the site, with Cap Diamant overlooking the narrowest part of the St Lawrence, and built a fortress known as l'Abitation. Life was hard with freezing winters, malnutrition and scurvy, but the colony grew and gradually Quebec became a commercial centre.

Its position was not lost on the British and the city was batted back and forth between the two nations, until the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 which was won by the British but in which both General Wolfe and the Marquis de Montcalm died. In the Jardin des Gouverneurs is an inscription on the obelisk that commemorates both men:

   Mortem virtus communem, Famam historia, Monumentum posteritas dedit
   (Courage gave them a common death, history a common fame, posterity
   a common monument).

The Treaty of Paris confirmed Quebec City as British in 1763 and many wealthy inhabitants returned to France. The first Governor General was a Scot, James Murray and, possibly remembering the 'Auld Alliance', it suited him for the country to remain francophone. Today it still sees itself as the cradle of French culture in North America.

To celebrate its 400th birthday, many traces of the city's history have been highlighted. It is easy to explore on foot--the major historic sites divide themselves into the section inside the walls up on the plateau and the section below. For those who tire of climbing the steep Cote de la Montagne, a funicular runs every few minutes.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In the Place Royale below the plateau, the site of Champlain's Abitation is marked in the paving by a circle of black stones. Adjacent is the church of Notre Dame des Victoires, the oldest church in Canada (the victories were the defeats of British admirals Phipps 1609 and Walker 1711). Inside is an unusual painted and gilded wooden altar with crenellated ramparts. All around the square, one of the oldest market places in North America, are examples of Old Quebecois housing. After a great fire in 1682, the building of wooden houses was outlawed within the city, and here we see stone houses with firewalls and roof ladders.

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