The Changing Beat of Canada's French Heart

By Rispin, Phillipa | Americas (English Edition), March 2001 | Go to article overview

The Changing Beat of Canada's French Heart

Rispin, Phillipa, Americas (English Edition)

Proud of its distinct history, venerable Quebec City opens its doors to new industries and increased tourism

For over four centuries, people from around the globe have been leaving kin and country in search of opportunity in Canada. My family was no exception. In April of 1956 we left our home in the suburbs of London, heading to Liverpool, where we boarded the Canadian Pacific passenger ship The Empress of Scotland. My father, an electrical engineer, was already in Canada, helping to design airplanes at Canadair in Montreal.

I was young--three-and-a-half years old--and I often say that life began on the boat. I have few memories of England. The five-day voyage across the Atlantic has stayed in my mind, however, and I particularly remember the moment when I realized that we were in a new world. We were sailing under the bridge that connected Quebec City with the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. The vast expanses of the Atlantic Ocean had given way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then the wide river without my realizing it. But here at Quebec City the river narrowed. I could see towns on both shores, and I looked up as the bridge seemed to glide over our heads. Land! Buildings! Bridges! All of a sudden, Canada was becoming real.

I didn't know it, but I was living the experience of explorers and immigrants through the ages. Quebec City was their anchor in the New World. Here, where the river narrowed and the north shore rose to commanding heights, was the site of the first permanent European settlement in Canada and what was to be Canada's pre-eminent city for many years.

The first Europeans to explore Canadian shores were the Norse and fishermen, most notably the Basques. Fishing being a seasonal occupation, the fishermen revisited the same encampments on the east coast every year but abandoned them in the autumn for the comforts of home. The Norsemen established at least one year-round settlement, L'Anse aux Meadows, at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The community lasted from about A.D. 990 to 1050 and then was abandoned.

Not until the era of exploration and discovery, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, did Europe turn again to the West. Between 1534 and 1541, Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence Valley as far inland as Hochelaga (present-day Montreal). On his third and final voyage, in 1541, Cartier and his crew attempted a permanent settlement but, daunted by the harsh winter, they returned to France the following year.

The first permanent European colony in what is now Canada was established by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, after an earlier attempt to settle at Port-Royal in Nova Scotia. He chose the site of present-day Quebec City for strategic reasons: The riverbank rises in a promontory about three hundred feet high just as the river itself narrows to a little over a half mile. The settlement derived its name "Quebec" from the Algonquian word meaning "where the river narrows."

Although the early colonists established the presence of France in the New World, they received little support from the mother country. Eventually, however, Louis XIV made Quebec City and surrounding regions a crown colony, known as New France. The colony was organized and governed much as a region of France, and remnants of its rather feudal, theocratic legacy are still visible throughout the province.

Perhaps the most obvious influence on Quebec City, and Quebec province in general, was the Catholic church. To the south, many of the British colonies had been established by immigrants seeking religious and intellectual freedom. It was quite the opposite in New France.

"The missionary zeal of the Counter-Reformation led to the early establishment of French Canada's most enduring purpose: the preservation and extension of a specifically Catholic French civilization in North America," according to Canadian historian Kenneth McNaught. The Jesuits each year sent a report--the Relations--to Paris on the affairs of New France. …

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