The Québec maritime Blog
Since they border the St. Lawrence, the maritime regions of Québec have a rich maritime heritage. While navigation has marked the history of Bas-Saint-Laurent, it's mostly the fisheries that have left their mark in Gaspésie, Côte-Nord and the Îles de la Madeleine. To immerse yourself in the history of these regions, all you need to do is visit their many historic sites. Below is a brief overview of a few of them.
The lighthouses of the St. Lawrence are an important part of the maritime heritage of Bas-Saint-Laurent. Many were built in the mid-19th century, following numerous shipwrecks and groundings. Between 1840 and 1850 alone, over 200 such maritime incidents occurred.* The Île Verte, Île Bicquette and Pointe-au-Père lighthouses were the first to be built while the Pot-à-l’Eau-de-Vie Lighthouse followed shortly after. Today, these sentries still stand guard along the St. Lawrence—visiting these lighthouses is an opportunity for unique maritime experiences!
Pointe-au-Père has long been the gateway to the St. Lawrence Seaway and is where pilot changovers took place. In fact, it was during such a manoeuver, while a dense fog rolled over the river, that the village of Pointe-au-Père witnessed the Empress of Ireland shipwreck, which claimed over 1000 lives in 1914. Visiting the Pointe-au-Père Maritime Historic Site will give you the opportunity to learn about the role of Pointe-au-Père in the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway. You will also find out more about the Empress of Ireland shipwreck and the difficulties of navigating the river in this area. Finally, you can also climb the 128 steps to the top of the second tallest lighthouse in Canada.
Beyond naval stories, Bas-Saint-Laurent was also a prime tourist destination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Every summer, vacationers from Montréal, Ontario and the United States would come to Cacouna, Notre-Dame-du-Portage, Kamouraska and other nearby coastal villages to enjoy the fresh air and the sea. By following the Navigators’ Route, you’ll be able to see the English influences on the architecture of the houses in these villages while enjoying a trip back in time!
Long before colonization, during the Devonian period, Gaspésie was the birthplace of many vertebrates and invertebrates, as demonstrated by the fossils found in Parc national de Miguasha. While visiting the prehistoric site and the Natural History Museum, you’ll see actual specimens collected in the park, some dating back about 380 million years!
It’s only about 400 million years later that Christopher Columbus, Jacques Cartier and others explored the North American continent. In Gaspé, the Jacques Cartier Monument commemorates Cartier’s first voyage to the New World. As for the Musée de la Gaspésie, it retraces the region’s history from colonization to today. Among other things, you’ll learn that one of the last battles in the Seven Years’ War took place in Restigouche. The Battle of the Restigouche National Historic Site presents the highlights of this event.
Following the Seven Years’ War, many Acadians, Loyalists, Jersey Islanders and Guernsey Islanders settled in Gaspésie. As a result, many historic sites commemorate their settlement of this region, most of which are part of the Route de la Morue (Cod Route): Manoir Le Boutillier, Grande-Grave heritage site, Parc national de l'Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé, Banc-de-Pêche-de-Paspébiac Historic Site, etc. Along with the forestry industry, the cod fishery was one of the main industries to shape the Gaspé Peninsula. To find out more about what life was like at that time, be sure to visit the Magasin Général Historique Authentique 1928 (an old general store) in Percé.
Because Gaspésie is located at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, it played a key role in the history of navigation in Canada. The many lighthouses that dot the coast of the peninsula testify to this. Visit the Musée des phares (Lighthouse Museum), located in the La Martre Lighthouse, to learn more about the importance of these navigational aids. In addition, the Pointe-à-la-Renommée Historic Site presents exhibits on the evolution of communications and the lives of the lighthouse keepers, while the Cap-des-Rosiers and Cap-Gaspé lighthouses also offer various interpretive activities.
Îles de la Madeleine
As is the case in Bas-Saint-Laurent and Gaspésie, the history of the Îles de la Madeleine is steeped in maritime traditions. Fishing was what drew people to the Islands, which were mostly settled by Acadian families as well as a few English-speaking families, largely of Scottish descent. The latter are concentrated on Grosse-Île and Entry Island. The Entry Island Museum retraces the history of these families on the only inhabited island not connected to the rest of the archipelago by land.
Along with tourism, fishing has always been, and still is, the primary economic driver in the region. In the early 20th century, the Islands were renowned for their many smokehouses where herring, cod and other fish were preserved. When overfishing led to dwindling fish stocks, the smokehouses closed their doors one by one. It was not until decades later that Fumoir d’Antan resumed its activities, so tourists and locals could enjoy this traditional processing method handed down from generation to generation.
Vestiges of the cod fishery can still be found at the La Grave heritage site, where the fish were prepared. Several of the original buildings have been given new vocations, thanks to all the efforts to develop this historic gem. Today, restaurants, boutiques and inns operate alongside each other on this site.
Do you want to learn more? Visit the exhibit at the Musée de la Mer (Sea Museum), which recounts the history of the Îles de la Madeleine from yesteryear to today. The museum’s collection of photos and artefacts presents the daily lives of the Islanders as well as the shipwrecks off the Islands and the rudiments of fishing, agriculture and navigation.
Minganie and the Lower North Shore also have Acadian roots; in addition, these areas were settled by Islanders in search of new fishing grounds. Les Galets in Natashquan is a heritage site made up of fishing cabins once used by the cod fishery. These buildings still stand along the sea and bear witness to all the hard work involved in this industry.
Further east, in the heart of the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, two lighthouses still guard the coast of Côte-Nord on Petite Île au Marteau and Île aux Perroquets. Both have witnessed many shipwrecks, as well as the isolated lives of the lighthouse keepers and their families.
Towns and villages west of Minganie have a more recent history, since their economies were based on industrialization and the exploitation of natural resources, particularly through mining. The Manic-2 and Manic-5 dams on the Manicouagan River are some of the greatest human achievements in Québec.
All of this is only a very brief overview of hundreds of years of history, and I’m not even mentioning the Indigenous heritage of these areas. Discovering our regions through their many historic sites will give you an even greater appreciation for the natural and human heritage of the maritime regions of Québec.
*Fortin, Jean-Charles, Antonio Lechasseur et al. Histoire du Bas-Saint-Laurent. Sainte-Foy, Ed. de l’IQRC, 2003.
Fortin, Jean-Charles et Paul Larocque. Histoire des Îles de la Madeleine. Sainte-Foy, Ed. de l’IQRC, 1993.
Mimeault, Mario. Les régions du Québec – histoire en bref : La Gaspésie. Québec, Les presses de l’Université Laval, 2e tirage, 2004.