Why Visit Quebec City?
Quebec City is best known (and loved) for its 500 year old history, with its walled city, the Fortress, the Chateau Frontenac, the Lower City, and its long-running Winter Carnival.
About Quebec City
Quebec City, the capital of the province of Quebec, is located at the mouth of the St Lawrence, where it widens into the Gulf of St Lawrence. The Quebec City metropolitan area has a population of 671,000 though the city itself has 167,000 residents.
Quebec City is the only fortified city in North America, and was the cradle of French civilization in North America. The port was the gateway to the interior for ocean-going ships up until the mid-19th century; primarily for exports of fur and later lumber. The city has expanded and modernized, but has chosen to maintain and restore the Old Town, both along the River and up near the Citadel (the Old City is now a UNESCO world heritage site).
The city has lots of recreational avenues for its residents. The Plains of Abraham Park and historical monument, at the site of the 1759 battle, is now one of the continent’s largest urban parks, enjoyed by all. To the east of the city is the 83 metre Montmorency Falls (30 metres more than Niagara Falls) which can be seen close-up by a cable car. Residents also enjoy the annual Quebec City Winter Carnival, the celebration of winter in this northern city.
Quebec City History
Early French Settlement
Quebec was as an Iroquois First Nations settlement named Hochelaga, who were living there for over 8000 years) at the base of the city’s cliff. In 1535, Jacques Cartier was on a mission for Francois I, King of France, to seek gold in the New World, as well as a passage to the Orient. Searching for precious stones (but finding just iron pyrite and quartz), he named the escarpment Cap Diamant, cape of diamonds. After three expeditions, and finding neither gems nor an Orient passage, the King refused to finance further voyages by Cartier.
In 1608 Samuel de Champlain established a permanent trading post at the site, with fortified buildings, which was called the Abitation. The first winter was harsh, and 20 of the 28 men died from scurvy and malnutrition, but marked the beginning of the French fur trade in North America. Over time peasant families moved from France and established farms in the area and up and down the St Lawrence. Champlain named the community for “Kébec” the native word meaning “place where the river becomes narrow»”. New France covered covered all of what is known today as Eastern Canada, the Eastern United States, the Great Lakes and Louisiana, and extended from Hudson’s Bay in the north to Florida in the south.
Basse Ville became the town’s commercial and residential centre, and Lower Town retained its status until the middle of the 1800’s. The Recollets were the colony’s first missionaries in 1615, and were followed by the Jesuits in 1635, and the Ursulines and Augustines in 1639 (the last two, orders of nuns, are still active today). Monsignor François de Laval founded the Séminaire de Québec in 1663 and became the first bishop of the newly created diocese of Québec in 1674.
Cap-Diamant, the promontory that rises about 100m, dominates the location, giving Québec City the nickname “Gibraltar of North America.” This promontory is perfect for defending the entrance to the St Lawrence River and the interior of North America. In 1620, Samuel de Champlain named this “New France” and built Fort Saint-Louis at the location(now Place Royale). In 1691 the Royal Battery is built by Governor Frontenac.
The English-French rivalry in the New World is central to Quebec City’s history for the next 200 years. New France built forts and other military structures, such as a wooden palisade (defensive fence) that reinforced their position on top of the cliff. In 1729 the city was captured by the Kirke brothers, but was returned to France in 1632. Later in 1690, the city successfully survived a siege by Admiral Phipps.
After capturing all French forts (mainly Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton) east of Québec, General James Wolfe led his army to Québec City in the summer of 1759. Thousands of British soldiers scaled the heights upstream of the fortifications along a narrow cow path up the slope on a moonless night. The British soldiers surprised French general Louis-Joseph Montcalm who rushed out to meet them in what became known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. A 20-minute skirmish claimed the lives of both Wolfe and Montcalm, and left the French defeated, giving the British control over North America, which was formalized in the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
British Colonial Era
By this time, Quebec City had 8,000 residents. Under British rule, the French were allowed to keep their language and their Catholic religion. The British increased trade with the colonies and made large capital investments in fishing, fur-trading, shipbuilding, and timber industries (tall straight old growth trees were essential for British sailing vessels), which all expanded rapidly.
Shortly afterwards, during the American Revolution, 1775, the English Carleton fought off the Americans under Montgomery and Benedict Arnold. Between 1778 and 1783, during the American War of Independence, wooden redoubts and earthworks were constructed on Cap Diamant. After the American Revolution, the British were wary of further invasions from its former American colonies and expanded the city’s fortifications. Following the War of 1812, the British replaced the wooden palisades with a massive stone wall and built a star-shaped fortress. These were completed by 1852, and both still stand today.
In 1791, Quebec City was declared the capital of Lower Canada (lower meaning lower on the St Lawrence River, compared to Upper Canada which was upstream). It lost “capital city” status to Montreal from 1840 to 1850, after which the Colony of United Canada was again split into Upper and Lower Canada colonies.
The Citadel (the British fortress protecting Quebec) is a star-shaped polygon with thick walls, designed to be cannon-proof, and the outside walls were built with locally quarried sandstone between 1820 and 1831. The eastern, western, and northern flanks are defended by four major bastions (external fortifications for flanking coverage), each protected by heavy artillery. The British garrison began to withdraw from Quebec City in 1871.
During the 1800s, Quebec City spread outside of its fortified walls and stretched westward on the promontory, along the banks of the Rivière Saint-Charles, and to the foot of the north face of the promontory. These areas suffered many fires in 1845, 1866, 1870, 1876, 1881, and 1889, and were rebuilt in stone and with better protective infrastructure like water supply and firefighting.
In 1867, when Confederation (under the British North America Act, “the BNA Act”) joined Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec into one nation of Canada, Quebec City became the capital city of the Province of Quebec. By the 1860s, Quebec City had 60,000 inhabitants. As railroads expanded far inland, and as ocean-going steamships replaced sailing vessels (which were reliant on steady winds), Quebec City lost its importance as a port to Montreal, and became more of an administrative city.
From 1873-76 much of the fortifications of Quebec City were recycled into the stone buildings that dot the older part of the city. Lord Dufferin, the British governor for what because known as Lower Canada realized the potential for tourism, and prevented further destruction of the city’s walls and fortifications and rebuilt the Saint-Louis and Kent gates in 1878 and 1879.
Another icon of Quebec City is the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, which is not a castle but a railway hotel. In 1890, Cornelius van Horne, head of the Canadian Pacific railway began to build hotels across Canada to attract European tourism to Canada. The hotel is named for one of the best known governors of New France, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac who lived from 1622 to 1698. It is located at the eastern edge of Old Quebec’s Upper Town and overlooks the Lower Town. It replaced the first hotel on the site, the Château Haldimand, which was built during the 1780s. The Chateau Frontenac was built in four stages, with the first completed in 1893, and the central tower in 1923. and has 18 floors rising to 80 metres (262 feet). The 1944 Quebec Conference was held here, when US president Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King discuss the post war future of Europe. The hotelwas designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1981.
Growth to the west and north of the city has been even more substantial in the 20th century, particularly since the 1950s. By 2016, Quebec City had 531,000 residents (over 800,000 in the metropolitan area).
The historical character of Québec City is maintained by the architecture of the old city, which has been the subject of major restorations, and is home to several exceptional museums. In 1985, this part of the city was recognized as a United Nations World Heritage Site.
Québec City started the first Winter Carnival in 1954. In the 1950s the province was sidetracked by the cronyism and nationalist vision of Québec premier Maurice Duplessis. In the 1960s, visions of French nationhood re-awoke, leading to the violent FLQ crisis in 1970, when Quebec-raised prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act to control unruly separatists. More recently, the province held several referenda on separation from the rest of Canada in 1980 (60% against 40% in favour) and in 1995 when the ‘No’ vote won by less than 1%. Old Québec was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
During the 1950s, Quebec underwent The Quiet Revolution, which pitted Quebecers against the dominance of the Catholic Church as well as against the linguistic and economic domination by the English. This led to the rise of separatist sentiment, and the October 1970 “FLQ Crisis” which cause the federal government under Pierre Elliott Trudeau to invoke the War Measures Act. This led to the political rise of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) and their election and the 1977 passage of Bill 101 which made French the official language of Quebec. This also led the federal government to adopt a bilingual official languages policy across Canada.
Separatist sentiment grew further, and the PQ government held several Separation referenda. Though all turned out to effectively vote “No”, the nationalist sentiments were strong enough that the provincial chamber is called the National Assembly.
The Trans-Canada Highway passes along the south shore of the St Lawrence River. Travellers should cross just west of Levis to see this historical city. If you want to get off the beaten path, drive along Route 132, which winds close to shore through many 400year old French villages.
Cyclists should travel along Route 132 from Montreal until they reach Riviere Du Loup. This route is relatively flat, and avoids the heavy truck traffic on the AutoRoute. You can catch a pedestrian ferry across the river from Levis to the Old Town of Quebec City, and return to your bikes on the south shore.