Mother Nature has been generous to Québec City. The St. Lawrence River flows past Montréal, becoming narrow as it passes between the cliffs on which are perched Québec City and Lévis before continuing, broad and mighty, on its journey to the Altantic Ocean. The geographical diverse landscape enhances the region's beauty.
Nestled in the heart of the St. Lawrence Valley, Québec City is divided into two distinct areas: Upper Town, which is perched on a promontory overlooking the river, and Lower Town, which lies on the riverbank where the city's founders lived long ago.
There is an abundance of attractions in Québec City. Its most famous district, Old Québec, is the cradle of French civilization in North America. The winding streets and bustling public squares date back over 400 years to the founding of the city by French explorer Samuel de Champlain.
Today, Old Québec is famous the world over for its European charm and well-preserved architectural treasures. Delightful shops and cafés line the winding streets, where horse-drawn carriages clip clop steadily along, street performers entertain passersby and people out for a stroll admire the view from the promenade running along the top of the cliff.
The entire district, which is best explored on foot, is a living history book, and every garden, building and street corner is its own chapter. In 1985, UNESCO recognized the significant historical value of Old Québec by designating it a World Heritage Site.
Centuries of Human Contact
The Québec City region has been a point of contact between different peoples and nations from around the world for hundreds of years:
- First Nations have always been present in the Greater Québec Area. They were the first to occupy the site prior to encountering the Europeans, whose arrival transformed the continent and the Native way of life.
- France, the first source of European immigrants to Québec and the country of origin for the founders of Québec City and New France.
- The British Isles became the new political masters of Québec City in 1763. Many immigrants travelled from the British Isles to settle across North America, with a number of Irish immigrants choosing to live in the Greater Québec City area.
- The United States, our neighbours to the south, were first our rivals, then our allies and are now essential partners for the economic vitality of Québec City, the province of Québec and Canada.
The 1600s: for Millennia, a Crossroads for Humanity
For thousands of years, First Nations had been visiting this site, which was known as "Kébec", an Native word meaning "the narrowing of the river". They were drawn by the site's natural resources and strategic importance, as it is located at the confluence of several major rivers. Many rich and distinct cultures benefited from the trade networks and political alliances established with groups living deep in the heart of the continent. When Jacques Cartier sailed up the river in 1535, he came upon the Iroquois village of Stadacona, a community of farmers and fishers, near Cape Diamant. A century later, Algonquin nomads were camped at the site of what is today Québec City. The reserve for the Huron-Wendat nation is known as the village of Wendake and is located within the city limits. A must for visitors interested in traditional Native cuisine and culture.
The Founding of the City
When Samuel de Champlain disembarked at the foot of Cape Diamant on July 3, 1608, the village described by Cartier had disappeared. Based on an alliance he established with the Algonquin in 1603, the explorer had free reign to build a small fort, which he called an "abitation". This group of buildings surrounded by a palisade formed the core of a small village that slowly expanded over the following decades, at roughly the same time as British pioneers were settling in Virginia. By the mid-seventeenth century, Québec City's population was only a few hundred souls. The settlement only started to flourish in 1663, when the king of France intervened and appointed Jean Talon as the colony's intendant. By the end of the French Regime, Québec City, the economic, religious, military and political hub of New France, had over 7,000 inhabitants.
The 1700s: the changing of the Crown
On September 13, 1759, British and French forces clashed in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, with the British emerging victorious. This battle brought an end to the siege of Québec City. The site of the conflict is now a city park. New France surrendered to the British troops the following year. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the colony was ceded to the British monarch. Québec City thus became the capital of the Province of Québec and a major port of entry into British North America. To define relations between the French Canadian catholic population and the British protestant leaders, a political framework was developed and enshrined in the Québec Act of 1774, which was later replaced by the Constitutional Act of 1791. The latter authorized the creation of the first legislative assembly in a British colony. The current fortifications surrounding the Old City were constructed during the British Regime as protection against an American invasion. Today, Québec City is the only fortified city north of Mexico.
The 1800s: Québec City, Port of Entry into North America
Québec City was booming in the early nineteenth century, thanks to the shipbuilding industry, maritime trade and immigration. The city population grew five times larger in less than fifty years (from 8,968 in 1805 to 45,940 in 1851), making it the third largest port in North America, after New York and New Orleans. Starting in the 1830s, approximately 30,000 immigrants disembarked in Québec City annually before continuing their journey to elsewhere in Canada or to the United States.
The Confederation of Canada was established in 1867. Québec City was named the provincial capital and gradually evolved into an important commercial and cultural hub. Unfortunately, the city's new status could not prevent the economic decline resulting from the drop in wood exports and the slowdown of the naval construction industry, nor counter the void left by the permanent withdrawal of the British garrison from the Citadel in 1871. During this period, several stately buildings were constructed, including the Parliament Building, City Hall and the Château Frontenac. Note that Québec is the only predominantly French-speaking Canadian province.
The 1900s: now Four Centuries
The turn of the twentieth century heralded an economic upswing. The industrial and manufacturing sectors flourished in Lower Town. Québec City was becoming cosmopolitan, boasting tramways, major department stores and expanding outlying communities. The rapid growth of the civil service in the 1960s contributed in large part to the transformation of the provincial capital. Québec City, as it appears today, began take shape: a government town with a sizable service sector, that is R&D-intensive and whose cultural scene continues to draw visitors from around the world.
The Capital and the World
In 1908, Québec City celebrated its three-hundred-year anniversary with historical re-enactments and parades in which 18,000 British, French, American and Canadian soldiers marched as friends at the same spot where, years earlier, they had been mortal enemies. These allies met again in the city in 1943 and 1944, when American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill participated in the Québec Conferences. In 1945, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations was created in the provincial capital. Since then, Québec City has regularly hosted major international meetings, such as two Sommets de la Francophonie (once in 1987 and again in October 2008), as well as the Summit of the Americas in 2001.
Now We are Turned to the Future
With a view to acknowledging the past and preparing for the future, Québec City commemorated the turning moments of its history during its 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008: the evolution of its population, culture, economy, politics and urban life. Motivated by the year-long celebrations, the entire region is now committed to ensuring its future will be as glorious as its past.