a brief history of quebec city

Quebec is a city steeped in history, one that precedes the establishment of Canada (July 1, 1867) by 259 years. While Samuel de Champlain is known as the father of Quebec, it was Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, who first explored the Saint-Lawrence River and surrounding regions in the late 16th-century.

History of Quebec City: Samuel de Champlain
Samuel de Champlain, a painting by E. Ronjat. Source: Wikipedia

Sixty-six years after Cartier’s final expedition to the Gulf of Saint-Lawrence, Samuel de Champlain established the first settlement for New France in 1608.

A colonized region spanning as far south as New Orleans, Louisiana, Champlain’s settlement (now known as Quebec City) was the heart of French North America.

A population of fewer than thirty lumberjacks, labourers and carpenters, the colony slowly grew as Recollect missionaries, labourers, families and the Augustine and Ursuline sisters arrived from France.

Establishing a fur trading post in what is know the neighbourhood of Place-Royale, trade was set-up between the colonists and local Aboriginal people (mostly Huron-Wendat tribes).

While there were tensions between the colony and the Iroquois tribes in the area from time to time, the colony continued to grow. Spreading out to the top of Cap Diamant (where Fairmont Chateau Frontenac now stands, as well as the neighbourhood of Old Quebec, also known as Vieux-Québec) and along the banks of the Saint-Lawrence River.

The Cap was (and is) the ideal vantage point in New France: allowing Champlain and the colonists to see ships sailing through the waters of the Saint-Lawrence River – spotting their enemies in time to prepare their defences.

Read more about Samuel de Champlain: Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer

New France had its share of battles, usually with the English, over the years. While the English (known as the British after 1707) sometimes won, those victories were often short-lived and France would regain control.

That is, until the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The shortest battle in Quebec’s history (it lasted for roughly 15 minutes), the aftereffect of the battle would be felt for centuries.

History of Quebec City: Illustration of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham
Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Source: Canadian Encyclopedia

Fought between British General James Wolfe, and French General Louis-Joseph Marquis de Montcalm, the battle took place on a plateau of land owned by Abraham Martin, a farmer.

Montcalm’s men were no match for Wolfe’s soldiers and four years after the battle, the Treaty of Paris was signed and France ceded all French colonies in North America to the British.

In the early 19th-century many shanty Irish, as they were categorized at the time, could secure passage to Quebec for $5, half the price of passage to New York.

Unfortunately, many were unable to pay and resolved to work for the British in the navy yards at the base of Montmorency Falls (Chute Montmorency) and along the Saint-Lawrence River.

Life was difficult for the Irish, and the French living in Quebec. Neither liked the British: the French felt like second class citizens in their own country, and the Irish were used for labour and lived in overcrowded tenements.

History of Quebec City: Entrance of Rideau Canal in what is now Ottawa, Ontario
Entrance of the Rideau Canal. Ainslie, Henry Francis 1803-1879 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When the Rideau Canal in Ottawa was completed (November 1831), most of the Irish lost their jobs and the British employed the French, as they were considered to be more skilled.

Causing a rift between the Irish and French, fights broke out between the two. Eventually, the Irish and French realized they had a common enemy, the British, and refocused their efforts to battle their common oppressor (also known as the Lower Canada Rebellion).

Quebec’s history is riddled with conflict: battles with the Iroquois people, battles with the British, and battles with the Roman Catholic church, who kept a tight hold on the city and the province.

New France had been ruled by the French for 151 years before the British took over, then ruled by the British and the Roman Catholic church for roughly 200 years before the French (French-Canadians/Québécois) made steps to take it back.

The Quiet Revolution was a tumultuous time in Quebec. French-Canadians wanted to regain control of their province, their “country”.

They felt oppressed by the British and tired of being under the thumb of the church – which controlled everything from healthcare to education to various social affairs.

In many ways, life in Quebec prior to the revolution felt archaic. After the revolution, church attendance reduced significantly, however, education became unified, nurses did not have to be nuns before being hired in Quebec hospitals, and life began to slowly equalize.

Today, Quebec City is known for its history, beauty, food and delightful locals. Often appearing in ‘Top’ and ‘Best of’ lists by travel publications around the world.