QUEBEC, La Belle Province

Overview and history

Quebec : points of interest
other provinces

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QUEBEC, also called La Belle Province, is Canada's largest province. Since it was the first French colony in North America, the majority of the population is of French descent, and the official language is French. Quebec is also Canada's oldest province, and it was colonized in the 1600's. The name Quebec comes from the Algonquin word "kebek", or "where the river narrows". Its capital is Quebec City and the largest city is Montreal.

In 1867, Quebec joined the Dominion of Canada. The population is approximately 7.2 million inhabitants, or nearly one quarter of Canada, with a density of five per km2. Of those, about 3.5 million live in the Montreal metropolis, making it the second largest metropolis in Canada, after Toronto, Ontario.

Its surface is 1.5 million km2, and it is forested for 55%. The animal kingdom is represented by black bears and polar bears, caribou's, moose, deer, beaver, mink, martens, foxes and otters.

The main river is the St. Laurent (St Lawrence), which is 1,300 kilometers long, and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. Past Montreal the river is about one kilometer wide, but beyond Quebec it broadens considerably, and becomes a strait of forty kilometers wide, complete with tides. The river is populated with whales, seals and salmon. Quebec has vast natural resources. The north is rich in iron, gold, copper and asbestos, of which Canada is the largest producer.

map of Quebec

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*** Read more about Prehistoric American-Indian cultures ***

The Inuit reached Northern Quebec around 2000 BC. In 1000 BC, the Algonquin came from the west, and they settled south of the Inuit. They developed their own culture, which would remain intact for about 2,000 years. In the 1500's, there were three indigenous populations, the Iroquois, the Algonquin and the Eskimo-Aleut.

In 1500 Spain was the richest country in Europe, after the enormous gold discoveries in south America. The French king François I was eager to follow this example, and in 1530 he sent the explorer Jacques Cartier to explore the northeast of North America in search of gold, and to claim the entire region for France. In 1534 Cartier landed on the Gaspé Peninsula, and in the following year he explored the Gulf of St. Laurent. He reached the Indian villages Ascona (Quebec) and Hochelaga (Montreal), and met the Huron Indians.

France never really continued to colonize the area, since at that time it was embroiled in several European wars. Only 70 years later more explorers were sent out, as the fur trade was fast becoming a tremendous source of income.

In 1608 La Nouvelle France continued colonization when Samuel de Champlain founded a trading post in Quebec City, where the Indians could exchange their pelts. Champlain negotiated alliances with the Huron, the Algonquin and Montagnais, and promised them military assistance against their enemies, the Iroquois. Thus began a bitter and almost 100-year-long struggle between the French and the Iroquois.

La Nouvelle France grew tremendously during the rest of the 17th century, from the Hudson's Bay in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, and from the St. Lawrence River to the Rocky Mountains in the west. The other major powers looked with envy at France's activities in almost all of North America.

Although the lucrative fur trade attracted many French adventurers, it was difficult to attract farmers. In 1628 Cardinal Richelieu, prime minister of Louis XIII, founded "La Compagnie des 100 Associés", that could grant large "seigneuries" (estates) to those who would manage to develop the country. These would then further divide these estates and find farmers who would work the land for a small fee. The target was to find 4,000 colonists in 15 years time. The plan failed however and even before 1650, 75% of the colonists returned to France.

After 1650 the fur trade developed very strongly, and more than half of the immigrants remained in the colonies, usually around Quebec (1608), Trois-Rivières (1634) and Montreal (1642). The colonies Quebec and Montreal grew strongly, and by their control of the St. Lawrence River they managed to trade with Indian tribes, that lived deep in the interior. However, they also got involved in many battles with the Iroquois about the control of the lucrative fur trade. The Iroquois almost destroyed all of the French trade with the Huron Indians.

Since his revenues were in danger, Louis XIV ended "La Compagnie des 100 Associés" in 1663 and returned La Nouvelle France under the supervision (and into the pockets...) of the French crown. He sent troops to fight the Iroquois and instituted a form of local government.

By 1670 England also wanted its share of the cake, and it granted the Hudson's Bay Company a trading monopoly for the entire territory around the Hudson Bay. The territory was called Rupert's Land, and it was explored by this company, funded by the British, but on the advice of French explorers. England also began to incite the Iroquois against the French. To secure its near-monopoly on the fur trade France began to build a series of forts to the west. During 30 years there was strong fighting between the French and the Iroquois, but in 1701 finally a peace treaty was signed.

After that fighting started with with Britain for control of Quebec, which was of strategic importance for the fur trade. Queen Anne's War (1702-1713) ended with the Treaty of Utrecht, whereby large areas were ceded to England ; the Hudson's Bay territory, Newfoundland and Acadia (now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and parts of Quebec and New England).

Until 1750 things remained relatively quiet, and the rest of La Nouvelle France continued to develop, although only very few new settlers immigrated. In France there was plenty of farmland available, and the country needed many soldiers to continue its European wars. In 1754 England again aspired to its dream of an Empire, and it started the French and Indian War (1754-1763). This war ended in 1759 with the fall of Quebec and the capitulation of Montreal. By 1760 the British completely controlled La Nouvelle France. In 1763 and with the Treaty of Paris, France ceded La Nouvelle France to Great Britain.

Great Britain wanted to develop new British (and Protestant) colonies in the former French Colonies. However, given the large French majority of the population this wasn't easy, and meanwhile the unrest also grew in the thirteen original English colonies. To keep the predominantly French population in line a political compromise was reached in 1774 with the Quebec Act, which reinstated most of the French laws (the Code Napoléon) and once again expanded the territory.

The territory between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers had in fact originally been given to the Indians, as a reward for their indispensable support in the war against the French. But it also happened to be a very profitable fur trade area... The thirteen English colonies also preyed on the same territory, for exactly the same reasons, and so this Act actually became another reason for the American Revolution (1775-1783). In 1775 American forces captured Montreal, and then they besieged Quebec City. However, they received little support from the population, and the next year they were driven back.

After the American independence in 1783 many British loyalists flooded in from the former thirteen colonies, and they immediately demanded the abolition of the Quebec Act. They wanted British law, a British electoral system and British property rights, instead of French law. That they were merely immigrants to a new country, who ought to adapt to local customs, was of no importance to the Britishmentality. However, it so happened that these immigrants were very influential and wealthy British families, with excellent political connections. So in 1791 the British Parliament came up with a Constitutional Act, a true Solomon's Judgement...

Quebec was split into two colonies; the mostly British Upper Canada (now Ontario), and the mostly French Lower Canada (now Quebec). As it happens and geographically speaking, Quebec lies higher than Ontario and so these names were highly unlogical. But the British wanted "their" province to be "higher" than the French province, and in politics one rarely finds logic...

Nonetheless, the British gave each colony a treat. The French received their Seigneuries, the Code Napoléon and the Catholic Church, and the British received British law, British property rights, and an Upper Class government. Both colonies also received a parliament, but don't worry, this was only for the public's sake, because the legislative and executive chambers were completely appointed by the British government...

In 1812 the US declared war on Great Britain (1812-1815), and occupied Ontario for a while. Many English-speaking colonists moved to Montreal, and gradually Quebec City was economically supplanted by the more English-speaking Montreal.

In 1834 the Patriot party, led by Louis Joseph Papineau, demanded greater political power for the French Canadians. However, Montreal opposed this because they feared a slowdown in their economic development, and in any case Great Britain refused to relinquish any power. In 1837 massive riots and rebellions broke out. The British imposed martial law, and in 1840 both colonies were again merged, but this time under the names of Canada East and Canada West. In doing so, the British hoped to assimilate the French colonists once and for all, but this solution also failed. Finally a federal system was proposed, with separate governments for their specific interests, and a central government for common interests.

To better defend their economic and military interests the colonies sought a larger federation of all the British colonies. In 1867 the British Parliament voted the British North America Act (or Constitution Act), which founded the Dominion of Canada. It consisted of four provinces: Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The Confederation gave Quebec the provincial power to preserve its (French) cultural identity in education and legislation. Also, the French language was officially accepted and the French Canadian nationalism confirmed, which would eventually become a future threat for separatism.

In 1885 there was a first upsurge with the execution of Louis Riel, the leader of the Métis, a mix of Indians and (mostly French) colonists. To the British Riel was a rebel, but to the French he was a true defender of French values.

During the Industrial Revolution, gradually a pattern developed of English managers and French workers. Following the extension of the new confederation with new (English) provinces, Quebec found itself increasingly isolated in the British federation.

During the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa and World War I (1914-1918), the French Canadians were not thrilled with what they saw as British imperialism. When in 1917 the government instituted compulsory military service, in Quebec only 60% of the young people showed up, and riots exploded in Montreal and Quebec City. Gradually the French culture was further expanded to a political platform, and "Les Québécois" raised the tension between successive federal and provincial governments.

Quebec made several cultural and financial agreements with France, and in 1967 the French president Charles de Gaulle visited the province of Quebec. During a speech in Montreal de Gaulle launched the now immortal slogan "Vive le Québec libre". Of course he was immediately sent home, but his speech further fired the independence movements, which united in political parties.

In 1968 Le parti Québécois (PQ) was founded, and in 1977 it succeeded in winning the election. Almost instantly French became the official language and the use of English was severely limited in administration, justice, schools and in the workplace. Thereupon many British left Québec. Later, two referendums were held about the separation of the province from the rest of the Canadian federation. Twice a secession was narrowly avoided, but in 1995 it was with a mere one percent difference!

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