Patricia Cleveland-Peck visits the capital of French Canada which is celebrating its 400th birthday this year
Québec City is 400 years old in 2008 and is holding a birthday party which cannot fail to interest the history-lover. Hundreds of events are scheduled: tours, plays, concerts and exhibitions – including ‘Passagers/ Passengers’ which traces some of the five million people, Amerindian, French, Irish, Scottish Chinese and German, who have passed through the city. This will take place in the custom-built Espace 400e, a space somewhat reminiscent of an airport. A four-day celebration will begin on July 3rd, actual anniversary of the city’s foundation, while in the Musée de la Civilisation, an exhibition devoted to the city’s founder Samuel de Champlain runs from April to December.
He was not the first European to reach these shores. Norsemen had been there centuries before and in 1534 Jacques Cartier made the first of three journeys, searching for the Northwest passage together with ‘gold and other precious things’ for French king Francis I. He thought he had found the latter on the ridge of what is now Cap Diamant but the glittering minerals turned out to be quartz and iron pyrites – giving rise to the French expression ‘un diamant du canada’ for something false. Cartier discovered the St Lawrence river and established the first European settlement – but French interest waned, only to be revived when the potential of the fur trade became apparent.
It was then, in 1608, that Champlain chose the site of Québec City (the name came from ‘Kébec’ meaning ‘where the river narrows’ in Algonquin language) on which to establish the first trading post. He recognized the strategic importance of the site, with Cap Diamant overlooking the narrowest part of the St Lawrence, and built a fortress known as l’Abitation. Life was hard with freezing winters, malnutrition and scurvy, but the colony grew and gradually Québec became a commercial centre.