First Immigrants

The first settlers of the region were the Iroquois, who spent time in what’s now called Québec long before the Europeans arrived. The Vikings landed in Canada more than 1,000 years ago, probably followed by Irish and Basque fishermen. English explorer John Cabot stepped ashore briefly on the east coast in 1497, but it was the French who managed the first meaningful European toehold.

When Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence in 1535, he recognized at once the tremendous strategic potential of Québec City’s Cap Diamant (Cape Diamond), the high bluff overlooking the river. But he was exploring, not empire building, and after stopping briefly on land, he continued on his trip.

Montréal, at the time, was home to a fortified Iroquois village called Hochelaga, composed of 50 longhouses. Cartier was on a sea route to China but was halted by the fierce rapids just west of what is now the Island of Montréal. (In a demonstration of mingled optimism and frustration, he dubbed the rapids “La Chine,” assuming that China was just beyond them. Today, they’re still known as the Lachine.) Cartier visited the Indian settlement in what’s now Old Montréal before moving on.

Samuel de Champlain arrived 73 years later, in 1608, motivated by the burgeoning fur trade, obsessed with finding a route to China, and determined to settle the territory. He was perhaps emboldened after the Virginia Company founded its fledgling colony of Jamestown, hundreds of miles to the south, just a year before. Called Kebec, Champlain’s first settlement grew to become Québec City’s Basse-Ville, or Lower Town, and spread across the flat riverbank beneath the cliffs of Cap Diamant. In 2008, Québec City hosted major celebrations of the 400th anniversary of this founding.

Champlain would make frequent trips back to France to reassure anxious investors that the project, which he said would eventually “equal the states of greatest kings,” was going apace. In truth, the first years were bleak. Food was scarce, and scurvy ravaged many of the settlers. Demanding winters were far colder than in France. And almost from the beginning, there were hostilities, first between the French and the Iroquois, then between the French and the British (and later, the Americans). At issue was control of the lucrative trade of the fur of beavers, raccoons, and bears, and the hides of deer, as the pelts were being shipped off to Paris fashion houses. The commercial battle lasted nearly a century.

To better defend themselves, the settlers in Québec City built a fortress at the top of the cliffs. Gradually, the center of urban life moved to inside the fortress walls.

The French and British struggle for dominance in the new continent focused on their explorations, and in this regard, France outdid England. Far-ranging French fur trappers, navigators, soldiers, and missionaries opened up not only Canada, but also most of what eventually became the United States, moving all the way south to the future New Orleans. At least 35 of the subsequent 50 U.S. states were mapped or settled by Frenchmen, and they left behind thousands of city names to prove it, including Detroit, St. Louis, Duluth, and Des Moines.

Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, arrived at what is now the island of Montréal in 1642 to establish a colony and to plant a crucifix atop the rise he called Mont Royal. He and his band of settlers came ashore and founded Ville-Marie, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, at the spot now marked by Place-Royale in the old part of the city. They built a fort, a chapel, stores, and houses. Pointe-à-Callière, the terrific Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, is built on the site where the original colony was established.

Life was no easier here than it was to the north in Kebec. The Iroquois in Montréal had no intention of giving up land to the Europeans. Fierce battles raged for years. Today, at Place d’Armes, there’s a statue of de Maisonneuve marking the spot where the settlers defeated the Iroquois in bloody hand-to-hand fighting.

Still, the settlement prospered. Until the 1800s, Montréal was contained in the area known today as Vieux-Montréal. Its ancient walls no longer stand, but its colorful past is preserved in the streets, houses, and churches of this oldest part of the city.

England Conquers New France

In the 1750s, the struggle between Britain and France had escalated. The latest episode was known as the French and Indian War (an extension of Europe’s Seven Years’ War), and strategic Québec became a valued prize. The French appointed Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, to command their forces in the town. The British sent an expedition of 4,500 men in a fleet under the command of a 32-year-old general, James Wolfe. The British troops surprised the French by coming up and over the cliffs of Cap Diamant, and the ensuing skirmish for Québec, fought on September 13, 1759, became one of the most important battles in North American history: It resulted in a continent that would be under British influence for more than a century.

Fought on Québec City’s Plains of Abraham, today a beautiful and much-used city park, the battle lasted just 18 to 25 minutes, depending on whose account you read. It resulted in more than a thousand deaths and serious injuries, and both generals died as a result of wounds received. English general Wolfe lived just long enough to hear that the British had won. Montcalm died a few hours later. Today, a memorial to both men overlooks Terrasse Dufferin in Québec City and uniquely commemorates both victor and vanquished of the same battle. The inscription—in neither French nor English, but Latin—is translated as, simply, “Courage was fatal to them.”

The capture of Québec determined the war’s course, and the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ceded all of French Canada to England. (In a sense, this victory was a bane to Britain: If France had held Canada, the British government might have been more judicious in its treatment of the American colonists. As it was, the British decided to make the colonists pay the costs of the French and Indian War, on the principle that it was their home being defended. Britain slapped so many taxes on all imports that the infuriated U.S. colonists openly rebelled against the crown.)

George Washington felt sure that French-Canadians would want to join the American revolt against the British crown, or at least be supportive, but he was mistaken on both counts. The Québécois detested their British conquerors, but they were also devout Catholics and saw their contentious American neighbors as godless republicans. Only a handful supported the Americans, and three of Washington’s most competent commanders came to grief in attacks against Québec and were forced to retreat.

Thirty-eight years later, during the War of 1812, the U.S. army marched up the banks of the Richelieu River where it flows from Lake Champlain in what's now northern Vermont to the St. Lawrence in Québec. Once again, the French-Canadians stuck by the British and drove back the Americans. The war ended essentially in a draw, but it had at least one encouraging result: Britain and the young United States agreed to demilitarize the Great Lakes and to extend their mutual border along the 49th parallel to the Rockies.

The Fight to Keep Québec’s French Heritage

In 1867, the British North America Act created the federation of the provinces of Québec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The edict was a kind of independence for the region from Britain, but was unsettling for many French-Canadians, who wanted full autonomy. In 1883, “Je me souviens”—a defiant, proud “I remember”—became the province’s official motto. From 1900 to 1910, 325,000 French-Canadians emigrated to the United States, many settling in the northeast states.

In 1968, the Parti Québécois was founded by René Lévesque, and a movement to create a separate, French-centric state began in earnest. One attempt to smooth ruffled Francophones—French speakers—was made in 1969, when federal legislation stipulated that all services across Canada were henceforth to be offered in both English and French, in effect declaring the nation bilingual. That didn’t assuage militant Québécois, however. They undertook to guarantee the primacy of French. To prevent dilution by newcomers, the children of immigrants were required to enroll in French-language schools, even if English or a third language was spoken in the home.

Inevitably, there was a radical fringe, and it signaled its intentions by bombing Anglophone businesses. The FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec, or Québec Liberation Front), as it was known, was behind most of the terrorist attacks. Most Québécois separatists, of course, were not violent, but the bombings fueled passions and contributed to a sense that big changes were coming.

Secession remained a dream for many Québécois. In 1977, Bill 101 passed, all but banning the use of English on public signage. The bill funded the establishment of enforcement units, a virtual language police who let no nit go unpicked. The resulting backlash provoked the flight of an estimated 400,000 Anglophones—English speakers—to other parts of Canada.

In 1987, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney met with the 10 provincial premiers at a retreat at Québec’s Meech Lake to cobble together a collection of constitutional reforms. The Meech Lake Accord, as it came to be known, addressed a variety of issues, but most important to the Québécois was that it recognized Québec as a “distinct society” within the federation. Manitoba and Newfoundland, however, failed to ratify the accord by the June 23, 1990, deadline. As a result, support for the secessionist cause burgeoned in Québec. An election firmly placed the Parti Québécois in control of the provincial government again. A 1995 referendum on succession from the Canadian union lost by a mere 1 percent of the vote.

Since that 1995 referendum, the issue has continued to divide families and dominate political discourse. Conversations with ordinary Québécois suggest they’re weary of the argument, although French speakers do have sincere concerns about losing their culture. In 2014, Pauline Marois, then the Québec Premier and the leader of the Parti Québécois, overstepped her reach: confident about gaining a parliamentary majority, she called for elections. During the campaign, heated conversation focused around Marois’ proposed “charter of values,” which would have restricted headscarves worn by Muslim public employees, among other provisions. Another prominent PQ candidate declared his focus on the independence of Québec. These two things proved to be a self-destructive one-two punch, and the party was trounced in its worst defeat since 1970. The Liberal party, which is strongly anti-secession, took power and Philippe Couillard became the province’s new premier.

Today, Montréal may well be the most bilingual city in the world. Most residents speak at least a little of both French and English. And Québécois, it must be said, are exceedingly gracious hosts. Most Montréalers switch effortlessly from one language to the other as the situation dictates. Telephone operators go from French to English the instant they hear an English word, as do most store clerks, waiters, and hotel staff. English is less used in country villages and in Québec City, but for visitors, there is virtually no problem that can’t be solved with a few French words, some expressive gestures, and a little goodwill.

Political Power for the First Nations

The French colonialists eventually came to realize that it was only through trade, alliances, and treaties—rather than force—that relations between native peoples and themselves could develop. From early on, formal alliances were part of the texture of their uneasy relationship.

Assimilation of natives into European identity was once perceived as a positive goal but has since been repudiated by natives, who are collectively known today as First Nations. The 1876 Indian Act established federal Canadian authority over the rights and lands of “Indians” and Indians who wanted full rights as Canadians had to relinquish their legal Indian status and renounce their Indian identity. Participation in traditional dances, for instance, became punishable by imprisonment.

Those laws changed slowly. It was only in 1985 that the law was modified so that an Indian woman who married a non-Indian would not automatically lose her Indian status. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recognizing the right of aboriginals to self-determination. The interests of native peoples are today represented by the Assembly of the First Nations, which was established in 1985. Economic interests are represented in part by Tourisme Autochtone, the aboriginal tourism corporation (

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