The Gateway to America
In the mid-19th century, the Port of Québec was the main port of entry to Canada. Thousands upon thousands of passengers from Europe disembarked at its wharfs, which were located close to where boulevard Champlain is today. Most were from the British Isles. The Irish were greatest in number, and many of them would suffer a particularly tragic fate.
The main port of entry to Canada
From the first decades of the 19th century, there was an increasing influx of newcomers at the Port of Québec. The wave crested between 1830 and 1860 with an average of 30,000 immigrants each year, mostly from the British Iles.
Great Britain was racked by major economic and demographic change that spawned overpopulation, unemployment, and severe food shortages. The result was an unprecedented surge of immigrants to North America, where arable land and job opportunities could still be found. For the impoverished who had no choice but to leave home, Québec was a choice destination because the lumber export companies that shuttled between Québec and Great Britain offered unbeatable rates.
Many of the hundreds of vessels that left Québec laden with lumber came back empty. This return voyage was unprofitable for ship owners. Many of them responded by offering cut-rate fares. Unfortunately, these cargo ships were not designed for passengers. The living conditions on these large sailing ships, also known as “coffin ships,” were deplorable.
The unscrupulous ship owners did not even comply with minimum legal specifications for the number of passengers allowed. The emigrants were crammed into unsanitary holds and did not have enough to eat. During these crossings that took six to eight weeks, it was common for disease to spread, killing part of the human stowage. It was only in 1860 that steamships slowly began to replace these coffin ships and made the voyage much shorter and living conditions on board better.
Québec City’s advantageous location
For European emigrants, more than half of whom ended their journey in Ontario or the United States, one of Québec’s advantages was its inland location that made the south and west of the continent accessible. However, the poorest travellers remained in Québec City and soon found employment. Many of them worked at the port as stevedores.
Steps away from the promised land
Immigrant intake facilities at the time were primitive. The passengers disembarked from the boats right onto the wharfs and were then directed to barracks in the Upper Town. But because of the cholera epidemic that laid hold of Québec in 1831, authorities were forced to take additional measures to better protect the public.
Starting in 1832, all immigrants had a stopover at the quarantine station on Grosse Île, an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River some 50 kilometres east of Québec City. They were kept there for 40 days so that sick passengers could be isolated from healthy ones before they continued on to the Port of Québec. Several thousand immigrants, many of whom were Irish, died on Grosse Île, taken by the diseases they had contracted during the crossing.
A second period of heavy immigration
As of the 1880s, immigrants came from a greater variety of countries: the Ukraine, Poland, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, and others. They arrived at the modern intake facilities on the pier at Bassin Louise. Many headed for the Canadian Prairies, which had recently opened to colonization.
The Port of Québec would retain its status as the main port of entry to Canada until World War I (1914–1918).