La Fabuleuse Histoire d’un Royaume...
The general history of the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region can be dissected into four great periods:
- The fur trade 1535 - 1842
- Colonization and commercialization of wood 1842 - 1890
- Industrialization and urbanization 1890 - 1930
- Specialization and economic diversification 1930 until today
The next few paragraphs describe each of those great periods through the different events having marked our history.
The term “Royaume”
Upon discovering the region, Jacques Cartier tried as best he could to understand what the native people were telling him. When he returned to Europe, he told then King François I that the lands he discovered were governed by royal authority, and were therefore a hierarchical society they must strive to conquer.
First-Nation peoples, clever and wanting to keep their lands, did everything they could to keep the white people out of the region, preserving the “royaume” (meaning kingdom or realm) myth, which in a way protected them from invasion. Only many years later and after much trading did the Europeans note that, in fact, Jacques Cartier had not understood very well.
The term “royaume” however remained in use and is now an integral part of our history.
La Compagnie des Cent-Associés, or Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France
In 1627, Cardinal Richelieu created the Compagnie des Cent-Associés with its hundred or so members committed to populate New France. The Company’s mission was to develop and explore the lands of New France and make the best of its resources. Everything was to take place over 15 years: 4,000 French-Catholic settlers were to be sent to New France. The company however was unable to fulfill its mandate and, in 1645, transferred its trade monopoly in North America (except for Acadia) to the Communauté des Habitants (or Compagnie des Habitants). On February 24, 1663, the Compagnie des Cent-Associés was dissolved as its mandate was never accomplished.
Pekuakami or Lake Saint-Jean?
Until 1647, the huge lake west of the Saguenay River was referred to as “Pekuakami” by the local people. The “shallow or flat lake” had long been protected by them from invasion by other nations. When Father Jean de Quen, white missionary, decided to follow the Saguenay to its source, he found Pekuakami. That is why Pekuakami has acquired a second, more usual name in honour of Jean de Quen, Lake Saint-Jean.
The Hudson Bay Company
On May 6, 1670, Prince Rupert (England) formed the “Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay”. Mostly involved in the fur trade, they had exclusive control over the entire territory containing the rivers and waterways flowing into Hudson Bay, an area of about four million square kilometres. Over the years, after a series of treaties and transfers, the company reoriented its mandate and supplied farmers, developers and settlers with the many tools they needed to do their work. The reorganization marked the beginnings of the modern enterprise know today as “The Bay”.
A new vocation for the region
In 1842, the Hudson Bay Company saw the need to open up its territories to forestry in order to answer to lumber needs in England.
Following that decision, William Price was mandated by the London Government to harvest and use those natural resources. Along with the Société des 21 (21 settlers from the Charlevoix region), they bought out the Hudson Bay Company’s stumpage fees.
White pine, taller and straighter than the other trees, were harvested and sent to naval construction sites to make masts for ships. The forest subsequently supplied wood for the nine saw mills operated by William Price and Société des 21. In parallel to the mills, more than five hydroelectric dams were built on the affluent rivers of Lake Saint-Jean and the Saguenay River. Of the saw mills, two are famous for their sad stories: La Pulperie de Chicoutimi and the Val-Jalbert saw mill. Having been transformed into museums and historic sites, they are true historic and touristic gems.
World renowned entrepreneur… in 1895
Agriculture has been one of the most lucrative operations in the Lac-Saint-Jean area since the very beginnings of the region. The sedimentary deposits left behind by the glaciers and the Laflamme Sea on the Lac-Saint-Jean lowlands made the soil particularly rich and fertile. Several families harvested the land for wheat or other types of feedstock, and also operated pig and cattle farms. For its part, the Perron family, in Saint-Prime, decided to transform cow milk. In 1895, Fromagerie Perron opened its doors and their cheese soon acquired unexpected notoriety: the Queen of England regularly ordered cheese from Saint-Prime. Sampling Perron cheese and visiting the Musée du Cheddar in Saint-Prime have become a must for tourists since, not only do they get a chance to meet the Perron family, they also meet the entire community, who meet daily at the cheese maker’s to buy a little piece of heaven.
When the city of Chicoutimi celebrated its 100th anniversary on June 11, 1938, the Saguenay region adopted a flag. After all, Chicoutimi seemed to be destined to a bright future, some saying it would become the Chicago of the Northeast.
The colours and the meaning of their positioning on the flag are not haphazard:
- The green stands for the lush boreal forest, a major player in our environment and bearer of economic activity. It is placed on top to represent its ancient heritage, its notoriety.
- Agriculture is at the bottom of the flag, in golden yellow, to show that agriculture supports and produces life.
- The aluminium industry was already a major player and its future seemed promising. That is the reason behind the silvery colour at the centre of the flag. It also represents industry and commerce as a whole.
- The colour red, for its part, represents the vitality, the living force of the regional population who, despite their ordeals, past and future, will always stand tall.
The last two colours, silver and bright red, are set in a cross pattern to remind us of our Christian past. At the time, in 1938, religion had a far stronger presence and was a major aspect of people’s lives.
The flag, initially intended for the Saguenay area of the region, subsequently came to represent the entire Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region.
The first to adopt a flag, Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean is still today the only region in Québec with its own banner.
During the war
WWII served as a launching pad for Alcan and its aluminium production as aviation had become a key to warfare... and what material is widely used in airplane construction? Aluminium, an innovative, light and durable material! That period in history was therefore a turning point for the industry as expansion, modernization, and new power dams became necessary. Of course, the economic boom created by the war was beneficial to the region and employment, population and business development were all on the rise.
On the other hand, war also means sacrifices. Many young men were lost to their families because of the war. Every family (or almost) has a story to tell; self-mutilation to avoid the draft, hurried marriages and escapes into the back country. Today, one of the hiding places is open to visitors, in the town of Desbiens in the Lac-Saint-Jean area: it is a cave called Caverne du Trou de la Fée.
The power of a people
Over a distance of more than 160 km (99 miles) and an area of 3,900 km2 (nearly one million acres), a fire that started in a section of felled trees in Saint-Félicien set the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region ablaze. The wind was particularly strong on that May 19, 1870 ; it propagated the destructive force “faster than a racing horse”. Following the tragedy, 555 families were homeless, having lost everything they owned (farms, animals, harvests, etc.), and 146 others had major losses. Stretched out between Saint-Félicien and La Baie, those 700 families made up about 30% of the population. Despite all that, only five lives were lost.
The night of May4, 1971, was a clear illustration of the importance of a development plan for an urban area. The village of Saint-Jean-de-Vianney was the site of a dreadful landslide, leaving a hole which covered 32 hectares in area. Infiltration of rainwater and soil instability led to the destruction of about 40 homes and buildings, and killed 31 people. The village was closed and the remaining citizens were relocated..
At the end of July that year, enormous rainclouds covered the Saguenay area and not a breath of wind around to scatter them. Between July 19 and 21, more than 260 mm of rain fell (1 cm of water every 2 hours for 50 hours). The effect was that reservoirs and dykes overflowed (the mechanisms of some did not function due to faulty maintenance) and parts of towns and some entire villages were flooded. Fifty municipalities were affected, from Lake Kenogami to L’Anse-Saint-Jean. More than 16,000 people had to be evacuated, and 500 homes were completely destroyed, while 1,200 others were severely damaged. Two young children were killed in a landslide, trapped in the basement of their home as the mud buried it
Education and Government
During the 1960s in Québec, we witnessed vast modifications to the structure of the educational system. The Cégep system (Collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel) is put in place, along the Universités du Québec network. In the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, four Cégeps and one university were established. Each educational facility was given the opportunity to develop specific programs of regional portent or that were only offered in the region. The University today offers highly specialized programs which set it apart from other universities.
Restructuring was not limited to education in Québec, municipal and regional gestion were also given new mandates. Economic and demographic developments gave rise to Municipalités Régionales de Comté (MRC), or Regional County Municipalities, school boards, and municipal mergers. The last and most encompassing, which caused so much controversy in 2002, was the merger of the three largest municipalities in the Saguenay region: Jonquière, Chicoutimi, and La Baie, along with four of their smaller neighbours, Laterrière, Shipshaw, Lac Kénogami, and Canton Tremblay. The new agglomeration is now called Saguenay, the 6th largest city in the province.
Rivalry or complementarity?
When one talks about parish-pump in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, it is not just a popular expression or administrative rivalry: during the construction of the Saint-Félicien church and presbytery, rumours circulated that not only was a church to be built in Saint-Félicien, but a cathedral. The Vatican seemed hesitant regarding the location of the cathedral, Saint-Félicien or Chicoutimi. Lac-Saint-Jean communities were counting on this development because, in 1870, a diocese and cathedral meant employment, population growth. Finally, the decision favoured Chicoutimi and, in 1878, the Chicoutimi Diocese was officially opened. The decision left a bitter taste in the mouths of Lac-Saint-Jean residents for years, and parish priests were loud and clear on the issue.
When in Saint-Félicien, take a close look at the presbytery, when it was being built, although modest in size, expansion and the addition of an upper storey were planned for the coming of the diocese.
Over time, the rivalry gave way to other concerns. While there is sometimes a bit of tension between the Lake and Saguenay areas, we think in terms of complementarity with each other. The fertile Lac-Saint-Jean lands generate jobs and food and its large water basin is ideal for hydroelectric development. In the Saguenay area, with its large urban centre, manufacturing and transformation industries play a major role in the lives of residents. On all sides, water and forest are bearers of resources, jobs, as well as tourist attractions.
When they arrived, Europeans named the native people they found here “Montagnais”, because the region is surrounded by mountains, the tail of the Laurentide system called “La Lionne” (the lioness). In their own language, the Montagnais call themselves Ilnu (singular) or Ilnuatsh (plural), meaning “Human being(s)”; the family group which inhabited the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region bore a second name, Kakouchak, meaning porcupine. Pekuakami (flat lake) was the meeting place of many Ilnuatsh families living in the Nitassinan territory (north shore of the St. Lawrence River, shores of Lake Saint-Jean, all the way to Labrador and Shefferville). Mashteuiatsh, the name of the Lac-Saint-Jean reserve, means “where there is a point of land”. Long before it became what we have known since 1856, that point of land was, for the Ilnuatsh, a much visited place. The community bore different names throughout its history; known as Ouiatchouan until 1985, when it was renamed Mashteuiatsh... it was also called “Pointe-Bleue” for a long time.