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Articles Blog

Sept Îsles, Canada

Karyn Planett

In other words, “Seven Islands”

Let’s start with the bigger picture. Sept-Îles is a tiny little spot in the massive Canadian province of Quebec. Covering nearly 600,000 square miles, approximately one sixth of the nation’s sweeping landmass, Quebec has a French flair that has been and probably will always be its signature. When you look at the statistics, it becomes quite apparent that three out of every four Québécois consider their French heritage as a distinctive part of their current persona. More than 90% speak French as their first language. Compare that to the less than 10% of the residents who trace their roots to their British ancestors. And certainly not to be overlooked are those whose heritage remains with the indelible roots of the indigenous native peoples. Among them those are those who are considered Inuit, First Nations, and Métis.           

All this is changing, of course, and with the introduction of immigrants from many countries one can understand the mélange that is uniquely Quebec. 

St. Lawrence Lowlands 

Sept-Îles is directly north across the St. Lawrence from the Gaspe Peninsula as well as the “seven islands” of the archipelago for which it is named. Two of these islands today are First Nation Reserves. This is a bountiful region, known as the Côte-Nord, with clear streams, boreal forests, free-flowing rivers, and seemingly endless wild game. It is the province’s furthest north town of any size with a population of some 26,000 people located between the banks of the Moisie and Sainte-Marguerite Rivers. Early inhabitants used the streams and waterways to access the interior in a nomadic lifestyle. Traditional people paddled their slender crafts upstream, pitched their skin tents for shelter from the elements, and practiced the “hunter-gatherer” traditions taking what they needed to sustain them through long, harsh, cold winters. They filled their sacks with berries, herbs for traditional medicines, pelts for garments, as well as fish to eat or dry for their future needs.           

The Europeans were here, as well, including fishermen from the Basque community. They were drawn across the icy Atlantic with the hope of finding schools of cod as well as whales. It was in 1535 that French explorer Jacques Cartier made note of his sightings along with mapping the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as well as the river of the same name. He’d been commissioned by King Francis I to search for a navigable passage to Asia and all the treasures he’d hoped would fill the coffers of France.           

Little more than a century later, Father Jean Dequen founded a mission in this location.             

Following in the fishermen’s wake were fur-traders. In 1679, Louis Joliet advanced the industry by building trading posts to formalize this trade. Sea otter and beaver pelts were harvested from the waters while buffalo skins, bear hides, ermine furs and buckskin were taken from the land animals. A lively trade took place with Europeans offering knifes and metal objects, collecting pelts in return. In the mid-19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company staked their claim to this lucrative business by establishing their own trading post in Sept-Îles.           

Today’s business activity surrounds the iron ore mining that takes place inland with their production finding its way to waiting ships in Sept-Îles’ busy port. Today, some of this activity has subsided causing some economic consequences. 

Welcoming Ships 

Recently, this vibrant port began to welcome passenger vessels, developing their tourism offerings for visitors. Many consider Sept-Îles ideal as a jumping off point for traveling inland to hunt or fish for salmon at Moisie, a mere 8 miles east. Those wishing to remain in the town usually begin their discovery at le Vieux-Poste, which dates back to 1676. Louis Jolliet was among the members of a French commercial society that managed this early trading post. Among its many exhibits is a small chapel and displays highlighting traditional hunting practices. Another notable attraction is the Regional Museum featuring the detailed history of the Innu people, found among the 40,000 objects on display.           

Some visitors prefer interacting with Mother Nature either through visits to surrounding landscapes, catching a few salmon of their own or zipping about over to several of the offshore islands. Among them is Manowin, with its bird-nesting cliffs and Corossol, known for its bird sanctuary and a shipwreck of the same name. Foodies simply sample the local salmon, freshly caught or smoked, bannock bread, and a specialty cloudberry jam called chicoutai. Bannock is a campfire favorite. Crafty cooks wrap the dough around a branch they then suspend over the open flame until it’s cooked to a golden brown.            

Perhaps campers are out on one of the seven islands right now putting some raisins in the dough for a little added bonus. If you’re lucky, you might be offered a sample.