Parks Canada Banner
Parks Canada Home

Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23

Gaspé, 1760-1867

by David Lee


Besides the District of Gaspé, several other administrative and judicial districts were set up in the provinces of Quebec and Canada between 1760 and 1867, but none was as "peculiar" and unique as the District of Gaspé. Its remote location and rugged terrain made communications with the rest of the province difficult. In some respects Gaspé seemed to exist as a separate colony and in other respects it seemed to have closer relations with Europe than with Quebec. Communication difficulties were partly responsible for this phenomenon but there were other reasons.

The fisheries were paramount in Gaspé, but the province as a whole was essentially agricultural. As a result, the government of the province paid little attention to the needs and interests of Gaspé. The government was slow to resolve the uncertainty of land titles and to provide an adequate judicial system. It never tried to break the baneful influence of the big fishing companies or to encourage agriculture and small, independent fishermen. Its indifference towards starvation and epidemic was scandalous and it was never fully honest in its dealings with the Indians. In other words, the government did little to make the people of Gaspé feel a part of the province.

Besides being remote and neglected, the people of Gaspé were quite different from those in the rest of the province. The fishing industry made Gaspé a district which was unique in Lower Canada: in no other district was the economy totally dominated by one industry. The fisheries dominated the lives of everyone in Gaspé — workers and management.

Further, no other district of the province had a population with such a wide diversity of origins. This, along with the problems of endemic poverty, the constant demands of the fishery and poor communications between the scattered settlements, combined to inhibit the growth of any community feeling in Gaspé. Not only did the people of Gaspé feel little identity with the people of the rest of the province, they felt little common identity with their fellow residents of Gaspé.

The people of Gaspé actually did have much in common: most of them worked on the fisheries and they were all very conservative. They were slow to take up such modernisms as government programmes in education. Aside from the Boyle family, no native of Gaspé seems to have risked any large amount of capital in the local fishing industry. All the money and all the management came from outside, especially from Jersey. Even the ships which took the fish to the markets of the world were captained by outsiders. For some reason, long-time residence in Gaspé seems to have produced a conservative tendency among its people. When Charles Robin first came to Gaspé he was daring, imaginative and innovative in his business methods, but, as Abbé Ferland noted a few decades later, his nephews allowed no departure from the methods Robin had developed. The people of Gaspé would not leave their coastal cod fishery to catch mackerel in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The whalers would not leave the gulf to pursue whales out in the Atlantic. Mackerel and whales were left to the American fishermen just as it was left to the Americans to begin a lobster industry on Chaleur Bay.

In 1867 the population of Gaspé was, of course, many times larger than it had been in 1760, but life was not much different.

previous Next

Last Updated: 2006-09-15 To the top
To the top