Once one of world’s busiest ports, Quebec is roaring back

Date 06/12/2018

Written byTaylor Ireland

In the last two blogs we looked at Quebec City’s relationship with the river that has defined it from its settlement by Europeans 410 years ago until the present day. We examined how the St. Lawrence River waterfront has been reclaimed for the enjoyment of citizens, particularly with the spectacular Promenade Samuel de Champlain. We then explored the recent boom in cruise ship traffic, exemplified by the inaugural visit of the Disney Magic ship.

Now we are going to come full circle, so to speak, and look at what brought adventurers and explorers to the New World in the first place, the pursuit of riches, less romantically known as trade and commerce. As is the case with just about every aspect of business and industry in Quebec City, the shipping trade is enjoying a remarkable resurgence, with a very ambitious project on the horizon.

But first, a bit of history … and geography. Ever since the first humans came upon it, the physical location of Quebec has offered enormous economic and strategic advantages. Positioned at the first narrowing of the mighty St. Lawrence River, into which flow major arteries such as the St. Maurice, Ottawa, Saguenay, Richelieu, Quebec has been the hub and crossroads for an enormous amount of commerce.

Europe’s mania for fur garments impelled traders and adventurers to establish lines of traffic between a vast wilderness bursting with resources and markets across the ocean. Then, after New France fell to Britain, a stupendous lumber and shipbuilding industry found an ideal set-up at Quebec. By 1810, as the British Empire was reaching its peak, British North America was sending some 50,000 shiploads of lumber to England, most of which had been floated downriver in massive booms to Quebec. What’s more, these loads of lumber were sailed across the Atlantic in ships built by skilled craftsman in dozens of shipyards all along both the north and south shores of Quebec. Well into the 1800s, Quebec City was one of the world’s major shipping and ship-building ports.

The decline of the British navy and the demand for wooden sailing ships, the advent of steamships with metal hulls, the ascendancy of Montreal as a commercial centre, the rapid emergence of railway transport,  the dredging of the river to handle larger ships, and the building of a bridge across the St. Lawrence all brought about the steady diminution of Quebec City’s status as a key industrial port in North America.

The completion in 1919 of the landmark Quebec Bridge across the St. Lawrence at Quebec, though cursed with two major collapses during construction, helped reconnect the city with the booming industrial development happening in Canada at the time.

However, the Port of Quebec, for 250 years the scene of robust commercial activity, languished for decades, experienced a surge of wartime activity, but remained largely a sleepy destination among the world’s busiest maritime centres.

As a boy from the Prairie province of Saskatchewan I can take a little pride in knowing it was grain and other farm harvests that helped keep Quebec City in the international shipping game. One of the prominent features of the Port is the row of towering grain silos in the section known as Basin Louise.

The silos were built as part of a major undertaking in the early 1900s to bring the port up to date, including building a wharf that could accommodate large trans-Atlantic vessels.

For many years grain shipping was the main business of the Port, and in 1967, the global transport giant Bunge acquired the silo complex, boosting its capacity to some 3.4 million tonnes annually. A few years ago, a new consortium was created, called G3, a partnership of Bunge, a Saudi Arabian agricultural concern and Canadian investors. G3 acquired the majority interest in CWB, a grain handling and trading company that operates a network of seven grain elevators in Western Canada. Almost all the grain shipped on that network will head to world markets through the G3 terminal in Quebec.

With the transfer of the Port management from the federal government to an independent authority, and more improvements to docking and unloading facilities, the Port began to expand its operations beyond mostly grain, and move into the growing container business.

Quebec maintains its spot as one of Canada’s top five ports through ever-increasing traffic, over and above the spectacular growth in cruise ship stops. More than 1,000 ships dock in the port annually, with 21 million tonnes of dry and liquid bulk and general cargo, all worth some $20 billion. It’s an important strategic hub, employing about 8,000 people, serving agriculture, energy, steel, mining, metal, construction, transportation, and petrochemical industries.

Based on this solid critical mass of shipping business, the Port of Quebec is proposing to take a giant leap onto the world stage to capitalize on big changes coming in the container business. Late last year, Port manager Mario Girard unveiled what’s called the Beauport 2020 strategy, a plan to greatly expand existing container ship infrastructure in the Beauport sector in the eastern end of the city.

Mr. Girard said this in a speech announcing the new terminal project: “Québec has all the strategic advantages needed to carry out this major project. With its water depth of 15 meters and full intermodality, Québec City has a distinctive advantage in the St. Lawrence–Great Lakes Trade Corridor.

“The opening of the new 15-meter-deep Panama Canal in 2016 and the emergence of next-generation ships requiring deep-water ports is completely changing the landscape of commercial shipping. This new 15-meter standard makes it harder for the St. Lawrence, as it currently stands, to compete with American ports in the container market.

“With its unique features, the Port of Québec has what it takes to build a container terminal that offers a competitive alternative in the St. Lawrence. The Port of Québec’s proximity to the big St. Lawrence–Great Lakes market, with its over 110 million consumers, makes it the perfect location for a container terminal.”

Beauport 2020 promises to be the major developing economic story in the Quebec City region over the coming years. It’s another milestone in the life of a historic port that’s had its ups and downs over the years, but is now “full steam ahead.”