To understand what characterizes those now living in the MRC territory, it is important to look back at the various development phases settlers lived through.
Of course, the territory’s first occupants were the Amerindians, their presence going back several thousand years. The territory was at that time a passage route between the St. Lawrence Valley and the Maritimes.
It was by way of the St. Lawrence River, a waterway entry to the territory, that the first European arrivals touched land in what is now the territory of the Rivière-du-Loup MRC. Even though Cartier reported having passed through the region in 1535, it was Basque sailors at the beginning of the 17th century who were the first to occupy the territory (at the mouth of the Saguenay River) on a seasonal basis. They were also present in Isle-Verte and Cacouna in order to trade with the Amerindians and fish for whales and the common seal.
As it was for a large part of Québec, it was the seigneurial regime that would guide the establishment of the first permanent settlers in the Lower St. Lawrence region. Even though a certain number of seigneuries (between three and five, according to sources) were granted between 1672 and 1684 in the Rivière-du-Loup MRC territory, there was no goal to develop them throughout the entire French regime. In direct contrast to what we see in the seigneuries located west of Kamouraska, there was no commercial exploitation of resources in this territory’s seigneuries and so very few families came to settle here.
In spite of that, all during the 18th century, it was the Villeray seigneury in the Isle-Verte territory which seemed to develop the fastest. As of 1713, the number of settlers was enough to justify founding the Catholic mission of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-L’Isle-Verte. In 1738, the very first flour mill was built on the Petit-Sault River (on the site of the actual Petit-Sault mill). This is a sign that agriculture had become significant. Further west, in the Parc (Cacouna) and Rivière-du-Loup seigneuries, colonization was slower. The first Cacouna farmers arrived in 1721 and it was not until 1798 that there were enough people to justify founding the Catholic mission. In Rivière-du-Loup, the population was only 68 in 1765 and it wasn’t until 1792 that the first mass was celebrated.
Those first colonies survival was due mainly to maritime resources (seals, eels, cod, etc.). In fact, at that time, the St. Lawrence was the only way of travel available. It was only from 1783 that a real road linked the MRC territory to other regions. That route, the Chemin du Portage, which connected Rivière-du-Loup to the Saint John River valley and Acadia, laid the foundation for the town to become an overland transportation hub, a role it still plays today.
A welcoming land for settlers coming from the Côte-du-Sud
Development of the Rivière-du-Loup MRC territory really took off at the beginning of the 19th century. The territory saw an influx of dozens of settler families from the Côte-du-Sud region, who were looking for new land to settle, since most of the good, arable land there had already been cleared. So in 1775, since there was already no available land left along the riverside, this influx led to opening new rangs (concession roads) inland. It was in Isle-Verte, the oldest center of settlement that the movement began: the first families settled on the rang-de-la-Montagne starting in 1782. Around 1810, there were, throughout the MRC territory, already nearly 60 homes along the 3rd row of concessions and 30 along the 4th.
Almost at the same time, the 3 riverside missions reached a level of growth big enough for them to warrant parish status, Saint-Georges-de-Cacouna in 1825, Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-l’Isle-Verte in 1828, and Saint-Patrice-de-Rivière-du-Loup in 1833. Colonization accelerated with the first inland parish, Saint-Arsène, established only thirteen years later, in 1846.
A region chosen by vacationers
Although fishing, farming and, in a smaller measure, timber were the principal economic activities since colonization had begun (in 1831, nearly 75% of the inhabitants of Rivière-du-Loup’s seigneury were farmers), a new industry, tourism, made a rapid appearance in the region. Starting in the 1840s, the urban upper class from Montréal and Québec who sought relief from the overwhelming summer heat of the cities became enchanted with the region. It was the fresh, salt air and landscape that drew vacationers to Notre-Dame-du-Portage, Cacouna and Fraserville, whose name was changed to Rivière-du-Loup in 1919. This movement resulted in the construction of many luxurious villas and hotels. One such hotel was the St. Lawrence Hall in Cacouna which was built in 1863 and had 600 rooms. In 1873, Fraserville was nicknamed the summer capital of Canada due, during the summer months, to the presence of the first Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honorable Sir John Macdonald. Many decades later, the region also welcomed the Right Honorable Louis Saint-Laurent, as well as certain members of his cabinet.
The railroad’s impact on local and regional development
Until the middle of the 19th century, two villages vied for the title of administrative center: Fraserville (Rivière-du-Loup) and Isle-Verte. Neither of these towns was clearly distinguishable one from the other, economically or demographically. It was Isle-Verte, in 1859 that was chosen to receive the courthouse (circuit court). That same year however, a decision was reached which would definitely make Rivière-du-Loup the region’s main urban center. It was in fact in that municipality where the Grand Trunk Railway would build a station. It seems that the mayor of that period was able to influence things in favor of Fraserville.
Construction of the Intercolonial Railway in 1876 and the Témiscouata Railway in 1889, both of which were links to Fraserville, served to consolidate its position as a transportation hub, a position it held since construction of the Portage road in 1783. With a ferry service across the St. Lawrence, and the construction of routes 185, 20 and 85, that position was reinforced right up to today. At the end of the 19th century, the presence of the railroad hub brought with it a very great economic energy to the town and served to attract industrial businesses. There is also the Wolf (Loup) River waterfall right there in Fraserville which offered great hydroelectric potential and furnished the energy necessary for industry. There was in Fraserville, at the start of the 20th century, a workshop for locomotive and railroad car repair. In a few decades, Fraserville, with a population of 5,000 in 1900, became a prosperous, industrial small town, by far the principal economic center in eastern Québec.
Unequal economic and demographic development within the region
During that time, the economy of rural parishes was rather stagnant. Farming along the riverside plain, land which had been entirely cleared, was no longer enough for the many families to survive on. In spite of new parishes along the foot of the Appalachians (Saint-Épiphane; Saint-Paul-de-la-Croix and Saint-François-Xavier-de-Viger in 1870) and on the high plateaus (Saint-Cyprien in 1878 and Saint-Hubert in1885), the MRC territory became a source of emigration towards the United States. The emigration was major enough, between 1881 and 1891, to force the 1892 closing of the Saint-François-de-Viger parish. This parish did not reopen until 1978. All during the first half of the 20th century, the territory’s rural parishes saw only moderate economic development. Although the territory’s population continued to grow it was nevertheless slower than that of natural growth (where births outnumber deaths). After having been a place for immigration between 1830 and 1880, the Rivière-du-Loup MRC territory’s rural parishes, from 1880 up to the present, became a source of emigration.
Amerindian presence, the Malecites of Viger
The period when demographic pressure increased on the territory’s agricultural land, was also a period of great upheaval for the region’s native people. Present for thousands of years, the Malecites were always nomads who essentially lived off hunting, fishing and trade with other first nations. Both government and clergy in the hope of settling them, created a reserve in 1827 in the territory of what is today the municipality of Saint-Épiphane. An interesting fact is that the reserve was oriented to the four cardinal points, 45 degrees off the orientation of land grants up to that point in time.
Seeing that the Amerindians had trouble settling in and using the reserve’s agricultural potential, the inhabitants of neighboring parishes who were cramped on their sometimes less productive land, pressured the government to abolish the reserve. In 1869, the reserve’s land was taken back from the Malecites and, after a cadastral survey to re-divide the land, given to the church for redistribution to the region’s settlers. So finding themselves without a reserve, the Malecites who had always lived there returned to Cacouna where their ancestors had lived for many generations. In 1891, the government finally bought them a little bit of land (0.18 hectares) along the river in Cacouna. This land was never inhabited except by a few families. Today, the land is still considered a Malecite reserve, but the people are gone and no one lives there.
The upheaval of the 20th century
The 20th century disrupted the MRC territory’s pattern of settlement. In spite of a deep decline in activities linked to the railway and Rivière-du-Loup’s relative economic stagnation, the town would continue to acquire the major part of any population growth. Even though it lost its role as the Lower St. Lawrence region’s “metropolis” to Rimouski, Rivière-du-Loup continues to develop by relying more and more on commercial and tertiary activities: already long established as a distribution and wholesale business center for eastern Québec and the Maritimes, it consolidates its control of retail business and public or private services within its immediate region.
Starting in 1960, while Rivière-du-Loup and its close surroundings were in a development phase, there was a major population decline in the territory’s rural municipalities. In general, it was the great changes in farming and forestry activities during this time that explains the decline: mechanization for forest and field work, consolidation of farms, abandonment of less fertile land, etc. And so, in the past 45 years, the rural municipalities’ percentage of the MRC population went down by nearly half, going from 38% in 1961 to 20% in 2006. It is important to note however, that since 1991, the rural exodus has dropped considerably. The MRC rural municipalities’ population has grown slightly since 2001, contributing to the territory’s recent population upswing. In fact, between 2001 and 2006, the total population of the MRC grew at a rate greater than that of the population of Québec.