The Boutillier Brothers’ warehouse is the centrepiece at the Site historique du Banc-de-Pêche-de-Paspébiac
Strangers have been coming to this land since long before it was a country, long before it was known as Canada. Many came to get fish, and make money. There used to be a lot of fish. Over 500 years ago, off the coast of Newfoundland, the codfish was so thick that it slowed the progress of John Cabot’s ship as he explored the eastern coasts of North America.
At Paspébiac, catching fish was the easy part.
Preparing, preserving, packaging and getting the product to markets around the world was the hard part. To do that you had to set up some kind of base onshore. That’s where the fishing banks at Paspébiac came into play.
At Paspébiac (pronounced: Pass-Pay-Bee-Akk), in Chaleur Bay, which separates the Gaspé Peninsula from what is now New Brunswick, hundreds of miles west of the Grand Banks, 23-year-old Charles Robin set up a permanent fishing company in 1766. Basque fishermen had been in the area for generations but seldom stayed through the hard winters. It was a turbulent time in this part of the New World: the French population was being expelled by the English, indigenous Mi’kmaq people continued to be disrupted from their traditional ways of life, Acadians were being expelled from their farms and, as the American Revolution was heating up, pirates menaced the waters.
In the middle of all this, massive quantities of salted cod were being shipped around the world from the fishing banks at Paspébiac.
Today, the Banc-de-Pêche-de-Paspébiac Historic Site is a living tribute to 250 years of epic fishing history in Gaspésie, an industry that helped lay the groundwork for the development of Canada. Through interactive displays, costumed interpretive staff and restored historic buildings the great era of inshore fishing in eastern Canada is explained.
This site is important because salted cod was the first economic engine of New France, and a much larger market than the fur trade. It became even more important under the English Regime. Most of the fish was exported to Catholic Europe; Portugal, Spain, France and Italy had 200 days per year when it was prohibited to eat meat.
Although the fish workers themselves were often terribly exploited by their bosses, the owners and elites in the settlement became very rich. The women in Paspébiac were known as the most elegant in Canada because they had first access to all the European goods coming into the country.
Today, the society around Paspébiac is probably the most multi-ethnic one in Quebec outside of Montreal. It is still a fascinating mix of Mi’kmaqs, Basques, French, Jersiais, Acadians, English, Scots, Irish and Loyalists. One can detect an accent here which is different from the rest of the region and hundreds of family names of Channel Islanders can still be found along this coast of the Baie des Chaleurs.
The site was officially opened in 1981 after being saved by local people aware of its historical value. The fishing bank at Paspébiac was classified as a Bien culturel du Québec in 1981 and, in 2001, designated as a National Historic Site of Canada.
People are still coming to this area for fish. Not far from Paspébiac are some of the most famous sport fishing rivers in the world. Champion Atlantic Salmon fly fishermen flock to the Rivière Matapédia (via the Restigouche), the Cascapédia, the Rivière Bonaventure and the Miramichi.