Île aux Basques

par Turgeon, Laurier

Oven for melting whale blubber, photo by Laurier Turgeon

This tiny island, only two kilometre-long [1.25 mi] and half a kilometre-wide [.3 mi], is located in the St. Lawrence estuary across from the town of Trois-Pistoles. It is recognised as a heritage site not only for its diverse natural resources, but also for its rich cultural assets.  In 1929, the Société Provancher d’Histoire Naturelle du Canada [Provancher Natural History Society of Canada] purchased Île aux Basques in order to turn it into one of the Province of Quebec’s very first protected nature reserves, because of its vast diversity of its bird population.  In fact, some 229 species have been inventoried on the island. This impressive variety represents nearly two thirds of all of the province’s known bird species.  As for cultural history, the island is not only the location of a considerable variety of Amerindian sites but it is also the site of the first Basque settlement in the Province of Quebec, which was founded at the end of the 16th century.  Île aux Basques is therefore one of the earliest sites of European occupation in Eastern Canada.  An interpretative centre known as the Parc de l’Aventure Basque en Amérique was constructed in 1996 on the mainland in Trois-Pistoles.  An additional centre was built on the island itself in 1999, as a means of informing the public about this fascinating but still little-known page of Canadian history.  In 2001, Île aux Basques was classified as a National Historic Site of Canada by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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A Wealth of Natural Variety

The rich natural heritage of Île aux Basques consists of an unusually wide variety of plant and bird species residing on the island, which is in sharp contrast to its tiny size, The island’s land area barely measures 55 hectares [136 acres], but it is home to 336 different species of plants and 229 different species of birds.  In such a small space, this heavy population density of bird and plant life makes the island an exceptional observation post for visitors.  The diversity of Île aux Basques can be explained by its geographical location, as it is in an area of mixed forests, as well as in a transition zone of the St. Lawrence estuary, where fresh and salt water meet.  Thus, in addition to the deciduous and coniferous trees growing on the island, both marine and fresh-water birds can thrive on the island.  Moreover, since it is five miles from the mainland, its resident birds are sheltered from predators and can nest and reproduce without danger.

Primula laurentiana

Île aux Basques is an important native-plant reserve and a prime location for viewing vegetation native to Quebec. In fact, most of the plants on the island are indigenous, largely due to Île aux Basques’ isolation and to the fact that few people actually visit it.  Its vegetation cover is also remarkable because of the high number of arctic plants on the island (14 in all), as there are many more to be found here than in neighbouring regions (NOTE 1).  Certain parts of the island resemble the bare landscapes of the tundra, swept by north-westerly winds and surrounded by the icy waters of the Labrador Current, a part of which dissapates in the St. Lawrence Estuary.  A number of rare plant specimens are also found on the island, notably the Hooked-spur Violet, Viola adunca, discovered by the Canadian botanist Jacques Rousseau in 1933. It is found nowhere else in Quebec.  And one must not forget the Primula laurentiana, a tiny primrose that adorns the maritime rocks; Île aux Basques marks the southernmost limit of its North American distribution area.

The Common Eider


Île aux Basques is however particularly renowned for its prolific and varied bird population.  During migration periods (in the autumn and the spring) the bird population skyrockets.  Among the hundred or so bird species that nest on the island, the common eider is the most dominant species.  As its name suggests, this duck is still highly coveted for the quality of its down.  One of the most majestic birds that can be observed on the island is the great blue heron, with its 1.8-metre [6 ft] wingspan. The colony consists of about 20 mated pairs each year.  Equally spectacular is the osprey, which has a 1.3-metre (4 ft) wingspan and can easily be recognised, because of its characteristic insistent cry and disproportionately large nest. One osprey pair has regularly nested on Île aux Basques for about the last 30 years (NOTE 2).  Before becoming a bird observatory, the island served as a hunting ground, as well as a bird banding laboratory where bird migratory movements and lifecycles could be studied.

A Unique Historic Heritage

This tiny island is also rich in history.  Archeological digs carried out over the last few years have proven that Amerindian groups regularly visited and sejourned on the island well before the arrival of Europeans.  The Amerindian habitation sites identified thus far date back to the last major period of prehistory, known as the Woodland Era (from 1000 BC to 1500 AD).  Île aux Basques seems to have been visited by hunter-gatherers who would camp there for a few days at a time in the spring and summer, in order to hunt, fish and gather food.  It would appear that these prehistoric peoples were especially drawn to the island to hunt the harbour seal, since over three quarters of the bones exhumed from the Amerindian sites were seal bones.  The fact that there were artefacts in the archeological collection originating from other regions (such as quartzites from Lake Mistassini, located in north-central Quebec about halfway between the Saint Lawrence and James Bay; quartz from Ramah Bay on the north shore of Labrador; and even Appalachian cherts from Maine) suggests that there were relatively important exchanges between the various Amerindian populations of living in the northeast of the North American continent.  During its lengthy prehistory, Île aux Basques was probably shared by a number of Amerindian groups, both Iroquoian and Algonquian, as is suggested by the archeological remains that have been uncovered there.  It is important to note that the island is situated at the crossroads of three major waterways:  the St. Lawrence River, which links the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean; the Saguenay River watershed, which flows into the St Lawrence just across from Île aux Basques; and the Saint-Jean and Trois-Pistoles rivers, which form a natural, north-south human migration corridor between central Quebec and the Gulf of Maine.

It was during the 16th century that Île aux Basques went from being a site visited only by Amerindians to the location of one of the first European settlements the St. Lawrence Valley (NOTE 3).  The latest research indicates that the Basques occupied the island on a seasonal basis as early as 1580, which is well before Quebec City was founded by Champlain in 1608. This makes it one of the oldest European habitation sites in present-day Canada, a historical fact that is supported by archeological findings and historical documents.  It is also one of the first European sites in Canada on which convincing evidence of contact between Europeans and Amerindians has been found.

Illustration représentant un établissement côtier destiné à la fonte des graisses de baleines.

The vestiges of three Basque habitation sites can be found on Île aux Basques, each with large stone ovens used to melt whale blubber.  The impressive structure of these ovens, features walls of about 1 metre (3.3 ft) high and 1 metre in thickness.  Circular in shape, the Basque oven supported an enormous copper receptacle placed on the upper opening.  The oven’s firebox was fed through a smaller opening located at the front of the structure.  The hunt was carried out on biscaynes, small boats designed for speed that were transported on the decks of whaling ships to the hunting sites.  Archeological digs have revealed that, at high tide, the biscaynes were used to tow the whales as close as possible to the shores of the island.  Then, when the tide receded, the whales were left high on the beach, where they were carved up and their blubber cut in pieces to be melted down in the large cauldrons set on the ovens.

Fragments d'un vase présentant les attributs des vases iroquoiens. Célat, Université Laval.

Like the Amerindians, the Basques settled on the island in order to hunt—the former for seals and the latter for whales.  Thus it was probably while hunting that the two groups met and developed a means of communicating and exchanging goods.  Notarial acts (documents) from Bordeaux report a number of Basque vessels being provisioned for whale hunting and fur trading expeditions in this part of Canada during the final two decades of the 16th century (NOTE 4).  Archeological digs carried out on Île aux Basques have uncovered certain trade items (such as glass beads) and implements and utensils (harpoons, knives, ceramic cooking pots, etc.) used by the Basques for hunting purposes, as well as typical Amerindian objects (arrowheads, scrapers, pots, etc.). The Basque and Amerindian artefacts were so jumbled together that archeologists initially believed that they had excavated an Amerindian site containing Basque trading goods, before finally adopting the hypothesis of a Basque site containing Amerindian artefacts as the more plausible of the two.  Whatever the case may be, Île aux Basques provides an interesting example of a mixed heritage, which includes elements of both cultures.  This mixed heritage is one of the things that makes the island a unique heritage site, for it was there that researchers carried out one of the first archeological attempts to systematically study intercultural relations by examining the on-site evidence from the dig itself.

Developing the Island as a Heritage Site

Despite its natural and cultural richness, Île aux Basques remained just one of the many islands in the St. Lawrence River until the Société Provancher purchased it in 1929, in order to turn it into a nature reserve.  Founded by the intellectual elite in Quebec City in 1919, the Société Provancher d’Histoire Naturelle du Canada, was seen at the time as a very prestigious organization that maintained links with New York’s powerful National Audubon Society (whose vocation has always been to preserve flora and fauna in North America).  Following in the footsteps of the Audubon Society, the Provancher Society took up the cause of protecting Quebec’s flora and fauna and also hunting down poachers. As soon as it acquired the island, the Society prohibited all public access to it and hired a warden.  Then it called upon a group of scientists headed by Brother Marie-Victorin [Conrad Kirouac], who was at that time professor of botany at Université de Montréal, to make an inventory of the island’s flora.  In his report, Brother Marie-Victorin—today recognised as the father of Quebec botany—emphasized the importance of preserving the island in its natural state for the future benefit of the natural sciences. He described it as being “for all intents and purposes a virgin territory, ideal for observation and experimentation, and a necessary complement to laboratory reserearch." (NOTE 5)

Plaque commémorative.

Even though, initally, the Provancher Society particularly focused on the natural history of Île aux Basques, society members quickly discovered the richness of the island’s cultural history.  As early as the 1930s, Sylvio Dumas, a Trois-Pistoles business man and history buff, became very curious about the island’s blubber melting ovens. And so he launched a research project in conjunction with Edmond Buron, a Canadian archivist posted in Paris, who personally undertook researching the matter in the Basque Country.  Dumas also published a number of articles in local newspapers.  And so, owing to the interest generated by this project, the Provancher Society undertook the restoration of the ovens in 1938 and had the Commission des Monuments Historiques du Québec [Historic Monuments Board of Quebec] award the site Quebec historic status. The Commission erected a commemorative plaque on the beach where the Basques were presumed to have landed and commissioned the publishing of La petite histoire de l'île-aux-Basques et des îles Razades [A Brief History of Île-aux-Basques and Îles Razades] in 1940.

The development and research on the island’s cultural heritage continued after the Second World War, when, in 1961, the archeologist Michel Gaumond carried out a visual survey of its Basque sites on behalf of the Quebec’s Ministère de la Culture. Working under the auspices of the same ministry a few years later, Charles Martijn conducted the first archeological investigation of an Amerindian site on the western part of the island (NOTE 6).   Then, in partnership with Laval University, the Ministère de la Culture and Heritage Canada, the Provancher Society commissioned a new series of archeological investigations. Between 1990 and 1998, the digs uncovered numerous Amerindian and Basque sites on the island, revealing the richness of the island’s history.  The magnitude and originality of the results led to the 1997 publication of a new book entitled L’île aux Basques, as well as to the construction of a covered interpretative area for the newly discovered sites.  The site’s national heritage value was acknowledged on both a provinical and national level:  in 2001, the Canadian government official recognised it as a National Historic Site of Canada and, in 2005, the Government of Quebec awarded it the status of Réserve Naturelle.

Associating the Island’s Heritage with the Mainland

Once the island acquired its heritage status, activities related to recognizing and developing the its heritage value soon spilled onto the mainland.  Now that the island was a heritage asset to be preserved, nearby communities quickly appropriated the island as their own, incorporating it as key asset for the entire region.  As early as 1938, a duplicate of the commemorative plaque set up on the island by the Commission des Monuments Historiques du Québec was erected by the municipal government of Trois-Pistoles on the corner of the town’s main intersection, just in front of the church. This early initiative expressing the collective desire to integrate the island’s heritage into the life of the town and region, was followed a few years later, by re-naming a local street rue des Basques.  Around this time, local artists began painting images depicting whale hunting and whalers melting down blubber on the island.  The most famous representation of the island’s founding era was painted by Léo-Paul D’Amours. It is on display at the Caisse Populaire Desjardins de Trois-Pistoles, the main bank of the region.  This artistic interest in the region’s Basque history is apparent in the pseudonym chosen by one of the region’s mostly highly renowned contemporary artists, Léonard Parent,  who is know as the “Basque.”  In 1972, one of the region’s most important organizations, the local school board, became the Commission Scolaire des Basques.

Parc de l'aventure basque en Amérique

The movement gained momentum in 1979, when the Municipalité Régionale de Comté (MRC) [Regional County Municipality] officially adopted the name of MRC des Basques.  The most recent initative to associate the island's heritage with the mainland was the 1995-1996 construction of an interactive interpretive centre, the Parc de l'Aventure Basque en Amérique, on the county seat, Trois-Pistoles. It features an indoor, reduced-scale reconstruction of the island and its history.  Outside the centre, a children's playground has been created using reproductions of the main artefacts from the site, including a rowboat, an oven, a whaler's shelter and a whale (which doubles as a slide). There is also a Basque frontis [similar to the racquetball front wall] and playing field, both which are intended acquaint the public with the Basque national sport,  jai alai [joyful party].  The open-walled arena does more than just evoke "Basqueness"; it also creates and opportunity for local residents discover the game, thereby participating in a sort of cultural identification activity.  In so doing, the heritage of Île aux Basques becomes a source of social revitalisation and stimulation for the town of Trois-Pistoles and the entire MRC des Basques. And so, in addition to conferring its name and rich heritage on the region, today, Île aux Basques infuses it with fresh vitality.


Laurier Turgeon
Chairman of the Canada Research Chair in Heritage
Laval University




1. Robert Gauthier et Michelle Garneau, "La flore vasculaire de l’île", in J. C. Raymond Rioux (under the supervison of), L’île aux Basques, Québec, Société Provancher d’histoire naturelle du Canada, 1997, pp. 59-86.

2. Marcel Darveau, "Les oiseaux de l’île", in Rioux (under the supervision of), L’île aux Basques, pp. 101-120.

3. Laurier Turgeon, Patrimoines métissés. Contextes coloniaux et postcoloniaux, Paris and Québec, Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme and Presses de l’Université Laval, 2003, pp. 95-128.

4. Laurier Turgeon, "French Fishers and Amerindians in Northeastern North America During the Sixteenth Century: History and Archaeology", William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 55, no 4, 1998, pp. 585-610.

5. Cited in: La petite histoire de l’île aux Basques, Québec, Société Provancher d’histoire naturelle du Canada, 1940, p. 20.

6. Michel Gaumont, Documentation sur le site des fours à fondre l’huile à l’île aux Basques (DaEh-4), rapport remis au ministère des Affaires culturelles, Québec, 1961; and Charles A. Martijn, Ile-aux-Basques and the Prehistoric Occupation of Southern Quebec, Trois-Rivières, Cahiers d’archéologie québécoise, 1969.


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