Île d'Orléans, a Treasured Natural Heritage

par Fournier, Martin

Horatio Walker, The Rainbow, 1893, MNBA

Île d'Orléans is known as being one of the first places in New France where French immigrants settled.  The island also became symbolic of the long-lasting roots the French settlers put down in North America.  This is why Île d'Orléans is often called the "cradle of French civilisation in America."  Furthermore, for many years, the rich natural beauty and resources of the island have attracted both visitors and artists who have come to relax and find inspiration.  The wealth of natural resources on the island has also enabled local residents to maintain a traditional way of life for many generations.  And so, the natural environment greatly contributes to Île d'Orleans' considerable heritage value.   

Article disponible en français : Île d'Orléans (patrimoine naturel)

A Protected Island

In 1970, the Government of Quebec made Île d'Orléans a protected historic conservation area under the Loi sur les Biens Culturels [Cultural Property Act].  The goal of this legislation was to protect the traditional character of the island, its unique features having been shaped by more than three centuries of history.  The Act was also intended to ensure the conservation of the island's exceptionally rich traditional landscapes and heritage architecture, as well as its natural scenic beauty.  At that time, generic, American-style suburbs were springing up all around Quebec City and, as some of them were located close to Île d'Orléans, they were considered to be a threat to the historic character of the island's heritage landscapes.  Other protection measures, particularly the Loi sur la Protection du Territoire Agricole [Agricultural Land Preservation Act] (which reserves 90 percent of the island's land area for agricultural purposes) have been passed in order to ensure that the 300,000 or so people who visit Île d'Orléans each year are now able to fully appreciate the island's rich historic heritage and natural beauty.


The Island's Natural Heritage

Île d'Orléans in 1781, BAnQ

Île d'Orléans is a crossroads or a geographical hub that is located at the junction of three geological formations:  the St. Lawrence Plain, the Canadian Shield and the Appalachian mountain range.  Its geographic location is also strategic in that it is in the middle of the St. Lawrence River where the river suddenly narrows; the island's eastern end being the point at which the Seaway's salty waters meet the fresh waters of the interior and its western end being wedged into the narrow straight overlooked by the ramparts of Quebec City. 

For centuries, Amerindian groups camped on Île d'Orléans during the summer to fish, but they never made the island their permanent home.  The Natives called Île d'Orléans Minigo, which, in their language, means "enchanted island."

A permanent settlement of French immigrants was established on Île d'Orleans in 1650. From that time on, man's view of the island and his relationship with its natural resources has changed and evolved three times. Initially, the colonists and visitors alike rejoiced in the abundance of its natural resources, but eventually they came to appreciate the harmony that reigned between the islanders (who were farmers for the most part) and the islands natural resources.  In modern times, it is Île d'Orléans' enchanting, great natural beauty that has become a major preoccupation.


Île d'Orléans, a Land of Abundance

During the New France period, right up until the middle of the 19th century, historical accounts repeatedly describe the abundant agricultural capacity of the island, as well as the various resources available to the inhabitants of Île d'Orléans.  Fishermen had access to an unbelievable supply of eel and other highly valued fish species, such as salmon, sturgeon, muskellunge, tilefish and walleye.  Moreover, on the island, hunters could easily bag hundreds of passenger pigeons, one bird for every shot (the local population of passenger pigeons disappeared around 1850), as well as numerous snow geese, ducks and Canada geese. Even today all sorts of wildfowl flock to the shores of the island every spring and autumn.  The historical accounts also gave glowing reports of the richness of its fertile soil.

Maison ancestrale à Saint-Pierre, île d'Orléans. © Martin Fournier.  Ancestral home in Saint-Pierre, Île d'Orléans, © Martin Fournier.

Thus, as early as the 17th century, the rich land of Île d'Orléans provided the 2,000 or so inhabitants with the necessary conditions for building a prosperous, largely self-sufficient community.  Subsequently, islanders began to trade in farm, hunting and fishing products, mainly with neighbouring Quebec City.  The island's abundant resources helped sustain the residents' traditional way of life and led to an increase in the local population.  In the 19th century, Île d'Orléans was often described as the granary and vegetable garden of Quebec.  By the turn of the 20th century, with the introduction of the apple orchards and strawberry farming, it had also become the province's fruit producing region.

Overall, the island's residents have always enjoyed a very high standard of living compared to most farming communities, since not only has the natural environment been very generous, but also because no civil or religious authority has ever attempted to lay claim to a significant portion of the harvest-contrary to what was common practice in many other regions around the world. Moreover, the close proximity of a major urban market has greatly favoured a lively trade in the island's commodities.  These advantages, coupled with the practical know-how and the dynamic entrepreneur spirit of its residents, have created the stable, peaceful and comfortable way of life that is characteristic of Île d'Orléans.


Île d'Orléans:  a Pastoral Haven

At the end of the 19th century, this traditional way of life, based on a long-standing complimentary relationship between man and nature attracted a great many intellectuals who were having a difficult time coping with the rapid transformation that the mechanization, commercialization and urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution had brought to human society.  In the eyes of numerous artists and intellectuals, the islanders' way of life embodied a sort of ‘paradise lost' in which they could rediscover a kinder, more "natural", human world from the past that was preferable to the contemporary world characterized by steam engines, dirty and noisy factories, brash publicity, and the serendipitously rising and falling stock exchanges.  And so, because the hereditary land-division system had already set aside lots amply sufficient for each family's needs, large areas of the island remained free of development. Thus, this wild yet civilized character of the island-which consisted of a combination of nature tamed for agricultural uses and nature hardly touched by man-exerted a practically irresistible force of attraction on certain members of the elite, particularly those who felt unsettled by the substantial changes industrialisation had brought to modern society.

More than any other historic figure, the painter Horatio Walker embodied this quest for a pastoral existence on Île d'Orléans.  He lived on the island from 1885 until his death in 1938.  

Horatio Walker's Island

Horatio Walker, Ploughing, the First Gleam at Dawn, 1900, MNBA

Horatio Walker has been dubbed "the bard of Île d'Orléans."  He first visited the island in the mid 1880s and felt very much at home there.  At the time, the threat of a rapid transformation-brought on in other regions by mechanisation and industrialisation-had not yet touched the islander's agrarian lifestyle. And so, Walker was able to explore the entire island in complete serenity, contemplating nature and observing its inhabitants at work without any fear of seeing his enchanted vision of reality disappearing before his very eyes.

The epic style of Walker's masterpieces from the 1895-1905 period made him one of the most appreciated and widely acclaimed painters in North America.  In his work, Walker always featured the natural environment in which country folk laboured mightily and wisely, so as to ensure their ongoing subsistence.  Commenting on his painting At the Fountain, completed in 1899, one critic wrote that "quenching one's thirst at the fountain is an act of communion, a reaffirmation of one's belonging to the universal order of things" (NOTE 1). Another critic observed that Walker's most celebrated canvas, Ploughing, the First Gleam at Dawn, which was completed in 1900, evokes "the apparent balance between mind and body that was commonplace when people lived in harmony with the rules of nature" (NOTE 2). In the 1920s, Walker would impose this traditional and romantic view of Île d'Orléans even more insistently, as he began to realize that the very existence of the agrarian lifestyle was being threatened.

An interestingly paradoxal individual, Horatio Walker spent most of his winters in New York City, in order to escape the severe Quebec winters and to sell his canvases.  From his opulent residence located on the western tip of the island, Walker enjoyed a panoramic view of Quebec City.  This view was however never predominantly featured in his works, as he and the other painters whom he brought with him to the island preferred an entirely different artistic perspective.  Many of them stayed with the Sanschagrain family who lived at the extreme eastern end of the island, which looks out across the wide St. Lawrence estuary towards the imposing headland of Cap Tourmente, where untamed nature dominates the landscape.  This tension between nature and culture, New York and Île d'Orléans and the eastern and western ends of the island (hardly 30 kilometres [18 miles] apart) was typical of the bustling era in which human society made the transition from the traditional agrarian to the modern way of life.

The western end of Île d'Orléans, © Martin Fournier
The eastern end of Île d'Orléans, also known as Argentenay Point, © Martin Fournier

Île d'Orléans:  an Island of Great Natural Beauty

Over the course of the 20th century, people were drawn to Île d'Orléans because of its great natural beauty, as interest in its agrarian, more traditional way of life began to fade.

The Island of André Biéler and Marc-Aurèle Fortin

André Biéler, Les patates, Argentenay, 1929, © Nathalie Sorensen, Art Gallery of Hamilton

From 1927 to 1930, André Biéler lived on Île d'Orléans.  He was a Swiss immigrant who had rediscovered a little of his homeland on the island.  Writing of Île d'Orléans, he said "everything seems pleasant to me, including the climate, the people and, above all else, the countryside, which, from every point of view, is the most beautiful that I have seen in Canada."(NOTE 3)  Biéler was fascinated by the daily activities of the island's residents that were still marked by tradition, but already beginning to be influenced by the march of progress.  The natural environment was of great importance in his work.  On Île d'Orléans, as in the many of the country scenes that dominated Biéler's art, human beings and nature melded into a harmonious whole and appeared to be totally in balance.

Marc-Aurèle Fortin, Sainte-Famille, île d'Orléans, 1941, © Musée Marc-Aurèle Fortin/SODART (Montréal) 2007, MNBA

Marc-Aurèle Fortin painted on Île d'Orléans every summer between 1930 and 1933.  There, as elsewhere, he was struck by the grandeur of natural world that human beings inhabit as insignificant or secondary elements.  An art critic describes his works as "all these scenes chock full of old picturesque houses and villages [...] that are, for Fortin, nothing more than invitations to paint the various connections between his imagination and nature and between his spirit and the universe."(NOTE 4)  In Fortin's eyes, Nature presented herself in all her glory on Île d'Orléans-as well as in the other rural regions that he loved to explore. For him, Nature surpassed even man who, though living among her grandiose works, could not compare with all her achievements and their capacity to inspire.  His luminous and colourful works are, above all else, an ode to the vibrant beauty of nature.

The Island of Félix Leclerc

Félix Leclerc first came to Île d'Orléans in 1946, in order to search for the pioneer settlement of his ancestor, Jean Leclerc.  He immediately fell in love with the island and moved there to stay in 1970, after having toyed with the idea for 25 years.  At the time of the poet's first visit, Île d'Orléans had already been linked to the mainland by a bridge for 11 years (since 1935). This innovative convenience was gradually transforming the islander's way of life by bringing them closer to city dwellers from Quebec City and further abroad.  Things were however changing slowly and so, Félix Leclerc was able to discover first-hand the charm of the island's traditional French countryside, which would come to have a profound influence on him.

Soon after his initial encounter with the island and its charms, Leclerc decided to use Île d'Orléans as the setting for a new novel entitled Le Fou de l'île [later published in English as The Madman, the Kite & the Island]. Over the period of a few months, he wrote the manuscript for the book in an isolated island cabin facing the St. Lawrence River and Côte-de-Beaupré, taking his inspiration from what he called a sort of "private conversation with nature."  The Madman (the hero of the novel) runs aground on the eastern tip of the island one evening at high tide on the very spot where Nature seems to triumph in all her immense, vestigial glory.  The protagonist is seeking an ideal that is suspended between heaven and earth, a "sort of floating utopian realm," which is somehow inaccessible yet absolutely essential-that is to say it is-in a sense-the very essence of life.  He pursues his quest among the island's residents who, for the most part, have very concrete concerns-all the while drawing sustenance from nature, from the wind, water and light and continuing to reside in his cabin refuge that looks out on the river.  

In the years to come, Félix Leclerc would often sing about this fundamental, paradoxal dilemma that is Île d'Orléans, which is not only heart and lifeblood of a people and an entire culture, but also and a natural cathedral.

Félix Leclerc on Île d'Orléans, circa 1975, © Succession Félix Leclerc

L'île c'est comme Chartres

C'est haut et propre

Avec des nefs

Avec des arcs, des corridors

Et des falaises


Maisons de bois

Maisons de pierres

Clochers pointus

Sous un nuage

Près d'un cours d'eau

C'est un berceau

C'est comme en France

[The island is like Chartres:
High and marvellously wrought,
With its naves,
With its arches, arcades,
And cliffs.

Wooden houses,
Stone houses,
Pointed steeples,
Clouds in the sky,
Water nearby,
It's a cradle;
Just as was France... ]

Le tour de l'île, Félix Leclerc, 1975


The Island Today: a Natural Paradise for Gourmets

Today over 7,000 people live on Île d'Orléans and dozens of new residences are being built there each year, for more and more people are drawn to the beauty and tranquillity of the island- both of which are attributes that ensure an excellent quality of life.  Prosperous, hardworking city dwellers enjoy coming to Île d'Orléans evenings and on the weekends to relax. Some even choose to spend their retirement years enjoying all the island has to offer.

The fall harvest in Saint-Pierre, Île d'Orléans, © Martin Fournier

Farming is still the main economic activity on Île d'Orléans and this time honoured tradition is yet undergoing further development.  In addition to the traditional farm product of fruits, vegetables and dairy, now the island is producing wine, cider, farmed fish and game, cheeses, organic preserves, as well as various other value-added farm products. The island's products have just recently been officially accredited with the first Quebec farm product certification label, the Savoir-fare, Île d'Orléans [Isle of Orleans, We Know Farm Products], which guarantees the origin and quality (freshness) of the products produced there. There are also several well-established restaurants offering fine regional cuisine on the island.

Tourism has become the second most important economic activity on Île d'Orléans.  The leading sectors of the industry involve the island's rich historic heritage, its vast array of high quality food products, and its natural scenic beauty.  As stated in the MRC's [Regional County Municipality's] Politique Partimoniale et Culturelle de l'île d'Orléans [Isle of Orleans Culture and Heritage Policy], which was published in 2005 (with the purpose of more effectively harmonizing the region's traditions and heritage with ongoing development); the island's landscapes and natural resources "are to be considered one single heritage entity of exceptional value that is one of most desirable and picturesque in all of the Province of Quebec" (NOTE 5). The dozens of artists who have chosen to live on Île d'Orléans over the last 20 years will affirm that this enchanting island continues to be a profound source of inspiration today.

Martin Fournier

Institut du Patrimoine Culturel
Laval University, Quebec City



Note 1:  David Karel, Horatio Walker, Montréal, Musée du Québec/Fides, 1986, p. 153.

Note 2:  Charles Henry Caffin, in Ibid., p. 156.

Note 3:  André Biéler, in Frances K. Smith, André Biéler,  An Artist's Life and Time, Toronto, Merit Publishing Company, 1980, p. 50.

Note 4:  Guy Robert, Marc-Aurèle Fortin, l'homme à l'œuvre, Montréal, Stanke 1976, p. 155 [Original citation translated into English].

Note 5:  Jean-Michel Schembré, Politique patrimoniale et culturelle de l'île d'Orléans (abridged text), Île d'Orléans: Île d'Orléans CLD, 2006, p. 16 [Original citation translated into English].





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