This Week in History

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Braving ice, winds and tides

For the week of Monday April 7, 2003

On April 11, 1903, navigation opened on the St. Lawrence at Québec, as it does every year when the ice first breaks up. Famous for its tortuous channel, the river was so difficult to navigate that foreign ships enlisted the services of professionals: the St. Lawrence River pilots.

Some of the pilots in 1899

Some of the pilots in 1899
© Picture of J.-E Livernois
Courtesy of the Archives of the
Corporation of Lower St. Lawrence Pilots

The history of piloting the St. Lawrence began in 1647 with Abraham Martin, known as “the Scot,” the first King’s pilot. In 1671, the Collège de Québec, run by the Jesuits, founded the École royale de mathématiques et d’hydrographie to teach aspiring pilots the tools of the trade. One graduate, Richard Testu de La Richardière, became the first Canadian pilot. In addition to piloting on the river, he took soundings along the shallow waters and the river’s banks in the spring. During navigation season, he installed buoys that he then removed in autumn. He also oversaw the construction of lighthouses and conducted hydrographical surveys.

Under the French regime, the pilots each maintained some land that they cultivated to provide subsistence. However, after 1760, they were able to devote all their time to their profession. The British government had a greater interest in protecting trade and ships and introduced a series of laws regulating piloting. In April 1762, Governor Murray established two piloting stations: the first on Île du Bic and the second on Île aux Coudres. As of 1805, Pointe-au-Père became the meeting place for pilots.

From the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior,<br>the St. Lawrence Seaway extends to 3700 km.

From the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior,
the St. Lawrence Seaway extends to 3700 km.

© Parks Canada / Émilie Paquin

Up until 1860, pilots competed freely among themselves. From their sailboats or schooners they offered their services to European ships entering the Gulf or the St. Lawrence River. The fierce competition required taking great risks and a good number of pilots lost their lives. So at the pilots' request, on May 19, 1860, the Parliament of United Canada passed an act to put an end to their free competition, creating the Corporation of Pilots for and below the Harbour of Québec. Membership in the corporation was mandatory for all licensed pilots.

In the early 20th century, Pointe-au-Père became the sole loading and unloading station for pilots downstream from Québec. In 1960, the federal government granted a charter to a group of 67 pilots in the Québec area, who then formed the Corporation of Lower St. Lawrence Pilots. In 1961, the Pointe-au-Père station was transferred to Escoumins, where it remains to this day.

The Establishement and Role of the St. Lawrence River Pilots has been designated an event of national historical significance. The pilots left their mark on the history of navigation on the river for more than 350 years, and their work was directly linked to the development and economic prosperity of Canada.

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