The Government of Quebec designated the Banc-de-pêche-de-Paspébiac in Gaspé as a historic site in 1981. Since then, Paspébiac residents have patiently restored and showcased this exceptional heritage site located on a barachois—a long sandbar stretching into Chaleur Bay. The 11 surviving buildings were the premises of the two companies that dominated the dried cod market in the 19th century—Charles Robin and Company and the Le Boutillier Brothers Company—which were headquartered in Pasbébiac. These buildings provide visitors with a comprehensive overview of the Gaspé fishing industry during this period: the particularly effective organization of these companies, the fishers’ way of life, the evidence artisans left behind in their workshops, not to mention the cod itself, which is prepared in the traditional way or according to current gastronomic trends in the onsite restaurant. Visiting the Banc-de-pêche-de-Paspébiac is a memorable experience.
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Where land and sea meet
The term “barachois” comes from the Basque word “barratxoa,” meaning “little bar.” Though anglicized to “barachois,” the term nevertheless tells us that Basques fishers were in this area in the 17th and 18th centuries, just as they used many other locations on the shores of Quebec and the maritime provinces. The name Paspébiac comes from the Mi’kmaq word “ipsigiaq,” which also means barachois. This long sandbar was well positioned and big enough to allow two major Anglo-Norman fishing companies to erect tens of buildings there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although many of these buildings were destroyed by fire in June 1964, those that survived the blaze provide eloquent examples of the shore-based organization of these shipping companies.
Chief among them is the large, beautiful six-storey wooden warehouse operated by Le Boutillier Brothers, the largest building with an exposed wood-frame structure in North America. Built between 1845 and 1850, it houses the main exhibit focussing on the operations of the dried cod industry, which was dominated by these two companies established by entrepreneurs from the Island of Jersey. Here they built the boats the fishers used to catch the cod, which was dried on the cobble beaches, then placed in barrels and exported, mainly to Europe, in ships that were also built onsite. These ships brought back the merchandise that was sold in the general stores that belonged to these companies. Much of this merchandise was usually available to fishers on credit.
By travelling from one building to another, visitors can familiarize themselves with nearly every aspect of how the cod was processed and marketed. In the carpentry workshop where the boats were built, the beams are covered in dates and the names of ships and individuals, inscriptions that are contextualized in the workshop exhibit. In the forge, where many household items and metal ship parts were manufactured, facilitation activities help visitors learn more about the 19th century artisans. In the office, the period furnishings evoke the administrative tasks related to the fisheries. The site also includes hangars, the 1906 vault for the general store, three cook rooms that were used by the fishers, the flour hangar and the powder magazine, attesting to the variety of facilities that were built there.
Tangible and intangible heritage
The beauty of this barachois and the architectural significance of the remaining buildings built by these companies in the 19th century are matched only by the value of the activities and human experiences showcased in the exhibits and the places that where the fishers and artisans lived. The tangible heritage of the locations and buildings combined with the reminders of the lifestyles and know how that brought them to life is the strength behind this site, which recounts the way of life of these Gaspé entrepreneurs and fishers from the late 18th century until the early 20th century.
The bright and dark sides of the story
The success of these two companies cannot eclipse the negative impact they had on many fishers.
Charles Robin first set foot in Paspébiac in 1766. At that time, Chaleur Bay was home only to the Mi’kmaq and a few scattered and isolated inhabitants of French descent. Robin, who was already active in this industry, saw the advantages of this location and the abundance of cod in the bay. Bilingual, skilled and persistent, he was able to recruit the Francophone fishers, and thanks to his family network in Jersey, he began building a large company and became its owner in 1783. He spent 20 years in Paspébiac, where he lived a modest lifestyle, remained unmarried and gradually developed his business. When he retired to Jersey in 1802, he left the business to his nephews Philip and James, whom he had trained. They successfully maintained the Charles Robin and Company’s dominant position in the dried cod trade until the 20th century, making the most of the high European demand for this fish, which Catholics ate on the many days of abstinence when they could not eat meat. David Le Boutillier, who also hailed from Jersey, started working for Charles Robin in 1827. He went on to establish his own business with his two brothers in 1838, using the same business model and location as Robin’s company. Le Boutillier Brothersquickly expanded, opening several fishing stations in Gaspé and New Brunswick, while remaining headquartered in Paspébiac. When David Le Boutillier died in 1854, his brother-in-law took over the reins and continued to develop the company.
Although these two businesses largely dominated the dried cod trade, the fishers they employed were nowhere as prosperous. The system imposed by the Jerseyan companies penalized fishers. They supplied them with boats, fishing gear and sustenance on credit until the end of the fishing season. The fishers then received their salary, usually in the form of coupons that could be used in company stores. As fishers were underpaid and the prices in these stores were high, many fishers remained in debt for many years and had no choice but to continue fishing for the companies that were exploiting them. One of the significant milestones in the history the fisheries in Quebec and the Maritimes was the transition that occurred at the turn of the 20th century, when fishers were able to free themselves from this alienating system.