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Saguenay River

Essence of French Québec

Original Algonquian name: Saguenay, probably meaning 'water flows out'
Current official name: Saguenay River, from the Native original.
Source: Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec
Mouth: St. Lawrence River at Tadoussac
Direction of flow: east
Length : 165 kilometres from Lac Saint-Jean to Tadoussac
Main Characteristic: heartland of French-speaking Quebec

More on the Saguenay River:
Saguenay River:
Essence of French Québec

Aluminum Toil:
The river and its people make the modern metal

A World Apart:
The stronghold of Quebec nationalism

Sad Ballerina:
Beluga whales face extinction from pollution

Left Behind:
Arctic life survives deep in the fjord

Rumours of More:
Fur traders hear tales of distant wealth

Tide of Destruction:
Flash flood ravages a valley

It was called the ‘Kingdom of the Saguenay’ by French explorer Jacques Cartier. He had interpreted Native descriptions of the Saguenay River in 1535 to mean the Saguenay River basin was the homeland of a rich and powerful people.

There was no ‘kingdom’ in the European sense, but there was a wealth of water power and forest resources that have made the region’s modern-day French-speaking population prosperous and self-assured.

The sense of self-sufficiency enjoyed by the Saguenay region's residents has given them a powerful political strength felt across Canada. The region has become the spiritual source and most loyal voting base for Quebec's modern independence movement.

The true nature of the Saguenay's power and wealth would be understood and exploited only recently, four centuries after Jacques Cartier's encounter with its Native people. Today, the Saguenay region is Quebec's most visible model of economic success. It is the most thoroughly French-speaking region of Quebec, and has become the political stronghold of the drive for Quebec independence.

The tremendous flows of the Saguenay and its tributaries provide its people with electricity and jobs. Big, ocean-going ships purr through the lower Saguenay's deep, narrow fjiords directly to aluminum smelters and paper factories far into the Laurentian Highlands.

Bauxite ore is shipped from mines around the globe directly to Jonquière where it is refined into aluminum, using huge amounts of electrical power generated by company-owned dams. Using yet more electrical power, paper companies take trees from the surrounding boreal forest and turn them into rolls of newsprint for shipment to publishers around the world.

The full force of the Saguenay's physical power was not witnessed until the summer of 1996. Reservoirs behind the private industrial dams along the Saguenay's tributaries overflowed in unison. The floodwaters washed away homes and killed 10 people.

Unusual torrential rains were the obvious cause. But some local residents complained the flood was caused by poor management of private company dams. Water, they said, should have been released gradually instead of letting the reservoirs overflow.

The provincial government rushed to investigate the cause of the disaster, while money from the federal government and private citizens poured in to help flood victims rebuild their homes and their lives. The disaster was seen by some people as a chance for other Canadians to show that they cared about Quebeckers and wanted them to remain part of Canada.

Quebec's modern independence movement owes much of its strength to the people of the Saguenay region. The first dependable voting support for the Parti Québécois came from the region. It provided the party a solid platform in the provincial legislature from which it argued for Quebec's secession from Canada.

The case for independence was helped by the example of the Saguenay's economic health and virtually unilingual French-speaking culture. The Saguenay region showed the rest of Quebec that French can be a language of economic success, and that economic success can mean increased support for sovereignty.

The most obvious example of that is Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, a successful lawyer who was born and raised in what Quebeckers still like to call the Royaume du Saguenay.

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