On 24 June 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed through the Bay of Fundy to the mouth of the Saint John River. His expedition is considered the earliest written record about the port of Saint John. It was not until the American Revolution that the area became heavily populated with settlers. In May 1783, some 3,500 displaced Loyalists from the United States were offered free land and chose to resettle in the area. Two years later, Saint John became the first incorporated city in British North America (BNA). In the early nineteenth century, lumber and shipping increased significantly due to demand throughout Great Britain. Saint John became the largest shipbuilding city in BNA and the fourth largest in the British Empire. By the 1850s, a wharf was built at Reed’s Point (now a part of Lower Cove Terminal) for a steam ferry service operating between both sides of the harbour. The wharf also served steamships carrying transatlantic passengers. The emergence of steel-hulled shipbuilding – which replaced wooden ships – and the rise of westward expansion across BNA increased railway links while passenger travel brought people and trade to the city’s port area.

In the 1920s, the Port of Québec’s primary function became grain export. However, the site continued to be a major point of entry for immigrants to Canada. On 28 May 1921, the Toronto Globe published an article entitled “The Human Inflow into Canada.” Special correspondent Frank Yeigh followed the movement of newcomers through the landing experience. Travellers were first medically examined at Grosse Île Quarantine Station before heading for processing through the immigration hall on the Louise Embankment at the port of Québec. On the second floor of the hall, travellers were sorted into sections: first, returning Canadians, British arrivals or those heading to the United States through Canada, and last, all arrivals from foreign lands. Lines for each of the three categories were formed, and travellers passed single-file before medical doctors appointed by the federal Medical Health Department. It was at this point that travellers were medically examined a second time. Once medically cleared, passengers were visited by a trained corps of inspectors who ascertained the validity of travel documentation, how much money each passenger had in their possession, and whether each traveller had replied truthfully to every question posed. Detained individuals were immediately sent to rooms with cages where they were assessed by a three-member Board of Inquiry from whose decision an appeal could be made to Ottawa.

From the eighteenth century onwards, immigration and the “population flottante” profoundly marked the demographic, sociocultural, and economic fibres of Québec. The migrating local populace and incoming European immigrants had a major impact on the development of institutions, trade, and modes of transportation. This report argues that within Québec, one site was shaped by all three aforementioned areas: the port of Québec. In turn, the port later helped to diversify the sociocultural and political composition of the city. By 1850, forty percent of the city’s population was Anglophone with the port of Québec handling two-thirds of all European immigration to British North America.