The Seigneurie des Aulnaies
A unique heritage site, home to one of the first seigniories of New France, looks to sustainable tourism as the key to its future
Introduced to New France in 1623, the French seigniorial regime was to shape land management in Quebec for more than two centuries. Under this system, the territory owned by the French Crown was divided into vast tracts, called seigneuries, along the St. Lawrence River and other waterways. The King of France, through his intendant (administrator), conceded the lands freely to seigneurs (landlords), who were usually noblemen, members of the bourgeoisie or people rewarded for services to the state (army officers, for example). In return, the seignior had to “keep hearth and home” – that is, build a manor on the land and live there. He also had to build a mill, set aside part of the land for roads, and preserve oak timber and minerals for use by the Crown. The seignior’s land took up part of the seigniory, with the rest redivided into narrow strips – to provide access to the water – and granted to habitants (colonists) in exchange for annual taxes. Despite the attraction of the cities and work in the fur trade, up to 80% of the population of Quebec lived on the 200-odd seigniories granted under the French regime.
While the seigniorial system had a great influence on Quebec history – still visible today in the land-use patterns and place names of the province – few buildings and other infrastructures have been preserved that allow us to interpret how people lived during those years.
Located in Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, east of Quebec City, the Seigneurie des Aulnaies was the fourth seigniory to be granted after the founding of Quebec City, and is the only one to have been protected and restored, such that it remains accessible and vibrant today. This heritage site provides visitors with a one-of-a-kind opportunity to step back in time and experience life as it was under the French regime in the 19th century.
The centrepiece of the site is the manor built in 1850, complete with period furniture. It was designed by Charles Baillairgé (1826–1906) when he was just 24. Baillairgé was the last in a famous dynasty of architects and surveyors who played a major role in Quebec history.
Besides the manor, the Seigneurie des Aulnaies includes a working mill that dates back to 1842. Organic flour is still milled there and used in a variety of fresh products offered for sale in the Seigneurie’s bakery. Flour from the Seigneurie is also sold in specialty shops all over Quebec.
Also found on the Seigneurie site are the miller’s house, a historic rose garden and other gardens, a café-terrace, a souvenir boutique and more than 8 hectares (20 acres) of woodlands, trails and ponds. A permanent exhibit explains life under the seigniorial system, and guides dressed in period costumes lead tours for the public.
In 1969, a Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies citizens’ committee formed a non-profit corporation dedicated to the preservation and presentation of the Seigneurie. Nearly 40 years later, the modest team at the Seigneurie des Aulnaies Tourism Corporation continues its tireless work to ensure the Seigneurie remains a renowned interpretation centre, in the process providing a fine example of grassroots community management of tourist infrastructures.
“Today, with more than 25,000 visitors every year, the Seigneurie is the main tourist site in the Côte-du-Sud region and the biggest provider of seasonal employment in Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies,” enthuses Pierre Bussières, the Corporation’s Executive Director. “Despite that success, however, we still face quite a few challenges. We have to continue our efforts to preserve the historic buildings and equipment, build a better-adapted welcome centre, and update our permanent exhibit.”
Transat’s financial assistance has helped the Corporation implement a strategic development plan, which among other things includes conservation and restoration of the manor and mill, and construction of a new, environmentally friendly welcome centre. One especially innovative aspect of the plan is that the centre will be built according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) criteria. The on-site guided activities and the permanent exhibit on seigniorial life will also be improved, with a view to providing an even more enjoyable, stimulating and instructive experience for visitors.
Overall, the planned initiatives – on which work is slated to begin in 2009 – are expected to lead to an increase in visitor traffic of around 15% in the years to come, enabling the Seigneurie des Aulnaies to consolidate its position as a first-class tourist and cultural attraction, and a leader in sustainable tourism.