By Mark Cardwell

The port of Sept-Îles is quickly becoming a popular international cruise ship destination in Eastern Canada. Eight years after its inaugural cruise season, when it welcomed three ships with 5,000 passengers, the port was visited eight times by five different ships carrying a total of 8,000 passengers during the 2017 sailing season.

The last and most notable visit was an unexpected stopover by the Queen Mary 2. The 350-metre-long ship was scheduled to make its inaugural visit to Sept-Îles on Sept. 28, 2018. However, the Cunard-owned transatlantic ocean liner made an unscheduled stop on October 2, and berthed there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The 8-hour stop was booked just two weeks earlier to replace a visit to the port of Gaspé that Cunard cancelled over the speed limit that Canada imposed in a section of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence to protect endangered right whales.

According to Port officials in Sept-Îles, the joy and excitement they felt when they first learned about the Queen Mary 2’s last-minute visit quickly turned to planning and organizing. An ad hoc organizing committee was quickly struck. Comprised of people from the Port, Destination Sept-Îles Nakauinanu, Tourisme Sept-Îles, Ville de Sept-Îles and the Innu Band Council, the committee decided to organize several Native and French-Canadian cultural activities near the dock, within walking distance of the ship. “The idea was to turn the Monseigneur Blanche terminal (in the port’s city sector downtown) into a festive zone for passengers, crew members and the local population ,” recalls the Port’s Director of Corporate Affairs, Patsy Keays.

The committee then issued a public call to the 26,000 residents of Sept-Îles “to provide their habitual warm welcome to our very special visitors.” It also invited people “interested in taking part in this special day in any capacity” to contact them. The community’s response was as outstanding as it was overwhelming. Activities organized for the Queen Mary 2’s passengers included Folk singing and dancing, traditional Innu dancing, 3 o’clock tea time, a bonfire with roasted marshmallows, free hotdogs, local crafts for sale, a classic car show and a recycled metal sculpture exhibition.

For Keays, the highlight of the day was the presence of Mylène Paquette, the first person to row across the Atlantic from west to east. A high point of her 2013 odyssey was a mid-ocean meeting with the Queen Mary 2, which responded to a distress call from Paquette’s team, which had lost contact with her.

Port of Sept-Îles bought Paquette’s boat – Hermel – and has it on display in the marina. Paquette recounted her now-famous voyage at a morning conference on board the Queen Mary 2 to a crowd of 500 passengers and then spent the afternoon mingling with locals and cruise ship passengers at the marina in the presence of her boat, Hermel. The Port hopes to have Paquette back for the Queen Mary 2’s return trip next fall.

Keays also noted that a whopping 80 per cent of the ship’s passengers and crew came ashore on Oct. 2. “I think all of them had a fantastic time,” she says. “Not only were the activities really amazing, thousands of local people came down to the dock.  That really added some fun and colour to everything.”

For his part, Port of Sept-Îles President and CEO Pierre Gagnon issued a public thank-you to the community. “Everyone sprang into action for the Queen Mary 2’s unexpected visit,” said Gagnon. “(This is) the kind of community where people roll up their sleeves and get to work.  Everyone really went above and beyond and made the day a huge success. “The cruise industry provides an incredible opportunity for the community to come together and promote this beautiful region and the warmth and spirit of the people who live here.” 

The Queen Mary 2’s visit marked an unexpected but successful end to a record cruise ship season for the North Shore port. The season got underway in July with the arrival of two ships – Seven Seas Navigator (Regent Seven Seas Cruises) and the MS Insignia (Oceania Cruises). In July, the port also hosted Rendez-vous 2017, a major tall-ship event to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Canadian Federation.  Some 15,000 people visited the half-dozen tall ships that spent a weekend Sept-Îles. In September, the cruise ships MS Marco Polo (Cruise & Maritime Voyages) and MS Saga Sapphire respectively made their third and second visits to the port of Sept-Îles.

Seventy-five per cent of the port’s 8,000 cruise ship visitors in 2017 were from the United Kingdom. Americans accounted for 20 per cent, with 2 per cent from both Australia and Asia.