By Brian Dunn
SEPT-ÎLES IS ONE OF THE OLDEST SETTLEMENTS IN CANADA, ORIGINALLY POPULATED BY THE MONTAGNAIS INNU PEOPLE. LOCATED ON THE NORTH SHORE OF THE GULF OF SAINT LAWRENCE SOME 960 KILOMETRES NORTHEAST OF MONTREAL, IT IS ALSO ONE OF THE NORTHERNMOST TOWNS IN QUEBEC OF ANY SIGNIFICANT SIZE, WITH A POPULATION OF ABOUT 32,000. THE FIRST EUROPEANS IN THE AREA WERE BASQUE FISHERMEN WHO CAME ANNUALLY FROM EUROPE FOR WHALING AND COD FISHING. FRENCH EXPLORER JACQUES CARTIER SET FOOT IN THE AREA IN 1535, AND NAMED IT SEPT-ÎLES BECAUSE IT IS FRONTED BY A SEVEN-ISLAND ARCHIPELAGO. EARLY EUROPEAN ECONOMIC ACTIVITY WAS BASED ON FISHING AND THE FUR TRADE. THE VILLAGE WAS INCORPORATED AS A CITY IN 1951.
Sept-Îles started to grow during the construction of the 575 kilometres Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway between 1950 and 1954, linking it to the Northern town of Schefferville, Quebec. The railway was built by Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC), presently majority-owned by Rio Tinto, to transport iron ore mined near Schefferville to domestic and international clients from Port of Sept-Îles, now sixth in Canada in terms of annual tonnage. Schefferville grew from 2,000 inhabitants in 1951 to 14,000 by 1961 and 31,000 in 1981. Partly as a result of weak international prices for iron ore, the mine was no longer economically viable by the early eighties, and was closed. Schefferville eventually became little more than a ghost town, and Sept Iles suffered badly from the reduction in mining activities.
The local community, the government of Quebec and Canada Ports worked together on a re-development plan, which resulted in the construction of a new deep-water terminal (La Relance) at Pointe Noire in an effort to attract new industry to the area. These efforts produced positive results when Aluminerie Alouette was created by international industrialists and Canadian investors, and badly needed new jobs accompanied the construction and operation of the new Aluminerie Alouette aluminum processing plant (See separate story). Construction for Phase I began in September 1989 and operations started in 1992. Construction of Phase II began in 2003.
Sept-Îles was initially known for its port, because the first settlers were attracted by its huge circular bay whose entrances were hidden by the islands which acted as a refuge in bad weather. In 1904, the first private dock was built by the Gulf Pulp and Paper Company at Pointe-Noire which served as the railway terminal linking it to its pulp and paper mill in Clarke City, 30 kilometres West of Sept-Îles. The first public dock, today called “Vieux Quai,” was built in 1908, prompted by a lack of road access. It was destroyed by a storm in 1914, rebuilt in 1916 and restored and extended in 1932 and in 1982.
The first industrial dock was built in 1950 by IOC at the same time the federal government had the Pointe-aux-Basques dock built, which was the extension of an adjacent private dock. In the early sixties, another dock, Mgr Blanche dock, was added to the port to handle general cargo. In 1961, Imperial Oil built a dock to unload petroleum products which the federal government acquired in 1977 and renamed it “Quai des Pétroliers.”
The first major docking installations in the Pointe-Noire sector were built by Wabush Mines Company in 1962, acquired by the Canada Ports Corporation in 1998 and now referred to as the Pointe Noire Terminal. In 1982, Canada Ports built “La Relance” terminal, and in 1989, Aluminerie Alouette became its principal user. In 1992 a railcar ferry terminal was built next to the La Relance dock. Last year, the Port Authority announced plans for the construction of a multi-user dock at a cost of $220 million, to be completed over a period of 18 to 24 months. Located at Pointe-Noire, the dock will be built on the site of the old Gulf Pulp and Paper dock. Built on piles, the dock will be 450 metres long with two berths.
Major Port users are IOC, Aluminerie Alouette and Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. IOC and Cliffs both import limestone, coke breeze, dolomite and bentonite and both export iron ore and iron pellets which represents 98 per cent of all shipments from Sept-Îles. Alouette imports petroleum coke, alumina, pitch resin, and exports aluminum ingots.
With a population of some 6,600, Port Cartier, located 63 kilometres Southwest of Sept-Îles, serves Quebec Cartier Mining Co., another major producer of iron ore and now part of Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal, the largest steel producer in the world. The town was named after the company. Quebec Cartier was founded in 1958 by United States Steel Co. The first open pit mine was located in Lac-Jeanine, Quebec. The company built the town of Gagnon in 1963 to accommodate workers and families near the mine site. Eighteen years later, the company extended its operations seventy miles north to Fire Lake. In 1973, it started operating in Mont Wright, where it created the town of Fermont. At its Mont Wright plant, the company operates an open pit mine and a crusher/concentrator facility capable of producing 18 million tonnes of iron ore concentrates annually. Production is shipped via its privately-owned railway to Port Cartier for export. The company also operates a pellet plant at Port Cartier with an annual production capacity of some nine million tonnes. Falling metals markets forced Quebec Cartier to shut down its Fire Lake and Lac Jeanine plants in the mid-eighties. The town of Gagnon was closed and its population moved to Fermont and Port Cartier. Nearly bankrupt in 2002 due to falling prices for iron ore and increasing production costs, Quebec Cartier’s financial situation has since improved. And the future of Port Cartier also looks bright with last year’s announcement by Arcelor Mittal of an investment of over $2 billion to expand its Mont Wright mining operations and increase production of iron ore concentrate from 14 million tonnes to 24 million tonnes by the end of 2013. Since that announcement, ArcelorMittal has stated it is considering increasing capacity further, to 30 million tonnes, and doubling the capacity of its pellet plant to 18.5 million tonnes.