Geography of Quebec

The province of Quebec is composed of three of Canada’s seven physiographic regions. These regions are the St. Lawrence Lowlands, the Canadian Shield and the Appalachian region. The St. Lawrence Lowlands is the most fertile and developed region. The majority of the population of Quebec lives here, mainly between Montreal and Quebec City. The Canadian Shield covers most of Quebec from approximately 80 km north of the St. Lawrence River valley up to the Ungava region. It is a vast region composed of thousands of lakes and thousands of square kilometres of forested area. On the south bank of the St. Lawrence River, between the Richelieu River and the Gaspé Peninsula, is the Quebec part of the Appalachian mountain chain which extends from Gaspé south to Alabama.

Physiographic Regions

Geology and Soil

Glaciers covered the entire province during the Quaternary period. Deglaciation began 15,000 years ago and is mainly responsible for the formation of thousands of lakes, for which Quebec is famous. Most of the province has an elevation of between 300 and 600 m above sea level. Only 7 per cent of the province is above 600 m. The highest mountains are Mont d'Iberville (1,652 m) in the Torngat Mountains in northern Quebec and Mont Jacques-Cartier (1,268 m) in the Gaspé region. The most fertile soil is in the St. Lawrence Lowlands with an average elevation of 150 m. Only 5 per cent of the land in the Canadian Shield is arable and most of it is located in the southern part of the Shield, in the Laurentides or Laurentian highlands. The other fertile region is in southern Quebec, near the American border, with its small mountain formations and arable plateaus and plains.


Within the province’s three physiographic regions are four distinct zones with different landscapes. These are the arctic tundra, the taiga, the boreal forest and the temperate forest (see Vegetation Regions; Forest Regions). All except the temperate forest are sparsely inhabited.

The arctic tundra zone covers the territory from the 56th parallel to the northern part of Quebec. It is a non-forested landscape and the ground is covered with lichens and mosses. The taiga zone is situated between the 52nd and 56th parallels. It is also characterized by a lack of forest covering, although some vegetation, like spruce, fir and dwarf shrubs grow in some areas of the region. The boreal forest zone is located between the northern limit of the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the 52nd parallel. It is a heavily forested area. The last zone, the temperate forest, covers the Ottawa Valley, the St. Lawrence Lowlands, the Appalachians and Lac-Saint-Jean regions. These are heavily forested regions, with fir, spruce, pine, larch, maple, ash, beech and oak. The temperate forest is the primary source of the province’s forestry industry. Quebec is famous for the spectacular autumn colours of its boreal and temperate forests.


The arctic tundra is the natural habitat of the polar bear, fox and arctic hare. In the taiga the largest group of the deer family (Cervidae) is the caribou. Numerous species of animals like deer, coyotes, moose and lynx populate the boreal and the temperate forests. The lakes and rivers abound with fish, particularly trout, yellow perch, black bass and pike. Overall, 105 species of freshwater fish populate the rivers and lakes of Quebec. Other species, like salmon and smelt, live in salt water but spawn in Quebec’s fresh water. The St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers are also a refuge for sea mammals like seals, white beluga, killer, humpback and even blue whales.

Quebec is also home to 350 species of birds, of which about 10 per cent winter in the province. Birds of prey such as merlin, kestrel and the great horned owl winter in Quebec and live mainly in the boreal forest. Other, more common species are crows, starlings, swallows and finches. In the fall thousands of snow geese gather along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, particularly in Cap-Tourmente, near Quebec City, during their migration south. Thousands of tourists and bird watchers are attracted to the site each year.


Quebec is also known for its countless lakes and rivers. The province’s most important waterway and geographical feature is the St. Lawrence River, its estuary and the gulf. The main tributaries of the St. Lawrence River are, on the south shore, the Richelieu, Yamaska, Chaudière and Matapédia rivers. On the north shore, they are the Saint-Maurice, Saguenay, Manicouagan and Ottawa rivers. The two other main watersheds are the James Bay and Hudson Bay basin and Ungava Bay. In the James Bay region, the Nottaway, Rupert and Eastmain rivers were dammed in the 1970s as part of the largest hydroelectric project in Canada. Large reservoirs, such as the Réservoir Manicouagan, on the Manicouagan River north of Baie-Comeau, and the Réservoir Gouin on the Saint-Maurice, were also targeted for major hydroelectric projects.


Continental air masses are common in Quebec. Their temperatures are affected by marine currents. One of the most important of these is the cold Labrador current. It moves southward from Labrador to Newfoundland. It is the main cause of cool East Coast summers. The Gulf Stream is responsible for humid heat waves during the summer. Because of the frequent meeting of warm tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico and cold, dry air from the north or west, the entire province receives heavy snowfalls during the winter. On some occasions, the combination of a massive warm air system above a ground-level cold air system creates heavy storms with freezing rain. This is what occurred in January 1998, when the southern part of Quebec and eastern Ontario was hit for four consecutive days by the worst freezing rainstorm in recorded history (see Ice Storm).

Resources and Conservation

Quebec has many natural resources. These include asbestos, gold, tellurium, titanium and columbium. Quebec’s subsoil also contains industrial minerals such as peat, limestone, silica, granite and mica. The province’s construction industry is self-sufficient with abundant supplies of stone, cement, sand and lime.

There are three national parks in Quebec: Forillon, La Mauricie and Mingan Archipelago. In addition, there are 28 provincial parks (also referred to as national parks in the province). Four of these, namely Pingualuit, Kuururjuaq, Ulittaniujalik and Tursujuq are managed by Nunavik Parks (see Nunavik).