The St-Lawrence is one of the world’s most important waterways and the maritime gateway to North America. In fact, the St-Lawrence-Great Lakes corridor, stretching over a distance of 3,700 km, is nothing less than a maritime highway. The St. Lawrence Seaway, stretching from Montreal to the middle of Lake Erie and composed of fifteen locks, was built in the fifties to connect the North American commercial, industrial and agricultural heartland to the rest of the world. Maritime transportation in the St. Lawrence is therefore vital for international trade in Canada and central to Canada’s and Quebec’s economic development.

Features of marine transportation in the St. Lawrence

In 2015, no less than 8 000 ship movements had been registered in the St. Lawrence, including all types of ships (Source: Maritime Information System Newsletter, number 1, june 2016). About 3 800 ships had crossed the St. Lawrence Seaway during that same period. (Source: The Saint-Lawrence Seaway, Traffic report, 2015)

Commercial vessels navigating in the St. Lawrence are mainly lakers (ships staying mainly in the Great Lakes), ocean going vessels and tug and barge combinations.

Only vessels that are no more than 222.5 meters long and 23.2 meters wide are allowed to transit through the Seaway’s locks because of size restrictions. That’s the reason why traffic in the waterway between the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence ports is largely dominated by lakers, specialized in Short Sea Shipping (mainly involved in coastal and inland trade, without crossing the ocean). (Sources: Le Transport des marchandises sur le Saint-Laurent depuis 1995, Ministère des Transports, de la Mobilité durable de l’Électrification des Transports du Québec ; Armateurs du Saint-Laurent).

As for the St. Lawrence Ship Channel it can receive ships up to 44 m wide (post-Panamax ships) as far as Montreal (Source: Montreal Port Authority). St. Lawrence ports therefore play an important role in the transit of goods coming from or bound to international markets. 75 % of traffic in the St. Lawrence is related to global trade. (Sources: Portrait du transport maritime au Québec et Le transport des marchandises sur le Saint-Laurent depuis 1995, Ministère des Transports, de la Mobilité durable de l’Électrification des Transports du Québec ).
Imports come mainly from Europe, Central and South America, Africa and the Unites-States. Exports are mostly destined to Europe, the United-states and Asia/Oceania. (Source: Étude sectorielle sur les effectifs maritimes au Québec, Comité sectoriel de main-d’oeuvre de l’industrie maritime, 2013)

The St. Lawrence-Great Lakes system is also unique because of its well-developed intermodal transportation network (e.g. linked to other modes of transportation), such as rail and truck, offering multiple solutions to facilitate the transport of goods between ports, as well as between North American consumers and industries.

Quebec offers:

  • A road network directly connected to the Ontarian and American highway systems (Interstate);
  • Five cross-border posts that funnel the majority of the truck traffic to the U.S.: Windsor-Detroit, Niagara-Fort Erie, Sarnia, Lacolle, Landsowne.
  • Multiple rail networks: Canadian Pacific (CP); Canadian National (CN), Quebec-Gatineau Railway, and CSX Transport;
  • Three international airports: Montreal, Quebec, and Montreal-Mirabel, being exclusively dedicated to freight;
  • A network of 20 commercial ports stretching through the entire province of Quebec.

Ports in the St. Lawrence rely on different jurisdictions, such as the Canadian Port Authorities (federal), ports owned by Transport Canada, and private and municipal ports. This network of ports is key to the support and growth of international commercial trade though marine transportation. (source : Rapport du groupe de travail sur le réseau portuaire stratégique, juin 2016, Ministère des Transports, de la Mobilité durable de l’Électrification des Transports du Québec ):

The main ports involved are the following:

11 national commercial ports:

  • Montreal
  • Trois-Rivières
  • Bécancour
  • Quebec
  • Saguenay
  • Gros-Cacouna
  • Baie-Comeau
  • Matane
  • Gaspé
  • Port-Cartier
  • Sept-Îles

4 complementary commercial ports:

  • Salaberry-de-Valleyfield
  • Côte-Sainte-Catherine
  • Sorel-Tracy
  • Port-Alfred

5 local ports of interest:

  • La Malbaie
  • Rimouski
  • Forestville
  • Chandler
  • Havre-Saint-Pierre

In Quebec, international traffic concentrates in a few major ports that have the physical and organizational capacity to handle large volumes of freight and allowing economies of scale.

Medium and small scale ports are mainly involved in national and regional traffic, even though part of this traffic is indirectly linked to international trade. In fact, goods bound for overseas transit though these ports before being shipped to deep water ports that are connected to the rest of the world.

To avoid competition, each port has developed its own specialty and is playing a unique role in the game of marine transportation to make it a flexible, reliable and competitive mode of transportation.  Large ports are mainly involved in the trade of major goods such as ore, grain, coal and containers; medium and small scale ports are specialized in the trade with local industries, in the supply of coastal communities, and in the regional distribution of certain goods, such as oil, salt and general cargo.
(Source:  Transformations de l’industrie maritime : Portrait international de développement durable appliqué; Claude Comtois, Brian Slack)