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L'Isle-Verte, once visited by Jacques Cartier, gets tragic chapter in its history

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MONTREAL - It's one of the oldest villages in the Lower St-Lawrence region and it has been known for its succulent lamb and its bird sanctuary. It is also the birthplace of one of the pioneers of Canadian journalism and feminism.

Now L'Isle-Verte has a more heartbreaking claim to fame — the place where a raging fire blasted through a residence full of helpless seniors in the middle of a freezing winter night.

"It's a scene of desolation," Mayor Ursule Theriault told a news conference Friday after she rushed home from a Florida vacation to attend to the disaster.

Although she reassured citizens that "everything is under control," some believe it will take the community time to recover from Thursday's blaze, which killed eight people and left about another 30 missing.

"It's going to take a long time before we start to live normally," said Pierre Filion, a retired RCMP officer who grew up in the town and who has an elderly aunt and cousin among those who went missing.

Filion, 63, said everybody in the town has been touched by the tragedy.

"It's a small town," he said. "Everybody knows everybody."

Thousands of people have joined a Facebook page to support the town and sympathy has been expressed by a number of dignitaries including the Queen, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Colette Roy-Laroche, mayor of Lac-Megantic. That town saw its own disaster in July when a train derailed and exploded, killing 47.

L'Isle-Verte — which translates as green island because of its lush foliage — takes its name from an island off its shores.

Jacques Cartier, who claimed Canada for France in 1534, noted L'Isle-Verte when he travelled through the region a year later.

Samuel de Champlain, the founder of New France and Quebec City in 1608, wrote how several French traders came there between 1621 and 1626 to barter with aboriginals. Some Montagnais lived there for many years.

It grew under the French seigneurial system and various lords liked to come there to hunt, interested in the abundant seal, porpoises and cod. As the local economy grew, fortunes were made in the timber trade.

L'Isle-Verte was recognized civilly in 1835 and in 2000 the surrounding municipalities and the parish were grouped together as the municipality of L'Isle-Verte.

It is also the birthplace of Robertine Barry, one of Canada's first female journalists and an outspoken proponent of women's rights in the 19th century.

Known as a moden, professional and independent woman, she called on the media of the day to provide a platform for those interested in culture and in improving everyone's lot in life.

Visitors to the community can also find the home of Blanche Lamontagne, who is recognized as the first important female poet of French Canada.

About 1,500 people live in the community 250 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. It is dotted with the shops and services found in any small town and is surrounded by agricultural land which boasts plentiful wildlife such as ducks and deer.

By the 19th century, L'Isle-Verte stood out in the region for its bustling economic activity and looked like a small industrial town.

Besides the businesses that now operate in the mainly French-speaking area, there's also a healthy agriculture sector which produces cereal, potatoes, lamb, beef and dairy.

Nature-loving tourists can also find the provincial wildlife preserve, hiking, biking and snowmobile trails as well as ice fishing in the winter.

There are 19 historic sites, including the Old Courthouse, the gothic La-Decollation-de-Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church and the Narcisse-Bertrand home, which the town touts as one of the most beautiful houses in eastern Quebec.

In 2011, the town began working on a revitalization of its waterfront park and its main street to spruce it up and boost the local economy.

— With a file from Peter Rakobowchuk

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