Saturday, 2 October 2010

Canada: The context

What historians eventually publish inevitably represents a small part of the research that they have undertaken. While researching Three Rebellions I drafted a series of papers that contributed, some more than others, to the published work. [1] This was part of the process of honing drafts of the book into a form that combined a narrative of the key events, their causation and consequences with a critique of that narrative through examining linkage and remembrance. Some of the papers were simply sketches of ideas and issues that I explored in greater depth in the published work while others from the outset were more substantial pieces. This collection of essays brings together some of those jottings, with their inevitable repetition, and considers various aspects of the history of Lower Canada from its creation in 1791 and after 1841 when it became Canada East in the United Province of Canada. I have taken the opportunity to rewrite most of the original papers in the light of further research and, to afford them a coherence that they lack individually by grouping them into seven broad areas and providing each with a brief introduction.

During the sixteenth century, following the discovery of the rich fishing banks off Newfoundland France became the first European nation active in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. In 1604, France created a permanent settlement there, laying the foundations of a country that would develop its own culture, a blend of French roots, Aboriginal customs and adaptations to the new land. Within two generations, the French settlers in the St. Lawrence Valley had become ‘Canadianised’, blending their European heritage with traits borrowed from the Aboriginal world. Aware that they enjoyed far more freedom than their counterparts in France, they referred to themselves as habitants rather than paysans. Driven by a spirit of egalitarianism, they usually proved resistant to the social constraints of hierarchy. They were commonly called ‘Canadians’ to distinguish them from French sojourners in the colony who had not joined settler society. The French colonial authorities, civilian, military and religious alike, complained regularly of the rebellious spirit of the Canadians. In 1763, England was convinced, mistakenly, that it was inheriting a French society but the new colonial authorities did not fully understand the reality. The former subjects of the king of France already formed a distinct people, more North American than European and they wanted to remain that way. [2]

After 1763, under English rule, Canadians continued to maintain their customs, ensuring a French presence in North America. [3] Although unquestionably a source of insecurity, the Conquest in 1760 changed little in the daily lives of most French Canadian inhabitants. For the small shopkeepers and artisans of the towns, it was even a change for the better, since prices dropped and money began to circulate again after the scarcity of the war years. Over the long term, however, the Conquest introduced the British into Canada and gave them political and economic power and in the eyes of French Canadians, the British became ‘les Anglais’, a symbol of their ills and oppression. This notion of ‘the other’ would begin to be expressed politically at the turn of the nineteenth century, but it was already deeply rooted in the popular mind. Phrases such as ‘something the English won’t swallow’ expressed the feelings of French Canadians about the British presence in Canada. Nationalist feelings, already mildly evident under the French regime, were stirred further by the arrival of the British and flowered in the following century.

In 1763, the Royal Proclamation expressed the British government’s intention that Canada should serve the well-being and might of the mother country, whose institutions the colony would replicate. The equivocal status accorded to the Catholic Church under Britain’s religious policy reflected the intolerance of the period. Although British law permitted the practice of Catholicism in its lands, the people were reminded that this was only a pragmatic form of tolerance, since the law did not allow for a Catholic Church hierarchy in a territory ruled by the Crown. From the start, governors of the colony frequently received instructions stressing the promotion of Anglicanism and Protestant institutions and encouraging the conversion and anglicisation of Catholic Canadians who could not aspire to senior administrative positions, since anyone in the service of the king had to take the oath of the Test Act. By instituting British civil law, the new rulers eroded the foundations of French Canadian society. The assimilationist policy was unacceptable to the French Canadians, who sent a stream of petitions to London denouncing it resulting in important cultural concessions in 1774 when the political structure of the colony was reformed. [4] In practice, Britain’s inability to draw English-speaking immigrants into its new colony fast enough and in sufficient numbers made the anglicisation of the province of Quebec impracticable. Only a small number of merchants initially settled in the towns, hoping to gain some political influence through their economic activities. As well, with the threat of revolt in the American colonies growing ever more serious in the early 1770s, the colonial authorities had to secure French Canadian support against the future rebels. The move away from assimilation was arguably taken further in 1791 when French Canadians were given what they regarded as ‘our province’ with the creation of Lower Canada. [5]

In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, the growth of capitalism brought far-reaching change to the Lower Canadian countryside. It was not a sudden transformation, but rather an evolution that took place faster in some areas than others. In fact, tradition and change coexisted, sometimes in the same area. Capitalism took several forms. In some places, the arrival of merchants encouraged farmers to become more productive and market-oriented, a process that generated social differentiation. Inequalities between farmers existed from the early days of New France, but now they took on a new dimension. Some had more land, more capital, more means of production, more money and fewer debts. At the other extreme, there were agricultural workers who had no land at all or had to content themselves with tiny plots on which they grew vegetables and kept a cow or pig. At the same time, the growth in trade, linked to population increase, along with the development of the Church and sometimes the growth of rural industries, encouraged the development of a network of hamlets and villages, both in the seigneuries and in the townships. While there were only about thirty of these settlements at the end of the eighteenth century, in 1831 they numbered more than 200 in the seigneuries alone.[6]

Economic and social change and the vagaries of colonial policy resulted in the emergence of an increasingly oppositional attitude by the French Canadian deputies who dominated the Legislative Assembly. [7] By the mid-1800s, a Parti Canadien had emerged and this metamorphosed into the more aggressive and increasingly radical Parti Patriote by the mid-1820s. It took on the role of champion of civil liberties, notably the freedom of expression and the rights of assembly against the sometimes arbitrary measures of the colonial administration. In economic policy, some Patriotes called for the building of canals on the Richelieu to encourage north-south trade, for local manufacturing to reduce dependence on British imports and for free trade with the United States instead of the system of colonial preferences in the British market. But they were quicker to promote agricultural interests than commercial ones that they associated with the anglophone oligarchy. The economic arguments of Patriote leaders were far from precise and sometimes contradictory reflecting the ambiguous social position of the French Canadian petty bourgeoisie. Control over colonial finance and patronage became the main areas of disagreement between the assembly and the executive. The struggle had colonial, national, social, and individual implications. It was colonial because finance and patronage reflected a power struggle that pitted British representatives (the executive) against representatives of the colony (members of the assembly). It was national because the bureaucrats were mostly anglophone: French Canadians who represented almost 90% of the Lower Canadian population held fewer than 40% of government jobs. It was social because the British who supported the colonial administration held most of jobs and the French Canadian petty bourgeois wanted more posts for themselves. Finally, it was individual because, if they could gain control over finance and patronage, members of the assembly would be able to develop their own political clientele and work the system of patronage to their own financial advantage.[8]

By the early 1830s, the debates had reached an impasse. Each group was in a position to prevent the other from achieving its goals but not strong enough to achieve its own within the existing political structures. The French Canadian- dominated Assembly could pass radical legislation only to see it blocked by the British-dominated Legislative Council and the Assembly could block passage of supplies or the Civil List proposed by the British governor. The Parti Patriote increasingly argued for greater accountability of colonial government to the electorate calling especially for an elected Legislative Council to remove a constitutional obstacle to their demands but only later for the independence of Lower Canada. With slogans such as ‘Our institutions, our language, our laws’, they galvanised habitants especially in the Montreal district and Richelieu valley. As the Patriote leaders became more radical, expectations of change became more inflamed. There is no doubt that they had mass support. No fewer than 80,000 people signed the 1834 petitions in favour of the Ninety-Two Resolutions. However, the Patriotes were never an independent political force. Their grassroots support became increasingly vocal and neither the middle classes nor ultimately their leaders were able to moderate their fervour. What began as a dispute within colonial institutions increasingly turned into an extra-parliamentary mass movement over which the Patriote leadership in Montreal had dwindling control. By threatening their opponents, harassing them into resigning their posts and creating their own militias, Patriote farmers were able to establish parallel governments in some parishes.[9] They also made life difficult for British settlers in the rural counties outside Montreal, whom they boycotted, harassed and intimidated in various ways especially in 1837 through politically-motivated charivaris. In some cases, intimidation turned to violence and although the armed uprising was confined to the Montreal region, pro-Patriote sentiments were more widespread. The rebellions, when they came, were quickly quelled and this perhaps explains why these wider Patriote sentiments were not acted on. In the rural areas of the district of Montreal, at least 5,000 people were directly involved in taking up arms in 1837 and more appear to have taken part in 1838. In Nicolet, the Beauce region, Kamouraska and Charlevoix, people took little active part but rather waited to see what happened. In Quebec City, as in Montreal, labourers were involved in large numbers at Patriote meetings though it was only in 1838 that they played an active role in rebellion. The motives that roused the habitants, artisans and labourers of the Montreal region to revolutionary action existed elsewhere in the province to differing degrees.


[1] Brown, Richard, Three Rebellions: Canada 1837-1838, South Wales 1839 and Australia 1854, (Clio Publishing), 2010.

[2] Galloway, Colin G., The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America, (Oxford University Press), 2006, illuminates this neglected subject.

[3] Neatby, Hilda, Quebec: The Revolutionary Age 1760-1791, (McClelland & Stewart), 1966, pp. 6-29 and Lawson, Philip, The Imperial Challenge: Quebec and Britain in the Age of the American Revolution, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 1989, pp. 3-41 deal with the Conquest and military rule.

[4] Harlow, Vincent T., The Founding of the Second British Empire 1763-1793, Vol. II: New Continents and Changing Values, (Longmans), 1964, pp. 664-714, discusses the Act. Coupland, Reginald, The Quebec Act: a study in statesmanship, (Oxford University Press), 1925, especially pp. 69-122 provides a detailed analysis of the legislation. However, it can be supplemented by Metzger, Charles H., The Quebec Act: A Primary Cause of the American Revolution, (The United States Catholic Historical Society), 1936, and Neatby, Hilda, The Quebec Act: Protest and Policy, (Prentice-Hall of Canada, Ltd), 1972.

[5] Ibid, Harlow, Vincent T., The Founding of the Second British Empire 1763-1793, pp. 714-773, and Ehrman, John, The Younger Pitt: the Years of Acclaim, (Constable), 1969, pp. 354-371, remain the only detailed consideration of the making of the 1791 Act; ibid, Neatby, Hilda, Quebec: The Revolutionary Age 1760-1791, pp. 249-263 provides a Canadian perspective.

[6] Altman, M., ‘Land Tenure, Ethnicity and the Condition of Agricultural Income and Productivity in Mid-Nineteenth Century Quebec’, Agricultural History, Vol. 72, (1998), pp. 708-762.

[7] Greenwood, F. Murray, Legacies of Fear: Law and Politics in Quebec in the Era of the French Revolution, (Osgoode Society), 1993.

[8] It is symptomatic that the first major political crisis under the United Provinces in 1843 concerned patronage and over who should dispense it: the governor Sir Charles Metcalfe or the elected administration of Lafontaine and Baldwin.

[9] See, for example, Laurin, Clément, ‘Administration parallèle du comté de Deux-Montagnes par les Patriotes, en 1837’ Cahiers d’histoire de Deux-Montagnes, Vol. 5, (2), (1982), pp. 25-28.

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