Friday, 19 November 2010

A cultural context

The conquest of Canada in 1760 and the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended over a century and a half of French rule. Though French Canadians were a significant majority in the new British colony, over the next century their demographic advantage was gradually but inexorably eroded until, by 1851, English-speakers outnumbered those for whom French was the first language. French Canadians have always feared assimilation and that fear manifests itself in a view of Canadian history that is distinctly different from the English Canadians view. From the outset, French Canadians inside Quebec were a nation within Canada speaking a different language, worshipping at a different Church and using different laws and, as a result, seeing the world differently from English Canadians. They have always felt their culture was and still is in danger of disappearing. So, the protection of the language and culture of Québec has always been of major importance.[1]

The family remained the nucleus of French Canadian society at the turn of the nineteenth century ensuring social cohesion and underpinning the cultural fabric that bound individuals together. To guarantee continued family relations, people preferred to marry within the same parish or at most across neighbouring parishes. French Canadian oral culture had a saying, ‘Marry your own kind in front of your own door.’ It was natural, therefore, that spouses were generally chosen from within one’s racial, ethnic and most important religious circle. Furthermore, people tended to marry within their social group. It was hardly an accident that Amable Dionne, one of the richest merchants in eastern Lower Canada, gave his seven young daughters in marriage to seigneurs, merchants and professionals as each brought an $8000 dowry.

In the creation of French Canadian culture, the process of synthesis and assimilation resulting from the encounter of different cultural traditions has not only taken place as a result of the contact between European and North American aboriginal traditions. Of greatest importance in the evolution of French Canadian culture has been the sustained contact with the British, especially since the French colony was ceded to Britain in the mid-eighteenth century and the increasingly important cultural influence of the United States. Although this contact has not totally excluded the processes of synthesis and assimilation, including for example, the use of English weights and measures British culture generally served as a foil and catalyst for the development of a distinctive French Canadian culture and the continuing reference with regard to cultural origins has continued to be France.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the population had become more sedentary, more concentrated in the St Lawrence valley and largely agricultural. The evolving elite, influenced by the Romantic concept of nation, sought to provide the emerging society with a history and a destiny. A myth of origins was gradually created, positing a definite time, that of Maisonneuve and the religious heroes who came to convert North America to Catholicism and within a particular territory, the St Lawrence basin. The legendary economic activity became agriculture, rooting the previously nomadic French Canadian. Yet the attractive image of the coureur de bois never completely disappeared and continues to be a cultural reference point to the present.

[1] According to the Canada 2001 Census, Canada has seen a rise in francophones outside Quebec and about 4.4% of Canadians outside Quebec are francophones. About 17.7% of Canadians are bilingual. Quebec is the only province whose sole official language is French.

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