Monday, 29 November 2010

Development of Lower Canadian nationalism

Four issues contributed to the rise of nationalism in Lower Canada after 1791. [1] The first was the emergence of the French Canadian professional class, which forcefully embraced French revolutionary ideas and their role as leaders in their communities.[2] In 1791, there were 55 notaries, 17 lawyers and 50 doctors; by 1836, this had risen to 373, 208 and 260 respectively. They were opposed by the largely conservative seigneurs and Catholic clergy allied to colonial government though it is important not to polarise this situation. There is ample evidence of involvement by seigneurs and the Catholic Church in innovative economic activity. However, economic liberalism did not mean political liberalism and seigneurs and clergy viewed with increasing suspicion professionals elected to the Assembly where they noisily voiced the increasing discontent of their communities.

Secondly, adjustments in agriculture from the early nineteenth century contributed to growing social and political unrest.[3] In the 1790s, Lower Canada emerged as a significant exporter of grain but by the 1830s, Lower Canada was reliant on imported wheat. The failure to maintain earlier patterns of growth has led historians to link economic stagnation with rebellion. Ouellet argued that the agricultural crisis dated from 1802 as crop yields declined and Lower Canada moved from surplus to subsistence to deficiency in grains. He also suggested that although the agricultural crisis occurred after the appearance of nationalism, deteriorating economic conditions after 1815 fuelled its development. There was an increasing shortage of land in the seigneurial system while the colonial authorities distributed the remaining land to speculators or British immigrants. The poverty in the St. Lawrence Valley among habitants was in stark contrast to the relative prosperity of the British and American settlers in the Eastern Townships and this was exploited by the Parti Patriote. [4]

Ouellet is not without his critics. The reduction in wheat output was not unique to Lower Canada and from New York to Nova Scotia farmers reduced acreage sown in wheat because they could not compete with less expensive wheat from the Midwest. However, between 1800 and 1840, output on a seigneurial holding was about two-thirds of a similar sized farm in Ontario and slightly less on farms in Vermont. The generally lower agricultural productivity in francophone Canada can be explained by the division of farms (though not to the extent as originally believed), crop disease (for example, a series of blights hit the wheat crop in the 1830s), insect infestations (wheat midge, in particular devastated crops in several years) and soil exhaustion that reduced productivity in the older seigneurial settlements. Lower Canada mirrored the situation south of the border and the ‘crisis’ was associated with the adjustment to market forces across North America.

Observers were critical of habitant farming methods though this reflected a failure to understand the peculiarities of colonial agriculture.[5] French Canadian farmers concentrated on cereal crops because of restricted markets for meat and hides. However, there was some diversification in the rural economy and far from ignoring market opportunities, as Ouellet suggested, shifts in production enabled farmers to exploit expanding local markets especially in the richer agricultural regions on the Montreal plain and near Quebec City. Diversification was also present among the marginal farming population that became increasingly dependent on cash income from forest work, a feature of the agro-forest economy of the Ottawa, Saint-Maurice and Saguenay valleys. [6] Family survival depended on men supplementing farm production with winter work in the forests. Not all regions had an agro-forest economy and in the Eastern Townships, for example, farmers had few links to forest industries and produced essentially for home consumption. [7] The position of the growing landless peasantry in Lower Canada was not dissimilar to the rural wage-labourers of South Wales. They had little choice but to emigrate in search of work. From the 1820s, some moved south to take advantage of the industrial economy developing in New England. Landless labourers also contributed to the development of rural industries and to the expansion of villages in the Montreal area especially between 1815 and 1831. For example, Saint-Charles and Saint-Jean in the Richelieu Valley became respectively centres for hat-making and pottery and for earthenware production. The appearance of coopers, tailors and carriage makers in other small centres emphasised the growing diversification of the rural economy.[8]

The seigneurial character of francophone agriculture helped limit its sensitivity to market forces. Equally, rationalisation of Lower Canadian agriculture was not a priority for the colonial élite that was preoccupied with the concerns of Montreal and its frontier in the west and leaving little room for considering the needs of the francophone economy. Nonetheless, we should not isolate agriculture from the broader economy. An absence of growth in farming did not mean absence of growth overall. The French Canadian bourgeoisie adapted effectively to the changing situation especially in merchandising where limited capital was outweighed by their language and by family and kinship networks in the smaller rural villages. The penetration of consumer goods into the countryside provided a new outlet that French Canadian wholesalers and retailers could exploit. This suggests that Lower Canada was more dynamic and entrepreneurial than Ouellet would have us believe.

The British believed that they had lost the American colonies because they had given the colonial assemblies too much power and in 1791 created a constitution where power was squarely in the hands of appointed British officials and their social allies who could be relied upon to resist radical demands. The French Revolution reinforced their fears though initially these proved unfounded as membership of the British Empire paid economic dividends. Economic prosperity blunted demands among habitants and the Francophile bourgeoisie to sever links with Britain but prosperity did not prevent conflict. The Legislative Assembly soon became a forum for deepening political disagreement that peaked in the first decade of the nineteenth century. It would be wrong to see this simply as a clash between a progressive Anglophone bourgeoisie and a retrograde francophone professional class as some Whig historians would have us believe. Beyond the ethnic confrontation lay more fundamental constitutional issues.

The final element that contributed to the nationalist cause was the pervasive belief among the French Canadians that they were no longer in control of ‘their province’. They were under social and economic pressure and even though they dominated the Assembly, they were in a minority on the Legislative and Executive Councils and in the bureaucracy where decisions were made. Only demographically did they continue to dominate. [9] Yet, increasing British immigration into the province and calls to reunite the Canadas so that the assimilation of French Canadians could be achieved threatened their heritage and led French Canadians to entrench further their defensive position [10]

Discontent increased after 1815 and had a distinctive nationalist nature. It shared features with similar movements in contemporary Europe and although largely political in character, its socio-economic overtones were also strong. Led by members of liberal professions, it forged alliances with many in the Irish community who shared French Canadian concerns and with Upper Canadian reformers. It was opposed by the traditional élites of clergy and seigneurs, Anglophone merchants, British officials and British-American settlers who were unwilling to live under the government of the French. Rebellion, when it finally came, was as much an expression of exasperation as a reflection of principle.

The Patriote role in the development of a distinctive ideology that questioned the structures of colonial rule is important, but Bernier and Salée[11] stress that the movement was one of emancipation, as opposed to separation. They do not dismiss the presence of the national question in Patriote debates surrounding the rebellion, but argue that the national question was not uniquely what stirred the Patriotes into taking up arms, but merely formed part of a number of contributing issues related to the wider social context. Instead of being viewed in terms of a narrow exclusive nationalism with an emphasis on their role in the development of an independent Quebec based on the exclusion of difference, the inclusive nature of their thought is emphasised. In contrast to later models of national identity from later in the nineteenth and early twentieth century that were founded on exclusion of others, the Patriote vision was not limited uniquely to the descendants of 1760. It is in direct opposition therefore to the claims of many commentators and historians who have pigeonholed the Patriotes within a narrow nationalist framework. The Patriote message was addressed to all citizens of Lower Canada, whatever their ethnic or linguistic background, ready to participate in the construction of a new society.

There is not as far as we know a French people in this province, but a Canadian people, a moral and religious people, a loyal people, who value freedom and are able to benefit from it; this people is neither French, nor English, nor Scottish, nor Irish, nor Yankee, they are Canadian…The Canadian people will never be either French or English.[12]

[1] Reid, Philippe, ‘L’émergence du nationalisme French Canadian-français; l’idéologie du French Canadian (1806-1842)’, Recherches sociographiques, Vol. 21, (1980), pp. 11-53, provides a good summary of the major issues.

[2] On the role of notaries and doctors, see Mackay, Julien S., Notaires et patriotes 1837-1838, (Septentrion), 2006, and Aubin, Georges and Rheault, Marcel, Médecins et patriotes 1837-1838, (Septentrion), 2006.

[3] Ibid, Lower Canada, 1791-1840, pp. 117-135, contains his key arguments. These have been challenged in McCallum, John, Unequal Beginnings: Agriculture and Economic Development in Quebec and Ontario until 1870, (University of Toronto Press), 1980, especially pp. 25-44; Greer, Allan, Peasant, Lord, and Merchant: Rural Society in Three Quebec Parishes, 1740-1840, (University of Toronto Press), 1985, and in Paquet, Gilles and Wallot, Jean-Pierre, Lower Canada at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century: Restructuring and Modernization, (The Canadian Historical Association), 1988, Jones, R. L., ‘French Canadian Agriculture in the St. Lawrence Valley, 1815-1850’, Agricultural History, Vol. 16, (1942), pp. 137-148, and Le Goff, T. J. A., ‘The Agricultural Crisis in Lower Canada, 1802-1812: a Review of a Controversy’, CHR, Vol. 55, (1974), pp. 1-31, remain valuable on this issue and the historical problems associated with it.

[4] Dessureault, Christian and Hudon, Christine, ‘Conflits sociaux et élites locales au Bas-Canada: Le clergé, les notables, la paysannerie et le contrôle de la fabrique’, CHR, Vol. 80, (1999), pp. 413-439.

[5] Lambert, John, Travels Through Lower Canada and the United States of North America in the Years 1806, 1807 and 1808, 3 vols. London, 1810, Vol. 1, pp. 133-145 and Laterrière, Pierre de Sales, and Taunton, Henry Labouchere, A Political and Historical Account of Lower Canada, London, 1830, pp. 123-125, gave a negative view of farming.

[6] Hardy, R., and Séguin, N., Forêt et societé en Mauricie, Montreal, 1984.

[7] Little, J. J., Nationalism, Capitalism and Colonization in Nineteenth-Century Quebec: The Upper Saint-Francis District, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 1989.

[8] Courville Serge, Robert Jean-Claude and Séguin Normand, ‘The Spread of Rural Industry in Lower Canada, 1831-1851, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, Vol. 2, (1), (1991), pp. 43-70.

[9] Ibid, Lower Canada, 1791-1840, pp. 136-157, examines demographic pressures.

[10] Bellavance, Marcel, ‘La rébellion de 1837 et les modèles théoriques de l’émergence de la nation et du nationalisme’, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, Vol. 53, (2000), pp. 367-400, and Le Quebec au siècle des nationalités: essai d’histoire compareé, (VLB Editeur), 2004.

[11] Bernier, Gérald and Salée, Daniel, ‘Les patriotes, la question nationale et les rebellions de 1837-1838 au Bas-Canada’, in Sarra-Bournet, Michel & Saint-Pierre, Jocelyn, (eds.), Les Nationalismes au Quebec du xix au xxi siècle, (Presses de l’Université Laval), 2001, pp. 26-36.

[12] Le Canadien, 21 May 1835.


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