Monday, 29 November 2010

What economic crisis?

Historians have long debated whether poor peasant farming methods in Lower Canada led to an agricultural crisis by the early nineteenth century and whether such this may have led to social and political unrest in the 1830s.[1] In the 1790s, Lower Canada emerged as a significant exporter of grain and the new product seemed about to assume the role played by furs in colonial New France. By the 1830s, it was clear this was not going to happen and production declined rapidly between 1831 and 1844 and Lower Canada became a net importer of wheat. The movement for reform, locally[2] and in the centre took shape at a time of economic disenfranchisement of the French-speaking majority and the failure of Lower Canada to maintain earlier patterns of growth has led many historians to link economic stagnation with rebellion.

Fernand Ouellet argued, first, that there was an agricultural crisis in the early part of the nineteenth century dating from 1802 as crop yields declined and Lower Canada moved from surplus to subsistence to deficiency in grains. Secondly, a group of professionals exploited French nationalism to gain support in their bid for political power in the elected assembly. Although the agricultural crisis occurred after the appearance of nationalism and did not cause it, it is clear that deteriorating economic conditions fuelled the spread of nationalism after 1815. There was increasing competition for agricultural markets from other more productive parts of the British Empire. 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 the French habitants as well as the Irish settlers was in stark contrast to the relative prosperity of the British settlers. By the 1830s, economic conditions were so bad that a revolutionary nationalist context had been created. Finally, these two events merged when the combination of declining economic conditions and a patriotic appeal proved irresistible. The Parti Patriote of Louis-Joseph Papineau drew support from devastated farmers and, instead of responding constructively to the situation, headed down the road to rebellion.

Ouellet’s view is not without its critics. First, the reduction in wheat output was not unique to Lower Canada. Along the Atlantic coast from New York to Nova Scotia, in the first half of the nineteenth century, 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 than a comparable farm in northern Vermont or New York. The generally lower agricultural productivity in early nineteenth century francophone Canada can be explained by the division of farms (though not to as great an 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 the productivity of the older seigneurial settlements. Conditions in Charlevoix, for example, deteriorated as its limited arable land became densely occupied by expanding population and seigneurial concessions occurred at Malbaie in the 1820s. So, when, in the 1830s, Lower Canada became an importer of wheat from the Upper Canada, it was simply mirroring the situation south of the border. From this point of view, the ‘crisis’ was associated with the general process of adjustment to market forces across North America, not something unique to Lower Canada, although there the process of adjustment to market forces proved more challenging.

Secondly, foreign observers were highly critical of peasant farming methods though this reflected a failure to understand the peculiarities of colonial agriculture or the strategies used by peasants. [3] There was a restricted market for meat and hides and French Canadian farmers concentrated on cereal crops. There was also criticism of the Canadian plough generally pulled by oxen though it was well suited to the heavy soils of the St Lawrence valley. However, the swing plough, widely used in both England and the United States was only gradually adopted in Lower Canada; for example, in St Hyacinthe, a minority of farmers owned a swing plough by the 1830s. The situation in Lower Canadian farming led to diversification in the rural economy. Far from failing to take advantage of market opportunities, as Ouellet suggested, shifts in production enabled farmers to exploit expanding local urban markets and later in the century export markets for dairy products. Peasants in the richer agricultural regions on the Montreal plain and near Quebec City prospered and accumulated significant capital, as a result livestock improved and greater quantities of fodder crops such as clover and hay were grown. The marginal farming population became increasingly dependent on cash income from forest work and this characterised the agro-forest economy of the Ottawa, Saint-Maurice and Saguenay valleys. In Saint-Maurice[4], for example, families farmed in the short growing season to produce both their own food and cash crops such as firewood for Montreal and Trois-Rivières and hay, oats, potatoes and peas for local lumber shanties. Family survival was achieved by 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. [5]

The situation for 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, population moved south to the United States to take advantage of the embryonic industrial economy developing in New England. On the Ile d’Orléans near Quebec City, four out of ten heads of families in 1831 did not own land though in general, Lower Canadian farmers traditionally kept their farms a viable size rather than subdividing them among their heirs. 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. There had always been artisans in villages and towns but now commodities were produced in smaller centres; for example, in the village of Saint-Charles in the Richelieu Valley, hat-making and pottery became important occupations and Saint-Jean became a centre for earthenware production. The appearance of coopers, tailors and carriage makers in other small centres emphasised the growing diversification of the rural economy. Francophones migrated to forested regions in the Eastern Townships, often as young married couples and tried to compete with the large timber companies as independent producers. However, the Anglophone minority remained the dominant economic power. [6]

The seigneurial character of francophone agriculture helped explain the lack of sensitivity to market forces, but nothing was done through public policy to remedy the situation. The colonial elite was preoccupied with the concerns of Montreal and its frontier in the west and with maintaining its political and social ascendancy and this left little room for considering the needs of the francophone economy. Rationalisation of Lower Canadian agriculture was not a priority largely as a result of the dysfunctional political structure produced by the Conquest. Some historians doubt whether there was a general crisis affecting all Quebec’s agriculture in this period but rather that the problems reflected growing regional diversity. Even so, they recognise that farming may not have been the rapid-growth sector it had been before 1800. However, we should not isolate agriculture from the broader economy. An absence of growth in farming did not mean an absence of growth overall. New areas of the economy developed and the French Canadian bourgeoisie adapted effectively to the changing situation. This was particularly evident in merchandising where disadvantages of capital were outweighed by a common language and by a network of ties through the smaller rural villages and the penetration of consumer goods into the countryside provided a new outlet for the wholesaler and retailer and especially in retailing the chief businessmen were largely French Canadian. By the 1840s, when this process was completed, a new market economy had emerged from the structure of the ancient regime. This interpretation suggests that Lower Canada was more dynamic and entrepreneurial than Ouellet would have us believe.


[1] Fernand Ouellet argued this was in Le Bas-Canada, 1791-1840: Changements Structuraux et Crise, (Editions de l’Universite d’Ottawa), 1976, available in translation as Lower Canada, 1791-1840: Social Change and Nationalism, Patricia Claxton, trans., (McClelland and Stewart), 1983. The argument has been challenged in McCallum, John, Unequal Beginnings: Agriculture and Economic Development in Quebec and Ontario until 1870, (University of Toronto Press), 1980, especially pages 25-44, ibid, Greer, Allan, Peasant, Lord, and Merchant: Rural Society in Three Quebec Parishes, 1740-1840 and in ibid, Paquet, Gilles and Wallot, Jean-Pierre, Lower Canada at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century: Restructuring and Modernization. Jones, R. L., ‘Canadien Agriculture in the St. Lawrence Valley, 1815-1850’, Agricultural History, Vol. 16, (1942), pages 137-148 and Le Goff, T.J.A., ‘The Agricultural Crisis in Lower Canada, 1802-1812: a Review of a Controversy’, Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 55, (1974), pages 1-31 remain valuable on this issue and the historical problems associated with it.

[2] Ibid, 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’.

[3] Ibid, Lambert, John, Travels Through Lower Canada and the United States of North America in the Years 1806, 1807 and 1808, 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.

[4] Ibid, Hardy, R. and Séguin, N., Forêt et societé en Mauricie.

[5] On this see, ibid, Little, J.I., Nationalism, Capitalism and Colonization in Nineteenth-Century Quebec: The Upper Saint-Francis District.

[6] 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.

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