Wednesday, 15 December 2010

De Tocqueville in Canada: the end of his travels

Village of Beaufort, near Quebec, 29 August 1831

Today we went on horseback to visit the countryside without a guide. In the commune of Beaufort, two leagues from Quebec, we saw the people coming out of church. Their dress indicated the greatest well-being. Those who came from a distant hamlet were returning there by carriage. We broke away into the paths and gossiped with all the inhabitants whom we met, trying to turn the talk to serious matters. This is what seemed to come out of these talks:

1st. Up to now great prosperity exists among them. The land in the neighbourhood of Quebec is sold for high prices, as expensive as in France, but it also brings great returns.

2nd. The ideas of this population still seem little developed. But they already feel very clearly that the English race is spreading round them in alarming fashion; that they are making a mistake in shutting themselves up in an area instead of spreading over the still free land. Their suspicion is excited by the daily arrival of newcomers from Europe. They feel they will end up being absorbed. We can see that all that is being said on this subject animate their passions, but they do not clearly see the remedy. The Canadians fear leaving the sight of their church, they are not astute. ‘Oh! You are very right, but what can you do?’ These are their answers. They clearly feel their position as a conquered people, relying on the benevolence not of the government, but of the English. All their hopes are fixed on their representatives. They seem to have that exaggerated attachment to them, and especially to Mr. Neilson –’But he is English’, they said to us, as if in astonishment or regret that oppressed people often have for their protector. Several of them seemed perfectly to understand the need for education, and to take lively pleasure in what had just been done to help it on. All in all we felt that this population could be led, although still incapable of leading itself.

We are coming to the moment of crisis. If the Canadians do not waken from their apathy, in twenty years from now it will be too late to do so. Everything indicates that the awakening of this people is at hand. But if in this effort the middling and upper classes of the Canadian population abandon the lower classes and become allied with the English, the French race is lost in America. And that would truly be a pity, for there are here all the elements of a great people. The French of America are to the French of France as the Americans are to the English. They have preserved the greater part of the original traits of the national character but have added more morality and more simplicity. They, like them, have broken free from the prejudices that cause and will cause all the miseries of Europe. But will they ever succeed in completely regaining their nationality? This is probable without unfortunately being certain. A man of genius who would understand, feel and be capable to develop the national passions of the people would have an admirable role to play here. He would soon be the most powerful man in the colony. But I do not yet see him anywhere.

There already exist at Quebec a class of men who form the boundary between the French and the English: they are the English allied to the Canadians, the English unhappy with the administration, and Frenchmen holding offices. This class is represented in the periodical press by the Gazette de Québec and in the political assemblies by Mr. Neilson and probably several others that we do not know. It is this class I fear the most for the future of the Canadian population. It does not excite its jealousy, nor its passion. On the contrary it is more Canadian than English by interest because it is opposed to the government. Deep down, however, it is English by custom, ideas and language. If it were ever to take the place of the upper classes and the enlightened classes among the Canadians, their nationality would be lost forever. They would stagnate like the Bretons in France. Hopefully religion puts an obstacle to marriages between the two races, and creates inside the clergy an enlightened class whose interest is to speak French and feed on French literature and ideas.

We noticed in our talks with the people of this country an element of hatred and jealousy of the seigneurs. But the seigneurs have, so to say, no rights; they are, as much as one can be, of the people, and are almost all reduced to cultivating the soil. But the spirit of equality and democracy is alive there as in the United States, although it is not so rational. I found again in the hearts of those peasants the political passions which brought about the Revolution and which are still causes all our ills. Here they are inoffensive, or almost so, since nothing stands against them. We also noticed that the peasant did not see the clergy’s right to levy the tithe without anger and that he was not without envy contemplating the wealth that this tax put into the hands of some ecclesiastics. If religion ever loses its sway in Canada, it will have been by that breach that the enemy has come in.

As in France, the Canadian peasant has a gay and lively spirit, there is almost always something sharp in his repartee. One day I asked a farmer why the Canadians were letting themselves be restrained in narrow fields, while they could find twenty leagues away from their homes fertile and uncultivated lands. - ‘Why’, he said to me, ‘do you love your wife better, even though the neighbour’s has prettier eyes?’ I found there was a real and profound feeling in this reply.

The French gazettes of Canada contain everyday prose or verse literature, something one never finds in the vast columns of the English papers.

Leave Quebec aboard the steamboat Richelieu for Montreal, 31 August 1831

We went today with Mr. Neilson and with a Canadian called M. Viger along the left bank of the Saint Lawrence as far as the village of Saint Thomas 10 leagues from Quebec. That is where the Saint Lawrence widens out to 7 leagues, a width it keeps for 50 leagues. All the countryside we went through was wonderfully fertile; with the Saint Lawrence and the mountains to the North it formed the most complete and magnificent picture.

The houses are universally well built. They are redolent of comfort and cleanliness. The churches are rich, but rich in very good taste. Their interior decoration would not seem out of place in our towns. Note that it is the commune itself that imposes its own taxes to keep up the church. In this part of Canada one hears no English. All the population is French, and yet when one comes to an inn or a shop, the sign is in English.

Mr. Neilson said to us today while speaking about the Indians: These peoples will disappear completely, but they will fall victims to the pride of their spirit. The least among them thinks himself at least equal to the Governor of Quebec. They never will adapt themselves to civilisation, not because they are incapable of behaving like us, but because they scorn our way of living and consider themselves our superiors.

1 September 1831

General remarks

We have remarked through the conversations we have had with several Canadians that their hatred was directed more at the government than towards the English race in general. The instincts of the people are against the English, but many Canadians belonging to the enlightened classes did not appear to be to be committed, to the degree we had believed, to wanting to preserve intact their original heritage and to become a completely separate people. Several appeared not far from being assimilated with the English...It is thus to be feared that over time and especially with the Irish Catholic emigration, that the fusion be realised. This can only have a detrimental effect on the French race, language and customs. But it is certain that:

1. Lower Canada (luckily for the French race) forms a State apart. Now the French population in Lower Canada is in the proportion of ten to one to the English. It is compact. It has its government and its own Parliament. It really forms the body of a distinct nation. In a Parliament of eighty-four members, there are sixty-four French and twenty English.

2. Up to now the English have always kept to themselves. They support the government against the mass of the people. All the French newspapers voice opposition, all the English ones support the ministry, with only one exception, The Vindicator, at Montréal, and that too was founded by Canadians. [1]

3. In the towns the English and the Canadians form two societies. The English place considerable emphasis on great luxury; none of the Canadians have more than very limited wealth; thence jealousy and small-town squabbling.

4. The English have all the export trade and the main controls of internal trade in their hands. Yet another cause of jealousy.

5. The English are daily getting possession of lands that the Canadians regard as reserved for their race.

6. Finally the English in Canada show all the traits of their character and the Canadians have kept all the qualities of French character.

So the odds are strongly in favour of Lower Canada finishing up with an entirely French population. But they will never be a numerous people. Everything around them will become English...I am very much afraid that, as Mr Neilson said in his frank, brusque way, fate has pronounced and North America will be English.

Leave Montreal by steamboat Voyageur for La Prairie, 2 September 1831

We have seen a great number of churchmen since our arrival in Canada. It appeared to us that they constituted the first class among the Canadians. All those we have seen were educated, polite, well raised and speak French with purity. In general they are more distinguished than most of the curates of France. One can see in their conversation that they are all Canadians. They are united by their commitment to the interests of the population and talk about their needs very well. They, however, appeared to have a feeling of loyalty towards the King of England, and in general sustained the principle of legitimacy. Yet one of them told me: ‘We now have every reason to hope, the ministry is democratic.’ Today there is opposition; tomorrow they might very well do rebellion if the government were to become tyrannical. All in all, this people strongly resemble the French people. Or rather they are still French, trait for trait, and consequently perfectly different from the English populations surrounding them. Gay, lively, mocking, loving glory and noise, intelligent, eminently sociable, their customs are sweet and their character is obliging. The people in general are more moral, more hospitable and more religious than in France. Only in Canada can you find what we can a bon enfant (good child) in France. The English and the American is either coarse or cold...

Five or six years ago the English government wanted to unite the whole of Canada in one assembly. [2] That was the measure best designed to dissolve the Canadian nation completely, so the whole people objected and from that time they knew their strength. Several parish priests told me that in their parish there was not a single individual talking English. They themselves did not understand English at all, and used us as interpreters.

The appointment of militia officers is a function of government, but the Assembly decided that to be a militia officer it is necessary to reside in the place in question resulting in command of the armed force being almost exclusively in the hands of Canadians.

A Canadian told me today that the debates in the House of Commons were lively and hot-headed and that often hasty resolutions were passed that were regretted once tempers had cooled. Might he not have been speaking about a French Assemblée?


[1] The Vindicator, originally the Irish Vindicator and Canada General Advertiser was founded in 1828 by Daniel Tracey from Ireland. It was the voice of the Society of the Friends of Ireland in the province. However, when Tocqueville visited, the newspaper was (since 1829) co-owned by Ludger Duvernay, Denis-Benjamin Viger, Édouard-Raymond Fabre, Jacob de Witt and a few members of the Perrault family. The newspaper supported the reformist movements and patriotic causes of Ireland, Lower Canada and Upper Canada.

[2] This occurred in 1822 when the project of re-uniting the Canadas was introduced in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom without informing any of the representatives of the people in the provinces who were directly affected by the proposed constitutional change.

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