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The Birth of a People, 1535–1760

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/French Canadians/Yves Frenette

The explorer Jacques Cartier was the first European to visit the valley of the St Lawrence, the birthplace of French Canada. During his second official voyage of discovery in 1535 Cartier made his way up the St Lawrence River. Guided by the native peoples he encountered, he went as far as the village of Hochelaga, on the island of Montreal, and then returned to winter in Stadacona, near present-day Quebec City. He returned to France only the following year. But Cartier’s voyages did not initiate a systematic occupation of the St Lawrence valley. France was seeking precious metals and a passage through to Asia, and Canada did not seem to harbour great riches. The king abandoned this “land God gave to Cain” and turned to Brazil and Florida instead. Throughout the sixteenth century, it was Norman, Breton, and Basque fishermen who maintained contact with the northern part of America.

Because of its seasonal nature, fishing did not encourage settlement. However, in the last third of the sixteenth century, the appearance of a new commodity that was very much in demand in France, fur, altered the course of events. To carry on the fur trade, Europeans needed to make deeper forays into the North American continent, establish barter relations with native suppliers, and permanently occupy the land. Trade was furthered by the founding in 1600 of Tadoussac, in present-day Quebec, which became France’s first permanent North American trading post. From the start, the fur trade was the basis of the colony’s economic system. More than a century later, in 1739, fur would still count for 70 percent of Canadian exports.

In the summer of 1608 Samuel de Champlain retraced Cartier’s path to the St Lawrence valley in his capacity as lieutenant to Pierre Du Gua de Monts, who held a royal fur trading monopoly. Champlain founded a settlement near Stadacona, Quebec, which was to become a strategic site, trading post, entrepôt, river port, mission, and administrative seat for the French colony. Although Champlain saw the agricultural potential of the growing colony and the opportunity it offered to convert the native peoples, his interests were primarily commercial. Yet New France did not hold gold, silver, or exotic commodities. With little more than fur to attract the French monarchy, development of the colony was slow. For three quarters of a century, the king offered monopolies in New France to various important figures and trading companies (Champlain was the manager of the first such company). The state kept a close watch but rarely intervened. In 1627 Canada, the heart of New France, had a European population of barely 100.

The fur trade was based on a commercial network that included the native peoples who supplied the commodity. Beaver was an abundant and easy prey for the hunters, and this led to overexploitation and eventually scarcity, so that the French had to penetrate farther and farther into the interior of the continent to find fur. Because rivers provided the only access to the interior, France sought to gain control over North American river basins. These commercial imperatives went hand in hand with France’s geostrategic goals: in response to the presence of rival nations in the New World, France needed to establish territorial claims in America to maintain its influence in Europe.

Explorers such as Champlain, Étienne Brûlé, Jean Nicolet, Pierre Radisson, Louis Jolliet, Robert Cavelier de La Salle, and Pierre de La Vérendrye, to name only the most famous, were also merchants who travelled as far as the Gulf of Mexico and the Rocky Mountains to trade in furs. Alone or with partners, they staked French territorial rights and initiated and maintained relations with the native peoples. The new sites doubled as commercial outposts, and, since many of the explorers were soldiers as well, they fortified the trading posts against English intrusion.

The pays d’en haut, as the area north and west of Montreal was called, was of great interest. In 1685 the intendant Jacques de Meulles counted more than 600 young people in the bush – virtually all of the Canadien youth born in the country. Fifteen years later it was estimated that one out of every two habitants canadiens, or Canadien farmers, in the St Lawrence valley had made at least one trip into the Great Lakes region. In 1760, on the eve of the British conquest, 4,000 of the 65,000 habitants were officially employed in the fur trade – and it is impossible to gauge the number unofficially involved. Since agriculture was largely self-sufficient throughout much of this time, fur-trading entrepreneurs easily found the seasonal workers they needed.

The coureurs de bois or trappers were controversial figures. They often worked illegally and easily escaped the control of the authorities. Born near Paris in 1592, Étienne Brûlé landed at Quebec in 1608 at the age of sixteen. In 1610 Champlain sent him to live among the native peoples to learn their language and customs, since the growing colony wished to establish closer ties with the natives. Brûlé would winter with the Algonquins and the Hurons. He adopted the native way of life and settled permanently in Huronia. Marie de l’Incarnation had people like him in mind when she wrote, “A Frenchman will become savage before a savage will become French.” Indeed, it was from the natives that trappers adopted the use of toboggans, snowshoes, canoes, and moccasins, as well as native cultural practices, particularly those related to sexuality. Legends about the coureurs de bois quickly took hold in the collective imagination.

But the era of the coureur de bois was short-lived. In the late seventeenth century, expansion and reorganization of the fur trade called for increased capital. The independent coureurs de bois were gradually replaced by voyageurs, hired to trade on behalf of merchants. Both occupations were dangerous, often involving slipping between warring native tribes, braving rivers and portages, and surviving subzero temperatures and native ambushes to return to Montreal. Some did not make it home. With their red tuques, homespun clothing, arrow sashes, small builds (the canoes’ limited space disqualified larger men), the voyageurs would leave the St Lawrence valley in the spring with hundreds of kilograms of merchandise to return in the fall or even the following summer with their cargo of fur. Working fifteen to eighteen hours a day, they mostly ate salt pork, peas, corn, and biscuits, a diet sometimes supplemented with a little fish or venison. To relieve the boredom and provide a rhythm for rowing, they sang songs about faith, being far away, solitude, their way of life, day-to-day misery, beauties who awaited their beaux, returns and reunions, the pain and rage of the man whose love had been betrayed, and the deep loss of the woman whose husband, son, or fiancé had not returned.

Along with the coureurs de bois and voyageurs, missionaries were scattered throughout North America and especially the pays d’en haut. In the wake of the Catholic Counter-Reformation mystics, many of them women, looked to the New World as a land in which to serve Christ, at times at the cost of their own lives. Thus Ville-Marie, the future Montreal, owed its European birth in 1642 to the desire to ensure “the glory of God and the salvation of the Indians.” French religious – first Recollets, then Jesuits – established missions in Acadia, in the St Lawrence and Mississippi valleys, in the pays d’en haut, and in the land of the Iroquois (in what is now northern New York state). Undoubtedly the most famous of the missions was Sainte-Marie in Huronia, founded in 1640, from which the Jesuit fathers fanned out into the entire Great Lakes region. Its French population of close to thirty – including fourteen labourers and thirteen priests – made Sainte-Marie the most European post in the pays d’en haut. Its history, however, was a short one, since the Iroquois destroyed Huronia and its Catholic missions in 1647–49.

The missionaries made a significant contribution to French expansion in North America. The civil authorities often authorized the missionaries, like the traders, to take possession of lands in the name of the king. Missionaries also tested out new trading possibilities and sealed commercial contracts with the native peoples. However, their relations with the traders, whom they considered corrupt and likely to undermine the salvation of native souls, were hostile. With their newly acquired knowledge – for purposes of conversion – of local geography and native mores and languages, they often became important agents of the colony’s native policy. Between 1645 and 1660, for example, Father Simon Le Moyne undertook six trips to make peace with the Iroquois. A decade later, Father Charles Albanel travelled to Hudson Bay to establish French rights in the region. Another Jesuit, Father Jacques Bigot, succeeded in 1687 in drawing Abenaki groups from Maine to missions on the Chaudière River and at Bécancour. Just as France’s commercial and political objectives were closely intertwined, so were its intention to colonize New France and its goal of evangelizing its inhabitants.

Under this threefold thrust – strategic, commercial, and religious – the interior of the North American continent was gradually dotted with French posts. By the early years of the eighteenth century, France had reached its apogee in North America. It controlled almost all the river basins that led to fur, it dominated the Gulf of St Lawrence, and at the other end of the continent it was beginning to exploit Louisiana’s riches. France also held an interest in the Labrador and Gaspé fisheries. Through a combination of peaceful and military means, France had conquered three quarters of North America. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, however, gave Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, Acadia, and the lands of the Iroquois to the British, reducing France’s possessions to a long corridor that included the axis of the St Lawrence and an opening onto the Mississippi River through the Great Lakes. Needing to develop new commercial routes and forge new native alliances, French trader-explorers ventured farther west. Between 1728 and 1743 La Vérendrye and his companions founded a network of posts in the west, such as Grand Portage in present-day Minnesota, a commercial meeting place for voyageurs and natives. The authorities also encouraged starting up agricultural colonies, especially in the Illinois country and the Mississippi valley, and strengthened existing posts.

Although the French had established numerous trading posts and pockets of settlers, the process of colonization was very slow and only Acadia and the St Lawrence valley had sizable permanent populations. In 1663 a mere 2,500 French could be found between Quebec and Montreal. Of the roughly 10,000 square kilometres in the St Lawrence valley, only thirty-four square kilometres were cleared and occupied. Settlements were small and had been founded by way of great leaps along the St Lawrence: Tadoussac (1600), Quebec (1608), Trois-Rivières (1634), Montreal (1642). The private commercial approach to colonization had been an almost total failure.

Seeking to hem in the English colonies to the south, whose population was already more than 80,000, Louis XIV implemented a more dynamic policy. The crown refashioned the seigneurial system in place since 1637, reclaiming the seventy-four seigneuries that the Compagnie des Cent-Associés (a private company of one hundred merchants and artistocrats) had granted either to companies or to friends. Responding to population pressure or strategic needs, the authorities would periodically undertake a further division of new lands into additional seigneuries. In all, approximately 250 seigneuries were created during the French regime, on both banks of the St Lawrence, in the Chaudière and Richelieu valleys and to a lesser extent the Ottawa valley, in the Lake Champlain region, and in the pays d’en haut.

Inspired directly by French practice but adapted to North American conditions, the seigneurial system provided a mode of land division, distribution, and occupation and a legal means to govern social relations. The system consisted in dividing the lands along the St Lawrence and its tributaries into narrow but sufficiently large rectangles. The king granted the divided lands to individual seigneurs, each of whom carved out a personal estate within his seigneury and then further divided the remainder of his fief into lots for tenant farmers. The seigneur was required to have an inhabited manor on his seigneury, construct and maintain a flour mill, pay church dues, and – if not a member of the nobility – participate in communal road construction. The tenant farmer was required to “maintain hearth and home” (build a house and live in it), pay an annual rent to the seigneur, clear the land, have his grain ground at the seigneurial mill, participate in the construction and maintenance of roads, and plant the maypole (a pruned fir tree) in front of the seigneur’s manor once a year. “Despite these duties,” writes historian Jean Hamelin, “the system offered settlers significant advantages. They could obtain land without capital and settle in a socioeconomic community that offered essential services: roads, flour mill, church.”

The great river shaped the features of French settlements in the St Lawrence valley. The waterway was a vital – if not the only – mode of communication. The first trading posts were all situated along the river and the location of settlements in the countryside was determined by the St Lawrence and its tributaries: individual concessions were narrow and deep, three by thirty arpents (175 by 1750 metres), allowing each family access to the water. The settlers’ house and buildings were always built at the head of each lot. These lots helped facilitate communication between neighbours and, from the authorities’ point of view, control of the population.

Immigration to the colony was slight and the settlements were thinly populated. New France’s slow population growth was largely due to a lack of interest among the French in emigration (especially to a faraway and inhospitable land), the authorities’ fear of depopulating France, restrictions placed on Protestant immigrants as of 1627, and the unfavourable economic structure of the colony, for a long time a simple trading outpost. In the seventeenth century, two-thirds of immigrants returned to Europe after only a short stay in Canada. From 1608 to 1760 only 9,000 immigrants settled permanently in the St Lawrence valley, a fifth of these between 1663 and 1673. Four fifths came from the north and west of France, more specifically the coastal regions. They were mostly under the age of 30, 60 percent came from cities and towns, and three-quarters spoke French rather than a dialect. For a large proportion of them, migrating to New France was not their first experience of geographical mobility.

They broke down into the following groups: 3,500 soldiers, 1,100 women, 1,000 prisoners, 3,900 engagés (indentured servants), and 500 free men. These categories reveal something of the immigrants’ motives for settling and the means of their recruitment. Many had been soldiers stationed in Canada who, rather than return to France at the end of their tour of duty, chose to settle in the colony. They often became tenant farmers on the seigneuries of their former officers, whose names became part of the local toponymy. The engagés were mostly agricultural workers and apprentice artisans who wished to improve their way of life. Lacking experience and capital, they had signed contracts requiring them to work for a merchant or seigneur for a term of three years, after which they were free to settle on their own plot of land. The prisoners were faux-sauniers, salt smugglers who had been deported by order of the state. They were hired on arrival as servants for three years, after which they often married and were generally granted land. The women immigrants included the filles du roi, orphans brought up in religious institutions in France and sent by the king to Canada, where they were lodged at the state’s expense until they found husbands.

Canada was not a colony of immigration and so its population increase was largely the result of natural growth. With a birth rate of more than fifty-five per thousand and a death rate varying between twenty-three and thirty-nine per thousand (probably one of the lowest rates of the period), the demographic balance sheet was favourable. The population doubled each generation. In 1713 it was 18,000; by 1754, the date of the last French census, it had tripled to reach 55,000. This population growth can be explained by the healthful climate and abundant space and resources. As long as the several thousand inhabitants were spread over three hundred kilometres of river shore, epidemics were few and far between.

Settlement policies also played a role. The king granted special allowances to large families; he gave gifts to young newlyweds and fined fathers whose children did not marry young. When the filles du roi arrived in the colony, single men had two weeks in which to choose a wife or else they lost their hunting permits. The result was that early marriages were the norm. A woman usually had her first child within the first year of marriage and would give birth every twenty-four to twenty-eight months after that. A third of the families had at least ten children, but, because of the high infant mortality rate, the number of children who reached adulthood was only 4.5 to 5.1 per family, depending on the period. Moreover, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the average lifespan was virtually the same as in Europe: forty years.

While the fur trade sent hundreds of men throughout North America, agriculture rooted the population on the shores of the St Lawrence and its tributaries. After a year of clearing, each pioneer had about an arpent (one-third of a hectare) that was suitable for seeding and, by the time of his death, he could leave enough land to his descendants to ensure some form of self-sufficiency. The farming of seigneurial lands gradually brought economic returns. During the seventeenth century, farmers produced just enough to feed their families, although weather or war occasionally resulted in famine. Once able to satisfy their own needs, the farmers still had difficulty supplying the cities. There were not enough people to farm and expand the arable plots. Each inch of land had to be torn from the forest, for a long time engraved in the French-Canadian mind as the enemy. In the early eighteenth century, however, farmers began to grow wheat for export and, with 20 percent of its population made up of commercial farmers, the colony reached the threshold of self-sufficiency. The children of French immigrants who had started out as soldiers, apprentices, and agricultural workers were now competent farmers whose lands, being new, were spacious and fertile. Farmers made up between three-quarters and four-fifths of the population, depending on the period, and became socially differentiated into the comfortable, the self-sufficient, and the poor.

The family constituted the basic social and economic nucleus in New France and the principal agent of migration from France to the colony. In the seventeenth century, a quarter of the male and a third of the female settlers moved to Canada with at least one family member. Immigration to New France was undertaken in the overall context of a search for well-being, and family connections played a large role in this process. Within the colony itself, family solidarity was an important factor in opening up new territories. Households cornered adjoining lands to settle their children. When people moved over long distances, family mobility served as a kind of insurance policy: new migrants would settle next to family members and support one another. To succeed, an individual moving alone to a new area had to marry into an already settled family. Four-fifths of those who married in this way settled permanently in their new homes, whereas only 36 percent of those who did not choose to marry into a local family remained in the area.

After two generations, the best concessions in a seigneury were taken, and so a second, third, and even fourth “range” or row of concessions was created, especially in seigneuries located near the towns. As land was abundant and cost little, there was no need to divide family properties. Instead, exclusion and geographic mobility were the instruments of social continuity. By leaving, a migrant enabled others to stay and the community to maintain its cohesion. As historian Jacques Mathieu has written, “The idea of a family fixed in one place could only continue to exist in tandem with its dynamic corollary, involving the mobility of some of its members.”

From the age of five or six children helped their parents with daily chores, and between the ages of fifteen and twenty- five they were prepared for adult life. In the towns, this meant being initiated into a craft. Those who settled on the family farm, or even on a neighbouring concession, benefited from a family-support network when it came to clearing the land and building a house and barn. Despite inevitable tensions and conflicts, family solidarity lived on through the generations. It was most evident in the practice of donatio inter vivos, in which retiring farmers would give their possessions to one of their children, who then cared for them until their death. The cycle was repeated in each generation.

Daily life was strongly influenced by the climate and by the cycle of the seasons. The length of the day determined the number of hours spent working, and the seasons governed the organization of life into an annual cycle. As everywhere else in the Christian world, the big moments in the lives of the habitants of the St Lawrence valley – birth, marriage, and death – were given meaning by the Church, with a sacrament for each. The rhythm of daily existence was also punctuated by a day of rest on Sunday, periods of austerity, and holidays of obligation. As a form of penitence, the Church forbade the consumption of meat on Fridays and Saturdays and imposed fasts during Lent, rogation days, and the vigils of the big feasts, when the Church also recommended abstinence from sexual relations.

On Sunday the habitants were required to go to Mass and vespers and send their children to catechism classes. Inns were required to close during Mass and all menial work was prohibited. However, the continual issuance of edicts prohibiting commercial exchanges and the transport of merchandise on the Lord’s Day suggests that these prohibitions were not always heeded. The clergy had just as much trouble getting their parishioners to dress respectfully for Mass and succeeded only with difficulty in preventing them from leaving during the sermon or from fighting on the front steps of the church. This behaviour became more pronounced at religious feasts, especially the feast of the local church’s patron saint. Parishioners celebrated the event with a solemn Mass followed by a procession and community meal. Joined by the habitants of neighbouring parishes, they often indulged in excessive drinking, disorderly behaviour, and brawls. The colony’s intendant and bishop issued repeated edicts, but these were so ineffectual that they had to ban the event instead. In 1744 Bishop Henri-Marie Dubreil de Pontbriand moved the celebration of nineteen feast days to Sundays, including the feasts of St Anne and St Lawrence, which were generally the noisiest. The decision provoked upheavals among the population.

Popular fervour intensified during periods of trouble, such as times of war, scarcity, epidemics, or fires. The people also called on God’s help in individual cases of personal suffering, such as sickness or accidents. These solicitations took different forms: vows, novenas, or pilgrimages. Sainte-Anne-du-Petit-Cap, on the Beaupré shore east of Quebec, was the most frequented pilgramage site. Church authorities had a criterion to which they adhered strictly: they sanctioned behaviour they thought likely to deepen the parishioners’ faith but condemned any practice likely to degenerate into superstition. While extraordinary events tended to provoke fits of popular fervour, in quieter times the clergy, imbued with the principles of the Counter-Reformation, preferred to use other means to stir up and sustain the devotion of the faithful. One of these was the organization of confréries or devotion groups, of which there were approximately a dozen under the French régime. All were aimed at improving the spiritual life of the faithful through frequent access to the sacraments, the practice of Christian virtues, and mutual support through prayer. Each confrérie developed its own special devotions. The groups’ most noticeable trait was their largely female membership.

Catholicism required of its faithful certain outer practices that were considered indispensable to the practitioners’ sanctification, and the civil authorities made some of these practices compulsory. However, people did not necessarily resent them as a constraint; they were simply considered a part of daily life. The parish structure, set in place in 1664 by the first apostolic vicar – and later bishop – of Quebec, François de Laval, and reformed by his successor as bishop, Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Vallier, fused the concerns of religion and identity. Consequently, after 1692 priests became irremovable and kept the tithe they collected for their own livelihood. In addition to the tithe, parishioners had to assume the costs of constructing and maintaining the parish church and its outbuildings. Certain forms of contribution were compulsory, such as work quotas and allotted contributions of materials and money to build the church; annuities for the pews; and payment for burials. Others were left up to individuals’ generosity, such as the numerous collections to buy liturgical ornaments.

The parish budget was administered by the church fabrique, made up of churchwardens elected by their co-parishioners. Concerns over money and precedence, indiscretions, and conflicts of authority inevitably caused occasional disputes among parishioners or between parishioners and the priest. Nonetheless, over the years, parishioners formed ties with their church and all that it represented, helping to establish communal stability and solidarity. Parish spirit could especially be seen in the faith placed in the parish’s patron saint for obtaining heavenly favours and in the increase in bequests made to the poor. Attachment to the parish, like that to the seigneury, created an unshakable sense of belonging.

Although it was officially a Catholic colony and Protestants were excluded as of 1627, more than 400 Protestants, specifically merchants and shopkeepers from the area of La Rochelle, settled in Canada. Because the policy of religious exclusion was impracticable, it was never fully applied, and in 1676 the Quebec Conseil Supérieur (Superior Council) adopted a general policy concerning “persons of so-called reformed religious faith.” Such people were tolerated as long as they did not assemble to practise their faith or cause any scandal. Given this religious climate, it was easy to understand why Protestants rarely exhibited their faith openly. The majority made a show of practising Catholicism, but they did not renounce their own religion and perhaps even continued to practise it secretly. Those who signed an act of renunciation under pressure from the clergy were still considered suspect. In some cases, they or their children married other “former heretics,” but on the whole they were assimilated into the general life in the colony.

Urban life evolved over the two centuries of French settlement in the St Lawrence valley. Around 1740 Quebec was a small town of 4,700 inhabitants. It was the seat of colonial government with a military force, civil service, bourgeois, seigneurs, and clergy. In the words of geographer Luc Bureau, it was a centre d’avoir, de savoir et de pouvoir, a centre of wealth, knowledge, and power. At the top of the social ladder was the governor, who represented the king in the colony and exercised his authority in the realms of military affairs and external relations. The intendant, who like the governor resided in Quebec, was a central figure in the colonial system established by the king in 1663. His powers were broad, since he was responsible for justice, the police, and finance. The Conseil Souverain (later the Conseil Supérieur) constituted another important cog in the administrative wheel, made up as it was of the governor, the bishop, the intendant, and between five and seven councillors. Adhering to the laws of France, the Conseil essentially constituted a court of appeal for the courts of justice throughout the colony. Montreal was also a fortified town. Although initially founded by French mystics with missionary aspirations, Montreal’s expansion quickly became linked with the fur trade. Finally, Trois-Rivières was essentially a staging post.

The Church established itself principally in the towns and radiated out into the countryside. At Quebec, the bishop championed the Church’s cause with the civil authorities and the seminary provided a steady supply of clerics. Although at the end of the French regime the Church’s seventy-five diocesan priests were spread throughout the colony, its seventy-five priests who were members of religious orders were largely based in urban areas, as were the 200 women religious who provided primary social services. Quebec and Montreal each had its Hôtel-Dieu, or hospital, which took in those suffering from serious illnesses. In Quebec, the Ursulines and Jesuits had charge of the education of girls and boys respectively, while the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1658, taught in the other towns and in the countryside.

As the population increased, the pursuits of these communities began to become more varied and new institutions appeared. Thus, in 1693 Bishop Saint-Vallier asked several women religious at Quebec’s Hôtel-Dieu to take charge of a new general hospital devoted to “deviants” – the poor, invalids, the old, those with mental health problems, and women of “ill-repute.” Four years later, he sent some Ursulines to Trois-Rivières to start a hospital and a school there. In 1692 in Montreal, François Charron de la Barre founded the Institut des Frères Hospitaliers de la Croix et de Saint Joseph, whose purpose was to run a general hospital and elementary schools. The community eventually dissolved and the hospital was taken over by Marguerite d’Youville, who in 1737 founded a women’s religious community, the Grey Nuns.

The hospitals and educational institutions welcomed people from rural areas, but transportation difficulties considerably limited the scope of the religious communities’ work. In the late seventeenth century, 80 percent of the sick at Quebec’s Hôtel-Dieu came from the town and its surrounding regions. The same held true for education, since the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame had settled in the most populated parishes: Neuville, Château-Richer, and Sainte-Famille on the Île d’Orléans. The populations of the towns and surrounding areas generally had access to better services, both social and religious, than those of outlying areas.

Because of their continued contact with France, it was in the towns, and especially Quebec, that French cultural traditions were longest preserved. Although most Canadiens could not read or write, a literate culture did slowly develop in the towns. In the eighteenth century, the urban rate of literacy was 50 percent, compared to 20 percent in rural areas. School facilities were concentrated in the towns and half the sons of noble families went to round off their education in France. The mother country’s traditions were maintained in a number of ways. The architecture of public buildings, religious and civil, was inspired by European models, as were cultural, decorative, and instructional objects. The interiors of the largely stone urban houses of the nobles and bourgeoisie were decorated with paintings, drawings, and tapestries. They might also occasionally contain a musical instrument or a piece of luxury furniture. People of sufficient means might purchase a canopy bed, a sculpted pine wardrobe, bedding of fine fabric, silverware, and porcelain dishes, and they often wore sumptuous garments, made from imported French fabrics.

In the countryside, on the other hand, where the majority of the population had settled, local customs were “Canadianized” more quickly. Although rapid, the change occurred with no abrupt break with the past, but rather as a process of acculturation, the first of several for francophones in North America. Marriage, birth, and death all strongly encouraged the dynamics of change in the new country. Those who married in the colony rarely found partners who came from the same region in France, and once married the couples were sometimes isolated on their farms. So settlers tended to focus on the religious and family aspects of their cultural identity, adapting them to, and borrowing things from, their new environment.

The regional mosaic of France could not be transported to Canada. The various dialects, each spoken by only a small portion of the population, soon disappeared, and the different versions of French were fused together to form a single language. The civil and religious administrations generally encouraged this development. Architecture from northwestern France was adapted to the harsh Canadian climate and clothing design was influenced by native customs. Although bread remained a staple food, Canadiens tended to eat a lot more meat than their French cousins overseas because the forest was so close. They learned to use the cold to preserve their food, and they knew how to use local medicinal plants. Agricultural tools and techniques, imported from northwestern France, were adapted to the new environment and iron ploughing implements gave way to wooden tools made in the colony. Canadiens learned to use native means of communication: the canoe over water and snowshoes over snow.

The French immigrant became culturally integrated: the clog-maker from Rouen learned how to farm and fish. The militiaman learned native warrior moves, which never failed to incite surprise and disdain among officers of the regular French army. Catholicism also gradually became Canadianized. By the time of the British conquest, all women religious, 80 percent of the diocesan priests, and 70 percent of the Recollets were fully Canadien. Observances were modified as well. While practices the clergy considered superstitious continued to encumber the dioceses of France, these practices were no longer found in the colony. In Canada there were no pre-Christian places of worship, no saints of doubtful repute, no indecent statues, no reputedly miraculous fountains. With no abuse to uproot or age-old customs to combat, the clergy had only to guard against any that might arise. As a result, religious practices tended to be more purified and popular religion more tamed, to borrow the words of historian Pierre Boglioni.

The colony’s handful of administrators and priests could not maintain control over the population. Priests worried mostly about fashion, games of chance, and swearing. The king’s edicts against blaspheming called for sanctions that ranged from simple fines to the death penalty, but only thirty or so people were convicted during the French regime, and no one ever received the maximum sentence. The clergy raged against drinking binges, dancing, theatre, and horse races, which the settlers liked to organize around the churches during sermons. They lamented their inability to get parishioners to repair a simple church roof. Moreover, they got into trouble with the nobility, whom they accused of dissipation. Transplanted to the shores of the St Lawrence, religious orders adapted to the constraints of their new country.

Almost everyone could obtain land and support a family; many lived far from the civil powers; the seigneurs were sometimes absent. Social stratification became less rigid in Canada than in Europe, and autonomy was a significant characteristic of this society of immigrants born under the ancien régime. The French who came to the colony in the eighteenth century were not mistaken in seeing a pronounced difference between themselves and the Canadiens, proud of their new identity. These changes applied to all occupational categories and both sexes. Men, of course, had more power, but women had more latitude in Canada than in France and their voices were heard at both ends of the social scale. In 1713 women convened an assembly to choose a midwife. It was again women who provoked riots during the winter of 1757–58 to protest against horsemeat rationing. And there is the well-known case of Marie-Anne Barbel who, after the death of her merchant husband Jacques Fornel, took over his business and expanded it.

Second- and third-generation French immigrants became Canadiens, a people rooted in the St Lawrence valley, the Great Lakes region, the Illinois country, and the west. They were a mere 65,000 spread out over a vast land, a “giant with feet of clay” to borrow the biblical expression used by historian Marcel Trudel. Adapting to the new land, these settlers’ collective identity was also strongly shaped by war. In 1609 Champlain formed an alliance with the Hurons and confronted the Iroquois for the first time on the lake that bears his name. From that point, the Iroquois became the sworn enemies of the French and Canadiens. Allied with the Dutch, then the English, they destroyed Huronia in the late 1640s. Initially subdued by the Carignan-Salières regiment between 1665 and 1667, they resumed hostilities in 1682 and massacred the villagers of Lachine, near Montreal, in 1689.

Both French and Canadiens saw the native as Other. No matter how many cultural practices they borrowed from native traditions, they ultimately rejected the natives as pagans, as agents of the devil. Whether Dutch or Anglo-American, the enemy of the French in North America was also Protestantism, the antithesis of Catholicism. While the Dutch had scarcely any direct contact with French settlers, the British tried early on to oust the French from the St Lawrence valley. They succeeded in 1629, but, with the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, England returned the colony to France. As both countries continued to colonize North America, their territories collided and the sources of conflict multiplied – in Acadia, on Hudson Bay, in the pays d’en haut. Even the St Lawrence valley was threatened, and in 1690 it was invaded by land and water. Admiral Sir William Phips besieged the town of Quebec but, afraid of being immobilized by the freezing of the St Lawrence, he withdrew without a confrontation. The Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 settled nothing. Four years later the controversy over the Spanish Succession rekindled the conflict between France and Britain, and in 1702 they were at war again. In 1710 Britain, pressured by its American colonists, revived its plan for a two-pronged invasion, by land and sea, but without success. When several ships in the fleet of Admiral Horatio Walker broke up on the reefs on the north shore of the Gulf of the St Lawrence, the invaders fled.

After the signing of the disastrous Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, France tried to plug the holes. In the Great Lakes region, the French built powerful fortified posts also while trying to isolate and drive back the Fox nation, whom they finally overcame only after several armed conflicts in 1712, 1726, and 1734. At the heart of the colony, the authorities put in place a system of defence, erecting ramparts around Quebec and Montreal and constructing bastions and batteries. To block the route along Lake Champlain, France rebuilt Fort Chambly in 1731. During this period of peace, which lasted until 1744, the colony resembled a fortified camp. Indeed, 75 percent of the funds that the king assigned to New France were aimed at military objectives – and with good cause. From 1744 to 1748 the War of Austrian Succession was transplanted to the New World. Once again, the signing of a treaty, this time at Aix-la-Chapelle, settled nothing.

It was thus not surprising that the military were important in Canadien society, and it could even be maintained that the dispatch of regular troops from 1665 on left a strong military imprint on the colony. Many of the soldiers became settlers and their officers frequently married rich Canadienne heiresses. Their sons also joined the military, one of the most effective levers of social promotion. All male settlers aged sixteen to sixty automatically became members of the militia, which was organized into local sections based on parish divisions. Belonging to the militia could serve as a springboard to higher positions: in the seventeenth century, seigneurs wishing to become ennobled by the king liked to draw attention to their service as officers in the militia, and after 1700 bourgeois seeking a prestigious post did the same. It is even possible that the poor behaviour and lack of discipline so characteristic of the French in Canada and especially of the Canadiens had its roots in this ancien régime military culture.

The final confrontation between France and Britain was triggered by economic issues. A French commander, Villiers de Jumonville, was killed while building a fort in the Ohio valley in July 1754. The following year, the war spread to the rest of North America, then to Europe. In this struggle, Britain could call upon four times more vessels and five times more men than France, while the funds approved by the British Parliament were twenty-five times greater than France’s. Military operations unfolded in two stages. Until 1758 French troops commanded by a Canadien, Governor Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil, were on the attack. They fought a war of raids and skirmishes and won several victories. However, the Marquis de Montcalm, sent by France to take command of the troops, opted instead to fall back and follow a defensive strategy. The French position collapsed on all fronts, and forts fell one after another. Quebec surrendered in September 1759 after the famous and symbolic battle of the Plains of Abraham. Montreal capitulated the following year.