From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/French Canadians/Yves Frenette
In 1760, with New France under British occupation but the war not yet over in Europe, it was still not clear whether the colony would remain in British hands. Britain had also captured the French West Indies, and it was uncertain which colony would remain British and which would be returned to France. Since France was determined to keep the West Indies, which were considered more profitable, British diplomats had to be content with Canada. In the Treaty of Paris, signed on 10 February 1763, France ceded its North American lands to Britain. Canadiens had eighteen months to leave the country, if they so wished, and those who stayed behind had the right to practise their faith “as far as the laws of Great Britain permit.” In October, however, a proclamation by King George III revealed the conquerors’ intentions. Britain would dismember New France and institute new administrative structures. The Ohio valley and the Great Lakes would become a native territory administered directly by the mother country.
In 1775 there were about 600 French and Canadiens in the region around Detroit; fifteen years later, there were 3000. At the heart of this community were fur-trading families who had settled there under the French regime and now easily adapted to British rule. They generally became loyal British subjects, although at times with some hesitation. Thus, after being imprisoned by the conquerors, Jacques Baby dit Dupéront proved his loyalty by fighting alongside the British in the war against the native chief, Pontiac. Later he worked for the Department of Indian Affairs; in 1785 Governor Guy Carleton named him a justice of the peace, and four years later Baby became one of the seven members of the council of the newly created District of Hesse (in western Ontario). Two of his sons were intimately involved in the political life of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) right from its birth in 1791. The Babys and other well- placed French-speaking families formed alliances with powerful British families, which further augmented their prestige and power.
By the early nineteenth century, as trading gradually gave way to agriculture and migrants trickled in from the St Lawrence valley, the population of the Detroit-Windsor region increased. From the banks of the Detroit River, Canadiens spread out across southwestern Upper Canada and Michigan. During the 1820s they founded the villages of Grand Rapids, Bay City, Midland, and Grand Haven. As the fur trade declined, they turned increasingly to fishing and agriculture. The cultural survival of these little communities was made difficult by a heavy American influx, which resulted in language assimilation. At mid-century, 20,000 Canadiens in Michigan, 70 percent of whom were born north of the border, made up only 5 percent of the state’s population.
This brief sketch of the Detroit-Windsor region illustrates the fate of most Canadiens in the pays d’en haut and the west from the British conquest to the middle of the nineteenth century. In the short term, their cultural and economic structures survived. In the long term, they lived through the transition from a trading economy to an agricultural economy and became anglicized as a result of increasing contact with an Other that was superior in numbers and prestige. Their migrations were influenced by changing continental and regional socioeconomic structures and by shifting political borders. Finally, their culture was transformed and new cultures were born out of it.
Over half a century and more, depending on the location, the fur trade continued to shape Canadien communities to the south, west, and north of the Great Lakes. Thus the Rousseaus, father and son, were active in the area of Toronto from 1768 to 1793, continuing the work of traders established there since 1716. And in 1795 Pierre Ménard, a merchant from Saint-Antoine on the Richelieu River, moved to Kaskaskia in the Illinois country. Ménard shipped furs to Montreal and New Orleans. In 1808 he became a shareholder in the St Louis Missouri Fur Company and played an important role as negotiator with the natives. Ten years later he crowned his career by becoming lieutenant governor of the new state of Illinois. His nephew Michel founded Galveston, Texas, in 1836. Canadiens also helped found two important trade centres, St Louis in 1764 and Chicago in 1812.
The conquest did not substantially change the lives of the voyageurs. They gradually shifted from being employed by French and Canadien entrepreneurs to being hired by English-speaking merchants, especially the North West Company, founded around 1775. The majority of company shareholders were anglophones from Montreal, but most of the employees were Canadiens. Thus, the first white person in what is now Yukon and the Northwest Territories was Laurent Leroux, who founded Fort Resolution in 1786 and Fort Providence, twenty kilometres from Yellowknife, four years later. Leroux accompanied the explorer Alexander Mackenzie as far as the Beaufort Sea in 1787. Later, a number of Canadiens settled in the valley of the Mackenzie River. In 1805 there were almost 1,000 Canadien employees at Fort William in northwestern Upper Canada. In 1821, however, after a long and sometimes violent rivalry, the North West Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and this long-established British company had less cause to hire Canadien voyageurs.
By the first half of the nineteenth century, the fur trade was in decline. Some voyageurs became guides, interpreters, and carters. With enormous mule convoys, these “mountain men” accompanied explorers and settlers who ventured into the North American west. In 1804 the famous American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met and used the services of Charbonneau, Drouillard, Tabeau, Garreau, and others on their long journey. Twenty-one years later, Sir John Franklin recruited four experienced voyageurs from Georgian Bay for his Arctic expedition. On Allumette Island in the Ottawa River, missionaries passing through in 1835 encountered more than 250 old voyageurs living “in dissoluteness and excess” as they awaited the westbound convoys. With time, however, most voyageurs became sedentary farmers and settled near their merchant-trader employers, whose lands they cleared.
Voyageurs recruited in the St Lawrence valley by merchants and fur-trading companies were part of a vast movement of peoples throughout the west between 1760 and 1840. Like many migrants before and after him, Pierre Ménard brought members of his family and his former neighbours to Illinois. His nephew did the same in Texas. Political upheavals also resulted in migratory movements. In 1765, when Britain took possession of the east bank of the Mississippi, several Canadien merchants and farmers in Illinois sold their lands to new English and American arrivals and crossed the great river to settle in Spanish territory. Canadiens in Cahokia founded St Charles and also settled in St Louis, which had been founded a year earlier by Pierre Laclède. Farther south, Canadiens and French from Kaskaskia took refuge in the area around Sainte-Geneviève, a post founded in 1735.
During the American Revolution, sixty families from Detroit moved to the other side of the Detroit River, near Windsor-Sandwich. During the War of 1812 the small French communities in Kingston and the Toronto area were swelled by the arrival of francophone soldiers along with artisans who accompanied the regiments. Sometimes economic, political, and military factors combined to create new communities. This was the case with Penetanguishene, on Georgian Bay, founded by former voyageur families from Michillimackinac, who had left the area when the Canadian-American border was drawn and wandered through the Great Lakes region. Several men enlisted with the companies of light infantry on Drummond Island during the War of 1812 and some moved to Penetanguishene when the British built a naval base there in 1814–15. Others joined them in 1828. Most of the former voyageurs settled on small plots of land.
While there was some adaptation, Canadiens in the west generally replicated the social and cultural structures of the St Lawrence valley, including long strips of land with water frontage, Norman-style houses, and a rich folklore whose roots reached back to medieval France. These Canadiens established their own institutions, particularly parishes and schools. However, close contact with the natives meant that mixed marriages, “in the style of the country,” were frequent, especially when the North West Company moved west and expanded the time-honoured practice of sending traders directly into native areas and encouraging mixed marriages as a way to facilitate trade. By the end of the eighteenth century, these marriages had given birth to a new people, the Metis.
The Church supported the Canadien presence by founding missions and later parishes here and there throughout the area. As with their predecessors in New France, missionaries were central figures in the history of the west after 1763. Merchants, voyageurs, and missionaries did the work of pioneers in the west. However, with the exception of isolated pockets like the lead-mining community in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, they rapidly became minorities as the plains and prairies filled with immigrants from other countries. In some places, the Canadiens were quickly absorbed. In others, ethnic diversification resulted in tension and conflicts. Thus, in 1799 the authorities of Upper Canada questioned the validity of the certificates of two Lower Canadian teachers who taught at a school in Windsor. Several decades later, in 1830, francophone parents had to fight to save their school from being moved by anglophone ratepayers, and the reluctance of some European immigrant Catholics to practise their faith in French-speaking parishes caused territorial divisions.
In the United States, problems rapidly arose between Canadien parishioners and the American bishops. Throughout the continent, stereotypes developed about the character of the Canadiens. They were depicted as complacent, showing little initiative, and dominated by a clergy almost as ignorant as its flock. Thus, the readers of An Apology for Great Britain, published at Quebec in 1809 by Ross Cuthbert, could read that “the population of this Province [Lower Canada] forms a small compact body inert in its nature, without one principle of percursion, and exhibiting its infant face, surcharged with all the indications of old age and decay.”
As in the west, it is useful to distinguish between the short- and long-term effects of the British conquest in the St Lawrence valley. Although unquestionably a source of insecurity, the conquest changed little in the daily lives of most of the inhabitants, who had become used to the vicissitudes of war. They were no doubt relieved to be able to rebuild their farms. For the small shopkeepers and artisans of the towns, it was even a change for the better, since prices dropped and money began to circulate again after the scarcity of the war years. Over the long term, however, the conquest introduced the British into Canada and gave them political and economic power. In the eyes of Canadiens, the British became “les Anglais,” a symbol of their ills. This notion of the Other would begin to be expressed politically at the turn of the nineteenth century, but it became deeply rooted in the popular mind early on. Phrases such as “something the English won’t swallow” expressed the feelings of Canadiens and their French-Canadian descendants about the British presence in Canada. Nationalist feelings, already mildly evident under the French regime, were stirred up by the arrival of the British.
In 1763 the Royal Proclamation expressed the British government’s intention to make Canada a colony like the others, serving the well-being and might of the mother country, whose institutions the colony would replicate – with the exception of an elected assembly. The equivocal status granted to the Catholic Church under Britain’s religious policy reflected the intolerance of the period. Although British law did permit the practice of Catholicism in its lands, the people were reminded that this was only a pragmatic form of tolerance, since the law did not allow for a Catholic Church hierarchy in a territory ruled by the Crown. From the start, governors of the colony frequently received instructions stressing the promotion of Anglicanism and Protestant institutions and encouraging the conversion and anglicization of the Catholic Canadiens.
Weakened by the effects of several years of war and by the loss of a third of its numbers through death or departure, the Catholic Church lacked the means to continue and was at risk of disappearing altogether. Through its refusal to recognize the pope’s authority, the British Crown prevented the nomination a new bishop after de Pontbriand’s death in 1760 and hindered the recruitment of new priests. Moreoever, Canadiens could not aspire to senior administrative positions, since anyone in the service of the king had to take the oath of the Test Act, which denied the transubstantiation of the Eucharist and papal authority.
These administrative measures were extremely ill-suited to the St Lawrence valley, now renamed the “Province of Quebec.” By instituting British civil law, the new rulers eroded the foundations of Canadien society. The imposition of the Test Act, excluding Canadiens from administrative positions, effectively subjected them to the English Protestant minority. The assimilationist policy was unacceptable to the Canadiens, who sent a stream of petitions to London denouncing it. In practice, Britain’s inability to draw English-speaking immigrants into its new colony fast enough made the anglicization of the province of Quebec impracticable. Only a small number of merchants settled in the towns, hoping to gain some political clout through their economic pursuits. As well, with the threat of revolt in the American colonies growing ever more serious, the colonial authorities had to secure the Canadiens’ support against the future insurgents.
Because of all these considerations, the Crown initiated a new policy, whose principal proponents were the colony’s first governors, James Murray and Guy Carleton. As career officers, they mistrusted the English-speaking merchants, who had been calling for a legislative assembly. Moreover, Murray and Carleton were generally sympathetic towards the seigneurs and the Catholic clergy, whom they saw as conservative forces in a changing society. Drawing on Canadien support, the governors pressured London to adapt its colonial policies to the realities of a French Catholic society whose economy was founded on a continent-wide fur trade.
A compromise was reached in the religious sphere. In 1766 Jean-Olivier Briand was consecrated bishop in France and authorized to enter Quebec. He was even allowed to receive a pension. The event was significant and symbolic, and its impact was felt beyond the confines of strictly religious concerns. Canadiens, wrote Gilles Chaussé, “had the impression ... that they were getting their revenge on the English.” In 1774 London bestowed a constitution on the province, known as the Quebec Act, as a temporary measure to win over its new subjects. This law replaced the Royal Proclamation and inaugurated a more realistic policy, which reannexed the west, opened administrative posts to Catholics, reinstituted French civil law, and allowed Canadiens to enjoy “the free exercise of the religion of the Church of Rome, subject to the King’s supremacy.”
Canadien seigneurs suffered a great deal as a result of the British conquest. Largely excluded from administrative and military positions by the British nobility, the hundred or so seigneurs who remained in the country withdrew to their lands. Their own farms and seigneurial dues provided them with incomes that were barely sufficient to their needs, and so they were forced to curry favour with the conquering powers. After 1774 the British won the seigneurs’ support by, among other means, granting them seats on councils and posts in the militia, which they often acquired via connections gained through marriage. The sociologist Fernand Dumont captured the tragedy of the Canadien nobility: “Under the Ancien Régime, they simply knew they were an elite; from now on, they had to insist on it.” The seigneurs were not generally loved by the people. Their lack of popular influence was made evident during the American invasion of 1775, when they proved incapable of convincing the habitants to take up arms against the rebels. Their opposition to the institution of a legislative assembly in 1791 was no more successful. Some participated enthusiastically in the War of 1812, seeing in it an opportunity to prove their valour and redeem themselves in the eyes of both the authorities and the people.
The Church also tended to have good relations with the conquerors, through habit and theological conviction as much as political strategy. Concerned about its authority, the Church worried a great deal about maintaining Canadien moral standards. Some parishioners refused to pay the tithe, a small number refrained from going to mass and participating in the sacraments, and a few even challenged religious authority. As the Canadien population grew, the Church increasingly lacked priests: no more than 400 priests were ordained during the first seventy years of the British regime, and the ratio of parishioners to priests increased from 350 in 1760 to 1830 by the late 1820s. Because priests had to serve more than one parish at a time, they wore themselves out and often fell sick and died prematurely, which only intensified the pressure on those who remained.
During the American invasion of 1775 Bishop Briand and many priests publicly declared that loyalty to the British Crown was a small price to pay for the political and religious generosity of a “beneficent government, whose designs are only in your interest and for happiness.” But the habitants hesitated. “Accustomed to bearing the brunt of military adventures either as members of the militia or as suppliers to the troops,” writes the historian Susan Mann Trofimenkoff, “they intended this time just to wait and see.” Neither government nor seigneurs nor clergy could convince them to join the militia and take up arms against the rebels; instead, they stayed neutral and aimed to profit from the situation. They offered food for sale to the Americans, hoping to be paid in the coin of the realm, but when the invaders tried to pay with paper money, reminding the habitants of the bad days of the Seven Years’ War, the food soon disappeared. They also mistrusted Americans who could promise religious freedom while denouncing the Quebec Act as a popish plot.
The small minority who joined the invaders’ campaign and later welcomed French revolutionary emissaries suffered for their actions. Michel Arbour was a habitant from Saint-Vallier, east of Quebec City, and a son of “Bostonnais,” that is, parents who supported the American revolutionaries. To obtain permission to marry in 1793 he had to declare himself “a faithful royalist, fully subject to the King of England and ready to serve when commanded.” The French Revolution only confirmed the Church in its conclusions that the conquest had been a providential event, enabling Canada to escape the unhappy fate of its former colonial parent.
American independence carried a heavy price for Canadiens. The conflict brought about what British policies could not – the arrival in the colony of 7,000 British refugees. These Loyalists called for a parliamentary system and British civil law. While the government could not remain deaf to the demands of its loyal British subjects, it also had to keep in mind the aspirations of the Canadiens. The compromise solution in 1791 was the Constitutional Act, which divided Canada into two provinces, Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario). Each province would have its own Legislative Assembly, which jointly with the appointed Legislative Council was empowered to pass laws.
The following year, a special edict was added to the Constitutional Act establishing an Executive Council, named by the king and responsible only to the governor and not to the elected members of the assembly. This measure answered the concerns of the colonial authorities, who feared granting too much power to the middle classes – especially merchants, both English and French, who had long been demanding a legislative assembly. The edict, however, invalidated the new constitution from the start since it offered no possibility for resolving conflicts that might arise between the assembly and the Executive Council. But for the time being, everyone celebrated the advent of the new constitution.
In the first election in Lower Canada, in May 1792, thirty- four French-speaking and sixteen English-speaking members were elected, although no riding contained a majority of anglophone voters. Several conflicts attested to the presence of French-English rivalry from the start of the parliamentary system in Canada. The very first debate in the new political forum focused on the appointment of the assembly’s speaker, with members arguing over which linguistic community he should represent. Jean-Antoine Panet, whose knowledge of English was reputed to be imperfect, was elected with the support of the francophone majority despite the solid opposition of the anglophone members. The second debate, concerning the language in which the official texts of legislation were to be written, gave rise to the same split. A compromise was finally accepted, in which all members could use the language of their choice in the assembly, the journal of debates was to be bilingual, the French text of legislation would take precedence in civil matters, and the English text would take precedence in criminal law. In response to the acrimonious tone of the debate, Lieutenant Governor Alured Clark reminded the members of the advantages of “racial” harmony in the colony.
Later debates reflected this ethnic split as well as the differing interests and shifting alliances of various social groups. The British business class had regularly run into difficulties with the governors. Conscious of their small numbers, they formed alliances with bureaucrats and seigneurs, arguing that political power be based on property and wealth and exercised through the executive and legislative councils. Moreover, a new social group was in the process of being formed – the Canadien lower-middle and middle classes, which grew faster than the population as a whole. This group was made up of lawyers, notaries, doctors, surveyors, and merchants. Often the sons of well-to-do farmers, they were dependent on the Canadien people for their income. In a largely illiterate society, their education gave them great prestige. Feeling excluded from power, these professionals were caught up in the intellectual currents sweeping Europe at the time. Some were won over by the liberalism and secularism that had emerged out of the revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Some became nonbelievers and opposed the clergy, who vied with them for the loyalty of the people.
The new middle classes used the Lower Canadian assembly to define the interests of the Canadiens and counter the goals of their adversaries. These classes produced the first champions of the people – Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, François Blanchet, Louis-Joseph Papineau, John Neilson, and Wolfred Nelson, who joined together to form the Parti Canadien in 1806. The school question (1801), prisons (1805), lack of responsible government (1808–10), union of the two Canadas (1822), and subsidies and control of government spending (virtually throughout this period) all aroused confrontations between the Canadien members and the English coalition. In a controversial interpretation but one containing much truth, the historian Jean-Pierre Wallot wrote, “Each of the two ethnic groups ... had its own aspirations for development, which both ignored the other’s and opposed it.” It is important to emphasize, however, that in the early nineteenth century the leaders of the Parti Canadien remained loyal to Britain, whose political institutions they admired. Indeed, it was often as British subjects that they called for their rights.
In 1791 the new province of Lower Canada contained 172,000 inhabitants, 88 percent of whom were French-speaking. The Canadiens continued to multiply at a rapid rate: their numbers grew by about 2.7 percent a year in the first half of the nineteenth century and doubled every twenty-five to twenty-eight years. In 1840 almost all the desirable seigneurial lands were taken and the seigneurs speculated on those still available. The St Lawrence valley was enormously overpopulated and the settlements became denser, especially along the axis of the St Lawrence, near the towns of Montreal, Quebec, and Trois-Rivières. The old parishes were filled to overflowing. Seigneuries granted during the French regime were fully exploited, especially south of the Richelieu River. The north shore of the Ottawa River, on the edge of the Laurentians, was slowly tamed. A few settlers also made homes for themselves on the other side of the river, in the Upper Canadian seigneury of Pointe à l’Orignal. To the east, the Lower St Lawrence drew settlers. Occasionally, migrants tried their luck south of the border, in northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
The British policy of land concession accentuated the problem of Canadien overpopulation. The Land Office, established in 1792, made official the township system, in which lands were granted or sold to speculators, merchants, and friends of the regime. The townships were not accessible to farmers with no capital. In addition, Canadiens were little inclined to venture into areas that were organized in an unfamiliar township system and that lacked a social and religious infrastructure. Only settlers from Vermont and New Hampshire found success in the Eastern Townships, and their presence served to highlight the area’s reputation as foreign territory. It was only once population pressure became too great that Canadiens began to take the risk of settling there. In 1825 Charles Héon settled in the township of Blandford. He would be virtually the only Canadien there for more than a decade. Other settlers hesitantly moved north, especially towards the Saguenay River.
The family continued to be the nucleus of Canadien society at the turn of the nineteenth century, among both the lower classes and the well-to-do. The family ensured social cohesion and underpinned 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. Canadien oral culture had a saying for this inclination: “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 one brought an $8000 dowry to the nuptial union, we can conclude that they were marriages of convenience. “Rich families,” wrote Serge Gagnon, “exchanged material and symbolic goods – an exchange in which women were the favoured instrument.”
These forced marriages sometimes resulted in personal tragedies, of which women were mostly the victims. Even in happy marriages, like those of Louis-Joseph Papineau and of Julie Bruneau, the full weight of patriarchy could be felt. Although conditions for women were no rosier in peasant marriages, it appears to have been much more common for people in rural areas to marry for love. Separations were rare, and in these cases the husband was favoured even if he was drunken, repeatedly unfaithful, and violent. Church and state joined forces to subordinate women. “There are women,” commented Bishop Plessis in 1812, “who are not afraid of being beaten.”
Many women died in childbirth. The likelihood of losing one or several children was also great. As in other pre-modern societies, death held an important place in people’s minds, among the well-to-do no less than among the lower classes. Death invited reflection, meditation, and fear, and during epidemics it created panic, which was fully justified. Between 23 June and 17 September 1832 the cholera epidemic, which had spread out from Montreal and Quebec, reached the distant parish of Sainte-Élizabeth, northeast of Montreal. At least a hundred people died. To lessen the fear, the priest did not toll the bell, waiting for things to return to normal before he announced the deaths and proceeded with the customary prayers. The faithful flocked to the confessional. “If ever death came knocking,” Gagnon writes, “all wished to face the final passage equipped with passports for heaven.”
While they hoped for eternal life, Canadiens at the turn of the nineteenth century also knew how to take advantage of the fruits of life on earth. They were generous hosts and expected their generosity to be reciprocated when they were invited out. Indeed, their conviviality was evident in the frequent visits made among relatives, friends, and neighbours. This was especially the case in winter, when snow and sleighs made travel easy and when farm work virtually came to a halt, encouraging people to do more socializing. Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Mardi Gras were occasions to eat, drink, dance, and have fun, and it was not coincidental that January and February were the favourite months in which to get married. Throughout the year, Sunday Mass also offered an opportunity for get-togethers and animated discussions outside the church and in the salle des habitants, the large hall adjoining the presbytery.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the growth of capitalism brought far-reaching change to the Lower Canadian countryside. It was not a sudden transformation, but rather an evolution that took place faster in some areas than in others. In fact, tradition and change coexisted, sometimes in the same area. Capitalism took several forms. In some places the arrival of a merchant encouraged farmers to become more productive, a process that generated social differentiation. Inequalities between farmers existed from the early days of New France, but now they took on a new dimension. Some had more land, more capital, more means of production, more money, and fewer debts. At the other extreme, there were agricultural workers who had no land at all or had to content themselves with tiny plots on which they grew vegetables and kept a cow or pig. At the same time, the growth in trade, linked to population increase, along with the development of the Church and sometimes the growth of rural industries, encouraged the development of a network of hamlets and villages, both in the seigneuries and in the townships. While there were only about thirty of these settlements at the end of the eighteenth century, in 1831 they numbered more than 200 in the seigneuries alone.
In some regions, capitalism arrived quite suddenly. This happened in Sorel when the North West Company started to recruit voyageurs there in the 1790s. For thirty years, the seasonal departures of men and youth sustained the socio-economic life of this parish. The timber trade, however, was the primary instrument of the capitalist revolution in many parishes and regions in Lower Canada. After 1806 Napoleon’s continental blockade cut Britain off from its traditional suppliers of wood in the Baltic, forcing it to turn to Canada for supplies and encouraging it to impose a tariff that gave preferential rates to colonial timber in British markets. After 1810 the forest industry represented three-quarters of the entire export trade from Quebec City. Initially, a few habitants considered the forest industry a way to increase their incomes by cutting wood from their own plots. Later, the expansion of the timber trade spurred the opening of local markets whose agricultural products went to supply loggers settled in the winter lumber camps. And, of course, many habitants found work in the forests and sawmills.
The culture that developed in the camps was masculine, defined by hard labour, physical and financial insecurity, and independence of spirit. The lumberjacks’ independence was most evident in their swearing, their alcohol abuse, and their unique oral tradition. “Men sang of their wounds, death, solitude, and fear for their future,” writes historian Chad Gaffield, “but their songs (and legends) also gave witness to their courage and pride in belonging to such a remarkable community.” Workers developed a strong sense of identity and social cohesion in which work and security depended on each member. The masculine lumberjack culture found expression as well in a kind of ruggedness and sometimes even violence, as evidenced by physical confrontations. Men fought for their prestige and the battle did not end until one of the combatants could no longer fight. This kind of violent behaviour was especially common at the end of a long winter when the tension from months of a life that was both dangerous and monotonous began to lift.
The Ottawa valley was the first region of British North America to become a major logging centre. Entrepreneurs recruited men in the old rural parishes where the habitants and their sons were skilled with an axe. During the 1820s, close to 2,000 men travelled up the Ottawa River each year to go deep into the forest. On their return they passed through Bytown (present-day Ottawa) where they spent a good portion of their pay. From there, they brought the squared timber down the St Lawrence River on immense rafts called cages. From the port of Quebec City, hundreds of ships would carry the wood to Britain. In the 1830s, the majority of workers employed by Philemon Wright, the largest entrepreneur in the Ottawa valley, were Canadiens. Others were employed building canals. On the Rideau Canal construction site, half the skilled workers and almost three-quarters of the day labourers were Canadiens. The large public works and the forest industry encouraged new settlements, so that in the first half of the nineteenth century visitors to the area might note several clusters of Canadien settlers. These would grow in the decades to come.
But the forest industry exacerbated ethnic tensions. On their return voyage, ships that had transported timber from Canada now filled their holds with Irish immigrants. The majority were heading for Upper Canada and the United States, but inevitably a certain number competed with Canadiens for land in the rural areas of Lower Canada and for work in the towns and camps. Brawls were frequent, and in the Ottawa valley violence became the norm. In 1835 one Peter Aylen, a former sailor and now entrepreneur in the area around Bytown, gathered unemployed Irishmen together into the Shiners gang. They took it upon themselves to drive Canadiens out of the region. Feeling the strength of their numbers, the Shiners sauntered through the streets of Bytown, drinking and brawling with whoever dared get in their way. They eventually gained control of the town and would stop cages whose crews were Canadiens, breaking apart the rafts and driving away their occupants. The Canadiens retaliated by preventing the Irish raftsmen from crossing the Long Sault rapids northwest of Montreal. The violence sometimes resulted in fatalities. In the Canadiens’ minds, Irish immigration was also closely associated with the cholera epidemic of 1832, which they perceived as a deliberate British effort to kill them off.
It is important not to overdramatize the situation, however. Meetings between Canadiens and other groups took place amid conflict, but also accommodation. This was especially true among pioneers. In the Ottawa valley, for example, the bourgeois families of Philemon Wright and Joseph Papineau quarrelled about settlement and politics but also cooperated on a number of projects, such as improving the transportation network. On the other hand, there was no such accommodation with the natives of the St Lawrence valley. The Iroquois of Sault-Saint-Louis (Kahnawake) mistrusted their Canadiens neighbours, who returned the favour. Neither group wanted any contact with the other, although it was not until the Rebellions of 1837–38 that tensions actually exploded.
The onset of capitalism in the rural areas of Lower Canada made Canadiens more dependent on economic cycles. In many cases, it also created a part-time or full-time proletariat, toiling in the Ottawa valley sawmills or the flour mills of the Portneuf region. As Fernand Dumont commented, attitudes in many rural communities were long marked by the combination of wage labour and food growing. For some rural people, the differentiating effect of capitalism was synonymous with poverty. Many boys, as we have seen, had no option but to become agricultural workers. They made their way from one seigneury to another in search of work, without even the hope of an inheritance from their fathers with which they might buy land. In 1831 on the Île d’Orléans, near Quebec City, the government surveyor Joseph Bouchette described these people as “wretched beings only destined to increase the number of mendicants.” Misery also knocked at the doors of voyageurs in Sorel when the North West Company crumbled in 1821, and of many lumberjacks later in the century.
Many men left their parishes temporarily to earn their keep, returning to their homes only when the harvesting or logging was done. Some left their parishes for good and ventured to distant parts: young men from the south shore near Quebec City who hired on with the Price lumber company in Métis and Rimouski in the lower St Lawrence; boys from Côte-du-Sud who left for northern Maine; or lumberjacks from the Saint-Maurice valley who lived out their lives in Upper Canada.
Around 1825 the urban centres of Montreal and Quebec City each had a population of 25,000 and a growing labour force, a quarter of which consisted of women who worked mostly as domestics, day labourers, nuns, and teachers. In Montreal, their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons were employed as domestics, carters, and day labourers in the import-export business. Some artisans still made and sold their own shoes, clothes, and household utensils, but there were also larger production units employing labourers. Quebec City had a similar employment pattern, except that the timber trade was an additional source of seasonal employment for thousands of men. In 1810 some 6,000 dockers and sailors worked in the port of Quebec City, not counting log drivers and raftsmen who were passing through.
The Church continued to have difficulty maintaining social control. The clergy complained of the faithful’s lack of fervour. After a period of decline, the confréries began to attract members again, but Sunday attendance suffered. Too many parishioners missed the Sunday offices for the smallest of pretexts or devoted themselves to menial work normally banned on the Lord’s Day. Merchants sold their products as if it were a weekday; innkeepers even more so. Men would crowd into the back of the church or gather on the front steps during the sermon. Except in some villages where lumberjacks or labourers would descend on Saturday nights, serious dissipation was rare. Rote observance and lack of interest were the main targets of the religious authorities’ complaints and, much as they had done under French rule, priests reproached Canadiens for their spirit of independence.
British travellers and administrators tended to agree with the priests. George Heriot accused Canadiens of being poor servants, while Governor James Craig spoke of their insolence towards their superiors. The British were not mistaken, for there was great antipathy towards the conquerors. This antipathy was underscored on the political scene by the Parti Canadien, known from 1827 on as the Parti Patriote, which dominated the Legislative Assembly and was in perpetual conflict with the anglophone executive and the minority English party. Inspired by liberal and nationalist principles, the Parti Patriote advocated an independent judiciary, the supremacy of legislative over executive power, and the control of public spending by the assembly.
It had some interest in the idea of responsible government, but this remained a secondary element in its ideology, especially after the union crisis of 1822 when the American republican model gained support. During the 1830s the Parti Patriote went further, proposing that the Canadiens break with the European mother countries and cast their lot with other societies in the western hemisphere, especially the United States. Like Andrew Jackson’s Democrats south of the border, members of the Parti Patriote saw themselves as representatives of small landowners threatened by the oligarchy. Even a moderate such as Étienne Parent could describe the American republic in 1833 as “the only model we have to follow.”
The Parti Patriote took on the role of champion of civil liberties, notably the freedom of expression and the right of assembly, against the sometimes arbitrary measures of the colonial administration. In economic policy, some Patriotes advocated building canals on the Richelieu to encourage north-south trade, local manufacturing to reduce dependence on British imports, and free trade with the United States instead of the system of colonial preferences in the British market. But the Patriote members were quicker to promote agricultural interests – albeit a modern form of agriculture – than commercial ones, which they associated with the anglophone oligarchy. The economic arguments of Patriote leaders were far from precise and occasionally verged on the contradictory, reflecting the ambiguous social position of the Canadiens petty bourgeoisie.
Control over patronage became the main bone of contention in the conflict between the assembly and the executive. The struggle had colonial, national, social, and individual aspects. It was colonial because the patronage issue reflected a power struggle that pitted British representatives (the executive) against representatives of the colony (members of the assembly). It was national because the bureaucrats were mostly anglophone: Canadiens, who represented almost 90 percent of the Lower Canadian population, never succeeded in getting as many as 40 percent of government jobs. It was social because the nobility that surrounded the colonial administration held the lion’s share of jobs and the Canadiens petty bourgeois wanted more posts for themselves. Finally, it was individual because, if they could gain control over patronage, members of the assembly would be able to develop their own political clientele and work the system to their own financial advantage.
The debates were at an impasse. Each group was in a position to prevent the other from achieving its goals but not strong enough to achieve its own. The Parti Patriote increasingly argued for the independence of Lower Canada. With slogans like “Our institutions, our language, our laws,” they galvanized the farmers of the Montreal and Richelieu areas. As the Patriote leaders became more radical, spirits became more inflamed. During a by-election in Montreal in May 1832, troops called in to quell disturbances involving supporters of the Patriote candidate killed three Canadiens. The Patriote Daniel Tracey won the election and launched a campaign to condemn the killings. A jury exonerated the soldiers involved, and when the governor expressed his satisfaction with the verdict there was an uproar.
In November members arrived for the opening of the session. The assembly conducted its own inquiry into the Montreal events and refused to pay any allowances to the governor, who in turn decided not to ask the assembly for funds. Fifteen months later, in February 1834, the radical wing of the Parti Patriote presented to the assembly a long document filled with grievances, the famous Ninety-Two Resolutions, which recent historians have deemed “virtually a national bible.” After a long debate, during which the radical Patriotes were attacked by moderates as well as anglophone members, the document was adopted by close to a two-thirds majority.
The moderates’ defeat frightened the English party and bureaucrats, who prepared to resist the radical thrust. Paralysed by a crisis of its own, the imperial parliament did not make its reaction known until March 1837 when it adopted the Russell resolutions, rejecting the assembly’s demands and authorizing the governor of the colony to bypass the assembly in the expenditure of public funds. As historian André Garon writes, “Papineau and his supporters had to choose: submission or revolution.” In the spring of 1837 the Patriote leaders organized a series of mass meetings in the most populated rural regions of Lower Canada. In Saint-Charles, on the Richelieu, the radical Patriotes’ speeches glorified the people and looked to the models of the American and French revolutions. They evoked the right to happiness, prosperity, liberty, and honour. They conspicuously brandished French revolutionary bonnets and the habitants applauded their suggestion of melting spoons into bullets. For the moment, however, the Patriote leaders had to confine the fight to rhetoric. Indeed, like other bourgeois revolutionaries before and since, they feared the social repercussions of popular armed resistance and envisaged a long phase of political fighting instead.
But the Patriote partisans caught their leaders unawares by arming themselves and assembling in the Richelieu region and north of Montreal. On 6 November the members of two paramilitary groups, the Doric Club and the Fils de la Liberté, faced off in Montreal. In addition to calling in reinforcements from British troops camped in neighbouring colonies, the governor, Lord Gosford, authorized the formation of a militia. On 12 November he prohibited all assemblies. Four days later, he issued warrants for the arrest of the known leaders of the insurrectionist movement, who found refuge in the countryside.
After several skirmishes and the formation of armed camps by the Patriotes, government troops attacked Saint-Denis and Saint-Charles on the Richelieu on 22 November and followed with an attack on Saint-Eustache north of Montreal in December. The insurgents were poorly led, undisciplined, and poorly armed. They were castigated by the Church, which had long held a grudge against them for their anticlericalism. The Church reminded the people of the principle of obedience to established authority and asked them to distinguish real nationalism, subordinated to religion, from false nationalism. The bishop of Montreal, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, threatened to deprive the revolutionaries of the sacraments, and then carried out his threat.
The rebels in fact were a small minority, five or six thousand at most, concentrated exclusively in the Montreal area. They were easily crushed and had to find refuge in the United States, from where Robert Nelson tried in vain to reignite the revolution in February 1838. Crossing the border, Nelson issued an American-style declaration of Lower Canadian independence. Back in the United States he formed a secret society, the Frères Chasseurs, and some reports suggested that he had recruited almost 10,000 followers. But plans for a general uprising failed and Nelson was able to bring only a handful of men from the United States, along with a cannon and a few hundred guns. This force was no match for Sir John Colborne’s 6,000 men, consisting of regulars and militia recruited from the anglophone population.
The crackdown was fierce. After the battle of Saint-Denis, British troops ransacked the village. The scene was repeated in Saint-Eustache and its neighbouring parish, Saint-Benoît, where even the church was set on fire. After the 1838 insurrection, the government took more than 850 prisoners, including innocent habitants, and Colborne allowed his troops to devastate the villages of Laprairie County, south of Montreal. Troops set fire to eighty houses in Napierville and twenty in Châteauguay, and a Scottish regiment from Upper Canada seized 800 horses. The insurrection was crushed, and the armed uprising had also destroyed the political institutions of Lower Canada. The authorities proclaimed martial law, dissolved the assembly, suspended the constitution, and named a special council to administer Lower Canada until 1841. The state imprisoned hundreds of rebels, deported fifty-eight to Australia, and hanged twelve.
There is no doubt that the rebellions constituted a mass movement. No fewer than 80,000 people signed the 1834 petitions in favour of the Ninety-Two Resolutions. And although the armed uprising was confined to the Montreal region, pro-Patriote sentiment seems to have been widespread. It merely lacked the opportunity to make itself known since the rebellion was quickly quelled. In the rural areas of the district of Montreal, at least 5,000 people were directly involved in taking up arms in 1837, and even more appear to have taken part in 1838. In Nicolet, the Beauce region, Kamouraska, and Charlevoix, people seemed to be standing by. In Quebec City, as in Montreal, labourers massively participated in Patriote meetings. “In short,” concluded historian Fernand Ouellet, “the motives that roused the farmers, artisans, and day labourers of the Montreal region to revolutionary action were in play elsewhere to differing degrees.”
To be sure, the Patriotes never constituted an independent political force, but the middle classes were incapable of moderating their fervour. Threatening their adversaries, harassing them into resigning their posts, and creating their own militias, Patriote farmers were able to establish parallel governments in some parishes. They also made life hard for English settlers in the rural counties outside Montreal, whom they boycotted, harassed, and intimidated in various ways. In some cases, the intimidation turned to violence.
Since a rebellion had also broken out in Upper Canada, London became worried. The British government sent out John George Lambton, Lord Durham, an aristocrat and liberal businessman, as governor general of all British provinces in North America, with the mission of investigating and reporting on the situation. Durham made two recommendations to restore peace: first, to establish responsible government, as called for by the Reformers in both colonies, and secondly, to ensure a loyal English majority by assimilating the Canadiens. In Durham’s eyes, Canadiens were a people without history, faithless and backward, and gradual assimilation was a service to them: “I know of no national distinction marking and continuing a more hopeless inferiority ... It is to elevate them from that inferiority that I desire to give the Canadians our English character.” The imperial government rejected the first recommendation for the time being, but accepted the second.