The Birth of French Canadian Identity 1541-1867

The French Canadian identity was not born in an instant during the 20th century. French explorations commissioned by the crown were undertaken throughout the 16th century, most notably Cartier and Roberval’s exploration of the St. Lawrence River between 1541-1543. Despite difficulties with the native peoples, as well as the typical issues of low supplies and inferior knowledge of the land, French explorers were able to maintain enough hold over their entry points into the “New World” to begin trade talks with the native groups living in what would be known as Montreal. These initial incursions were to prove the mettle of the French in forging an existence in a harsh environment.

Several institutions that would endure three centuries of tumult were brought over to the New World by French explorers in further missions. The first institution established on the new soil was the fur trade and the rise of a significant economy for the French settlers. In comparison to native relations by fellow European exploratory groups, the French were rather amiable in dealing with the aboriginals of the St. Lawrence riverfront. They began to infiltrate Iroquoian and Algonquian communities near settlements, learning the language and establishing common trade ground with the natives. This was none too surprising in retrospect, considering the Algonquian tribes had made significant strides in lingual and mathematic endeavors that were ready made for this type of situation.

The other two institutions were born of a common purpose by European explorers, that of conversion and missionary work. Missions by French Catholics were established further west from early settlements, allowing for greater contact with the native peoples and creating new points of development for the French crown. Catholicism was not the only side of assimilation in the New World; in many occasions, French explorers, soldiers, and settlers settled with native communities, raising families and developing racially heterogeneous areas.

Catholicism did not merely exist as a religious movement in the new land, passively accepting converts and long time parishioners. The missionaries and clergy that arrived from France proved to be the first major authority figures in French Canada, providing guidance in their natural ability to lead large groups of people. The final institution, seigneuralism, was born of this natural leadership and a need for established authority in an untamed territory. Seigneuralism was essentially the system of rural community, directed largely by Catholic clergy and missionaries, which existed not only as an economic outlet but also a governmental body. The seigneurs, or landowners, allowed settlers to farm small plots of land while providing a gristmill and an atmosphere of community centered on Church and market. The seigneur was paid dues, offered deference by his tenants (censitaire), and was respected by the growing colonial government. Though the institution would die out in practice in the 1840s, seigneuralism lived on as the spirit of community for French Canadians and helped create the fault lines between the French and their New World conquerors, the British.

As the French and Indian War concluded in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, with the conquering of Canada by the British Empire, the French in Canada and their allied native groups like the Pontiacs girded for political domination. What became obvious even before the handing over of Quebec to the British was that there was a distinctive French Canadian community that was intricately tied to this particular land. Considering the amount of time that had been given to establish long term institutions for French settlement, a substantial economic structure, and a relationship with Canadian aboriginals, it was no surprise that early on their would be rough times for the British government in their new colony. Resentment, frustration, and the outward expression of these two emotions would arise in the 19th century and would continue up to, and through, the Quiet Revolution.
British governor James Murray had a difficult task ahead of him. He could crush any possibilities of rebellion within the former French colony and, in doing so, any liberties provided prior to 1763. The other likely option was to allow the French free reign over their land, which would allow dissent and frustration to bubble over in the young British territory. Murray and his superiors in the Old World decided to use a forceful policy of assimilation to gain order in the colony. What the British underestimated was the fact that the 70,000 French settlers in North America had a distinctive culture from the British North Americans and even from the European French. This distinction would be born out of the lack of camaraderie between the Canadian French and the revolutionaries in Paris in 1789. But at this point, the French saw their conquerors as greedy and oppressive rulers without care for the diversity of their empire.

This last statement would prove to change quickly with the rise of discontent in the other British North American territory, the thirteen colonies that would become the United States. As anger and resentment against England’s tightening grip over the North American economy grew in the colonies, the British colonial government in Canada saw the possibilities of French insurrection in the 1770s. Murray first loosened the ties on Catholicism amongst the French, allowing clergy to resume their roles as community leaders and to have stronger control over the seigneural system. However, Murray and the British were able to choose the bishop representing the French in Canada, allowing British control over religion in French Canada. In 1774, the Quebec Act recognized this possibility and allowed the French to regain language rights and retain the original boundaries of Quebec. This boundary would provide a measure of where the French language and the culture would begin and end in Canada. The British proved savvy early on in providing the French with concessions in order to keep them from rebelling, an example of how England would successfully deal with French Canadians through to the 20th century.

The line of demarcation between the French and British in Canada continued to grow in 1791, following both the loss of the British in the American Revolution and the bloody revolution in France. The Constitution Act of 1791 created two assemblies to govern over the colony, one for the British portion and one for the French portion (divided into British Upper and French Lower Canada). The issue that would prove to be major through the Union Act of 1840 was that the assembly was far more representative to Upper Canada than it was to Lower Canada. Compared to the rapidly growing French population, which numbered 70,000 in 1763, the English population was significantly lower at 60,000 in the same period. Also affecting these numbers was the relationship between the birthrate amongst French Canadians and English immigration policies. The French birthrate, which would be deemed “revenge of the cradle” in the early twentieth century, exceeded the amount of immigrants coming into Canada by significant amounts. Therefore, with the representation being static at an equal amount between Upper and Lower Canada, the assembly was far more representative for the British than the French.

Developments from the end of the 18th century until 1837 fomented the growing pains of British colonialism in Canada. The Constitution Act of 1791 proved to be a sham, considering that while the assemblies were mostly proponents of tighter British rule and French nationalism, the executive branch of the government was always pro-British, as the Crown appointed these positions. Thus, the British were able to govern the economic and legal structures of the French Canadians. By 1837, over half of the seigneural lands were purchased by the British, a targeted campaign not only to sweep power away from the French but also to have stronger control over the profitable agricultural resources of Quebec. While the French were allowed to be censitaires on the seigneural lands and Catholic clergy were still significant as community leaders, the output and resources of this long lasting community structure were now in the hands of the British.

Along with economic and political discontent, there was a rise in the number of educated French Canadians at the beginning of the century. The opening of Canadian borders following the War of 1812 and the beginning of industrialization in the colony allowed more Europeans to come over, especially from the British Isles. Similarly, there was an increase in French immigration in the first two decades of the 19th century and by the time 1837 came, the educated French immigrants became leaders in communities and represented the francophone perspective to the British. The French Revolution and ideas of French nationalism and equality in particular influenced these leaders, establishing the Patriote movement in resistance to British oppression.

Lord Durham, the British governor during this time period, had to contend with all of these developments while being able to see ahead to what increased feelings of French nationalism might mean. Durham had suggested a plan for uniting Lower and Upper Canada as far back as 1822 to the British Parliament in an attempt to solidify control over Quebec. This idea was rejected in Parliament and the French community both in Quebec and Ontario were infuriated by the attempt to destroy French identity in Canada. Durham constantly faced the possibility of reprisals by the French against the British community and was disappointed that Canada was “two nations warring within the bosom of a single nation.” Despite this disappointment, the British chose to deal with the problem of French nationalism by engaging in an economic takeover of seigneuralism while ignoring largely the French culture and social values. This would prove to be a flash point for the Patriote movement and the French Canadian community far beyond the ensuing riots of 1837.

The riots of 1837 and 1838 can best be characterized as a confederation of singular political protestations under the banner of pushing out British capitalist structures from Canada. Some groups wanted to retake the seigneural system specifically, some wanted to strike back more generally against the British, and some even wanted to overhaul the French civil legal system. These divisions proved to be critical because organization of strikes and riots were roughshod and, lacking great leaders, inspiration for these acts of resistance was quickly suppressed by superior British armed forces. As violence continued throughout Upper and Lower Canada, Lord Durham and his British military cohorts applied martial law in the form of the Riot Act. This allowed for military forces to control communities engaged in violence and suppressing rights and legal privileges for the duration of the conflict. The Riot Act was used at unprecedented levels in comparison to the other colonies of the British Empire, which showed the French Canadians the gravity of the situation.

The 1837 rebellion by these varied opponents of British capitalism was quashed by 1838, ending in the success of Lord Durham in maintaining British dominance and the resurrection of the Union Act. Durham saw the French as a people stuck on ancient concepts of social values and government, a direct attack on their Catholic background and their prior colonial experiences. The Union Act would not only prevent further violence like that of 1837; it would expedite the process of assimilation into the British Empire and solidify economic dominance. Durham’s pleas for the union of Upper and Lower Canada and the elimination of artificial barriers to unification were met with acceptance in 1840, with the act taking effect early in 1841.

It can be said that the rebellion by the Patriotes and other French fighters was counterproductive because prior to 1837 the French in Canada were largely ignored by the British Empire and by English Canadians. While this may be an indictment against the British, the French were certainly given concession by the colonial government, including representative government, freedom over language, and freedom to practice their religion in their communities. The French Canadians were a conquered people and to expect more than this from their rulers merely four decades after the new government was in place would have been folly. However, the assessment given above considering the success or failure of the rebellion is shortsighted. The French Canadians had a significant history in North America, had developed relationships with indigenous people, and had institutions geared toward long term development. To expect anything else from the Quebecois than their resistance to any move by the British Empire would be foolish.

The Union Act and the subsequent growth of industrialization in a unified Canada made possible discussions of a confederacy of Canadian provinces. The reason for Confederation was largely economic, as the need to create a unified Canadian transportation and trade network proved to be greater than what the Union Act could provide. The leaders of Quebec and Ontario, representing the two “races” of Canada, were much more amicable to each other than their predecessors in negotiation. Foreign competition, especially by the burgeoning capitalist power United States, proved to be a unifying fear by French and English leaders alike. The confluence of events that led to Confederation is quite amazing in retrospect, considering the animosity of the riots of only two decades earlier and the wide differences between English and French notions of the future of Canada.

The first real discussions of governmental rearrangement took place in 1857, largely in the form of articles in French and English language discussing the downsides of the Union Act. The most significant dialogue between Canada West (Quebec) and Canada East (Ontario) took place between 1864 and 1867. These discussions branched out to include New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the original Confederation, but Quebec Attorney General George Ettiene Cartier and British Prime Minister John MacDonald did the heavy lifting. Cartier, by all accounts, was as pro-British as a French leader could be and was willing to bend back on some principles to make Confederation possible. MacDonald represented the solidly capitalist and assimilationist policy of the British and saw Confederation as a means to taking advantage of Quebec’s abundant resources. John MacDonald saw Cartier’s Anglophonic tendencies as an opportunity to strike a deal to make Ontario and the other British Canadian provinces superior economically to Quebec.

Several groups undertook the opposition to Confederation. French Catholic leaders saw this new political arrangement as detrimental to their authority in Quebec and also a fast track to the growth of urban centers. The strength of Catholicism in Quebec was its rural nature and with a growing exploitation of resources, urban-based industrial factories would overtake the farm and the seigneural system as the primary economic mover in Quebec. Labor leaders, who became prevalent in the 1850s because of labor strikes, feared the loss of French civil rights and privileges in the province. As well, they feared the loss of income from Quebec because the British would have more of a hand in the production and output of lumber and marine trades. Finally, the academic elites of the French classical colleges produced major critics of the Confederation plan. Largely, these members of the intelligentsia were harkening to French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. They wanted the maintenance of the French identity and, like subsequent critics of Confederation, thought the French Canadians of Quebec could support themselves by utilizing their own natural resources and trade routes.

Above the opposition by French Catholic leaders, labor leaders, and a protesting intelligentsia, Cartier and MacDonald submitted their support to the British North America Act of 1867. The Act was passed through the assemblies in Quebec City and Ottawa and approved by the British Parliament, thereby allowing Canada to become a confederacy of provinces. The Confederation grew to accept the Northwest Territory and Manitoba in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, and Prince Edward Island in 1873.

The structure of this government was to allow a great deal of autonomy by the individual provinces, allowing control over most economic policies, immigration, and social legislation. The federal government at the inception of the British North America Act was to bring together the issues common to the provinces, most notably defense, transportation, and international trade issues. The federal parliament, located in Ottawa, solely had decision-making control over the larger issues, with the Governor General being a decorative position. The individual legislatures in each province had control over those issues appropriate to their level of influence, with the provincial Premier being the figurehead of provincial government. The fact that the capital of the Confederation was located in Ottawa was an obvious affront to the French, but considering the growing number of English speaking Canadians, along with the fact that only one province (Quebec) had a majority of francophones, Ottawa was the logical choice for Canadian parliament. This choice and the inclusion of more English-friendly provinces proved to be frustrating for the French but contributed to the future assimilation of French Canada into a united Canada.

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