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For an American, there is an ironic clue to the history of our neighbor to the north; she became a nation because her people did not wish to be swallowed up by the United States Quant aux Canadiens français, ils ne voulaient pas seulement éviter être absorbés par les États-Unis; ils ne voulaient pas davantage être absorbés parleurs compatriotes “anglais”
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
Generous the Quebec Act undoubtedly was, according to the practice of the times, nor is it right to presume that the motives behind it were cynical. But it was, with equal certainty, one of the most unwise acts a British government ever passed in regard to its own interests. Not only did it establish a state different in kind from any other within the British Empire, a state well-nigh feudal in its basic institutions; it enraged the already exasperated radicals of New England, who saw in it a calculated concession to Catholicism, to authoritarianism, and to the Old World conservatism which they hated. In addition, the newly established boundaries extending into the Ohio Valley, which the French Canadians had explored, were a threat to Virginia’s ambition to expand westward. The Quebec Act must therefore be listed as one of the more immediate causes of the American Revolution. Lexington followed the year after the act was passed, and a new era in Canadian-American relationships began.
Immediately after the Revolutionary War broke out, Montreal was occupied by a small American force. For several weeks Benjamin Franklin lived in the Château de Ramezay, negotiating with the leaders of the French Canadians in an effort to persuade them to join the Revolution. It is curious that this astute man should have hoped for success. Had his visits to France led him to believe that Quebec too was seething with ideas of democracy and constitutionalism? At any rate, the French Canadians baffled him just as they were later to baffle their English-speaking countrymen, who assumed that nothing would please them better than to be assimilated. Though the habitants might have welcomed the idea of independence from church and seigneur, they were not consulted; the decision rested with their own elite.
There was only one decision the French-Canadian elite could make. Not only were the clergy untouched by the ideas of the Enlightenment prevalent in France before the Revolution, prevalent there even among some of the Church’s intellectuals; they were strongly ultramontane, and the Vatican at that time was as implacably hostile to democracy as today it is hostile to communism. The leaders of a small people determined to preserve their religion and ethnic integrity could never have consented willingly to join a democratic revolution of Anglo-Protestants with whom they had been at war for years. While American troops occupied Montreal, the bishops played for time and talked with Franklin; the moment a British force came down from Quebec and drove the Americans out, they declared their loyalty to George III. It was not a loyalty based on affection, but on pure self-interest as the bishops and seigneurs saw it. Montreal became a British military base, and it was from Montreal that Burgoyne set out on the disastrous expedition that ended at Saratoga. It is because of French Canada’s role in these years that French Canadians to this day argue that they saved not only the French Fact in America, but the British Fact as well, for they held onto a territory to which the United Empire Loyalists could emigrate when the war ended in an American victory.
Canadian history is full of ironies, but none is quite so spectacular as the complete reversal of Lord Chatham’s hopes and plans two decades after that statesman seemed to have achieved total success. Now Britain was ousted from the very colonies for whose sake Chatham had fought his war. On the other hand, conquered Quebec now flew the Union Jack. The only other colonies that did so in the western hemisphere were the British West Indies, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia, which then included New Brunswick and some of the territory now in the state of Maine. It is no wonder that Canadians have such a built-in mistrust of skillfully laid public plans and policies. It has been their experience that few such plans fail to caricature themselves.
The next step in American-Canadian relations was the establishment of a boundary between the victorious states of the Revolution and what remained of British North America; and seldom in the history of diplomacy was more gained at a conference table than was gained by the Americans at Versailles in 1783. The British ministers—Shelburne’s Whigs—were unbelievably ignorant of the most elementary facts of North American geography, and it never occurred to them to invite anyone from Canada to inform them. They were confronted by John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin, possibly the most able team of negotiators that ever represented the United States. The Americans knew precisely what they wanted—a boundary settlement that would guarantee that the United States could never again be threatened from the north. Their strategic aim was so to weaken what remained of British influence on the continent that in time the United States would go all the way to the Arctic. The Canadians were excluded from the Ohio Territory and their fur traders from Grand Portage, and the border was set so far north—west of the Great Lakes as far north as the forty-ninth parallel—that Canada nearly strangled in the cradle. This was still an agricultural era, and the American negotiators knew how little arable land lay between that border and the Laurentian Shield. The English either did not know or did not care.