- Historic Sites
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
As so often happens in the case of what might be called leftover communities—Belgium is a classic European example—Canada’s history is so frustratingly complex that it defies focus. One cannot use the land as a focus because the land is too vast. Canada is geographically the world’s second-largest nation—the U.S.S.R. being the largest—widening broadly above the United States’ border and extending so far north that the northern islands verge on the Pole. But the size of the land is deceptive. Most of it forms the cold and rocky Laurentian Shield and is nearly useless for human habitation. Only about four per cent of modern Canada is under cultivation; it has been estimated that only seven per cent could ever be.
Culturally, Canadians are coeval with their American neighbors, and in terms of the arrival of the first settlers from Europe, the provinces of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Quebec are senior to Massachusetts by a few years. But this apparent equality of original stakes in the New World is again deceptive owing to the enormous differences between the terrain of eastern Canada and that of the eastern United States. There is so little good farm land in eastern Canada that in the early days the only important economic activities, above the level of the family subsistence farm, were fishing along the coasts and the fur trade of the interior. This meant that an urban culture grew very slowly. Quebec is older than any city in the north-eastern United States, but at the end of the War of 1812 her population was less than 30,000. At that time Montreal’s population was barely 15,000, yet the city had been the base of the fur trade for two centuries.
The effect of this huge, untamed land on the Canadian character cannot be estimated with any precision, but it has certainly been profound. Jf the Canadian character is now changing rapidly, it is partly because millions of Canadians no longer live on and with the land, though they are still more conscious of it than New Yorkers or Chicagoans. The huge growth of cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver in recent years has produced more excitement and material prosperity than contentment and firmness of character, and within another twenty-five years it is possible that a generation of city dwellers will exist to whom their ancestors will be quite alien. But any Canadian of middle age remembers vividly how things used to be. He knows that for years the Canadian experience was lonelier than the American; he remembers how harsh was the climate, how bitter the struggle to exist.
But what should be the focus in an attempt to make this curious country understandable? A useful one is the influence of the United States. It is by no means a perfect focus. It ignores many other powerful influences. It cannot do justice to the deep character-forming role of the Roman Catholic Church in French Canada; it overlooks many important institutions inherited from Britain, and it disregards the emotional pulls of Scottish and Irish clannishness. Nevertheless, actions performed for and by people living in the United States have again and again been decisive in the political and economic lives of Canadians.
In telling the Canadian story to an audience largely American, my best point of departure is the decision of Lord Chatham, during the Seven Years’ War, to destroy forever the French Empire in North America. His purpose was to gain the Ohio Territory for the Thirteen Colonies, and in order to do so, he not only had to remove the threat of French invasion from the north; he had to control the Laurentian waterways into the interior. Wolfe captured Quebec in order to make the continent safe for England’s American colonists. He made it so safe for them that a few years later they felt they could safely revolt.
The next important date in the Canadian-American relationship is the Quebec Act of 1774, which could easily serve cynics with the moral that political generosity never pays. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, had arranged for the ceding of New France, ils lands and its peoples, to the British Crown. The Quebec Act was intended to make them contented British subjects, and it paid strict attention—almost it paid homage—to French-Canadian institutions and to the French-Canadian character. Nobody can ever understand the French Canadians, and thereby the Canadian nation, unless his imagination can grasp the significance of the following facts:
For a century and a half before the Conquest of 1763, this tiny community of French settlers had endured repeated assaults by Indians and British colonial troops. It was a feudal society directly governed by an intendant appointed in Paris by the French Crown. This meant that all power and influence in the colony lay in the hands of clerical and quasi-military leaders. Furthermore, these Leaders were mostly plain men with little influence in the court at Versailles. But some of them were heroes, indeed the prime heroes, in the early story of North America. Champlain and his men, followed by Radisson, Joliet, Marquette, La Salle, and La Vérendrye, had explored by canoe the Great Lakes, the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and the southern extremities of Hudson Bay, and had reached sight of the Rockies, before the English settlers had crossed the Appalachians.