- 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
Moreover, in Quebec the Catholic Church was not the decadent, influence-riddled institution it was in France on the eve of the French Revolution. It was both militant and missionary. It did not regard the Indians as an obstacle to settlement (though they often were) but as a rich harvest of souls, and in gathering this harvest, priests like Brébeuf and Lallemant suffered horrible martyrdoms. In theology, the French-Canadian Church was still medieval, its spirit was ultramontane, its priests were heroically enduring.
Finally, the French Canadians were bound together by two of the strongest possible social forces: an unending struggle for survival and an overweening ambition on the part of their leaders. Bishops and governors might quarrel, but bolh sought to establish a French and Catholic empire extendine from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. Had France supported them to the extent that England supported her colonial leaders, they might well have succeeded, because the internal lines of communication in New France offered such superior mobility. But the home government of France handicapped them at every turn. It governed New France despotically and at a distance; it sent out a number of corrupt governors who lined their pockets by extortion; worst of all, it failed to develop an adequate program of emigration. So it came about that the tiny French-Canadian community felt itself constantly beset by enemies more numerous and more fortunate, and this inculcated an intense clannishness, together with one of the most enduring emotions that can dominate a human society: the pride of the unappreciated. Their society was as small as it was tightly knit; at the time of the Conquest the population of New France was about 65,000. Traumatically shocked, not merely by the Conquest but by France’s cynical abandonment of them, they suddenly found themselves without a motherland to turn to, helpless in the grip of their conquerors, a tiny, defeated, Catholic island surrounded by Anglo-Protestants who had been their traditional enemies.
The history of Canada is picturesque in both the literal and the more figurative senses of the word. A full pictorial chronicle, illustrating how a thinly settled French colony of the seventeenth century became a complex and powerful nation in the twentieth, would indeed be a large and lavish volume. Yet it is possible to illuminate some of the salient forces and events of Canadian history in a smaller compass, and this is what AMERICAN HERITAGE , after wide search in Canada, has tried to do in the portfolio that follows .
It is easy for an American to forget that colonial Canada was almost exclusively French for a century and a half before the British conquest of 1759–60. The first British governors remembered it very well, and made little effort to force the French habitants into assimilating British cultural patterns. There was too much against it—another language, another religion, another social framework, and all almost untouched by the waves of the Enlightenment that currently were disturbing France. Moreover, the seigneurial system of landholding and governing—a kind of modified feudalism in which the clerical orders powerfully shared—insured an orderly and dutiful populace, willing to accept the rule of their new masters as long as their old French customs were not disrupted. Sir Guy Carleton, who administered British affairs in Quebec intermittently from 1766 to 1796, pushed the passage of the Quebec Act of 1774, which guaranteed maintenance of the Roman Catholic religion, French civil law, and the seigneurial system. This aroused ire in the thirteen British colonies that were about to launch the American Revolution: but it helped to keep Quebec from joining them, and entrenched its basically French character.