Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Documents in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Report Of Lord Durham On the Affairs of British North America [1839]

The Nature of the problems in Lower Canada
(Part 2)


The seigniorial tenure is one so little adapted to our notions of proprietary rights, that the new seignior, without any consciousness or intention of injustice, in many instances exercised his rights in a manner which would appear perfectly fair in this country, but which the Canadian settler reasonably regarded as oppressive. The English purchaser found an equally unexpected and just cause of complaint in that uncertainty of the laws, which rendered his possession of property precarious, and in those incidents of the tenure which rendered its alienation or improvement difficult. But an irritation, greater than that occasioned by the transfer of the large properties, was caused by the competition of the English with the French farmer. The English farmer carried with him the experience and habits of the most improved agriculture in the world: He settled himself in the townships bordering on the seigniories, and brought a fresh soil and improved cultivation to compete with the worn-out and slovenly farm. of the habitant. He often took the very farm which the Canadian settler had abandoned, and, by superior management, made that a source of profit which had only impoverished his predecessor. The ascendancy which an unjust favouritism had contributed to give to the English race in the government and the legal profession, their own superior energy, skill and capital secured to them in every branch of industry. They have developed the resources of the country; they have constructed or improved its means of communication; they have created its internal and foreign commerce. The entire wholesale, and a large portion of the retail trade of the Province, with the most profitable and flourishing farms, are now in the hands of this numerical minority of the population.

In Lower Canada the mere working class which depends on wages, though proportionally large in comparison with that to be found in any other portion of the American continent, is, according to our ideas, very small. Competition between persons of different origin in this class, has not exhibited itself till very recently, and is, even now, almost confined to the cities. The large mass of the labouring population are French in the employ of English capitalists. The more skilled class of artisans are generally English; but in the general run of the more laborious employments, the French Canadians fully hold their ground against English rivalry. The emigration which took place a few years ago, brought in a class which entered into .more direct competition with the French in some kinds of employment

the towns; but the individuals affected by this competition were not very many. I do not believe that the animosity which exists between the working classes of the two origins is the necessary result of a collision of interests, or of a jealousy of the superior success of English labour. But national prejudices naturally exercise the greatest influence over the most uneducated; the difference of language is less easily overcome; the differences of manners and customs less easily appreciated. The labourers, whom the emigration introduced, contained a number of very ignorant, turbulent and demoralized persons, whose conduct and manners alike revolted the well-ordered and courteous natives of the same class. The working men naturally ranged themselves on the side of the educated and wealthy of their own countrymen. When once engaged in the conflict, their passions were less restrained by education and prudence; and the national hostility now rages most fiercely between those whose interests in reality bring them the least in collision.

The two races thus distinct have been brought into the same community, under circumstances which rendered their contact inevitably productive of collision. The difference of language from the first kept them asunder. It is not any where a virtue of the English race to look with complacency on any manners, customs or laws which appear strange to them; accustomed to form a high estimate of their own superiority, they take no pains to conceal from others their contempt and intolerance of their usages. They found the French Canadians filled with an equal amount of national pride; a sensitive, but inactive pride, which disposes that people not to resent insult, but rather to keep aloof from those who would keep them under. The French could not but feel the superiority of English enterprise; they could not shut their eyes to their success in every undertaking in which they came into contact, and to the constant superiority which they were acquiring. They looked upon their rivals with alarm, with jealousy, and finally with hatred. The English repaid them with a scorn, which soon also assumed the same form of hatred. The French complained of the arrogance and injustice of the English; the English accused the French of the vices of a weak and conquered people, and charged them with meanness and perfidy. The entire mistrust which the two- races have thus learned to conceive of each other's intentions, induces them to put the worst construction on the most innocent conduct; to judge every word, every act, and every intention unfairly; to attribute the most odious designs, and reject every overture of kindness or fairness, as covering secret designs of treachery and malignity.

Religion formed no bond of intercourse and union. It is, indeed, an admirable feature of Canadian society, that it is entirely devoid of any religious dissensions. Sectarian intolerance is not merely not avowed, but it hardly seems to influence men's feelings. But though the prudence and liberality of both parties has prevented this fruitful source of animosity from embittering their quarrels, the difference of religion has in fact tended to keep them asunder: Their priests have been distinct; they have not met even in the same church.

No common education has served to remove and soften the differences of origin and language. The associations of youth, the sports of childhood, and the studies by which the character of manhood is modified, are distinct and totally different. In Montreal and Quebec there are English schools and French schools; the children in these are accustomed to fight nation against nation, and the quarrels that arise among boys in the streets usually exhibit a division into English on one side, and French on the other.

As they are taught apart, so are their studies different. The literature with which each is the most conversant, is that of the peculiar language of each; and all the ideas which men derive from books, come to each of them from perfectly different sources. The difference of language in this respect produces effects quite apart from those which it has on the mere intercourse of the two races. Those who have reflected on the powerful influence of language on thought, will perceive in how different a manner people who speak in different languages are apt to think; and those who are familiar with the literature of France, know that the same opinion will be expressed by an English and French writer of the present day, not merely in different words, but in a style so different as to mark utterly different habits of thought. This difference is very striking in Lower Canada; it exists not merely in the books of most influence and repute, which are of course those of the great writers of France and England, and by which the minds of the respective races are formed, but it is observable in the writings which now issue from the colonial press. The articles in the newspapers of each race, are written in a style as widely different as those of France and England at present; and the arguments which convince the one, are calculated to appear utterly unintelligible to the other.

This difference of language produces misconceptions yet more fatal even than those which it occasions with respect to opinions; it aggravates the national animosities, by representing all the events of the day in utterly different lights. The political misrepresentation of facts is one of the incidents of a free press in every free country; but in nations in which all speak the same language, those who receive a misrepresentation from one side, have generally some means of learning the truth from the other. In Lower Canada, however, where the French and English papers represent adverse opinions, and where no large portion of the community can read both languages with ease, those who receive the misrepresentation are rarely able to avail themselves of the means of correction. It is difficult to conceive the perversity with which misrepresentations are habitually made, and the gross delusions which find currency among the people; they thus live in a world of misconceptions, in which each party is set against the other not only by diversity of feelings and opinions, '' but by an actual belief in an utterly different set of facts.

The differences thus early occasioned by education and language, are in no wise softened by the intercourse of after-life; their business and occupations do not bring the two races into friendly contact and co-operation, but only present them to each other in occasional rivalry [...]

The hostility which thus pervades society, was some time growing before it became of prominent importance in the politics of the Province. It was inevitable that such social feelings must end in a deadly political strife. The French regarded with jealousy the influence in politics of a daily increasing body of the strangers, whom they so much disliked and dreaded; the wealthy English were offended at finding that their property gave them no influence over their French dependents, who were acting under the guidance of leaders of their own race; and the farmers and traders of the same race were not long before they began to bear with impatience their utter political nullity in the midst of the majority of a population, whose ignorance they contemned, and whose political views and conduct seemed utterly at variance with their own notions of the principles and practice of self-government. The superior political and practical intelligence of the English cannot be, for a moment, disputed. The great mass of the Canadian population, who cannot read or write, and have found in few of the institutions of their country, even the elements of political education, were obviously inferior to the English settlers, of whom a large proportion had received a considerable amount of education, and had been trained in their own country, to take a part in public business of one kind or another.' With respect to the more educated classes, the superiority is not so general or apparent; indeed from all the information that I could collect, I incline to think that the greater amount of refinement, of speculative thought, and of the knowledge that books can give, is, with some brilliant exceptions, to be found among the French. But I have no hesitation in stating, even more decidedly, that the circumstances in which the English have been placed in Lower Canada, acting on their original political education, have endowed the leaders of that population with much of that practical sagacity, tact, and energy in politics, in which I must say, that the bad institutions of the Colony have, in my opinion, rendered the leaders of the French deplorably deficient. That a race which felt itself thus superior in political activity and intelligence, should submit with patience to the rule of a majority which it could not respect, was impossible. At what time and from what particular cause the hostility between such a majority and such a minority, which was sure sooner or later to break out, actually became of paramount importance, it is difficult to say. The hostility between the Assembly and the British Government had long given a tendency to attacks, on the part of the popular leaders, on the nation to which that government belonged. It is said that the appeals to the national pride and animosities of the French, became more direct and general on the occasion of the abortive attempt to re-unite Upper and Lower Canada in 1822, which the leaders of the Assembly viewed or represented as a blow aimed at the institutions of their Province. The anger of the English was excited by the denunciations of themselves, which, subsequently to this period, they were in the habit of hearing. They had possibly some little sympathy with the members of the provincial government of their own race; and their feelings were, probably, yet more strongly excited in favour of the connexion of the Colony with Great Britain, which the proceedings of the Assembly appeared to endanger. But the abuses existing under the provincial government, gave such inducements to remain in opposition to it, that the representatives of each race continued for a long time to act together against it. And as the bulk of the English population in the townships and on the Ottawa were brought into very little personal contact with the French, I am inclined to think 'that it might have been some time longer, ere the disputes of origin would have assumed an importance paramount to all others, had not the Assembly come into collision with the whole English population by its policy with respect to internal improvements, and to the old and defective laws, which operated as a bar to the alienation of land, and to the formation of associations for commercial purposes.

The English population, an immigrant and enterprising population, looked on the American Provinces as a vast field for settlement and speculation, and in the common spirit of the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of that continent, regarded it as the chief business of the Government, to promote, by all possible use of its legislative and administrative powers, the increase of population and the accumulation of property; they found the laws of real property exceedingly adverse to the easy alienation of land, which is, in a new country, absolutely essential to its settlement and improvement; they found the greatest deficiency in the internal communications of the country, and the utter want of local self-government rendered it necessary for them to apply to the Assembly for every road or bridge, or other public work that was needed; they wished to form themselves into companies for the establishment of banks, and the construction of railroads and canals, and to obtain the powers necessary for the completion of such works with funds of their own. And as the first requisite for the improvement of the country, they desired that a large proportion of the revenue should be applied to the completion of that great series of public works, by which it was proposed to render the Saint Lawrence and the Ottawa navigable throughout their whole extent.

Without going so far as to accuse the Assembly of a deliberate design to check the settlement and improvement of Lower Canada, it cannot be denied that they looked with considerable jealousy and dislike on the increase and prosperity of what they regarded as a foreign and hostile race; they looked on the Province as the patrimony of their own race; they viewed it not as a country to be settled, but as one already settled; and instead of legislating in the American spirit, and first providing for the future population of the Province, their primary care was, in the spirit of legislation which prevails in the old world, to guard the interests and feelings of the present race of inhabitants, to whom they considered the new-comers as subordinate; they refused to increase the burthens of the country by imposing taxes to meet the expenditure required for improvement; and they also refused to direct to that object any of the funds previously devoted to other purposes. The improvement of the harbour of Montreal was suspended, from a political antipathy to a leading English merchant who had been the most active of the Commissioners, and by whom it had been conducted with the most admirable success. It is but just to say that some of the works which the Assembly authorized and encouraged were undertaken on a scale of due moderation, and satisfactorily perfected and brought into operation. Others, especially the great communications which I have mentioned above, the Assembly showed a great reluctance to promote or even to permit. It is true that there was considerable foundation for their objections to the plan on which the Legislature of Upper Canada had commenced some of these works, and to the mode in which it had carried them on; but the English complained, that instead of profiting by the experience which they might have derived from this source, the Assembly seemed only to make its objections a pretext for doing nothing. The applications for banks, railroads and canals were laid on one side until some general measures could be adopted with regard to such undertakings; but the general measures thus promised were never passed, and the particular enterprises in question were prevented. The adoption of a registry was refused on the alleged ground of its inconsistency with the French institutions of the Province, and no measure to attain this desirable end, in a less obnoxious mode, was prepared by the leaders of the Assembly. The feudal tenure was supported, as a mild and just provision for the settlement of a new country; a kind of assurance given by a Committee of the Assembly, that some steps should be taken to remove the most injurious incidents of the seigniorial tenure, produced no practical results; and the enterprises of the English were still thwarted by the obnoxious laws of the country. In all these decisions of the Assembly, in its discussions, and in the apparent motives of its conduct, the English population perceived traces of a desire to repress the influx and the success of their race. A measure for imposing a tax on emigrants, though recommended by the Home Government, and warranted by the policy of those neighbouring states, which give the greatest encouragement to immigration, was argued on such grounds in the Assembly, that it was not unjustly regarded as indicative of an intention to exclude any further accession to the English population; and the industry of the English was thus retarded by this conduct of the Assembly. Some districts, particularly that of the Eastern Townships, where the French race has no footing, were seriously injured by the refusal of necessary improvements; and the English inhabitants generally regarded the policy of the Assembly as a plan for preventing any further emigration to the Province, of stopping the growth of English wealth, and of rendering precarious the English property already invested or acquired in Lower Canada.

The Assembly of which they thus complained, and of which they entertained apprehensions so serious, was at the same time in collision with the executive Government. The party in power, and which, by means of the Legislative Council, kept the Assembly in check, gladly availed itself of the discontents of this powerful and energetic minority, offered it its protection, and undertook the furtherance of its views; and thus was cemented the singular alliance between the English population and the Colonial officials, who combined from perfectly different motives, and with perfectly different objects, against a common enemy. The English desired reform and liberal measures from the Assembly, which refused them, while it was urging other reforms and demanding other liberal measures from the executive Government. The Assembly complained of the oppressive use of the power of the executive; the English complained that they, a minority, suffered under the oppressive use to which power was turned by the French majority. Thus a bold and intelligent democracy was impelled, by its impatience for liberal measures, joined to its national antipathies, to make common cause with a government which was at issue with the majority on the question of popular rights. The actual conflict commenced by a collision between the executive and the French majority; and, as the English population rallied round the Government, supported its pretensions, and designated themselves by the appellation of 'loyal', the causes of the quarrel were naturally supposed to be much more simple than they really were; and the extent of the division which existed among the inhabitants of Lower Canada, the number and nature of the combatants arrayed on each side, and the irremediable nature of the dispute, were concealed from the public view.

The treasonable attempt of the French party to carry its political objects into effect by an appeal to arms, brought these hostile races into general and armed collision. I will not dwell on the melancholy scenes exhibited in the progress of the contest, or the fierce passions which held an unchecked sway during the insurrection, or immediately after its suppression. It is not difficult to conceive how greatly the evils, which I have described as previously existing, have been aggravated by the war; how terror and revenge nourished, in each portion of the population, a bitter and irreconcileable [sic] hatred to each other, and to the institutions of the country. The French population, who had for some time exercised a great and increasing power through the medium of the House of Assembly, found their hopes unexpectedly prostrated in the dust. The physical force which they had vaunted was called into action, and proved to be utterly inefficient. The hope of recovering their previous ascendancy under a constitution, similar to that suspended, almost ceased to exist. Removed from all actual share in the government of their country, they brood in sullen silence over the memory of their fallen countrymen, of their burnt villages, of their ruined property, of their extinguished ascendancy, and of their humbled nationality. To the Government and the English they ascribe these wrongs, and nourish against both an indiscriminating and eternal animosity. Nor have the English inhabitants forgotten in their triumph the terror with which they suddenly saw themselves surrounded by an insurgent majority, and the incidents which alone appeared to save them from the unchecked domination of their antagonists. They find themselves still a minority in the midst of a hostile and organized people; apprehensions of secret conspiracies and sanguinary designs haunt them unceasingly, and their only hope of safety is supposed to rest on systematically terrifying and disabling the French, and in preventing a majority of that race from ever again being predominant in any portion of the legislature of the Province. I describe in strong terms the feelings which appear to me to animate each portion of the population; and the picture which I draw represents, a state of things so little familiar to the personal experience of the people of this country, that many will probably regard it as the work of mere imagination; but I feel confident that the accuracy and moderation of my description will be acknowledged by all who have seen the state of society in Lower Canada during the last year. Nor do I exaggerate the inevitable constancy any more than the intensity of this animosity. Never again will the present generation of French Canadians yield a loyal submission to a British Government; never again will the English population tolerate the authority of a House of Assembly, in which the French shall possess or even approximate to a majority.

Nor is it simply the working of representative government which is placed out of question by the present disposition of the two races; every institution which requires for its efficiency a confidence in the mass of the people, or co-operation between its classes, is practically in abeyance in Lower Canada. The militia, on which the main defence of the Province against external enemies, and the discharge of many of the functions of internal police have hitherto depended, is completely disorganized. A muster of that force would, in some districts, be the occasion for quarrels between the races, and in the greater part of the country the attempting to arm or employ it would be merely arming the enemies of the Government. The course of justice is entirely obstructed by the same cause; a just decision in any political case is not to be relied upon; even the judicial bench is, in the opinion of both races, divided into two hostile sections of French and English, from neither of which is justice expected by the mass of the hostile party. The partiality of grand and petty juries is a matter of certainty; each race relies on the vote of its countrymen to save it harmless from the law, and the mode of challenging allows of. such an exclusion of the hostile party that the French offender may make sure of, and the English hope for a favourable jury, and a consequent acquittal. [. . .]

In such a state of feelings the course of civil government is hopelessly suspended. No confidence can be felt in the stability of any existing institution, or the security of person and property. It cannot occasion surprise that this state of things should have destroyed the tranquillity and happiness of families; that it should have depreciated the value of property, and that it should have arrested the improvement and settlement of the country.

Source: C. P. LUCAS, editor, Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1912, pp. 36-41, 45-54

© 1999, Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis