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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Quebec Nationalism


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College


The “Canadien” liberal nationalism of the period of 1791 to 1840:

There is considerable controversy about various aspects of the nationalism of this period and it is not my purpose to seek to elucidate all of the questions under debate.

This period begins with the enactment of the Constitutional Act. In 1791, about one generation after the conquest, the British Government divided the province of Quebec into two parts: Upper Canada and Lower Canada (Quebec). The primary reason for this had been the desire to accommodate the Loyalists who had arrived in Quebec following the American Revolution. Until this point, there had not been manifestations of nationalism in Quebec despite the fact that the people of Quebec had been conquered by a foreign power. However, as the Loyalists poured into Quebec, and created in this process a viable English Canada besides the already existing French Canada, there rapidly arose a need to separate the province into two parts so that each could be accorded the institutions and rules that it would support. So, when the British government created Lower Canada in 1791, it was natural for the French speaking inhabitants to consider that they had been given a province where presumably, while still under the British crown, they might do as they please. Lower Canada was to be “their” province. In this perception, they were mistaken.

Four factors were to lead to the rise of nationalism in Lower Canada in this period. The first was the emergence of the French Canadian professional class. Historian Fernand Ouellet was the first to document the role and importance of this class. This group was made up of an increasing number of lawyers, notaries, land surveyors, and doctors that the classical colleges of the time produced. They were the sons of the agricultural class and they found only miserable employment within the increasingly impoverished agricultural communities of the province. The poorer the agricultural class, the more miserable the professional class became. They hoped for a better future for themselves and for the people that had produced them. Barring their advancement in society was the traditional class of the seigneurs and of the clergy, both the product of the Ancien régime, conservative, traditionalist and increasingly opposed to new ideas especially of the sort that came out of the French Revolution. By contrast, the professional class forcefully embraced many of the ideas stemming from the French Revolution. The British Government was allied with this traditional class; its representatives in the colony viewed with increasing disdain the election of farmers and professionals to the House of Assembly where they noisily voiced the increasing discontent of the community they represented. In the view of British officials, government should not be entrusted to “the people” but to the “right people”.

The second factor that contributed to the rise of nationalism was the agricultural crisis that emerged in the St. Lawrence Valley at this time. Ouellet insisted that there was a clear link between the appearance of the agricultural crisis, which he dated from 1802, and the rise of nationalism. Many have challenged this view. However, while it is likely that the agricultural crisis started after the appearance of nationalism, and thus was not the cause of it, it is clear that the deteriorating economic conditions considerably fuelled the spread of nationalism from 1815 on. By the 1830’s, economic conditions were so bad in the St. Lawrence Valley that a revolutionary nationalist context had been created. Elements of this crisis helped focus attention on nationalist goals: there was increasing competition for agricultural markets from other more productive parts of the British Empire; there was more and more a shortage of land in the seigneurial system while the British authorities liberally distributed the remaining land of the province to speculators or immigrants from the British Isles; the number of immigrants coming into the province to compete for the scarce jobs available was also blamed on the British authorities. The poverty in the St. Lawrence Valley among the French inhabitants as well as the Irish settlers was in stark contrast to the relative prosperity of the British settlers.

A third element contributing to the crisis, one common with other colonies, was the lack of responsibility in government. When it established the political system to be applied to the Canadas in 1791, the British Government had created a political system that reflected its fear of democracy. The American Revolution seemed to have taught Britain not that it should be more liberal with its colonies but exactly the reverse. The British believed that they had lost the American colonies because they had given too much power to the democratic component of the Government, to the colonial assemblies; they felt that the executive branch of government should be reinforced. Executive positions were usually held by British officials or upper class colonial subjects on whom one could depend to resist popular demands. Further, the French Revolution convinced them of the danger of entrusting too much power in the hands of the “populace”. Consequently, they created a constitution where the balance was squarely in the hands of appointed British officials and their social allies. In Lower Canada these allies were the most conservative seigneurs and the clergy. Throughout British North America there arose a call for reform, a call for Responsible Government. In this endeavour, the French and Irish inhabitants of Lower Canada were allied, linked together by similar distrust of British institutions, deteriorating economic conditions, and by influence from European republican principles.

The last element to contribute to the nationalist cause was the increasing sense among the French inhabitants that they were not in control of “their province”. There is no doubt that social and economical power escaped them completely. Even politically, while they represented the majority in the Assembly, they were distinctly in minority on all councils, hence where it really counted, and in the civil service where decisions were formulated. Only demographically did they continue to dominate. Yet, plans were devised in anti-canadien circles to bring more immigrants into the province, to reunite the two Canadas so that assimilation of the French would be achieved. All the while, nothing was done to stem the tide of emigration to the United States that started in the 1830’s. Time and again, attacks were formulated in British circles against French laws and the seigneurial system, with the result of further entrenching the French in their defensive position.

It is the junction of these four factors that brought the Rebellions of 1837-1838 in Lower Canada. The discontent was widespread and its expression had distinctive nationalist overtones. The leader of the nationalist movement was Louis Joseph Papineau.

The nation of the Patriotes, as they were called, was “la nation canadienne”. The term canadien was customarily used in those days only in connection to the French speaking and Roman Catholic inhabitants of the province. Yet, it is clear that their nationalism was inclusive. They were broadly supported by the Irish component of the population and several of the Patriotes leaders were English speaking. Indeed, when the second rebellion broke out in 1838, it led to the Proclamation of independence of Lower Canada by the self styled President of the Republic, Robert Nelson. The ideological source of inspiration was in the republican principles of the United States and of European movements. The principles of the French Revolution such as liberté, égalité, fraternité are noticeable throughout the period. There is a distinct political liberalism at work. The Declaration of Independence of Lower Canada, while perhaps somewhat on the left of the movement, is very instructive: its goal is to break the colonial link and to establish a Republican government in Lower Canada; all citizens are declared to be equal, including Indians; union between Church and State is abolished and freedom of religion and conscience is given to all; the seigneurial system is abolished as if it had never existed; imprisonment for debt is done away with, as is the death penalty for anything but murder; freedom of the press is proclaimed, and the English and French languages will be used by the government.

Thus, the first form of Quebec nationalism was mainly an open, tolerant and liberal movement. It shared characteristics with several similar movements in Europe at the time and had a largely political aim, although the socio-economic overtones were also strong. The active group was the class of liberal professions that developed at this time. It forged alliances with many in the Irish community who shared the sentiments and fate of the French inhabitants and with Upper Canadian reformers. It was opposed by the most socially and politically reactionary forces in Quebec at the time: the traditional elites of clergy and seigneurs, the merchants’ class, British officials and bureaucrats and British-American settlers who were not always very enlightened and refused to live under the government of the French [see the collection of documents on the proposed union of 1822 also at this site].

Yet, the Rebellions in Lower Canada were a failure. This is not because the nationalism of the Patriotes did not receive broad support. But the leadership was weak, the intent was never to bring about a rebellion, and militarily they were poorly equipped and did not stand a chance. The clergy pronounced squarely against rebellion and exercised enough influence to confuse the population. The British Government moved in a decisive manner and all was lost for the Patriotes in the end. One of the main effects of the failure of the movement was to discredit the professional class and progressive ideas in Quebec. The punishment meted out by the British government to individuals and to the community was swift, and the repercussions were to be felt long into the next period. Quebec was reunited with Upper Canada; it lost even the small measure of self-government it had had between 1791 to 1840, and, following the Durham Report, Britain officially returned to assimilation policies. As historian Maurice Séguin once wrote about the consequences of the Rebellions: the Union Act was a “new conquest”. It would be felt even more strongly than the first one of 1760 and would have profound influence in changing the course of history in Quebec, and the nature of its nationalism.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College