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Readings in Quebec History



Last revised:
23 August 2000

Quebec Act



Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

The impending American Revolution and the fear that the "Canadiens" might join them in the revolt led the British government to pass "An Act for making more effectual provision for the government of the Province of Quebec in North America" (Quebec Act) in 1774. Moreover, the government of Great Britain had come to realise that the policy of assimilation spelled out in the Royal Proclamation did not make sense in view of the fact that the Province of Quebec seemed destined to remain largely French in the foreseeable future and that few British immigrants had shown interest in coming into the province. Hence, the assimilating policies of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had to be officially abandoned. As Edmund Burke explained in the House of Commons the aim of the Act was to preserve the Canadiens' "old prejudices (and) their old customs." As much as was possible, the aim was to reconstitute New France and, as Burke pointed out, "the only difference is, they will have George the third for Louis the sixteenth."

By virtue of the Quebec Act, the Royal Proclamation was revoked; the territory of the Province of Quebec was greatly enlarged to include, in particular, the much disputed Ohio Valley. The governing of the Province would continue to be entrusted to a Governor who would be assisted by an appointed Council; a modified Oath rendered it possible for the Canadiens to participate in the running of the colony; a House of Assembly was deemed "inexpedient". The legal system was to consist of a mixture of British criminal laws and French civil laws (to this day this is the system that prevails in Quebec). The recognition of French civil laws entitled the Roman Catholic Church to collect its tithe with the full weight of the law on its side (although the tithe could not be collected on properties owned by Protestants), while the seigneurs benefited from the guarantee to the seigneurial system that the reintroduction of French laws entailed. A supplementary bill, embodied in the Quebec Act the following year, imposed only such taxes as had been customary during the French regime.


Scene depicted by Charles W. Simpson of the first meeting of the

expanded Council following the adoption of the Quebec Act


The Quebec Act constituted a bold move on the part of Britain.  Roman Catholics were emancipated in Quebec a full half century before their co-religionists in Britain received similar benefits. The law recognised the special character and position of Quebec within the Empire but fell far short from satisfying the average Canadien. Consequently the Canadiens refused to move against the Americans and plans by England to crush the rebellion with their help proved unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Britain was successful enough with the concessions made in the Quebec Act to prevent the Canadiens from joining the Americans in large numbers; had Britain not granted the Quebec Act it is possible to imagine that Canada would not exist today.

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College