Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Documents in Quebec History


Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

A Review of The Tragedy of Quebec: The Expulsion of its Protestant Farmers.
By Robert Sellar. Huntingdon, Que., Printed for the Author, 1907. 122p.

An attractive page in the story of Canadian colonization has been written by Mr. Sellar in The Tragedy of Quebec. If there was both romance and tragedy in the founding of Quebec and of Montreal, Mr. Sellar has shown us that there was picturesqueness at least in the settlement of the Eastern Townships. Mr. Thomas and other local authorities have proved themselves sympathetic biographers of some of the pioneers of south-western Quebec, but no historian has so adequately described the advent, the early toils and struggles and subsequent successes of these original settlers as Mr. Sellar has done. The forest primeval is the first scene presented to our view, and then there appears upon the stage the New England pioneer of the end of the eighteenth century, dissatisfied with the granite hills from which he had just come, and followed, in 1812, by a somewhat motley crowd of his fellow-countrymen, some mere fugitives from justice, a much larger number flying north to escape conscription. There is a charming picture of a newly arrived family of Scotch colonists, and the story of their offering of praise and prayer at the end of the first day's toil in the virgin forest is so naturally and so prettily told that the reader is almost involuntarily reminded of The Cottar's Saturday Night.

What the author calls The Tragedy of Quebec is explained by his sub-title - The Expulsion of its Protestant Farmers. Mr. Sellar's purpose in the present book is to prove that " the history of Quebec during the nineteenth century largely consists of attempts, under varied pretenses, to drive them [the Protestant farmers] away;" and that " the beginning of the twentieth sees the fruition of these attempts." Of the remarkable decrease in the number of English-speaking farmers in this province during the last few decades there can be no doubt. Not only is it apparent to every one who is at all conversant with the march of affairs in rural Quebec, but it is fully attested by both the census returns and the municipal valuation rolls. That Mr. Sellar has discovered the cause, however, we may well be permitted to doubt. That his book will prove of any assistance to those whose fate he so sympathetically bewails is, by his own admission, " open to question." It is by no means clear that the Protestant farmers who nave left the province of Quebec are to be pitied. Certainly Mr. Sellar has not shown that they are. They were neither despoiled of their lands, nor yet compelled by any act of a hostile majority to dispose of them against their will. Many of them were no doubt attracted to the North-west by reports of a richer soil, better climate and more favourable farming conditions generally. When these conditions are sufficient to attract an enormous volume of immigration from the best agricultural sections of the western States-certainly crowded out thence by no hostile majority-it is scarcely surprising that they should also successfully appeal to the English-speaking farmers of Quebec; and hence there is no difficulty in accounting for the disappearance of many of these from the lands which they once owned without the necessity of depicting them as victims of racial and religious persecution. Then, again, the tendency of too many English-speaking Canadians is to gravitate from the country to the town, while the French-Canadian, on the other hand, clings to the soil of the province of Quebec as the tendril to the vine, and the counsel of old Etienne Parent, the father of French-Canadian journalism-" Emparons-nous du sol "-is almost as popular a device with his fellow-countrymen to-day as is " Nos institutions, notre langue et nos lois."

Eighteen years ago, when the emigration of Protestant farmers from Quebec to the North-west was at its height, and Mr. Sellar, in the columns of the Huntingdon Gleaner, was advancing the same reason for the disappearance of his old-time neighbours and friends as that upon which he has written his recent Tragedy, the entire subject was carefully investigated by one of the closest observers and keenest critics in the field of Canadian literature, Dr. S. E. Dawson. Dr. Dawson, whose Protestantism is above suspicion, published a series of letters on the subject in The Week, of Toronto, in the course of which he said:

"The Eastern Townships of Quebec were settled by English immigrants- from Britain and the United States. As, during recent years, the rich lands of the North-west were opened up, the young people became restless. The proceeds of the sale of a. farm will buy ten times as much land in the North-west, believed to be of better quality. The attractions of city life draw the youth to the town, the profits of farming in the east are destroyed by western competition, and so the heads of rising families must move west or be left to manage their farm alone. In this way, a constant movement is going on, an outflow of English and an inflow of French. . . If the English farmers improve their circumstances by selling out, it is surely better that ready purchasers should be found. It is better than leaving the farms tenantless. The movement is not peculiar to the Eastern Townships of Quebec. In Vermont, New Hampshire and other New England States, the number of deserted farms lapsing into wilderness is so great as to cause serious alarm."

The Tragedy of Quebec is really much more than it professes to be. It is an arraignment of the entire public policy of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada. There are attacks, in turn, upon the policy of the Church in regard to politics, to education, to tithes, to the creation of parishes. In some respects, at least, there is reason to fear that the author has permitted his prejudices to affect his judgment. He would take from the ecclesiastical authorities the credit, which has been so freely accorded them by other Protestant historians, for the part they played in the preservation of Canada to Britain in 1775-6, and stamps as " tiresome and monotonous in their narratives " those Relations des Jésuites, with extracts from which Mr. Parkman has enriched many of his most attractive pages. So far as the habitants of 1775-6 were concerned, Mr. Sellar is perfectly correct in combating the generally accepted view that their loyalty: saved Canada from falling into the hands of the American invaders. Carleton, as Mr. Sellar says, complained bitterly of them in his dispatches to England. An anonymous manuscript journal, in the Canadian Archives-"of the most remarkable events which happened in Canada between the months of July, 1775, and June, 1776 "-now in course of publication by the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, abounds in similar proofs. Of the loyalty, at the same period, of the heads of the Roman Catholic Church, and of the Canadian seigniors, there cannot possibly, however, be any doubt.

In treating of the priest in politics the author deals only with somewhat ancient history, though he might easily have laid his hands upon original sources of information which would have enabled him to bring it down to date. The undue clerical interference in elections, of which he furnishes such ample proofs, was virtually terminated over thirty years ago. It failed to commend itself to the heads of the Church by whom it was investigated, and was unreservedly condemned, both at Rome and also by the highest law courts of the Empire. Judge Routhier's decision in the Charlevoix contested election case. quoted by Mr. Sellar, to the effect that the courts had no right to take cognizance of anything said by the Roman Catholic clergy from the pulpit, was reversed by the Supreme Court of Canada, which voided the election of Sir Hector Langevin, and held that the Roman Catholic clergy were subject to the laws of the country as other citizens were, and that a priest had no more right to invade the freedom of the electors by intimidation than had any other citizen. One bishop, Mgr. Langevin, of Rimouski, in 1875, actually excommunicated judge Maguire, and would also have pronounced the same sentence upon judge Casault, only that the latter belonged to the diocese of Quebec, because of their voiding of the Bonaventure election for undue clerical influence. But it is no secret that Judge Casault enjoyed the approval and the protection of his own bishop, and that Mgr. Langevin was compelled to withdraw his sentence of excommunication against judge Maguire.

Mr. Sellar refers to the ecclesiastical refusal of the burial of Guibord in his own family lot in consecrated ground, but fails to record the fact that the interment was finally ordered by a judgment of the Privy Council. He quotes the old ultramontane utterances of Bishop Bourget, who is known to have resigned his see in disgust because of the unfavourable reception of his views and actions at Rome, of the Bishop of Birtha, who was never advanced from the position of coadjutor bishop of Montreal; and he quotes from the joint pastoral of the bishops of the ecclesiastical province, of September, 1875, condemning the Liberal party as a whole, and claiming ascendancy of Church over State. But he does not refer at all to the well known sequel. Following the visit of Mgr. Conroy, who was sent by Rome to inquire into the difficulties between members of the Canadian hierarchy, came the joint pastoral of 1877, attributed to the Papal delegate, and signed by all the Roman Catholic bishops of the province, forbidding the active interference of the priests in election contests, except on the order of their bishops. This pastoral has long been public property, and so have others of a similar import, issued from time to time by the late Cardinal Taschereau.

Judging from the ecclesiastical history of Quebec during the last thirty years, it is neither fair to the Roman Catholic Church; nor is it helpful to the upbuilding of a common Canadian nationality, to leave it to be implied that the political attitude of several of the prominent members of that Church in 1875 either represented the views of the best ecclesiastical authorities of the period, or would be tolerated to-day.

Source: E. T. D. CHAMBERS, Review of The Tragedy of Quebec: The Expulsion of its Protestant Farmers, in Review of Historical Publications Relating to Canada, 1908, pp. 95-100

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College