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Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Quebec Now - Chapter 9 : Vie de Paysan
By Miriam Chapin

THE TEXTBOOK of the nationalist movement in Quebec has been Notre Maitre le Passé, by Canon Lionel Groulx, priest, teacher, writer. As far as rural life is concerned; the past has indeed been a master, and a hard one. The existence of the farmer and his family in the St. Lawrence Valley is still conditioned by the seigneurial rights of three centuries ago. For another twenty-five years-unless he rebels effectively-he will be paying fees on his land,, because a French King Louis, who never saw nor wanted to see Canada, gave his priests and soldiers grants in the new colony. No ruler of a totalitarian state would dare claim such a privilege. Yet in a democratic nation in 1940, 60,000 farmers were still paying their cens et rentes to 242 landholders, heirs of the seigneurs. These are not taxes, such as men impose on themselves for schools and waterworks and war; they are rents, some of them

Raid to the religious communities to whom the first grants were made, though the mere who lobbied for them have long been dust. The dues, small for each individual, amounted to $212,000 a year. They are now paid to a commission which Premier Godbout empowered to buy off the seigneurs for a lump sum. When the development of the Côte Nord was in the offing, Premier Duplessis was able to take over the big Mingan Seigneury along the coast, since the use of it was required for industry. But no move was ever made to expropriate the ordinary ones.

Then, the farmer must pay to his local church his dime or tithe, originally in kind, but now in cash. Out of twenty-six measures of grain, one goes to the cure, who may take his share ahead of the taxcollector. This is no donation; it is a legal obligation. If the payment is in money, it is understood that the cure is selling his property to the farmer. If there is any reluctance, the priest may withhold the sacraments. No wonder an habitant who sells his land to a Protestant is looked upon as a traitor. Artisans and other village folk pay a household tax of a few dollars a year.

Quebec has almost as many farms as Ontario, 134,000 to 149,000. Fewer of them are rented to tenants. Twenty-five thousand are small-scale, selling less than $250 worth of produce a year. Quebec farms report 41,000 automobiles to Ontario's 114,000, 32,000 tractors to Ontario's 105,000. François-Albert Angers is an intelligent man and a good economist, but his nationalism blinds him when he says, as I once heard him, that the Quebec farmer doesn't want a car and a radio. He gets them the moment he has the money for them. Net income of Quebec's farmers in 1953 was $262 million, of Ontario's $402 million. Only a few hundred Quebec farmers pay income tax, a fact which causes grumbling and suspicion in other Provinces. Purchasing power has moved upward along with the rest of Canada's agriculture, from $92 million in 1938 to $363 million in 1953-in terms of real purchasing power, about 55 per cent.

The typical Quebec farm has been a dairy, where perhaps a dozen cows are tended without hired help. Milk goes to the creamery, skim milk to calves and pigs. The farmer makes a little maple syrup in the spring, butchers his own hogs, works in the woods in winter. His wife draws water from a well, tends her chickens, weaves catalogue, hooks rugs in winter, cooks and scrubs. Nowadays most buy baker's bread. They eat potatoes and peasoup and pork. They read Action Catholique or La Presse, and the Bulletin d'agriculture. A son is quite likely to go to one of the eighteen regional agricultural schools, all but the best one under clerical direction, or to one of the three agricultural colleges. An agronome will advise them on crops and fertilizers, though like all civil servants the agronomes are so poorly paid that they cannot do the work they should. The Church presides over social life, and the head of the family shares in the administration of parish affairs. Christenings, weddings, funerals mark the stages of the journey through life. Departed members of the family are long remembered, their photographs kept and cherished.

Compared to the lot of the Hindu ryot or the Southern sharecropper, that of the habitant was, and perhaps still is, a happy one. He has the peasant virtues and satisfactions, rest after productive labour, sexual needs freely gratified with community approval, children round him, avarice appeased, a solid, friendly relationship with the good earth. He belongs. He has status, the respect of his neighbours when he deserves it according to their standards, security as long as he can pay his rents and taxes. But now his whole way of life is threatened by forces beyond his ken.

Along the St. Lawrence the land is mostly in village farms. In the Laurentians and Eastern Townships farms are likely to be set apart, as in New England. The striking feature of village life is the leverage it gives to public opinion. In a barely literate society, the discussion of local events provides the chief interest in living. It may grow into an excessive and quite extraordinary nosiness. The isolated farm at its best develops self-reliance, at its worst hatred and incest and madness. The village at its worst stifles all initiative, forces conformity to accepted canons by making life unbearable for the rebel until he submits or leaves; at its best it makes for community gaiety and helpfulness.

The settler in Quebec became a villager because of geography and the way the country was opened up. The seigneuries were laid out along the rivers and the coast to give water frontage to as many as possible. They were parcelled out in feudal fashion. Only when the north country began to look promising did French Canadians take up land for themselves. Down river, the land is divided into long strips running back from the shore. Next to the water is the first rang; back of. that, with a road between, is the second, and there may be one or two more, up to the nearest forest. Thus a farm is usually a thin rectangle, containing several kinds of soil, from riverbank to woodlot. Louisiana shows a similar pattern; strips marked by ditches run from levee back to swamp.

Since each man built his house on his own land, and even a thirty-arpent farm might be only a couple of hundred feet wide (an arpent is a little less than an acre), the village consists of a few dozen houses straggling along both sides of the main road, one hamlet almost merging with the next. Toward the centre of the parish, which under the county is the unit of government, the presbytère, the notary's house, the store, cluster near the big church. The seigneury maybe on a stream where the mill once stood; one of its perquisites was to build it and charge tenants for grinding grain. Often it is no mansion, but it may have the steep roof curving over a narrow porch and the small dormers characteristic of the lovely architecture of old Quebec.

By the middle of the 19th century, strips became so narrow they could not be subdivided any more, and the custom prevailed of making over the farm to a favoured son, usually the third or fourth. (Oldest a priest, second an avocat.) On him rested the obligation to care for parents and to provide for the other children. But when there was no more cheap land, the men went to the mills of Pawtucket, the Manitoba prairies, or north to Lake St. John. In the 1930's the authorities tried to drain off the dregs of the depression to Abitibi, but only the strong, experienced, well-equipped colon could make a success of farming in that harsh land. Too often he got cut-over land from which the lumber company had taken everything of value, and was abandoned to sink or swim without schools, markets, or loans. If he swam, it was back to city streets. Where colonization has succeeded, it has usually been due to the new off-the-farm jobs available from the opening up of the north.

Yet colonization within the Province is still a Quebec policy. The Church would like to utilize it to stop any drift to the United States. Not long before he died in 1946, Cardinal Villeneuve issued a pastoral letter, urging his people to go back to the land, "to fill the gaps caused by emigration, to facilitate obedience to the law of fecundity imposed on man by the Creator." Each administration makes promises to drain new acreage, to clear new farms. Honourable Jos. Begin, Quebec Minister of Colonization, has often been reproached for running the electoral machine with more zeal than he puts into land settlement. From 1944 to 1952, nearly 15,000 colons ("souls" in the Annuaire statistique) were placed on the land.

But young men are no longer content with subsistence farming. Their wives want assurance of medical care, and some prospect of winning through to a decent life before they face the toil of breaking new ground in the wilderness. Even old worked land is occasionally abandoned. Even to the old townships, where life goes on in accustomed ways, girls who have jobs in town don't go back if they can help it. They return from a vacation visit, exclaiming, "Me, I'd never live down there again. Carry water in a bucket? Use that old backhouse? Not me." And that settles the fate of many a farm, for how can a man carry on without a woman in the house? Unless he has the cash for a washing-machine, he might as well give up.

Desperate efforts have been made to keep the farm family from city contagion. Sometimes the means used are fantastic. One kindly farm wife up north used to sell us butter and eggs, when we, among several families, camped on a nearby lake. Those of us who spoke French would linger to talk with her, play with her babies. One noon when she left her soap-making to get dinner, her five-year-old, darling of her heart, somehow drank of the lye she left by the kettle. He lay for weeks, a moaning shadow, and at last died in the night. The curd told her the accident was a punishment for her association with Protestants, and she told us, sadly, that though she did not believe it, in deference to him she must no longer chat with us.

Though only about 40 per cent of Quebec's working-force is still on the land, political power rests with them. They put Union Nationale in. office and they keep it there. Traditionally conservative, they distrust the Liberals and the city workman. It does not seem unfair to them that city folks have to pay a luxury tax on toothbrushes. They get their way in many things in return for their votes. They don't want to be compelled to carry lights on horsedrawn vehicles, and so every few nights a car smashes into a wagon on some back road. They are heartily behind the prohibition of margarine in Quebec. And they know where their interests lie, because the direction is drastically pointed out to them. I asked an English-speaking farmer in Compton County, a few weeks after Compton elected a National Union man to the Assembly, if it were true that the road machinery got out of the county the day after election. "Well," he said, "sometimes it ain't all out till the second morning."

"But since everybody knows that's how it'll be, why then do you all vote for the Duplessis man?"

"Lookit," he said, "We got to have roads. We've got to use our trucks in bad weather. Look at Verchères. They sent a Liberal to Quebec six years ago, and they haven't laid eyes on a bulldozer since. Woman down there, they tell me, died in childbirth last spring, the doctor couldn't get to her through the mud. We got to have roads. See?"

I saw.

Much of value has been done for the farmers. Rural electrification has been pushed until now 80 per cent of Quebec farms have current, a jump in ten years from a previous 20 per cent. Back roads have been improved, even when main highways are potholed. Agricultural colleges are- aided, scholarships are given. Then, the co-operatives are flourishing businesses in Quebec. Several hundred are united in the Fédérée, which sells not only butter and milk, but eggs, maple sugar, flax, fruit and wool. The co-ops even buy and rent out bulldozers for drainage projects. The Caisses Populaires, the credit co-operatives, in some districts substitute for banks.

But so long as raising hay for a dairy, and milking cows pays only a few cents an hour, no co-op on earth can save the dairy industry and the life that is based on it. The farmer may not keep accounts, but he knows he is getting poorer. The soil in some of the old townships is worn out, the cash for fertilizer is not to be found, the older men are tired, the younger ones demand more than the land can give. The unpaid labour of women and children is no longer to be had without question. Only the jobs in the winter lumber camps, or in some coastal regions on the. fishing boats, keep the families going: Diversification of crops promises better than those expedients. The sugar beets around St. Hilaire, the apple orchards south of the St. Lawrence, the tobacco near Joliette, bring modest prosperity to a few.

But all such crops make the farmer dependent on the world. market. When England lacks dollars, the Canadian apple crop hardly pays for picking. When textile falters, flax and wool won't sell. If Cuban sugar drops in price, even the high tariff can't make beets profitable. Even 32,000 tractors, and there are thousands more each year, make a revolution on the farms. For a tractor doesn't pay on small acreage; it must be kept going, doing a job. And tractor feed doesn't grow on farms; every gallon of gas the farmer buys must be paid for with cash. Not only that, but buying it involves him with national policy in Alberta, with the fall of Mossadegh in Iran, with the fate of a president in Venezuela. When England put sanctions on Italy because of the Ethiopian invasion, Gaspé fishermen starved.

Willy-nilly, the Quebec farmer is part of the world, and knows it. His sons go overseas to fight, his children get family allowances from Ottawa, he sells his cheese and bacon for English tables, through federal marketing boards; his crops are sold with federal price supports. The Catholic Syndicates have their farmers' union, the Union Catholique des Cultivateurs, and some of the farmers who work in the woods in winter join the bûcherons' union. The U.C.C. is conservative, but not enough so to avoid conflict with Premier Duplessis. There will be more conflicts. Every year farming becomes more a business and less a way of life, and the purpose of a business is to make a profit. Only through national research and participation in national expansion can Quebec agriculture be saved.

Source: Miriam CHAPIN, Quebec Now, Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1955, pp. 109-117.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College