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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
October 2006



Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College


In connection to Quebec History, agriculturalism was first defined in 1957 by historian Michel Brunet in a famous essay entitled: "Trois dominantes de la pensée canadienne-française: l'agriculturisme, l'anti-étatisme et le messianisme" that was published in Ecrits du Canada français [Vol. 3, 1957, pp. 33-117]. The essay was later reproduced in La présence anglaise et les Canadiens [Montreal, 1964]

As defined by Brunet, agriculturalism incorporated several elements. In its simplest form, it could be defined as an unbounded love for agriculture. However, Brunet was quick to point out that it was mainly a system of thought that incorporated a philosophy of life that idealised the past, condemned the present, and showed distrust for the modern social order. As such, it was an anti-modern ideology. It was inspired by a static conception of society, with a fixation on the past, and a refusal to accept the contemporary industrial age. The agriculturalists believed that the world had gone wrong by entering the age of the machine and of industry. They denounced the materialism implicit in the new economy and claimed that former generations lived in more spiritualist times. According to the agriculturalists, the golden age of humanity was when the immense majority of the population cultivated the soil. Then, they communed naturally with nature and with God. The agriculturalists waxed lyrically about the brave and hard working farmers, sowing their fields and reaping the benefits that God bestows inevitably on such hard working people.

Evidently, the agriculturalists, in Quebec or elsewhere [they are know as ruralists], were unable to stop the erosion of the importance of agriculture and the corresponding growth of industry in the economy. However, while they watched the world around them changing, they continued to decry these developments and they predicted that people would come to regret abandoning the rural way of life. Their vision was that civilisation, and the power of nations, rested on an agricultural economy. They especially interpreted the Great Depression of 1929-1939 as clearly demonstrating that they were right.

Agriculturalism having been defined, there remains for us to outline briefly who preached it in the province, to give examples of it from the literature, to explain why it emerged so strongly in the province, and to measure the extent of its influence in Quebec.

Who were the agriculturalists?

Agriculturalism is not peculiar to Quebec, although the terms used elsewhere to describe it are sometimes different. There were proponents of it in France and in the United States. Thus, Quebec did not invent it. However, elsewhere, the movement tended to be more marginal and rarely afflected the mainstream. In Quebec, its proponents were mainly recruited from the ranks of the ultramontane nationalists ("clérico-nationalistes"), a good many of whom were members of the clergy. Aside from their religious connection, the main characteristic of these people is that they were rarely farmers themselves! One would be right to believe that few farmers ever thought that farming, especially in Quebec in the period of 1850-1950, was the path to wealth, and held the key to future economic development. In Quebec, more often than not, farming only brought poverty. This was especially clear once the agricultural crisis of the early XIXth century had become more or less permanent, throwing the agricultural community of Quebec into despair, and leading to massive emigration to the United States in search of a better way of life.

The Roman Catholic clergy, and the other traditional elites of French Canada, were concerned that by abandoning the farms of Quebec the people would enter a vast foreign universe, dominated by materialist and protestant values, and thus dangerous for the faith of the people. Because they would also be entering an anglophone universe, they were also worried that the people would lose their language, further endangering their faith as they saw a connection between maintenance of the French language and preservation of the faith. They also claimed that the farmers would be reduced from proud independent producers to become a vast exploited working class in the hands of capitalists. Yet, they evidently were fighting a losing battle.

Ever since the early XIXth century, the rapidly expanding rural population of Quebec had farmed the narrow confines of the St. Lawrence and Richelieu valleys. These areas were really the only ones of Quebec with suitable land and climate for successful agriculture. Yet, the agriculturalists relentlessly pressed for the opening of other regions of Quebec to colonisation and blamed the various governments, including eventually the Government of Quebec, for neglecting this important task and letting speculators amass vast amounts of land. It should be remembered that these other regions of Quebec were not properly suitable for agriculture, either because the soil was not sufficiently deep or rich, or because of the severe climate; most often, it was because of both. At best, outside of the St. Lawrence and Richelieu valleys, only marginal agriculture was possible, and those who ventured to farm in other areas were inevitably condemned to poverty. For the most part, the agriculturalists were not so oblivious to reality not to realise that. So, they usually associated their colonisation campaigns for remote regions of Quebec with demands that railways and roads be constructed, so that producers would gain access to markets, and the establishment of some sort of local industry to absorb excess population and to provide an added base for the local economy. Thus, agriculturalists can be cast in a more positive light, and might be shown not to be adverse to a modest form of industrialisation. [See the studies of William F. RYAN, The Clergy and Economic Growth in Quebec, 1896-1914, Quebec, Laval University Press, 1966, 348p.; William F. RYAN, 'Agriculturalism: A Dogma of the Church in Quebec: Myth and Reality? A Review of the Years 1896-1914' in Canadian Catholic Historical Association, Study Sessions, 1966, pp. 39-50; Alain GAGNON, 'L'influence de l'Église sur l'évolution socio-économique du Quebec de 1850 à 1950', in Action Nationale, Vol. 19, No 4, Dec. 1979, pp. 252-277; Antonio LECHASSEUR, 'Clergé et économie au Québec du XIXe et XXe siècles: historiographie et nouveaux problèmes', in Canadian Catholic Historical Association, Study Sessions, 1979, pp. 45-60. This issue is also enmeshed in the debate on the impact of religion, especially the Protestant ethic, on economic growth. On this last point, see S. D. CLARK, 'The Religious Factor in Canadian Economic Development', in Journal of Economic History, Vol. 7, 1947, pp. 89-103]. However, if they promoted industry it was not primarily because industrial development was good in itself, and provided a good standard of living, but, rather, because it resulted in fixing people more firmly on the land. To agriculturalists, the land was always at the core of their argument.

In their desire to fix the people upon the land, and to open new regions to the plough, the agriculturalists inevitably exaggerated the potential of these regions. The following quote, derived from a brochure published by the colonisation societies of the Roman Catholic dioceses of Montreal and Ottawa in 1883, is typical of the exaggerated claims that were made in the pursuit of developing new regions to colonisation:

'The St. Lawrence Valley has become too small for the increasing rural population. In the old parishes, all of the land has been occupied and, as they exist, the farms cannot support more than one family; they could not be subdivided without the result of general impoverishment. Where will our heads of families establish their children? Where will their sons go? ... In the Northern townships. There, a vast territory, still covered by forest, only waits the wielding of the axe to be transformed into fertile fields. There is found an area vast enough to contain an entire province, and rich enough to support one million inhabitants. Thus, onward to the North!' [see Sociétés de colonisation des diocèses de Montréal et d'Ottawa, Au Nord, St. Jérome, 1883, 32p., p. 3]

It should be remembered that the region referred to in the quotation above is situated in the upper reaches of the Gatineau, Lièvre, Rouge and Mattawin rivers, all situated in the north of the Ottawa River, on the fringe or in the midst of the Canadian shield. The population of this region, mainly devoted to the tourist industry, is less than 100,000 today! The claims made by the proponents of colonisation in the 'Nord' were repeated in several other regions.

Despite their relentless and well-orchestrated campaigns, the agriculturalists were not able to settle the excess population of Quebec in the 'regions of colonisation', and rural exodus continued unabated throughout the XIXth and early XXth centuries, to the point that, by 1921, around 60% of the Quebec population lived in urban areas. The people flocked to the large cities, especially Montreal, in search of employment and of a better way of life, or, worse still, to the factories of the New England area where they entered a world foreign to them and threatening for their language and their faith. These movements only made the agriculturalists redouble their efforts.

According to the agriculturalists, what provoked the rural exodus from the farms of Quebec? They ascribed this sad state of affairs to a variety of reasons: some were linked to economic and political forces, others to moral defects. The first culprit had been the British government, and its colonial officials that had alienated so much of the prime land of Quebec to speculators. Next to blame was the Government of Quebec, controlled as it was by foreign capitalists, and which so evidently neglected to carry out policies dedicated to save the 'nationals', to carry out a strong agricultural policy. Last, but not the least, it was the fault of the people who let themselves be lured away from the land by false promises, and hopes of easy gains and easy life. They were not content, as their ancestors had been, to seek simple pleasures in tradition and family, and to trust in God about the future. Instead, they now sought material possessions, distractions and luxuries. Much of that was attributable, according to the agriculturalists, to women who sought to have the latest fashions, hairdos and gadgets. Materialism was destroying the foundations of French Canada.

Such views were rooted in a sense of loss, of seeing a way of life pass, of fear for the future. The agriculturalists refused to see the province for what it was, and clung tenaciously to the certainties of the past. Unable to control the forces that were reshaping the province, they sought to turn the clock back. According to Brunet, agriculturalism was the result of the Conquest of 1760-1763. In his view, the Conquest rapidly eliminated French Canadians from positions of importance (read: dominance) in the economy. The only sector that remained to them was agriculture. They would have learned to reduce their expectations and would have accepted, reluctantly, a situation over which they had no control. The result was inevitably their reduction to an inferior economic status. They did not understand that the Conquest was to blame and that they had become colonised and exploited by a foreign people. In some respects, the theory is attractive but it has been heavily challenged.

The greatest period of glory of the agriculturalists in Quebec was in the 1930's. They had watched, helpless, ever since 1896, when the strong industrial phase of Quebec had started. As the march of progress pressed on, and the province became industrialised and urbanised (the province became in majority urbanised in 1921; Quebec was the second province in Canada to achieve this state), the agriculturalists railed continuously against this trend and predicted dire consequences for the people individually and collectively. Agriculturalism became an integral part of the dominant ultramontane nationalism. However, the economic crash of the Great Depression of the 1930's gave them a last chance to preach their theories. The province was inundated with agriculturist propaganda. Plans were laid to return the unemployed to the land, even when the unemployed had never been on the land! Retour à la terre (back to the land) was a major movement, and ideology, of the 1930's.

An excellent example of the strength of agriculturalism in the 1930's was demonstrated at the general congress of the Association Catholique de la jeunesse canadienne held in Nicolet in 1934. The association regrouped about 30,000 youths of the province, many of them from the various classical colleges. Fittingly, the theme of the congress was the establishment of the youth of Quebec [see the text of the proceedings of the congress published under the title L'établissement des jeunes au Canada français, Montreal 1934, 131p.]. As a by-product of a study on the youth movements of Quebec in the 1930's, I was able to determine that between 40 to 50% of the urban youths of Quebec suffered from chronic unemployment in the period of 1933-1936. Thus, the issue dealt with at the congress of 1934 was of great consequence to the youths that assembled to discuss it. What did they have to propose to resolve the problems of the youths? The congress adopted seven resolutions: one begged the authorities to adopt measures to provide hope for the youth; another demanded that women's place in the workforce be diminished 'so that the young men be able to occupy the functions to which they had a right and which would permit them to establish a family'. All the other resolutions concerned agriculture one way or the other: one begged for a programme of retour à la terre and colonisation to be established; another demanded that an economic council be created 'to elaborate a five year plan of colonisation'; a third proposal was for the inventory of all the arable land of the province to be made; a fourth begged that colonisation societies be created in each diocese, indeed in each parish of the province; a fifth stated that, in order to prevent the engorgement of the cities, and to maintain the youth onto the soil, a proper rural education be provided to the children of the farm areas. In other words, virtually all of the solutions to the grave problem of youth unemployment, and to their lack of prospects in the future, were to be found in agriculture. These youths merely reflected the dominant tone and views found in Quebec at the time. Yet, there is no doubt that, in the 1930's, the more farsighted Quebecers knew very well that agriculture had limited potential in the development of the province. In 1939, one of the interesting Agora sessions, where experts debated important issues, was devoted to the question: Is the future of Quebec primarily industrial or rural? To still be asking the question reflects the strength of the agriculturalist views in the 1930's. However, Esdras Minville, who was the main speaker answered unequivocably not only that the future of Quebec rested on industry, but that industrial production had outstripped agricultural production ever since 1901!

How much influence did the agriculturalists have?

In his essay, Brunet argued that the agriculturalists were very important and dominant in Quebec, and remained so until even the post second world war period. The clergy, bent on maintaining traditions, was especially affected by it. It was preached in the classical colleges and, through the elite, filtered to all the areas of Quebec. However, Brunet spent very little time demonstrating the extent of the agriculturalists' influence, and he dealt with this subject only in generalities. Simply put, his argument was unconvincing, although not necessarily wrong.

Clearly, the agriculturalists were unable to stop the march of time in Quebec. The province industrialised, largely in spite of them. They were also unable to stop the flow of immigrants to the factories of New England. Certainly, these people knew that their future was not in agriculture and they acted accordingly. Thus, farm exodus, especially given the surplus of population in the farm areas, was a fact of life in Quebec, and every census brought new confirmation of that fact.

Yet, a number of Quebecers responded to the calls of "colonising" the waste areas of Quebec, believing that they would assure their future in doing so. This process, the extent of it, the connection between it and the agriculturalist ideology, was not examined by Brunet, or by anybody else since he wrote his essay. We cannot draw any precise conclusions save to note that many new regions of colonisation were opened after 1880 and that a small volume of people chose this solution to their problems rather than emigration to the United States or to the cities of Montreal or Quebec.

The impact on the Government of Quebec also has not been properly studied. How did the government respond to all of this propaganda in favour of agriculture and colonisation? Already, immediately after Confederation, the provincial department of agriculture was created. It was one of the few ministries created, and its focus, until about 1900, appears to have been to assist, in a variety of ways, the opening of different regions to colonisation. However, between 1867 and 1895, the government of Quebec spent only between 1-4% of the provincial budget on agriculture [see James Ian GOW, Histoire de l'administration publique québécoise, 1867-1970, Montreal, 1986, 443p., pp. 35-78; on the agricultural expansion of the last part of the XIXth century, the role of the clergy and of agriculturalism, see Jean HAMELIN and Yves ROBY, Histoire économique du Québec, 1851-1896, Montreal, 1971, 436p., pp. 161-205]. This percentage is not particularly high and does not indicate that agriculture was a great priority of the government of the province. Instead, railway construction was clearly the priority, and the aim was to link the province to the various markets surrounding Quebec. However, there seems to have been a shift after 1896. At the time when the industrial phase was gripping Canada and Quebec, a greater emphasis seems to have been placed, in Quebec, on agriculture! While the share devoted in Ontario to agriculture progressively declined until the 1930's, to eventually only occupy 1% of the provincial budget, the reverse was seen in Quebec. Between 1900 to 1936, the government of Quebec allocated an increasing portion of its expenditures, between 4 and 9% of its budget, to agriculture. The economic trend of the period would suggest that Quebec should have followed the example of Ontario and spent decreasing amounts on agriculture. It is likely that the government of Quebec acted otherwise, at least in part, because of the increasing propaganda of the agriculturalists; that the highest proportion of the budget devoted to agriculture, around 8-9%, was spent in the 1930's also seems to confirm that the government was responding to the pressure of the agriculturalists. One should also note that, for a long time, the agricultural areas of Quebec were overrepresented in the National Assembly. These questions would need to be further studied before more definitive conclusions can be reached.

Was the heavy reliance on agriculture, and the belief in agriculturalism, the cause of the economic inferiority that afflicted Quebec and French Canadians for a long time? Many saw a connection between the two [see Conrad LANGLOIS, "Cultural Reasons Given for the French Canadian Lag in Economic Progress", in Culture, Vol. 21, June 1960, pp. 152-170; Maurice TREMBLAY, "Orientation de la pensée sociale", in René DUROCHER and Paul-André LINTEAU, Le Retard du Québec et l'infériorité économique des Canadiens français, Montreal, Boréal, 1771, pp. 75-92; Pierre E. TRUDEAU, "La Province de Québec au moment de la grève", in La Grève de l'amiante, Montreal, Cité Libre, 1956, 430p., pp. 1-91]. However, Brunet treated it as a consequence of the economic inferiority, rather than the cause. He was likely correct on this point although the connection to the conquest that he established is far from demonstrated and universally agreed upon.

Agriculturalism was a major ideological component in much of Quebec history. It became strongly integrated into the ultramontane form of nationalism, as primarily the Roman Catholic clergy preached it. The agriculturalists sought to maintain the people upon the land, believing that this would best assure the maintenance of their Catholic faith, the survival of the nation and provide the people with a modest standard of living. They thought that the world had erred in moving in the direction of large-scale industrialisation; they sought to protect the people against proletarisation, and the ills brought by industrialisation and urbanisation, by fixing them upon the land. They argued that, when the people farmed, they communed with God, and the spiritual forces of nature, and that their existence would be happier and more rewarding. For the most part, the people do not seem to have followed them, as agriculture often meant poverty. Thus, the agriculturalists were unable to stop the emigration to the United States and to the urban areas of Quebec. Still, they seemed to have been able to convince a number of Quebecers to open various marginal areas of Quebec to colonisation and influenced the Government of Quebec in devoting an increasing share of its budget to agriculture until 1939.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College