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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

The Durham Report, the Union Act and the Birth of the Separatist/Federalist Attitudes


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College


Without entering into details that need not concern us here, Lord Durham broadly proposed three major changes in his famous report in 1839. In some manner, all three of these proposals were interconnected. He proposed

  1. to Unite Upper and Lower Canada into a single province to stimulate the economy and create conditions of prosperity as well as to reduce to dominant position of the French, render them increasingly politically powerless and, eventually, assimilate them.
  2. to institute Responsible Government so as to remove a major source of friction that had existed between the government and elected officials prior to 1837.
  3. to assimilate the French.

His proposal of Union, especially as it was to be applied by the British Government in the Union Act, was perceived in Quebec as ‘an act of oppression’ or, in the words of historian Maurice Séguin, as ‘a New Conquest’. It was evident that one of the purposes of the Union Act was to remove from the French the little amount of self-government, of control over their political institutions, that they had had between 1791 and 1837. It was also evident that various clauses in
the Act aimed at assimilating the French or introduced a threat to their survival in the future. Especially objectionable to Quebec were the following clauses:

  • the debts of Upper Canada and Lower Canada were now merged into one. Upper Canada had a large debt when Lower Canada had an accumulated surplus.
  • The Union Act provided for equal representation of the two parts of the new province in the new House of Assembly when in fact Lower Canada contained 60% of the population and Upper Canada had only 40%. This had been done to ensure an English majority in the House of Assembly right from the start of the Union.
  • The financial requirements to vote in elections, or to be elected, had been raised making it more difficult to the poor to exercise their franchise. As the French tended to be poorer than the English, more of them were adversely affected by this.
  • The new legislature to be elected would decide on the laws to be used. As the majority was English, there was fear that French laws and the Seigneurial system would be put into jeopardy.
  • There was no requirements for French to be used in the laws and by the government of the Province. French could be used in the debates of the House but was slated to disappear within 15 years.

Why did Durham suggest assimilation?

There exists a mistaken view that the main reason for the assimilation suggestion by Durham comes from an intolerant, racist attitude. While it is clear that Durham shared the commonly held views of his time regarding the superiority of ‘the Anglo-Saxon race’, and that one finds evidence in the Report that this view coloured his vision of things in Lower Canada, nevertheless the assimilation suggestion was not primarily based on racist grounds. After all, upon reflection,
the suggestion of assimilation is usually not made by racist individuals who prefer to see the separation of races continued and perpetuated, as the ‘higher’ race cannot possibly countenance melding with the ‘lower race’...

Durham had primarily three reasons to propose assimilation:

  1. There was, for a variety of reasons, some of which disclose intolerance on the part of Durham, a deadly animosity between the English and the French and this made efficient government of the province impossible.
  2. One should consider who will dominate eventually on this continent; the French of Canada will suffer the fate of the Acadians of Louisiana. If the French cling to their ancestral ways and language, in a continent more and more dominated by the English, they will be put increasingly in a position of hopeless economic and social inferiority.
  3. Because they are French, a spirit of exclusion (read: they have been victims of discrimination) has kept them out of the better positions in government and business and has furthered their position of inferiority.

Consequences of the Union Act in Quebec

There were primarily three long-term consequences to the Union Act:

  • It furthered immediately group solidarity among Francophones in Quebec. All the members of the nation had to work for the preservation of the group, protect it against those who wished to do harm to it. Politically,  all French Canadians had to support the French Canadian Block ( a group of Francophones elected after 1841 to oppose the Union, assimilation, and defend French Canadian rights; French Canadians have continued to vote as a block federally ever since). From 1841, the main focus politically in Quebec will be
    • How best to protect the nation;
    • How best to assure the survival of the French language and culture.

The priority became group survival and the necessary solidarity of its members to achieve this goal;  individualistic goals became secondary. The focus of all political action will be the survival of Quebec, not that of Canada.

  • In the fight for survival, the role of the elite was seen as essential; from 1841, the leadership of French Canadian society was assumed by the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently:
    • religion was increasingly stressed as the primary characteristic distinguishing the French Canadian people from their ‘Protestant’ environment. It became the prime focus of survival, the ‘first pillar of  survival’ (as will be explained later in the course). It will be the duty of French Canadians to spread the religion and the values associated with it. This is what Michel Brunet called Messianism.
    • conservative values came to predominate; the focus is on ‘preserving’ the past, what there was rather than development in the future.
    • rural values will be preached; the 'Anglo-Saxon' world was a capitalist, urban and industrial world. To enter such a world is to put on the line your faith, hence your survival. It is best to remain on the land where conservative, rural values, belief in God still predominate. This is what Michel Brunet called agriculturalism.
    • the Church preached the distrust of the state (Brunet calls this anti-statism); the state was seen as foreign to the group, dominated as it was by a majority alien in culture and religion to the Québécois. Those who control this state often are seen as attempting to destroy French Canada; sometimes, they were called 'Negro-Kings'. It is best to rely on the Church to provide the services which one would normally associate with the State (charity, health, welfare, education); the Church is the guardian not just of the faith of the people but of the  nation as well.
    • Xenophobic tendencies, the rejection and fear of ‘others’ will also appear from this time. Gone were the days of liberal and tolerant views toward others. ‘Others’ will be perceived as a threat to the nation.
  • One of the most important consequences was the birth of the separatist and federalist attitudes or ideologies. For explanation, see the discussion below.

The Birth of the Federalist and Separatist attitudes following the passage of the Union Act

As French Canada focused increasingly on the existential question of its survival in a foreign and somewhat hostile environment, two attitudes arose to the question of how best to assure the survival of the community: the federalist and the separatist. These were typified by the two great political leaders in Quebec at that time: Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Louis Joseph Papineau.

Lafontaine had been a former follower of Papineau during the time of the Rebellions of 1837-38. He had fled to the USA during the Rebellion of 1837 and upon his return in 1838 he had been arrested and jailed, though he was eventually released without the benefit of a trial. After 1841 emerged as the leader of the French Canadian Block in the new legislature of the United Province of Canada. While voicing the discontent of his compatriots against a union devised to
destroy them, he believed that the way to assure the survival of French Canada was to seek to cooperate with English Canada. By supporting goals (economic development and Responsible Government) that both the English and the French had in common, he hoped to gain support from his allies in Upper Canada to make the Union more acceptable to the French, and especially to gain rights for the French language and laws. In his view, the best way to assure the survival of French Canada was to cooperate with English Canada, to develop common bonds, to focus on what united all Canadians. He typified the ‘federalist’ attitude: cooperate to gain rights, the survival of French Canada is dependant on the survival of Canada. The union of Lafontaine and Baldwin, and later of Macdonald and Cartier, typified this federalist attitude that later leaders like Laurier, Lapointe, St. Laurent and Trudeau are going to follow.

There was a second attitude that could be taken to the threat of assimilation posed by the new Union of 1840-41: the separatist attitude. To the question of how best to assure the survival of French Canada, Louis-Joseph Papineau answered increasingly by destroying the union, withdrawing cooperation and creating a separate state controlled by the Quebecois and dedicated to the sole proposition of the preservation of this state and people. To Papineau, cooperation would only eventually bring about the subordination of his nation and its assimilation to the English speaking world. He preached a form of isolationism although he was himself rather internationalist in outlook. In the rest of his political career, he fought bitterly the Union and his political rival Lafontaine.

Yet, what must be seen above the apparent differences, is that both attitudes share much in common: both wish to assure the survival of French Canada and both made of this survival their priority politically; both made the survival of Quebec their priority and not that of Canada. This is, in part, what most distinguishes the French Canadian federalist attitude from the federalists of the rest of Canada. One is primarily focused on Quebec, the other on Canada.

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College