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Aubert de Gaspé’s Manoir, Saint-Jean-Port-Joli (south shore of the St Lawrence River)

In an earlier post, I suggested that a responsible government could rectify the problems that had led to the Rebellions of 1837-38. In other words, the Parliamentary system could bring about responsible government.

The British Constitution had been a blessing to Canadiens. Let me quote, once again, my anonymous Canadien praising Britain in Le Canadien, a newspaper created on 22 November 1806. On 4 November 1809 or anonymous Canadien, i.e. French-speaking Canadian, wrote:

“Depuis cette époque le règne des lois a graduellement établi son Empire, et nous jouissons maintenant d’une Constitution où tout le monde est à sa place, et dans laquelle un homme est quelque chose.”[i]

(Since that time when the rule of laws has gradually established its empire, and we now enjoy the benefits of a constitution where everyone has a place and where a man is something.)

Consider, for instance, what might have happened to Nouvelle-France, New France, if New France had still been under French rule during the French Revolution. Many French priests had sought refuge in England to escape the guillotine, but there was not much for them to do in England where Catholicism was not the only religion. That problem was resolved when England offered to send them to ‘its’ French colony in North America where they could be Good Shepherds, as priests, educators and organizers, not to mention that they felt validated by their work. (See Related Articles, at the foot of this post.)

Le Bon Pasteur by François Baillairgé, circa 1775, guilded and painted wood sculpture. (photo by Patrick Altman/courtesy Musée du Québec and The Canadian Encyclopedia).     

Remember Thomas Chandler Haliburton and l’abbé Sigogne (father Jean-Mandé Sigogne) organizing Nova Scotia. L’abbé Sigogne had learned English during the years he had spent in England and he and Haliburton were both refined and well-educated gentlemen. (See Related Articles, at the foot of this post.)

But what of the seigneurs?  Louis-Joseph Papineau was a seigneur. Would he have been guillotined? However, let us examine the Seigneurial System.

The Seigneurial System

We are acquainted with one seigneur: Louis-Joseph Papineau, but we know that Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé, the author of Les Anciens Canadiens, 1862, had been a seigneur.  However, the Seigneurial System had been abolished, when Aubert de Gaspé published his novel, perhaps the most popular work written by a Canadien whose purpose was to prove that Lord Durham wrong in his assessment of French-speaking Canadians. They had a literature and a history, which they did not have in Lord Durham’s opinion.

The Seigneurial System (Wikipedia) or Seigneurial System was abolished in 1854 by the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and was assented to by Governor Lord Elgin, on 22 June 1854, in An Act for the Abolition of Feudal Rights and Duties in Lower Canada which was brought into effect on 18 December of that year.

Back to the Early Days of Nouvelle-France

You might remember from earlier posts (See Related Articles) that, in 1628, Cardinal Richelieu of France had founded the Compagnie de Cent-Associés (The Company of One Hundred Associates [Wikipedia]), and had the land divided into narrow but deep lots on the shores of the St Lawrence River which was Nouvelle-France’s highway. The following is copied from the Company of One Hundred Associates entry in Wikipedia:

“From 1629 to 1635 Champlain was the company’s commander in New France. Under the Ancien Regime in France, every community was governed by a lord and a priest plus a magistrate appointed only with the lord and priest’s concurrence. As such, a component of the charter given the company provided for Roman Catholic priests to be part of all settlements and explorations and priests were given governing authority in conjunction with any appointed intendants. The charter also required the company to bring an average of 160 settlers to New France over the next twenty five years and to support their settlement for the first three years.”

Seigneurial System: land division (please click to enlarge the picture)

The Seigneurial System

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry on the Seigneurial System,[ii] the system was established in 1627, and abolished in 1854. The seigneur, usually leased his land from a member of the Company of One Hundred Associates founded by Richelieu) and, in turn, the tenants called censitaires, but also referred to as habitants, leased his thirty acres from the seigneur on the basis of duly notarized contracts. The land therefore belonged to the King of France.

seigneurie measured 5 x 15 km in size. Land was allocated as the member of the Compagnie des Cent Associés pleased and was usually leased, not sold, to influential colonists:

  • the nobility,
  • religious institutions (in return for educational and hospital services),
  • military officers, etc.

Seigneurs and Censitaires

Normally, the Seigneurie was farmland divided into

  • river lots (rangs, or rows), linked by
  • montées, roads going from one rang to another. 

Censitaires or habitants paid rent (cens) and banalitésAccording to Wikipedia, banalités were “taxes levied on grain, which the tenant had to grind at his seigneur’s mill. He [the seigneur] also usually granted hunting, fishing and woodcutting licences.” The seigneur used that money to run the mill, the Church, keep roads open, etc.

In the eighteenth century, it was also customary for habitants to contribute a certain numbers of hours of work to his seigneur. This was called la corvée, the chore. Each habitant cultivated about thirty acres of land, which he leased. As for the seigneur,

  • he could establish a court of law,
  • he usually managed the commune,
  • he provided a church to his censitaires, and
  • he was under the obligation of providing a common mill.

Some Canadiens settled in cities and many engaged in the fur trade. These Canadiens usually belonged to a parish, but 75-80% of Canadiens were habitants. So Canadiens belonged to 1) seigneuries or 2) parishes, and communities were usually closely knit.

Seigneuries and Parishes

There were roughly 200 seigneuries and they covered virtually all the inhabited areas on both banks of the St Lawrence River between Montréal and Québec and beyond on the north side. On the south side, they extended to the Gaspé area. By and large, that land was arable and having sons helping on the farm was beneficial. However, to what extent can one divide up thirty acres of land?  But that is another story.

In short, for the time being, we have, as noted above, two leaders. They are, on the one hand, the seigneur and his censitaires, farming communities and, on the other hand, the curé, the parish priest, and his parishioners. When the seigneurial system was abolished, the habitant  remained on his thirty acres, but Canadiens also lived in townships or cantons grouped into parishes. In other words, with the abolition of seigneuries, the Canadiens were grouped into parishes. The parish became the main organizational element.

Let us read the Canadian Encyclopedia [iii] on the subject of the seigneurial system:

“The system of land tenure, which placed rural inhabitants close to one another, and in the early 19th century the village, were the foundation upon which the family, neighbour relations and community spirit developed. The closeness of this agricultural society to the soil led naturally to a feeling that land was included in one’s patrimony, to be passed from generation to generation.”

The Conquest and the Abolition of the Seigneurial System

After the conquest of Quebec, or the Treaty of Paris (1763), the system became an obstacle to colonization by British settlers as the Quebec Act of 1774 left the Canadiens undisturbed. Under the terms of the Quebec Act, French civil law was retained and so was the seigneurial system. The seigneuries were arable land and, therefore, prime land. Some seigneuries were bought by English-speaking Canadians.

According to Wikipedia, “[t]he system was finally abolished when the last residual rents were repurchased through a system of Quebec provincial bonds.” By the way, some seigneuries belonged to women.

It could well be that the seigneurial system was abolished as it dissolved. As noted above, to what extent can land be divided? The fact is that the Canadiens ran out of land. That story is told in Ringuet’s (Philippe Panneton) Trente Arpents (1938). Some tried to make arable land of land that was not arable. Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine (1914), a French author who spent a winter in the Lac Saint-Jean area and provided a lasting account of what was called colonisation.

But, this is where we must pause as a whole chapter of Canada’s history is over. Other stories begin.

Much of the above information is based on the contents of my lectures on French-Canadian literature. But I wish to acknowledge that I have also used the Canadian Encyclopedia and, to a certain extent, Wikipedia.


Le Jeune Étudiant, Ozias Leduc, 1894 (Photo credit: FR Wikipedia)

Related Articles
Évangéline & the Literary Homeland (cont’d)
Évangéline & the Literary Homeland
Richelieu & Nouvelle-France
Une Éminence grise: Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu et de Fonsac
Wikipedia Entries
Samuel de Champlain (13 August 1574 – 25 December 1635)
Pierre Du Gua de Monts (Du Gua de Monts; c. 1558 – 1628)
Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully (1560–1641)
[i] René Dionne, Les Origines canadiennes (1763-1836), in Gilles Marcotte, dir. vol. 2, Anthologie de la littérature québécoise (Montréal: L’Hexagone, 1994), p. 324.
[ii] Jacques Mathieu, “The Seigneurial System,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/seigneurial-system
[iii] Ibid.
© Micheline Walker
28 April 2012