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North of Forestville (Au nord de Forestville), René Richard R.C.A. (1895-1982)
(with permission from La Galerie Klinckhoff, Montréal)

René Richard ‘s House in Baie-Saint-Paul (Charlevoix) 

In the article I posted on 16 June 2012, I stated that Claude-Henri Grignon’s Un Homme et son péché  was not altogether a roman de la terre, or novel of the land.  In this regard, I must be more specific.

To make my text a little clearer, I have added a sentence underscoring the presence in Grignon’s novel of real-life characters such as François-Xavier-Antoine Labelle (24 November  1833 – 4 January 1891) le curé Labelle and Arthur Buies. Le curé Labelle and Arthur Buies were advocates of colonisation, making land (faire de la terre), the patriotic choice.  Claude-Henri Grignon would not have inserted these characters in his novel for decorative purposes.

The Shrinking Thirty Acres: une Peau de chagrin [ii] 

You are already familiar with this story.  Québécois had run out of land to cultivate.  By the middle of the 19th century, the thirty acres of land allotted them in the seventeenth century, when the SEIGNEURIAL system was put into place (1627), could no longer be divided and French-speaking inhabitants of Quebec were not ready to move to cities as they had not been raised to be merchants and industrialists.

Therefore, although it is a satire of rural life, Les Belles Histoires des pays d’en haut, or Séraphin, un homme et son péché (1933), belongs, at least indirectly, to the roman de la terre, or roman du terroir.  If Canadiens wanted to remain in the Province of Quebec, their only option was “making land,” Antoine Labelle‘s and Arthur Buies‘s nationalistic option. But was it a realistic option?

The Lack of Professions

We know that the land was shrinking, but compounding the problem was the lack of professions.  In Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau‘s Charles Guérin, upon completion of their études classiques taught in a Petit Séminaire, a private institution, and the one course of studies allowing admission to a university , Charles and his brother Pierre realized that the only professions French-Canadians could enter were the priesthood, law and medicine.  French-speaking Quebecers could also be teachers, which was the preserve of religious orders.

Containing the « exode »

Consequently, not only were Québécois cultivateurs increasingly landless, but lawyers were also facing unemployment.  Therefore, preventing French-speaking Canadians from moving to the New England states was well-nigh impossible.  There were factories in the Eastern Townships, an area settled by United Empire Loyalists, but by and large Quebec had very few factories.

As for going north to “make land” (colonisation), it made sense.  However, just how much land could one make?  Furthermore, just how many French Canadians wanted to be like Samuel Chapdelaine?

Grignon’s letter to André Laurendeau

Claude-Henri Grignon had the highest regard for the land: le sol.  In a public letter[ii] to Joseph-Edmond-André Laurendeau (21 March 1912 in Montreal – 1st June 1968 in Ottawa), published in L’Action nationale (June 1941), Grignon wrote that if he accepted the word culture in the “broad and particular” meaning Laurendeau gave it, he believed that there was a French-Canadian culture and that it was a culture of the land, i.e. agrarian: « Notre culture sera paysanne ou ne sera pas. » (We will be farmers or we will not be [we will cease to exist]: that is our culture).  My translation is not a literal translation, but it is accurate.

It should be pointed out, however, that in his letter or article, Grignon expressed reservations.  He had this warning for the very prominent André Laurendeau: “But be careful, we will end up losing it in the same manner we have suffered other losses, because of our indifference, our timidity and, [let’s call a spade a spade], because of our “avachissement” (total spinelessness: we’re cows).” This is again my own accurate, but not literal translation.

Let’s continue reading:

“As I have often written, and will repeat,” writes Grignon, “our survival remains inextricably linked to the land, i.e. le sol.  The word « sol » (three letters) contains the entire past, all of our traditions, our customs and values (mœurs), our faith and our language. If you take away sol from our social life, our economy, our political life, there is no French-Canadian culture.”

« Je l’ai écrit souvent et je le répète: notre survivance reste intimement liée au sol.  Le mot ‹ sol › (trois lettres) contient tout le passé, toutes nos traditions, nos moeurs, notre foi et notre langue.  Retranchez le sol de notre vie sociale, économique, politique et il n’est point de culture canadienne-française. »  (p. 315)


A “Mystique” of the Land

Grignon goes on to write, that what French Canadians lack, and lack sorely, is a mystique [ideology] of the land.  “Nothing is more durable, sturdier and healthier.  There are nations of industrialists, nations of merchants, and agrarian nations.”  In other words, Grignon was banking on the land: where there is land there is bread (« là où est la terre, là est le pain »).  And he wrote that if anyone spoke to the contrary, he would ask that person the following question: “Why is it that our English gentlemen are rushing to purchase the land?” (for the original French, see the very end of the following quotation)

« Ce qui nous manque, ce qui fait douloureusement défaut dans les racines les plus profondes de notre peuple, c’est le sens d’une mystique véritable, d’une mystique paysanne, d’une mystique de la terre dans ce qu’elle suppose de plus durable, de plus fort, de plus sain.  Il y a des peuples industriels, des peuples commerçants, des peuples agricoles.  Pourquoi ne pas continuer les traditions de la vieille France par un attachement plus intime à la terre qui demeure selon les économistes les plus avertis, la seule richesse qui ne peut périr, même aux heures les plus difficiles, les plus angoissantes.  Inutile de nous le cacher : là où est la terre, là est le pain. » (pp. 315-316)

« Comment se fait-il  qu’au moment où j’écris ces lignes, messieurs les Anglais, gens pratiques, par excellence, se ruent vers nos terres et s’agitent de toutes façons pour s’en procurer ? » (p. 316)


The Great Depression

We must take into account that Grignon wrote the above article, in 1941, as North America was recovering from the Great Depression.  During the Great Depression, the only asset that remained valuable was land.  There is something artificial about money, but land is real estate, including the small city lot on which your house is located, if you have a house.  According to Grignon, the English knew this, but the French-speaking Québécois did not.


Grignon was both right and wrong.  Of course, one holds on to the land, but Quebec also needed its merchants, its industrialists, its engineers, its architects, its economists.

Moreover, Grignon stringed together land, language and religion.  For him, the three were inseparable.  In this regard, I believe Grignon faced an obstacle, at least where French Canadians living outside Quebec were concerned.  Outside Quebec, there was a separation of Church and State.  A Catholic school was a private school and that was not about to change.


I will close by repeating that although Un Homme et son péché is not a mainstream roman du terroir, or novel of the land. It features three real-life characters who were advocates of colonisation.  But we have now seen that Claude-Henri Grignon himself was a proponent of an economic system based on agriculture.  He realized that land was “real” estate.

However, those who went to the United States did so because they had to put bread on the table that very day.  Where food is concerned, one does not have the luxury to wait.  They were not traitors.  They were victims.

Didn’t anyone have the foresight to prevent the worst tragedy ever to befall French-speaking Canadians?  It seems to me that no one was minding the store.


[i] For a list of novels that would be romans du terroir, it may be good to look at Marianopolis College, L’Histoire de la littérature canadienne-française 
[ii] From a novel, its very title, by Honoré de Balzac.
[iii] Claude-Henri Grignon, « Notre culture sera paysanne, ou ne sera pas»,
L’Action nationale (Montréal, vol. XVII, nº 6, juin 1941), pp. 538-543,  in Gilles Marcotte, dir. Anthologie de la littérature québécoise, vol 3 (Montréal: L’Hexagone, 1994), pp. 315-316.
© Micheline Walker
18 June 2012
Bord de la mer, Cap-aux-oies, René Richard