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Barns, by Clarence Gagnon, 1926

Barns by Clarence Gagnon, 1926 (National Gallery of Canada)

Demographic Growth in Québec

During the one week  (1805 – 16 April 1859) Alexis de Tocqueville spent in Bas-Canada (Lower Canada),[i] he marveled at the fact that there was still a French nation in North America. In particular, he “noticed the demographic growth of the French Canadians, their numbers almost ten times what it was when the colony was handed over to Great Britain.”[ii] There were about 70,000 Francophone Roman Catholics in 1763, the year New France became a British colony. In 1831, the population of Lower Canada was 550,000 (See Canada under British Rule, Wikipedia). However, 8,000 United Empire Loyalists, including 300 slaves, had settled in the Eastern Townships.[iii]

Tocqueville feared for the future. French-Canadians were mainly habitants and quite prosperous but, on 1st September 1831, Tocqueville confirmed in his notes that “the English have control of all foreign trade and run domestic trade without any opposition.” (Note 7)[iv] In other words, what would happen to the French nation he was so pleased to have visited? They were habitants, lawyers, doctors, priests, and teachers who were members of a religious order). Until the 1960s, Nuns also administered hospitals.

So although there were shops, general stores, and several small businesses in Lower Canada, large businesses and factories belonged to the anglophone population. However, la revanche des berceaux, the revenge of the cradles, a very high birthrate, played a significant role in the survival of the francophone population of Canada and North America. The men “colonized” and women gave birth to a large number of children who reached adulthood. But Tocqueville also commented on the motherland’s neglect of its subjects in New France.

The Abandonment of New France

The Lower Canada visited by Alexis de Tocqueville had grown into a small nation due, to a large extent, to a very high birthrate. However, given the manner in which they greeted Tocqueville and Beaumont, I would suspect the small nation he visited had chosen to view itself as “conquered” rather than abandoned, thus “resisting” its fate. Yet, as Tocqueville stated, they had been abandoned, which constituted “one of the greatest ignominies of Louis XV’s shameful reign.       

Dans une lettre du 26 novembre 1831, commentant la politique française du XVIIIe siècle concernant la Nouvelle-France, il écrit de l’« abandon » de ces sujets français qu’il est « une des plus grandes ignominies du honteux règne de Louis XV ».[iv] (Corbo)

In a letter dated 26th November 1831, he criticizes France’s dealings with its North American colony during the 18th century, referring to the “abandonment” of loyal subjects of the French Empire. Then he adds that it was “one of the greatest ignominies of Louis XV’s shameful reign.” (Corbo)

Louis XV by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1730

Louis XV by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1730 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Conquest or Abandonment

It is not uncommon for Québécois to speak of “la conquête” and to look upon the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, fought on 13 September 1759, as the British military victory that undid New France.  In fact, in his account of his visit to Lower Canada, Alexis de Tocqueville himself used both the words: “conquis” (conquered) and “abandon,” (abandonment) referring to France’s lost colony.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was decisive. At the conclusion of a war, battles are tallied up. However, I would suspect that the Battle of the Plains of Abraham did not carry much weight in the mind of persons drafting the Traité de Paris (1763). When the Traité de Paris was negotiated, France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763), or French and Indian War (1754 – 1763). Moreover, the Seven Years’ War had been an international conflict.

Consequently, having lost the war, France had to cede some of its colonies and it ceded New France, “quelques arpents de neige” (a few acres of snow) (Voltaire‘s Candide 1759, chapter 23), as well as the eastern part of French Louisiana to Britain, keeping its sugar-rich Caribbean colonies (Guadeloupe and Martinique) and two small islands, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, off the coast of the current Newfoundland, a pied-à-terre for its fishermen in the North Atlantic.

It follows that Tocqueville’s description of the cession of New France is, to a large extent, as he stated: “one of the greatest ignominies of Louis XV’s shameful reign.” New France was abandoned. However, I should think that it was in the best interest of the abandoned nation to redress horrific events by considering itself a “conquered,” rather than abandoned people. Doing so could be called damage control. Careful wording can constitute a form of resistance.

Evening on the North Shore, by Clarence Gagnon

Evening on the North Shore by Clarence Gagnon, 1924 (National Gallery of Canada)

A Laurentian Homestead, by Clarence Gagnon,1919

A Laurentian Homestead by Clarence Gagnon, 1919 (National Gallery of Canada)

The “Royal Proclamation” of 1763

It would have to be resistance.  New France was not ceded unconditionally. It kept its religion, its language and its seigneuries. Habitants remained on their thirty acres, and French Civil law was respected, to a reasonable extent. Here is an excerpt from the Treaty of Paris:

“His Britannick Majesty, on his side, agrees to grant the liberty of the Catholick religion to the inhabitant of Canada: he will, in consequence, give the most precise and most effectual orders, that his new Roman Catholic subjects may profess the worship of their religion according to the rites of the Romish church, as far as the laws of Great Britain permit. His Britannick Majesty farther agrees, that the French inhabitants, or others who had been subjects of the Most Christian King in Canada, may retire with all safety and freedom wherever they shall think proper, and may sell their estates, provided it be to the subjects of his Britannick Majesty, and bring away their effects as well as their persons, without being restrained in their emigration, under any pretence whatsoever, except that of debts or of criminal prosecutions: The term limited for this emigration shall be fixed to the space of eighteen months, to be computed from the day of the exchange of the ratification of the present treaty.” (See The Treaty of Paris, Wikipedia.)  


However, once the Traité de Paris was signed, on 10 February 1763, how long could anyone expect England to keep its promises? The small nation Tocqueville and Beaumont visited was a British colony and, as such, its future as a French-language nation was imperiled. It is relatively easy to assimilate 70,000 inhabitants.

In the case of the “Royal Proclamation,” Canadiens, as they called themselves, were little less than a man away from possible assimilation. That man was James Murray (21 January 1721, Scotland – 18 June 1794, Battle, East Sussex), the Governor of the province of Quebec.

“In October of the same year  [1763], London issues its « Royal Proclamation », thus allowing French-speakers to practice their religion. But Great Britain lets governor Murray know of its plans to found Protestant schools to assimilate the population. The proclamation also wants to replace the old French civil code of law by the British Common Law. Governor Murray judges this measure unrealistic and decides to keep the French civil laws.”[v]

Allow me to quote the Canadian Encyclopedia with respect to Governor James Murray:

“A member of the landed gentry, he supported the agrarian, French-speaking inhabitants over the newly arrived, English-speaking merchants. He was reluctant to call a legislative assembly, promised in the ROYAL PROCLAMATION OF 1763, because he feared that Canadians would be barred from it on religious grounds.”

The "Seven Year War" or French and Indians War

The Seven Years War or French and Indian War (blue: Great Britain, Prussia Portugal, Britain, with allies; green: France, Spain, Austria, Russia, Sweden with allies.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alexis de Tocqueville: 1831

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited Lower Canada in 1831, the 70,000 inhabitants, “abandoned,” in 1763, had become a small nation, which delighted him. The habitants The were in fact quite prosperous, but Tocqueville noted that “the English ha[d] control of all foreign trade and r[a]n domestic trade without any opposition,” which was alarming.[vi] What would the habitant do once his thirty acres could no longer be divided? 

Village dans les Laurentides, Clarence Gagnon, 1925 (National Gallery of Art)

Village dans les Laurentides (A Village in the Laurentides) by Clarence Gagnon, 1925 (National Gallery of Art)

Colonization & the “Revenge of the Cradles

Tocqueville’s fears were legitimate.  Many habitants did leave for the United States, when Canadiens ran out of land.  As I wrote in earlier posts, nearly a million French Canadians and Acadians would move to the United States during a period of Canadian history named l’Exode: the exodus.  They could not find work in Canada.  However, many chose to “make land,” faire de la terre, (Chapter 4, Maria Chapdelaine).  The leader of this movement was a priest, le curé Labelle   (24 November 1833 – 4 January 1891).

Le curé Labelle [vii] proposed that French Canadians go north, to the Laurentides, Abitibi-Témiscamingue and the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, and turn unfriendly soil into arable land.  Le curé Labelle saw colonization as a realistic option, which it was, to a lesser or greater extent.  When Louis Hémon (12 October 1880 – 8 July 1913), a visitor from France, travelled to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, the habitants, now called cultivateurs, were colonizing and the Francophone population of Quebec had grown to approximately 2 million inhabitants. Once again, a visitor from France was looking at an expanding nation. Hémon noticed a demographic victory and a will, on the part of the people of Quebec, to remain what they had always been.

Louis Hémon: 1913

Shortly after Louis Hémon arrived in Canada, he went to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean area. He worked at Péribonka during the summer and fall and then spent the winter of 1912-1913 writing his novel: Maria Chapdelaine.  In his short novel, Louis Hémon captured a Quebec that was not about to die. After sending his novel to a publisher, Hémon started traveling west and was killed by a train, at Chapleau, Ontario. His novel was published in 1914 and proved an enduring success. Louis Hémon had seen not only a small nation but a people who were a testimonial: “un témoignage.” Hémon did not express doubts concerning the survival of the small nation he was visiting: Quebec. “These people belong to a breed (race) that does not know how to die.” (See Chapter 15 of the novel.)

 Ces gens sont d’une race qui ne sait pas mourir.


The growth of a population of 70,000 inhabitants, in 1763, to half a million, in 1831, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited Lower Canada, was perhaps due to an already high birthrate called the revanche des berceauxthe revenge of the cradles. It was not a trivial phenomenon. When Louis Hémon went to Péribonka, in 1912-1913, and spent the winter months writing Maria Chapdelaine, the francophone population of Quebec had risen to 2 million inhabitants. Three films are based on Maria Chapdelaine and we owe its first English translation to W. H. Blake.

Information: online publications, etc.

Canada under British Rule, Wikipedia (demographics).
Maria Chapdelaine is the Project Gutenberg [EBook #4383] EN
Maria Chapdelaine is the Project Gutenberg [EBook #13525] FR
It is also a Wikisource publication EN.
Voltaire‘s Candide is the Project Gutenberg [EBook #19942]
The illustrations I have used are by Clarence Gagnon (1885 -1942), but they are not necessarily the ones Clarence Gagnon created for Maria Chapdelaine. These can be seen at the McMichael Gallery, in Kleinburg, Ontario. (Please click on McMichael Gallery to see the Maria Chapdelaine collection).
Going Home from Church, by Clarence Gagnon, 1926

Going Home from Church by Clarence Gagnon, 1926 (NGC)


[i] Claude Corbo, Alexis de Tocqueville’s visit to Lower Canada in 1831, in the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America.
Tocqueville and Beaumont first visited Niagara Falls and then found their way to Bas-Canada. They were in Lower Canada from the 23rd of August to the 2nd September 1831.
[iii] In Upper Canada, the Act Against Slavery was an anti-slavery law passed on 9 July 1793.
[iv] Claude Corbo, op. cit.
[v] République libre: Le Bas-Canada (1763 – 1867).
[vi] Claude Corbo, op. cit. 
[vii] A miser is featured in Les Belles Histoires des pays d’en haut, a radio and television series based on Claude-Henri Grignon‘s (8 July 1894 – 3 April 1976) Un homme et son péché (1933).
Clarence Gagnon (1885 -1942) (déjà vu)
Johannes Brahms, Intermezzo, Op.117, No. 2                                                                         
Paul Robeson (9 April 1898 – 23 January 1976)
“Un Canadien errant”  
In the Laurentians, by Clarence Gagnon, 1910 (NGC)

In the Laurentians by Clarence Gagnon, 1910 (NGC)

© Micheline Walker
10 January 2014