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French Cathedral, Quebec City, Mary M. Chaplin, 1839 – C856

This is a picture of an old Quebec City. It has its cathedral. Every little town in Quebec had a magnificent church. However, in the days of New France, most of the population lived on each side of the St Lawrence River, on narrow but deep land tracts called Seigneuries. Quebec consisted of seigneuries, a feudal system. The Seigneur collected “rentes” (rent) and the Church, la dîme (tithe). There were three main cities: Québec, Trois-Rivières, and Montréal, each located on the North bank of the St. Lawrence River. During the winter, one could travel on thick ice from one of the cities to another. One used a cart and horses. When summer came, boats could be used. However, there was a road, le Chemin du Roy/Roi.

Long Tracts of Land
Manoir Dionne à Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

The Seigneurial system survived until 1854, but it had been established in 1627. This was a “peau de chagrin.” La Peau de chagrin (1831) is the title of a novel by Honoré de Balzac. The peau (skin) grows smaller and smaller and its owner runs out of luck.

Similarly, thirty acres grow smaller and smaller with each generation. The children have to find a job. When the system was abolished, censitaires were given a choice. They could purchase their thirty acres or pay rent for life. Le Seigneur did not lose anything, but those who paid a rente were impoverished. The amount renters had to pay was enormous:

In 1928, an inquiry launched by the Bureau de la statistique du Québec (Statistics Québec) showed that rentes were still being collected in 190 seigneuries (for a total capital value of $3,577,573). The annual payments made by nearly 60,000 families amounted to more than $200,000.

(Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada / PA-020260)

(Seigneurial System, The Canadian Encyclopedia)

When an « habitant » (usually a farmer) saw the priest arrive, he wanted to hide. He knew it was time to pay the tithe. Quebec literature tells this drama in Ringuet’s Trente arpents and other novels. (See Canadiana.2, one of my pages.) The Internet kept my writings. Would you believe I have been an influencer?


I will end close on these words. United Empire Loyalists were given large lots, while our little habitants could not survive on the ancestral acres. This led to a massive exodus to the United States. Nearly one million French-speaking Canadians left Canada. He did not speak French. My grandfather did. His wife stayed in Canada, living in an old house between the railroad and the river. The men in the train threw what they could, so the one cast iron stove had something to burn.

Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine (1913) depicts the three choices of French Canadians. Go north, clear the land, work as a voyageur, or move to the United States. My father could not remember his father. So, my mother found where he lived, and we travelled to Massachusetts. The trip was a great success. We met a wonderful man and his wife and continued to go to Athol two or three times a year. He told us never to judge a man unless we had walked in his moccasins.

My grandfather had seven cats and a large dog. He also had a cow and une basse-cour, a yard for the hens. He married the woman who sold him her property. She was in charge of the house.

À la Claire Fontaine in an arrangement by Stephen Smith, sung by Musica Intima, Vancouver

© Micheline Walker
21 August 2020