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La Maison rouge par Clarence Gagnon


In earlier posts, I discussed Louis Hémon‘s Maria Chapdelaine (1913). Louis Hémon (12 October 1880 – 8 July 1913) was born in France but visited Quebec in 1912-1913. He went North to the small community of Péribonka. Having worked with French Canadians, he spent the winter of 1912-1913 writing Maria Chapdelaine and sent his manuscript to a publisher in France. He started walking west, but he was hit by a train.

In my discussion of Maria Chapdelaine, I also introduced the legendary Antoine Labelle (1834-1891). Antoine Labelle was a priest who encouraged Quebecers who had no land to go North, to the Lac-Saint-Jean FR or up the Ottawa River and “make land,”(faire de la terre). They were running out of land. Others, however, went to the United States.

Since the 1850s, or perhaps as early as the Rebellions or 1837-1838, Quebecers were moving to the United States.The thirty acres French colons (colonists) had farmed since the 17th century were a peau de chagrin.[1] They could no longer be divided among sons. Moreover, when the Seigneurial System was abolished in 1854, farmers could buy their ancestral land if they had money. The censitaires who could not buy their thirty acres had to pay “rente” for a lifetime.

Faire de la terre, making land, is the choice Maria’s father has made. Maria falls in love with François Paradis, but he dies in a storm, hoping to spend Christmas with Maria. An émigré to the United States, Lorenzo Surprenant, also wishes to marry Maria, but she will live and die as her mother lived and died. She marries Eutrope Gagnon who is “making land.”

My grandfather left Canada because he could not making a living in his native land. He went to the Canada d’en bas,[2] a down below Canada, or New England states. Traditionally, Quebecers had left for the pays d’en haut, north. They became voyageurs or worked as loggers (bûcherons) or river drivers (draveurs). Raftsmen drove the lumber down rivers, which was very dangerous.

Draveurs / Raftsmen (Bytown is Ottawa and the Ottawa River is l’Outaouais)

However, French Canadians left Québec for reasons other than unemployment. There were jobs in the United States, but French-speaking Canadians did not escape the spellbinding notion that, in order to be rich, one migrated to the United States. It was described as a land of plenty. My grandfather was unemployed, so he went to work in a New England factory. He saved his money and bought a large farm. Owning land was everything.

It remains true, however, that nearly one million[3] French-speaking Canadians left Canada mostly because they could not make a living in their country. Besides, although it did not happen the minute Confederation was signed, provinces legislated the exclusive, or nearly exclusive, use of French as a language of instruction. Sir Wilfrid Laurier could not accommodate immigrants and refugees. Needy French-speaking Canadians could not go west.

For instance, under Premier Sir James Whitney, Ontario was not prepared to have a dual system of education. In July 1912, Whitney’s government passed Regulation 17, which banned the teaching of French in schools beyond the first two or three years. This measure inflamed French-Canadian opinion across Canada, but more so in Quebec. French-speaking Quebecers wondered if they should accept conscription.

In 1922, Quebec nationalist, Lionel Groulx, a priest, published L’Appel de la race, (the call of…). Jules Lantagnac, a lawyer, has married Maud Fletcher, a Catholic Anglophone. They live in Ottawa. He is elected into office in Ontario, but wants his children to be educated in French. His wife opposes him and she threatens to leave him if he supports a motion by Kamouraska (Quebec) Member of Parliament, Ernest Lapointe. The marriage falls apart. A few years ago, Lionel Groulx, Quebec’s most prominent nationalist ever, was accused of racism. Although I would rather read Gabrielle Roy, I will say that race also means breed and that Lantagnac’s roots are a French and bilingual Canada. Sir James Whitney, was influenced by Ontario Orangemen. Sir John A. Macdonald, the main father of Confederation, was an Orangeman and the Orange Order was anti-French and anti-Catholic. (See James Whitney, Wikipedia.)

But French-speaking Canadians had friends.

They [French Canadians] have adopted our system, but there are two things they have clung to, their religion and their language. I believe that their national sentiment is even stronger than their religious sentiment—I really believe so. The national feeling among them is intensely strong, but I would ask you English, Irish and Scotch descendants born in this country, and brought up here, supposing a regulation similar to No. 17 were passed in the Province of Quebec, what do you think our duty towards it would be? Supposing Sir Lomer Gouin—I cannot imagine it—but supposing he did have the courage, or the nerve, so to speak, to pass a regulation of that kind. There would be a rebellion in this Province, I think. And here we have our French-Canadian brethren in the sister Province who by constitutional means are trying to obtain the repeal or the modification of the regulation, or some other settlement of the question which would be satisfactory to all concerned.)

Mr. JUSTICE McCORKILL, in Bilingualism by N. A. Belcourt speech given at the Canadian Club in 1916.
Gutenberg [EBook #25040]

George-Étienne Cartier (1814-1873), the Prime Minister of Canada East, signed Confederation. Quebec was part of a federated Canada. He was pleased that Quebecers would keep their language, their religion, and their Code Civil. He negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. But could he presume that a dual system of education would be opposed? He died in 1873, twelve years before Louis Riel was executed.

However, it remains difficult to say to what extent being confined to one province hurt French-speaking Canadians. Emigration to the United States was a loss. All I know is that the people living in Canada are compatible. So many French-speaking Canadians are federalists. They inherited a Constitutional Monarchy and liked that system. One could speak. As for Sir John A. Macdonald, he had a dream. Canada would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. That vision was enibriating, but…


Sources and Resources

[1] I am borrowing from Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) who wrote a novel entitled La Peau de chagrin. Shagreen shrinks. It may, therefore, represent life, love, and all paradis perdus (paradise lost)
[2] Pierre Anctil, « La Franco-Américanie ou le Québec d’en bas », in Maurice Poteet, responsable, Textes de l’Exode (Montréal : Guérin Littérature, collection Francophonie, 1987), pp. 91-111.
[3] Télesphore Saint-Pierre, « Les Canadiens des États-Unis : ce qu’on perd à émigrer », in Maurice Poteet, responsable, Textes de l’Exode (Montréal : Guérin Littérature, collection Francophonie, 1987), p. 47.


Love to everyone 💕

© Micheline Walker
1st May 2021