French Canada: A New Race Born in North America

A Story of Challenge

By J.M.S. Careless

Chairman of the Department of History
University of Toronto
© J.M.S. Careless, 1963
First published 1953
Revised and enlarged edition 1963
Reprinted 1964

Library of Congress Catalogue Card No. 64-10638



Chapter 5

1. – The Structure of Society
2. – The Seigneurial System
3. – The Role of the Church
4. – The Life of the People
5. – The Life of New France and Modern French Canada



1. The Structure of Society

In the time of New France, and particularly after 1663 when the colony began to thrive, a distinctive way of life was worked out in Canada.  It still leaves its mark on French Canada to-day.  A glance at the society of New France not only reveals the world of the seventeenth-century colonists but throws light on the life and outlook of the modem French Canadians, who form nearly one-third of the present Canadian population.

To begin with, life in New France was fashioned on authorit­arian lines:  that is, power was concentrated at the top of society, and the mass of the colonists were used to obeying authority, not to governing their own lives.  This did not necessarily mean an attitude of dependence or meek docility.  The people of New France showed their sturdy self-reliance in other ways.  Yet in matters of religion, government, and relations between classes of people, French Canada readily accepted direction from above.  There was little of the demand for religious independence and self-government, or the levelling of social distinctions which gener­ally marked the English colonies to the south.  In these unruly provinces the trend was toward democracy and the emphasis was on liberty.  New France instead put its faith in ordered authority, not disorderly freedom, and stressed duties, not rights.

The forms of government helped shape this attitude in New France.  All power depended finally on the King.  He and his ministers at Versailles supervised even the minor details of govern­ment in the colony, and little could be done without their direc­tion.  Their control might have been well-intentioned, kindly, or even wise; but it was absolute.  This was paternal absolutism at its best and worst.  It developed in New France the habit of looking


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beyond herself for guidance and leadership.  Similarly, the govern­ment within New France was absolute and paternal as far as the inhabitants were concerned.  Except for the popularly chosen cap­tains of militia in each parish, there were no agencies of local self-government, nor elected bodies voicing public opinion.  A few attempts to include elected representatives in the councils of government were soon cut short.  New France never learned to manage its own affairs — or even to ask to do so.

The society of French Canada was also hierarchical in structure:  it was graded into distinctly separate upper and lower layers.  The bulk of the colonists, or habitants, were farmers and formed the broad lower order.  On the upper levels were the government officials, the large landholders, or seigneurs, and the principal clergy.  In between the two main groups the wealthy fur-trade merchants and the ordinary fur traders did, in a sense, represent a commercial or middle class.  In reality, however, New France had virtually no middle class.  The big fur merchants tended to be closely linked with the government officials; and since there was little commerce in the colony apart from the fur trade, and no industry to speak of, there were very few tradesmen and only a handful of artisans.  They did not form an effective middle class.

As for the ordinary fur trader, he hardly belonged to the colony at all.  His world lay far beyond in the forest.  He visited the settled areas only occasionally to obtain his earnings, spent his money on a wild spree, and disappeared again into the woods.  The life of the independent fur trader, the coureur de bois, seemed glamorous and free (actually it might be bitterly hard) and it attracted many reck­less spirits away from the farmlands.  But, far from the fur trader forming a real part of the society of the colony, he almost repre­sented a minus quantity, a subtraction from it.

Accordingly, with hardly any middle class between upper and lower orders in French Canada, the division in society was clear-cut, indeed.  Furthermore, the system of land-holding established definite social distinctions.  Land was held according to the seig-


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neurial system.  It was granted in large blocks to the seigneurs, who rented it in smaller holdings to the habitant farmers.  The habitants paid their seigneur various forms of rent and performed certain services for him.  The result was to create two groups on the land:  the seigneurs, who were landlords with special privileges and authority, and the habitants, tenant farmers, who owed not only rent and services but honour and respect as well.  In the English colonies, on the other hand, while there might be large and small farmers, and sometimes landlords and tenants, there were not the same class divisions fixed by law, and most farmers owned their own land.

The seigneurial system, therefore, was a major factor in making the society of New France authoritarian and hierarchical in charac­ter.  It entered widely into the life of the colony, and so deserves more investigation.

2. The Seigneurial System

The seigneurial system in New France represented the importa­tion of feudalism into America.  Feudalism was dead in England by the seventeenth century, but particularly on the lower, or seigneurial, level it was very much alive in France; and survived, indeed, until the French Revolution.  It was natural that the French should bring their prevailing mode of holding land with them to Canada.  Besides, feudalism had been a system concerned with government and defence as well as land, and it seemed well suited to meet the problems of building a colony in the North American wilderness.

According to the workings of feudalism, the lord owed duties of government and military leadership to his tenants, and they owed obedience and armed support to him.  Hence the seigneurs in Canada might serve as a military order, their holdings, or seig-neuries, as units of local government or defence.  Furthermore, the seigneurial system provided a means of settling the land.  Large tracts were granted to seigneurs on condition that they brought


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out settlers, who would be their tenants, to clear and develop these grants.  Thus block by block, in orderly fashion, New France would be built up by the seigneurial system.  Unfortunately it did not work out as planned.

Seigneuries were early granted under company rule, but not many of them were taken up.  Court favourites and land specu­lators acquired large amounts of land and either failed to bring out settlers or did not try, preferring to hold their large pieces of wilderness for sale to others more honest, or more foolish, in their purposes.  Seigneuries granted to religious orders tended more usually to be taken up, populated, and developed; yet in general the seigneurial system failed as a means of bringing about private colonization.

The system was maintained under royal government, but the seigneuries only really developed while the crown itself was bring­ing out colonists after 1663.  Then, indeed, the seigneurs’ agents would meet the ships arriving at Quebec to compete with each other to secure settlers.  While the tide of immigration was running to populate New France, so, too, many seigneuries were popu­lated.  But when the crown turned away much of its interest towards the end of the seventeenth century, because of wars in Europe, the immigrant stream again slowed to a trickle.  It re­mained only a trickle during the eighteenth century until the fall of New France, which in the meantime grew chiefly through its own high birthrate.  The seigneurs again failed to bring many new immigrants, although the seigneurial system remained in be­ing, and lasted, in fact, until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The seigneuries did serve, however, as units of local government and community life; and their role in defence was shown by the establishment of military seigneuries along the Richelieu, as a barrier to the Iroquois, where the tenants, who were ex-soldiers, still owed military service.  Much of the life of French Canada was that of the seigneury.  It was the habitant’s little world.

Nor were the conditions of seigneurialism really burdensome


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to him.  The system was far less oppressive in Canada than in France.  With the wilds close at hand, promising freedom and fortune in the fur trade, and with the need always to gain farmers, it would not have been possible to place heavy obligations on the habitants.  They owed corvees, the obligation to work a few days a year on the land the seigneur kept for his own farm; they had to pay rent in the form of cens et rentes, the former a small annual payment in money, the latter often paid in produce; and when land was sold or passed on by other than direct inheritance sums called lods et ventes were due.  But all these obligations were slight; and as for the banalité, the requirement to use the lord’s mill for grinding grain, often the expense of building the mill far out­weighed the tolls that were charged.

Furthermore, relations between habitant and seigneur were far closer and more friendly than in Old France.  After all, both were working together against a wilderness.  Though larger, the seig­neur’s house might not be more comfortable than the habitant’s; it was no ancient castle or luxurious palace.  The seigneur himself was not usually of an old noble family.  He might often have sprung from the trading classes.  The habitant was better off, the seigneur not as well off as their counterparts in France.  More­over, the conditions of pioneer life in America produced some of the open, independent atmosphere that was found on the frontiers in the English colonies.  The habitant was no downtrodden pea­sant but a self-sufficient, self-respecting farmer.  In his prosperity, he was not even a great distance from the seigneur in wealth.

Nevertheless, if relations were good and no heavy burden of dues came between habitant and seigneur, there was still a broad distance of dignity and privilege to separate them.  The seigneur was shown much respect.  His word carried weight throughout the countryside.  And seigneurialism embraced the countryside in what was, above all, a farming community.  Hence that system played so large a part in shaping the outlook of the French colo­nists.  But quite as important was the part played by the Church.


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3. The Role of the Church

One of the most significant features of New France was that it was solidly Catholic.  It was orthodox:  there were no heretics or questioners of the Catholic faith in the colony.  Once, indeed, there had been Protestants in French Canada.  The Huguenots, a Protestant minority in Catholic France, had been specially strong in western French seaports, and from there had entered actively into the fur trade of the St Lawrence during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  But the earnestly Catholic Champlain had urged that the new land be kept free from heresy, and the king’s minister, Cardinal Richelieu, had listened.  He wanted no such difficulties with Huguenots in New France as the crown was facing in Old.  He ordered that the colony should admit Catholics only; and henceforth New France was a Catholic preserve, its people faithful to that Church.

Furthermore, while New France was being built in the seven­teenth century, a high tide of religious enthusiasm was running in the Catholic Church.  Devoted priests, nuns and missionaries came to Canada and entered into the task of shaping New France.  They left their mark on the colony.  Its Catholicism was more devout and the power of the Church greater than in Old France.  Thanks both to the energy and determination of the religious leaders, and to their early hold in New France, the Church came to occupy a place of great authority in the colony.  Much of that authority was unquestioned.

The Church’s religious teachings, indeed, were unquestioned in this Catholic domain.  But its hold extended beyond religion to matters of government, to education, and to the land.  With regard to government, the zeal and organization of the Jesuits had given them almost the power to rule the colony in the days of weak company control.  Laval, the Jesuit’s ally, bishop in New France from 1659 to 1688, maintained the dominant place of the Church even when strong royal government was introduced.  Far from letting the Church fall under the power of the state, he insisted


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on a large share in shaping policies of government.  Overcoming Gallican opposition, he built a strongly ultramontane Church in New France.

An ultramontane Catholic Church was one that stressed abso­lute obedience to the Pope at Rome, denying the power of any national state to control or limit the Church.  In France, however, the state had acquired considerable power over the clergy, and a kind of national Catholic Church had emerged.  Supporters of such a Church, that was limited by the power of the state — and certainly did not direct policies of government — were known as Gallicans in France.

But thanks largely to the Jesuits and Laval, Gallicanism did not become established in Canada.  The Church there turned its eyes only to Rome, and maintained considerable influence over policies of government.  French Canada became and remained an ultramontane citadel.  After Laval, quarrels continued in the government of the colony as the claims of church and state to control clashed repeatedly.  By the eighteenth century a com­promise was gradually reached.  In fact, the Church ceased to press for as much influence in state affairs.  Nevertheless, although in the latter days of New France the state was in the ascendant, the Church was still in a strong position.  Not only was its reli­gious hold unchallenged, but its share in government remained, because the bishop continued to be one of the three chief officials in the Superior Council that ruled the colony.

The Church also exercised power over men’s minds through controlling teaching and the institutions of learning.  The close connection between religion and education was, of course, a deep-rooted Catholic idea, and it was not surprising that the Church, not the state, should found and direct schools in New France.  Because of the wholly orthodox Catholic atmosphere in the colony, however, there was no development of learning apart from the Church, as in Old France.  There was no secular education, no attempt to inquire into and certainly no attempt to criticize the


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authority of Church teachings.  The Church, moreover, carefully censored thought and reading for laymen, and no newspapers or other organs of public opinion developed.  Once more this air of quiet and obedience to authority was very different from the free and lively mental climate of the English colonies to the south.  The ordinary Canadian habitant was cheerfully uninformed, though simple, straightforward, and contented.

Yet the ignorance among the masses was no worse than in many other countries of the age.  And certainly the Church laboured hard to reduce it.  Religious orders sought to establish schools as well as missions and hospitals, and several famous schools were founded that still endure.  The names of Mother Marie de l’Incarnation and Marguerite Bourgeouys, two great nuns who worked to educate young girls, will never be forgotten in Quebec.  The teaching provided, however, was largely religious or classical, and the lore of Greece and Rome did not filter down to the ordinary habitants.  Still, this was the usual form of education in the seven­teenth and eighteenth centuries, and there was no belief in that time in general popular education.

Hence ignorance in New France did not follow from the Church’s control of education.  The nature of that education, however, theoretical and classical rather than practical or scientific, re­mained firmly fixed in French Canada, to affect the thinking and outlook of its people for centuries thereafter.

One of the chief teaching institutions founded by the Church was the Seminary at Quebec, which has come down to the present in Laval University.  Laval himself began it in 1663, to train Canadians for the priesthood.  The religious orders had their teachers or their missionaries to the Indians, but there was a need for ordinary parish priests among the colonists.  A native Canadian parish clergy was thus built up.  They came to have great influence among the habitants.  A seigneury would constitute a parish of the Church as well, though as population increased it might be divided into several parishes.  In each parish the priest or curé


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became the representative of the great and powerful Church and, at the same time, the beloved leader of his flock:  a man of Canadian background who knew their problems — their friend, adviser and protector.  As a result, the ties between the people and their Church were knit even tighter.

The parish priests, consequentiy, extended the Church’s hold over the land.  But it grew in other ways as well.  As was men­tioned, seigneuries were often granted to religious orders, and generally these clerics made the best landlords, developing their holdings and watching carefully over their tenants.  As more land grants were made, the clergy came finally to be landlord for about half the population, which again added greatly to the power of the Church in New France.  This meant wealth, besides, for a large share of the total seigneurial dues would go to the clergy.  Further­more, in order to support the parish priests, tithes were established throughout the colony by royal order in 1663.  A fraction of the habitant’s income from his crops henceforth belonged to the Church in each parish.  Yet for all the colonists’ Catholicism, pro­tests were made at the amount of the tithe, and it was finally reduced to one-twenty-sixth of the value of the grain crop.  With this tithe, seigneurial dues as well on much of the land, and royal subsidies also, the Church was made financially secure.

It should be abundantly plain how large a part the Church played in New France.  Besides reigning over the religion of a staunchly Catholic colony, it had power over government, educa­tion, and the life of the countryside.  Like the seigneurial system it helped shape the society of New France, and it was thoroughly authoritarian and hierarchical in character.  The Church entered deeply into the ordinary life of the people.  But it remains to see just what ordinary life was like.

4. The Life of the People

How did the inhabitants of New France live?  They knew three kinds of life:  that of the forests, that of the town, and that of the


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countryside.  The life of the forests was the fur trader’s, and he lived mainly as the Indians had done, beyond the settlements, outside white civilization.  He travelled by canoe and snowshoe, wore deerskin and moccasins, slept in bark shelters or bough-covered lean-tos.  Often he lived with the Indians, and raised a half-breed family.  His life was almost a savage one, and but for, say, a European shirt or hat and an inexhaustible and un-Indian cheeriness, might have been taken for a native.

As fur-trading posts grew up in the interior, with log houses and tilled fields around them to supply the post, the fur trader might see a few traces of European civilization in his world.  But gene­rally, except for his yearly trip to Montreal for a grand orgy, he spent a lonely life trapping in the dark forest or paddling mile on mile down empty sunlit rivers.  But as he journeyed, the folk songs of his childhood kept him company, and he freely added to them.  The songs of the French fur traders have come down across the years, telling of the warm good humour, dauntless will and simple faith of the men of the forests.

These were the men who spread the bounds of New France, explored the unknown, and gathered the wealth of furs so vital to the very existence of the colony.  They were the roamers of the woods, the coureurs-de-bois, often unlicensed traders, frowned on by the state for trading illegally, and by the Church for their pagan wildness and brandy-drinking.  In many ways they were a drain on New France, a waste of settlers and a source of vice and im­morality.  And yet they were necessary.  On their energy, daring and knowledge of the Indians depended the success of the far-flung fur trade in the growing competition with the English.  The authorities might not like them — this one group of Canadians who defied authority — but the fate of New France was in their hands.

In total contrast to the life of the vast wilderness was that of the little towns of New France, nestled beside the broad St Lawrence.  Montreal, Three Rivers, and Quebec were the only real towns,


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and the main centre of urban life was in the capital.  Here the government officials, the rich merchants, and the seigneurs in town from their estates carried on a gay and colourful social life:  a far-off colonial miniature of the great doings of Versailles.  Courtly balls with cavaliers in lace and plumes were held in the candle-lit Chateau St Louis, the governor’s residence on the heights at Quebec.  In the town below, a jumbled pile of little stone houses and cobbled streets, the busy market place or the dockside were centres of activity.

Here, until the river froze, the ships came in from France with the cargoes the colony must have to exist, or they might arrive with tropical goods from the French West Indies.  The furs that paid for the colony were loaded for France; but sometimes most of the colony’s money also was drained out to meet the costs.  Then indeed, one intendent hit on the device of dividing playing-cards in four, signing them, and circulating them within New France as money to meet the problem of shortage.

But while Quebec bustled with the affairs of government or the sea trade, while guns boomed as the great brigades of canoes arrived at Montreal laden with furs from the west, or the bells of churches, convents, and seminaries clanged over the towns, the real life of the colony was lived in the quiet, peaceful countryside.  There, spread out along the banks of the St Lawrence like an end­less village street, were the little whitewashed cottages of the habi­tants, the fields behind them, and rising not far beyond, the dark green wall of the forest.

The sparkling St. Lawrence was the main highway of New France, whether by boat in the summer or by sleigh when frozen in the winter.  Hence the cottages clustered beside it.  Moreover, the practice of dividing land equally among the family’s sons, giving each a piece of river frontage, multiplied the houses along the river.  It made for long narrow strip-farms, inconvenient to work; but during the life of New France there was still enough room along the shores, and on the whole the population had not


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yet been forced to move into the back lots to open up lands away from the water.

The life of the habitant was thus a very social one.  He was no lonely bush farmer but a member of a compact village community, further held together by the ties of his parish and his seigneury.  In general, his was a good life.  The land was easy to farm and his burdens light.  He was not rich, but he had enough to keep him­self — good bread, milk and vegetables, game and fish from the forest and river, sugar from his maple trees, and a tobacco patch on which to raise the rank ‘tabac Canadien’.

He dressed in warm homespun, tied with the long woollen sash, la ceinture flèche, a woollen cap or toque on his head.  The winters were long, but his steep-roofed, thick-walled house was warm, with ample supplies of wood roaring in the wide hearth.  And winter was almost the best time of year.  There were sleighing parties over the crisp snow, under an almost unbearably blue sky; there was horse-racing on the river ice.  Far better off than the peasant of Old France, honouring his king, his curé and his seig­neur, but sure of his own worth, the habitant was a sturdy and solid citizen.  He was truly the backbone of New France, and of the province of Quebec in the era that followed.

5. The Life of New France and Modern French Canada

New France was authoritarian, hierarchical, firmly Catholic.  The mass of its people were simple farmers, accepting their place in society and obeying those set over them.  How does this influ­ence modern French Canada?  To-day the province of Quebec still has its quiet villages of whitewashed houses, the silver spires of Catholic churches soaring over them.  Yet it is also a great indus­trial province, full of noisy cities and throngs of people whose life is far away from the farm.  Nevertheless, many of the habits and ideas formed in an earlier age can still be seen.

French Canada is still as firmly Catholic.  There have been anti-clerical movements; but these, indeed, only reflect the very


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power of the Church, and have often been made by Catholics who feel that the clergy has had too much influence in matters apart from religion.  In the Catholic religion, in fact, French Canada has found a unifying force.  Loyalty to Catholicism has become tied with the very idea of remaining French Canadian.  The Church did much to shape French Canada.  The descendants of New France have sought to keep French Canada strong by hold­ing to the faith.

The authoritarian and hierarchical sides of French Canadian society have declined far more.  French Canadians took readily to the development of democracy and self-government in later periods, and social distinctions largely disappeared with the end of the seigneurial system.  Yet still the background of New France comes out.  French Canadians continue to show a greater respect for authority in government and thought, and still stress man’s responsibihties rather than his freedoms.  It is healthy, no doubt, for a country to have both sides stressed, and French Canada strengthens the Canadian nation to-day with its order and stabi­lity.

But finally, the period of New France really built up in Canada a people and a way of life that were distinctive in character.  These people were not French any longer.  They were North Americans, though not like the English Americans to the south.  They were Canadians.  More than distance by sea cut them off from France.  They kept alive the old Catholic zeal when eighteenth-century France turned critical.  Furthermore, after 1700 few immigrants came from the motherland and the French Canadians grew by themselves.  By 1700 there were about 15,000 of them.  By the conquest in 1760 there were over 60,000.  The figure was small compared to the English colonies’ million and a half; but a people that had grown like this on its own was never to be swallowed up.

Thus French Canada really developed its own traditions in the era of New France.  The ideals of healthy farm life and the large family, strongly knit, working together, came from that time and


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lasted on.  So did the ideals of Catholic and classical education and the belief in order and authority.  At the same time the space and resources of a vast new continent had made these people freer and more self-reliant than those who had stayed in France.  They were a proud and sturdy race.  Besides the placid habitants, more­over, there were the daring fur traders, and explorers.  And all had met and answered the challenge of the Canadian land.  The result was a new people, born in New France, the seed of a nation in itself.  They would not forget their heritage.  ‘Je me souviens‘ (I remember) is the official motto of the Province of Quebec to­day.  The life of New France would continue to mould the French Canadians through later ages.

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