A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘french canada

[AH] What if French Canada survived past 1763?

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Detail, The Death of General Wolfe (1770)

Early in January, before my trip to Montréal, I went to the Royal Ontario Museum where I saw–among other things–the museum’s copy of Benjamin Wolfe’s painting The Death of General Wolfe. This famous tableau’s depiction of the death of James Wolfe, the commander of the victorious British forces in 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham that saw the fall of French Canada and the end of New France but who barely lived to see the end of the battle himself, is literally iconic. This moment marks the end of one empire and the expansion of another.

Was the end of New France inevitable? Quite a few fans of alternate history suggest that it was. In perhaps the classic few, the value of France to colonize its North American territories nearly as thoroughly as England (and later the United Kingdom) did theirs ensured that, ultimately, New France would be overwhelmed by the colonists. Some even go so far as to argue that New France was a failing colony, that the failure to expand French colonization much beyond the Saint Lawrence valley demonstrates a fundamental lack of French interest. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was irrelevant.

I’m not sure that I buy this. Conceivably there could have been more French settlement in New France, perhaps with a bigger push under Louis XIV, but it isn’t clear to me that France in America was a failure. New France’s economy was built substantially on trade with indigenous peoples and not on (for instance) the plantation colony of many British colonies, making increased French settlement irrelevant at best and potentially harmful at worst. As it was, French Canada was actually a dynamic society, the St. Lawrence valley becoming home of a colonial offshoot of France with outposts stretching far west into the basin of the Great Lakes and, not incidentally, managing to hold off conquest by the British for nearly a century and a half. New France was not nearly as populous as the Thirteen Colonies, but that no more proves that New France was a failure than (say) the fact that Spain’s Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata was less populous than Portuguese Brazil means that the Spanish colony was a failure. At most, there was underexploited potential. If French Canada has since largely contracted to the frontiers of modern Québec, it is because successive British administrations have taken care to hem it in.

Had the Battle of the Plains of Abraham gone even slightly differently, there could have been a French victory. The end of the Seven Years War could have seen the French flag continue to fly in Canada. Even if Canada had fallen, that it would be kept by Britain was by no means preordained: Had Britain preferred to keep the valuable French sugar island of Guadeloupe, or had the French government different priorities, Canada might have been restored to France in the peace.

What would this surviving French Canada have been like?

It’s certainly possible that a continued French presence in Canada would have helped discourage the Thirteen Colonies from rebelling against the British Empire, especially if it was perceived as a threat. It’s not clear to me that this would automatically be the case, especially if New France had been weakened in the conflict, demilitarized and/or territorially diminished. Perhaps, in this timeline, the Americans might revolt against Britain in anger that their interests were neglected in the settlement of the final peace. We might not see a conflict like the War of American Independence, but then again we might. If this war, or another great power Anglo-French war does come about, then France will face the same cascade of dysfunctional public financies than in our history triggered the revolution.

What will become of Canada in all this? I can imagine that it might, or might not, receive more attention from France. I suppose that, if history runs along the lines we are familiar with up to the French Revolution, Canada might be in an interesting position versus the metropole. (A French kingdom in exile?) It is imaginable that a populous French Canada might stay French, especially if the Americans are allies and Britain has interest elsewhere. The case can be made that French Canada could survive, within borders not wildly different from that of modern Canada, into the 19th century.

Here, I’m stymied. It is not easy to imagine the development of French Canada as a French territory for the simple reason that France had no colonies of settlement like (for instance) Britain had Canada. French Algeria eventually became a destination for European immigration, but most of these immigrants came from elsewhere in the western Mediterranean (Spain and Italy particularly) and they arrived in a territory that never stopped being overwhelmingly Arab-Berber and Muslim in nature. New Caledonia, in the South Pacific, also received substantial numbers of settlers relative to the native population, but the absolute numbers were low. There is no close parallel, not in the second French colonial empire, to a colony like Canada, a vast semi-continent with a substantial population mostly descended from French colonists.

I do think France could certainly colonize Canada as thoroughly as Britain later did, especially if France enjoys stability and peace. Franco-Canadian relations were broken by the Conquest and only began to pick up again a century later, as the French became dimly aware that the Canadiens survived. In a timeline where the relationship between France and Canada was never disrupted, Franco-Canadian relations would be far more intense. Trade and investment flows aside, we might see well see substantial amounts of French immigration to a prosperous Canada, and more immigrants coming from outside France, just as in the case of Algeria. The details depend critically on the borders of this Canada and its relationship to its neighbours, but I see no reason why French Canada could not be successful.

Even if–a big if–French history remains largely unchanged up to the mid-19th century, the existence of a large, populous, and growing French Canada will eventually change the French polity rapidly. How will the millions of Canadiens be represented in French political life? A populous American branch of the French empire will have very substantial consequences.

What do you think?

Written by Randy McDonald

May 16, 2017 at 11:59 pm

[LINK] The National Post on the Patriote flag

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The National Post has a feature from Graeme Hamilton noting the controversy associated in Québec with the flag of the Patriote rebels of 1837.

On May 22, as the rest of Canada celebrates Victoria Day, Quebecers will get a day off in honour of les Patriotes, the 19th-century rebels who fought to bring responsible government to what is now Quebec. It’s no surprise that the mostly French-speaking province isn’t terribly keen on paying tribute to a long-dead British monarch, and such Patriote leaders as Louis-Joseph Papineau, Jean-Olivier Chénier and Wolfred Nelson are worthy of celebration. Yet last week, Quebec’s Liberal government angered nationalists by blocking a proposal to have the Patriote flag fly above the legislature in Quebec City.

Q: Who were the Patriotes?

Charles Alexander Smith via Wikipedia
Charles Alexander Smith via Wikipedia”Assemblée des six-comtés”, a painting depicting the Assembly of the Six Counties, held in Saint-Charles, Lower Canada on October 23 and October 24, 1837
A: The Patriotes was the name given to Papineau’s Parti canadien and the popular movement he and others inspired to rise up against British colonial rule in 1837-38. “The primarily francophone party, led mainly by members of the liberal professions and small-scale merchants, was widely supported by farmers, day-labourers and craftsmen,” the Canadian Encyclopedia says. They advocated democracy and the right to self-government, but at the same time they were in no hurry to get rid of the seigneurial system. After the rebellion was crushed, many participants were imprisoned, exiled or hung.

Q: What is the Patriote flag?

A: The flag was introduced in 1832 by Papineau’s political party and was carried at political speeches and into battle during the rebellion. It is a simple design consisting of three horizontal bars, green, white and red from top to bottom. The flag was seen by the Montreal aristocracy as a revolutionary symbol, and in 1837 the Montreal Herald wrote urging people to destroy it. Some early versions also featured a beaver, a maple leaf or a maskinonge fish. Today, the flag often has the profile of a musket-toting, toque-wearing, pipe-smoking rebel superimposed in the centre.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 16, 2017 at 11:29 pm

[PHOTO] Je me souviens, Papineau metro station, Montréal

Je me souviens (2)

Montréal’s Papineau subway station is named after the nearby avenue Papineau which in turn is named after Joseph Papineau, an early politician known for his advocacy of the interests of the Canadiens under British rule. The murals in the station, by Jean Cartier and George Juhasz, all deal with the 1837 rebellion against British rule led by his son Louis-Joseph Papineau.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 26, 2017 at 12:00 pm

[LINK] “Talk to me, I’m Irish: Embracing a tricky tongue in Montreal”

Kate Sheridan’s article in the Montreal Gazette looks at an ongoing effort to revive the Irish language in that city. What I particularly like is that this places the current effort in the context of Québec’s long Irish history.

The Irish language, or Gaeilge, is experiencing a mini-Renaissance in Montreal with the help of Concordia’s School of Canadian Irish Studies and Comhrá, a non-profit group that organizes Irish language classes and events.

Siobhán Ní Mhaolagáin has been teaching the language in Montreal since September, when she first arrived to accept a year-long position as Concordia University’s Ireland Canada University Foundation Irish language scholar. Comhrá had restarted its Irish language courses in the summer and when organizers asked if she’d like to teach their classes in the fall and winter, Ní Mhaolagáin said yes.

“People in Ireland sometimes don’t believe that I’m over here teaching Irish,” she said. “I’ll say, I’m heading off to teach Irish in Montreal. And they’ll be like, ‘Why?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, there are Irish speakers in Montreal.’ And they’ll say, ‘You’re having a laugh.’ “

The Irish language is notoriously complex; the unusual sentence structure and confounding phonetics can create a steep learning curve. It’s also “definitely endangered” in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. There aren’t many people who speak Irish here — certainly fewer than in Ireland, where 25,000 students attended an annual event in November that challenged them to speak Irish, and only Irish, as much as possible for 24 hours.

In Montreal, about 20 people attended a satellite event, which Ní Mhaolagáin helped organize, to celebrate the Irish language with music, dancing and movies and to speak it as much as they could muster.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 5, 2016 at 4:25 pm

[BLOG] Some Monday links

[LINK] “French speakers in California, Past and Present”

Geocurrents’ Asya Pereltsvaig wrote about the history of the French language in California, strongly associated with a long history of immigration and cultural prestige.

While today fewer than 1% of Californians speak French, some 150 years ago this language played a prominent role statewide, especially in northern California. The first Frenchman whose presence in California is documented is Pierre (Pedro) Prat, a doctor in the 1769 expedition headed by Gaspar de Portolà and Junípero Serra. Not long after, in 1782, a French-speaking sailor from Brittany, Pierre Roy, shows up at the new mission at San Buenaventura. [. . .] There must have been some French Canadian merchants and trappers who made it to Alta California in those early years, but there is no documented information about their visits. Additional settlers must have come from the French-speaking Midwest.

In the first half of the 19th century, California, then under Spanish and subsequently Mexican control, established trade relations with the rest of Spanish-speaking America and New England, as well as with many European countries, including Russia and France. French-speaking immigrants continue to arrive in this period, coming chiefly from western regions of France (Normandy, Brittany, southwestern regions), as well as from Belgium and Quebec. Each regional group typically filled an occupational niche: people from the southwestern regions of France were often winemakers and carpenters, those from the Pyrenees were mainly merchants and teachers, while immigrants from Brittany and Normandy were often sailors. They settled in Monterey, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and elsewhere. Many of the French-speaking immigrants learned Spanish and some married Mexicans, but typically they continued to speak French at home and even outside the French-speaking community (Foucrier 2005: 236). In multilingual early 19th century California, each tongue occupied its own niche: Spanish as the official language, English as the chief language of trade, and French—which was at the time the international diplomatic language—as an important political and cultural vehicle. Being able to speak French helped talented and ambitious young men like Victor Prudon and José María Covarrubias to became personal secretaries of influential men and thus to serve as intermediaries in the complex politics of the era. In May 1843, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo wrote to the governor Manuel Micheltorena suggesting that Victor Prudon be named prefect of the newly created Sonoma prefecture, pointing out that the young man had an advantage of speaking three languages: Spanish, English, and French. Vallejo himself is characterized by a Swedish traveler who visits him in 1842-1843 as “speaking good French and passable English” (Van Sicklen ed. 1945: 84).

[. . .]

The Gold Rush, which started with the discovery of rich gold deposits in 1848, changed the demographics of northern California. Masses of hopefuls began to arrive in 1849; among them were no fewer than 25,000 French speakers from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and Louisiana. Unlike earlier French immigrants, many of those attracted by the prospects of finding gold came from Paris. While many of these newly arrived francophones looked for fortunes at the gold mines, many settled in the cities as well, including San Francisco. French neighborhoods were established, as were French social organizations and clubs. Unlike earlier French immigrants, those of the Gold Rush era typically did not speak English, nor were they motivated to learn it as they hoped to get rich and to return home within several months. Most were happy to get by with only one member of a group speaking (or perhaps only thinking that he spoke) English. The others would turn to such “designated interpreter” with Qu’est-ce qu’il dit? [‘What did he say?’]. As a result, the French prospectors got a nickname keskydees. In later years, as the gold mines were exhausted and xenophobic attitudes started to surface, obstinate refusals on the part of the francophone gold-seekers to learn English provoked distrust and hostility, on occasion even violence (Foucrier 2005: 239).

But the Gold Rush era was also the golden era of the French community in San Francisco. Cafes and restaurants in the City’s French quarter prospered. Several institutions were established to aid French-speakers in need. In 1851 a mutual aid society was founded to help sick francophones who did not speak English; hospital visits of such patients by French-speaking doctors were arranged. Two years later a French speaking volunteer fire brigade, the Compagnie Lafayette, was organized to combat the frequent fires and to insure proper communication during such emergencies. San Francisco’s French community also had its own church, numerous newspapers, and theaters. The most important French-language newspaper was the Echo du Pacifique, which, beginning in June 1852, came out three times a week on four pages: three in French and one in Spanish. In December 1855, it became a daily. For a few years, French theater flourished as actors and directors—fleeing economic and social turmoil in France in the wake of the 1848 revolution—brought the best and the latest of Parisian comedies, vaudevilles, and operas. This golden age of French theater in the City by the Bay was short-lived, however, as the fires that ravaged the city in May and June 1851 destroyed a number of theater buildings. But already in July of that year, the rebuilt Adelphi theater opened its doors to the public; sometimes its facilities were used for balls and other special events in the French-speaking community. All in all, life in California for the French immigrants of the mid-19th century must have been rather good. In fact, so many Frenchmen were leaving for the United States at the time that some politicians in France and French Canada feared a mass exodus. As a result, negative representations in newspapers and novels proliferated (Lemire 1987, Lamontagne 2002).</

Written by Randy McDonald

May 8, 2013 at 3:54 am

[LINK] “Why Canada Can Avoid Banking Crises and U.S. Can’t”

I was alerted by an item describing a paper by Charles Calomiris. Keeping the French Canadians of early British Canada down, he argues, led to the current stable Canadian banking system. The paper was summarized succinctly in a Wall Street Journal blog post.

Since 1790, the United States has suffered 16 banking crises. Canada has experienced zero — not even during the Great Depression.

It turns out Canada can thank the French for their stable system, according to a paper by Columbia University’s Charles Calomiris, presented at the Atlanta Fed’s 2013 Financial Markets Conference.

When it became a British colony, the majority of Canada’s population was of French origin — and the French inhabitants hated the British government.

So to keep the colony firmly within the Empire, British policymakers steered toward a government structure that would limit the power of the French-majority while also giving Canada more and more self-government. The eventual result was a highly-centralized federal government which controlled economic policy making and had built-in buffers for banker interests against populist forces, the paper argues.

That anti-populist political system — known in political science as liberal constitutionalism or liberal democracy — is a key ingredient in Canada’s stable banking track record, Mr. Calomiris contends in his paper, which is a summary of a much longer book he’s written with Stephen Haber due out in September. That’s because this kind of political system makes it difficult for political majorities to gain control of the banking system for their own purposes, the authors contend.

Populist democracies like the U.S., on the other hand, tend to create dysfunctional banking systems because a majority of citizens gain control over banking regulation that steers credit to themselves and to their friends at the expense of the citizens that are excluded from the banking system, he said.

Calomiris’ paper is available online here.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm