Quebec, pillar of Canada’s Francophone community

The Province of Quebec is the hub of French culture in Canada and North America. Quebec’s six million or so French speakers represent 80% of the province’s population. They control their destiny by voting, in Quebec’s National Assembly, on laws and budgets that promote the development of their full potential in fields under provincial jurisdiction. They are the only Francophones to enjoy this advantage in Canada.

The first French immigrants began to settle in present-day Quebec in 1608. They then started to spread out in the North American continent, travelling great distances to the west, south and north. Over time, they helped to establish all the Francophone communities west of Quebec. Despite the Conquest of New France by the British in 1760, this Francophone community was able to maintain and develop its own culture.

Today, French Quebec is healthy and extends its influence on the international scene in a number of fields. Its artists, creators, entrepreneurs, workers and politicians contribute to the vitality of the broader Francophone community both in Canada and abroad. Nonetheless, the challenge to flourish in French in North America is a constant concern and requires from Quebecers as much the love of the language as determination.

New France, the original Francophone settlement in North America

In the 16th century, French, Basque, Spanish and English fishermen frequented the coasts of what is now Canada to fish for cod. They were the first to trade with Indigenous peoples. Around 1575, Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River, in the St. Lawrence Estuary, became the main trading centre for furs and other items between Indigenous peoples and Europeans. It was to gain an advantage over his competitors that explorer Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City in 1608.

After a hesitant start, New France put down sustainable roots when a wave of French immigrants increased the population of the colony to 15,000 inhabitants, almost all of whom settled between Quebec City and Montreal at the end of the 17th century.

A small colony, but a major continental influence

Missionaries, explorers and fur traders extended the influence of this little colony by thousands of kilometers in all directions. The French born in New France, who were called Canadians, had a great urge to travel far and wide, from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay, from the Gulf of Mexico to Acadia. Thanks to the good relations they were able to maintain with most of the Indigenous peoples, they even criss-crossed the great plains of central North America in the mid-18th century.

As they travelled further into the continent, they established forts to maintain their alliance with Indigenous nations and to channel the fur trade. The Great Peace of Montreal, concluded in 1701, illustrates this constant strategy of alliance, originally developed by Champlain and perpetuated by his successors. In the centre of the colony, along the St. Lawrence Valley, the Canadians for the most part became self-sufficient farmers.

Cultural specificity of the Canadians

The French born in New France—Canadians—soon became distinctly different from the inhabitants of France. The wide-open spaces, the low population density, the climate and contact with Indigenous peoples created significant differences. Canadian peasants, who made up 75% of the population, enjoyed a higher standard of living than their French counterparts. They had access to more resources, and the royalties they had to pay to the seigneurs and the representatives of the King were not as high as they were in the homeland. Law enforcement was less ubiquitous, and the weight of the authorities was lighter. Since no great aristocrat or opulent bourgeois came to live in the colony, the social hierarchy was marked by fewer contrasts. Canadians enjoyed a form of liberty that made them cheerful and self-reliant.

The British Conquest

The French adventure in America took a turn for the worse when the French, the Canadians and their Indigenous allies were defeated militarily by the British in 1759 and 1760. The 60,000 inhabitants of New France remained in the colony, except for the merchants, the administrators and the military who returned to France.

The main impact of the British conquest for the Canadians was a loss of economic and social power. After a period of uncertainty, the Quebec Act of 1774 maintained previous property rights and enabled the Canadians, whom the British conquerors described as a peaceful and hardworking people, to practice the Catholic religion, to speak the French language and to educate their children in French. These favourable conditions led to a non-violent transition. In 1791, however, a new political contract divided the British colony in two. The majority of Francophones were concentrated in Lower Canada (now Quebec). The majority of Anglophones, consisting of many British immigrants and of Loyalists who remained loyal to the British Crown and fled the American revolution, was concentrated in Upper Canada (now Ontario).

Deterioration of French Canadians’ living conditions

In New France, the people who lived in the countryside benefitted from the fruit of their labour. In the 19th century, however, mechanization and increasing trade changed the overall situation. The self-sufficiency of many peasants did not enable them to accumulate enough money to acquire manufactured goods, which were becoming more and more numerous, and the tools that were becoming increasingly necessary to boost productivity. The economic inferiority of French Canadians compared with British Canadians thus became more pronounced, a situation that the British indeed tried to maintain, because in their view, economic power was the most important thing.

Industrialization had a similar impact on urban populations. In general, only a small number of French Canadians were able to become entrepreneurs and proprietors of their own businesses. Many of them were thus left to swell the ranks of a captive and underpaid proletariat, obliged to serve the interests of Canadians of British origin, who, although they were in the minority, dominated the economic scene through their drive, their capital and their spirit of enterprise. This Anglophone minority also occupied the highest ranks in society.

A significant number of French Canadians achieved success in commerce, more than they did in industry and finance. However, the largest part of the French-Canadian elite consisted of members of the liberal professions: lawyers, doctors, politicians and members of the clergy.

The political scene

From the 1830s on, Quebec’s countryside was affected by a severe crisis, caused by the shortage of new fertile lands where the younger generation could settle. A large number of young people thus had to settle on poor lands, go and work in cities, or emigrate to the United States. This crisis provoked another, which was political, caused by the inability of the French-Canadian majority elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada to apply the reforms it was promoting. The leader of the Patriot Party, Louis-Joseph Papineau, was at odds with the governor appointed by London and the governor’s executive council, which held the essential share of power and were above all interested in promoting the interests of the minority of British origin. The confrontation between the two factions paralyzed the administration of the colony and the work of the Assembly. These two crises converged in the rebellions of the Patriots of 1837-1838, a violent uprising of a few hundred patriots which was easily crushed by the British army.

These rebellions had serious consequences, and Lord Durham, who inquired into the causes of the rebellions, concluded that it was necessary to assimilate the French Canadians. In 1840, London therefore merged its two Canadian colonies into one: United Canada, where the Francophones were in the minority and English was chosen as the only official language. However, the plan did not work. The demographic and linguistic realities inherited from the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada were so different that two administrations had to be created, one of which was Francophone. In the face of intense reaction by French Canadians to defend their rights, the use of French was once again officially recognized in 1849. Moreover, this political structure proved to be so unstable that it led to the creation of Canada in 1867.

The power and influence of the Catholic Church

After the political reform of 1840, the Catholic Church became a key actor in saving French society and culture in Canada. The Church had been weakened by the British conquest, for the Catholic religion was banned in England. However, the Church had succeeded in taming the new colonial power and thus avoided disappearing. Senior Catholic clergy subsequently lined up behind the power in place, in particular during the rebellions of 1837 and 1838, and it remained neutral in the political and economic quarrels that shook society. The Church played its hand so well that it gained the confidence of the authorities, and recovered its lost powers after 1840. Since for many decades it had to make do with limited financial means and recruit its clergy exclusively in the colony, the Church remained very close to the general population, which respected it. It exploited this double advantage to become the spearhead of French culture and society in both Quebec and Canada.

Between 1846 and 1860, the reinvigorated religious congregations opened several new classical colleges and created the first Francophone university in America, Laval University. The Church also supervised the development of a system of elementary schools and diversified its action by promoting the French language, creating religious organizations that provided structure to communities, making efforts to retain the Francophone population in Quebec by the colonization of new agricultural territories, providing social services to Francophone communities that had emigrated, opening hospitals, and supporting the lay organizations that were close to the Church, such as the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society and the Caisses populaires Desjardins. The Church quickly occupied a central place in Quebec and in other Francophone communities. In a parallel development, the lay elites trained in the classical colleges run by religious men and women strengthened the French-Canadian community in almost all fields, sometimes in opposition to the Church. As a result of these developments, by the turn of the 20th century, a strong current of French-Canadian nationalism emerged based on three major pillars: a “sacred” attachment to the French language, to the Catholic religion and to France.

Some decades later, the close ties that gradually developed between the Church and the political powers distanced it from the general population. The power of the Church became distant and authoritarian, and finally caused a sudden breakdown of its influence in the 1960s after a period of emancipation of lay thinking, and of the arts and science, which started to acquire new vigour during the Second World War (1939-1945).

Untapped potential

The constructive dynamism long associated with the Church also had a negative impact. By constantly putting the faithful on guard against the wealth and modernity embodied by Anglo-Protestant power and American materialistic culture, the Church curbed the development of French Canadians. The popular saying, “We are born to occupy a humble station in life,” illustrates the thinking of a large part of Quebec’s ordinary people at the turn of the 19th century. This was, however, in many cases, a “happy station in life,” because French Canadians were attached to their traditions and preferred to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, as their parents and grandparents had done, rather than to fight hard to improve their lot in life and to embrace the march of progress.

The innovative currents that led to the development of science, the arts and entrepreneurship, that provoked labour disputes and unionization, and that supported an affirmation of economic and political power made slow but steady progress in Quebec society. Those who were navigating these new currents ran into the conservative religious and political forces that saw in traditional values the best way to perpetuate French culture. Consequently, while the English-Canadian community was benefitting from ever-increasing industrialization, particularly in Montreal, to enrich itself and to put in place hospitals, universities, banks and museums, and while Americans were investing in the exploitation of Quebec’s natural resources and making huge profits, the majority of French Canadians struggled to try to improve their own standard of living.

The Quiet Revolution

In the mid-20th century, French Canadian politicians, intellectuals and professionals, who were becoming increasingly better educated, developed a progressive political movement that finally received the support of the people of Quebec in the provincial elections of 1960. The electoral slogan of the elected party was “Masters in our own home”. This electoral victory marked the start of what was called the Quiet Revolution: a profound and rapid transformation of Quebec society that gave concrete form to the impulses and plans that had been contained up to that point. This rapid modernization occurred in a climate marked by a certain agitation, but was generally enthusiastic and non-violent.

The government replaced the Church in all sectors: education, health, political orientation, and even spirituality, because the practice of religion collapsed. Development of the Francophone minority became a priority. To compensate for the scarcity of private capital held by French Canadians—who now became Québécois—the government invested large amounts of public capital. Scientific and artistic research, the search for identity, affirmation of the national character and the development of business were now at the forefront. All spheres of society plunged into an immense movement to catch up, which produced results.

The rise of Quebec nationalism

This powerful emancipation movement was accompanied by the rise of a nationalist current of thinking that advocated sovereignty for Quebec. The basis for this idea went back to the creation of Canada, in 1867, which the partisans of this project upheld and which was criticized by opponents. According to this nation blueprint, Francophones would definitively become a minority after having fought to avoid this situation. On the other hand, in the Province of Quebec, where they were in the majority, they would obtain, for the first time, authentic democratic, executive and legislative power in certain fields. To those who were partisans of this blueprint, Canada was a remedy for the constant deterioration of the living conditions of Francophones since 1791. Opponents, meanwhile, saw it as a confirmation of historical losses. These contrasting opinions endure to this day in debates between Quebecers who are sovereigntists and those who are federalists. The sovereigntists believe that it is essential to centralize all powers in Quebec. The federalists, on the other hand, think that it is better to remain within Canada in order to excel on the North American and world scene.

Quebec today and tomorrow

Whatever we make of this political debate, the Quebec of today has acquired the tools it needs to defend and promote the French fact. These tools have strengthened its cultural and linguistic specificity, inherited from a mixture of French, Indigenous and British influences. Contemporary Quebec is present on the international scene in forums of La Francophonie. It welcomes immigrants from many countries of the world who enrich its social and cultural fabric and make that fabric more complex. Women now play a central role in society. The shock produced when the possibility of Quebec sovereignty was raised is now becoming less pronounced in Canada, and the very close ties that united all French Canadians are being re-established on a new basis.

The six million or so citizens who live, work, study, create and express themselves in French in Quebec represent the largest portion of Canada’s Francophone community. They are also the major driving force of this community, thanks to the many strong Francophone institutions in Quebec. A large number of Quebecers live in other regions of Canada, and conversely, many Francophones from other provinces come to Quebec to benefit from the largest Francophone market in North America and highly developed French‑language services. Today, more than ever, Quebec is making a major contribution to the expanding influence and future of the French language and culture in Canada.