At the time this article was
written Michel Tétu was in the Department of Literature at Laval university in
In French-speaking Canada, the
Revolution was at first greeted enthusiastically. In the spring of 1789 some said
it was the most significant event since the birth of Christ. However, with the
"horrors of the Revolution" (as the expression went), opinion changed
quickly becoming anti- and even counter-revolutionary. Although conservatism
and clericalism emerged stronger, the revolutionary spirit did not die. It
resurged periodically in the 19th and 20th centuries, up to and including the
Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and Quebec's full-fledged entry into "la
When France ceded New France to
England by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the colony numbered about 65,000
inhabitants. The population was doubling every 25 years as a result of the
extremely high birth rate of the Canadiens, the numbers of French citizens who
had gone back to France and then returned to Canada, and the beginnings of
By the time of the Revolution, the
population of Canada was 140,000 including 120,000 Canadiens (1) in 132
municipalities. The English victory and the Treaty of Paris created a
shockwave. No one had the slightest notion as to why France had abandoned such
a great country. Scornfully the people blamed Mme Pompadour, Louis XV's
mistress. They blamed Bigot, the Intendant of New France, who had failed
miserably in his duty of making the colony turn a profit. They blamed Montcalm,
the Governor, who was unable to defend his city during the famous siege that
cost him his life. The priests blamed the people, saying it was just punishment
for the sins, hoping in this way to reclaim their flock.
The situation was traumatic and
overwhelming. There was no longer any point in continuing to demand greater
independence from the motherland; measures had to be taken to deal with England
and make life acceptable on Canadian soil.
Despite commonly held opinion,
there was considerable coming and going between France and Canada after 1763.
Although French citizens could not enter Canada, Canadiens -- that is, French
citizens born in Canada -- could go to and from France as they pleased. Many
shuttled back and forth to settle their affairs. News of what was happening in
France was, therefore, readily available.
The American Revolution
When the Americans rebelled against
the English, the Canadiens viewed the situation much less sympathetically than
might have been expected. Although the Canadiens had been demanding a
considerable degree of independence from France, and the Americans were
rebelling against the English for the same reasons, after the Treaty of Paris
the Canadiens had no desire to get involved in another battle. They needed time
to recover. The Americans tried in vain to get the Canadiens involved, for
several reasons. First, they had become fairly independent under Britain: they
had kept their religion, their language, their currency, and their customs. The
English, who ruled from a distance, did not interfere very much. Secondly, they
were afraid of a new war; they needed to regroup. Thirdly, they were
monarchists rather than republicans, and fourthly, they were encouraged by the
Church to remain loyal to England. Monsignor Briand, Bishop of Quebec, issued
his famous pastoral warning of May 22, 1775 against anyone who failed in his
oath of allegiance.
Two American armies led by Arnold
and Montgomery invaded Canada and laid siege to Quebec in late December 1775.
However, the hostile attitude of the populace and the arrival of an English
fleet in the spring made them withdraw.
LaFayette, Rochambeau and de Grasse
came from France to help the Americans. In 1781, they had an army of 8,000 men
and LaFayette suggested that Washington invade the colony in the name of
France, convinced that the Canadiens would then rally to the cause. However,
Washington refused, not wishing to create a troublesome neighbour or the young
LaFayette returned to France where
he played an important role in the French Revolution and Rochambeau left for
the West Indies, where the French situation was worsening rapidly. In 1783,
England recognized the independence of the United States and the northern
border was defined. About 5,800 loyalists and 800 regulars crossed the border
to settle in the Upper St. Lawrence. They would soon require their own
district, as they did not wish to live under French civil law or the
The Beginnings of the French
Relatively happy with their fate,
treated with consideration by England and enjoying a fair amount of
independence, the Canadiens nevertheless applauded the beginnings of the French
Revolution. They loved the king but believed his entourage was corrupt and that
order would be established in France. Grand ideals would triumph, and this
would have a positive effect on their situation in North America. The type of
government the Canadiens wanted for France was a constitutional monarchy. When
the Declaration of the Rights of Man became known in Canada, it evoked great
enthusiasm, as can be seen in this article from La Gazette de Québec:
...today there can be no doubt:
this is not a revolt, but a true revolution. Two events that occurred within
three weeks of each other in August of last year make it possible to state that
France will never again be what she was two years ago: an absolute monarchy.
Those two events -- the
renunciation by the nobility of all its privileges (August 4, 1789), and the
Declaration of the Rights of Man (August 26) -- constitute the definitive
turning point of the Revolution.
By agreeing to give up all its
privileges (tax exemptions, feudal rights, and so on), the nobility has yielded
to the will of the people, who wish to conduct their own affairs, no longer
accepting the social and economic inequalities that are based only on accidents
f birth or the good will of the king.
It is precisely this rejection of
inequalities that has been transformed into the main foundation for a new
society, in the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man. A tribute to the great
British Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, and the
philosophic spirit of Rousseau, this document constitutes the synthesis of a
new spirit that will doubtless mark future generations....
If, to these elements, the
affirmation of the principle of freedom of opinion and the press are added, we
can glimpse something of the path France has been following for the past two
years. Of course, none of this has been easy; the horrors of civil war and
bloody revolution still exist. The cause of the Revolution has nonetheless
definitely succeeded in destroying the structures of the ancien régime; present
and future problems for France will involve establishing new institutions and meeting
the urgent needs that the representatives of the people have given themselves
the power to solve.
Thus, from 1789 to 1792, the tone
in which newspapers discussed the Revolution was uniform. Samuel Neilson, in
Quebec, was absolutely euphoric. Fleury Mesplet was proudly revolutionary.
In 1791, Britain decided to divide
Canada in two in order to allow the English, who were in the majority in the
west (Upper Canada, now Ontario) and the French, in the east (Lower Canada, now
Quebec), to live separately, but faithful to England. Lower Canada at the time
was 85 percent Francophone. Each province was given an elected assembly, an
appointed legislative council, and a lieutenant governor. A Governor would
represent the executive. Two peoples were given recognition; each was to be
able to develop in accordance with its aspirations and govern itself in
accordance with its own nature.
The British government wanted at
all costs to avoid new tensions and confrontations. It was vital that the
Revolution not reach Canada, even if this meant applying parliamentary
principles to the colony.
Everything said publicly about the
Revolution in Canada at the time was therefore positive. Only some private
correspondence revealed mixed emotions or even opposition to the Revolution. In
public, opinion was unanimous.
The Turning Point
At the end of 1792, however, things
began to change. For some time it had been thought that the Revolution was too
violent and brutal. In a Carmelite convent, priests and nuns were massacred,
two of whom were Canadiens. Indignation and incredulity spread across the
Since the beginning of 1792, almost
everywhere in France, bands of sans-culottes have been amusing themselves by
hanging and massacring priests and nuns.... on September 2 and 3 over 1000
prisoners, among them almost 250 priests, were massacred after a mock trial.
... The Revolution, which until now had maintained a certain dignity, by this
bloodbath has lost all decency. God knows where and when it will stop.
In May 1793, the colony learned of
both the death of Louis XVI (January 21) and the war between France and England
(February 1). At that moment, everything changed.
Now the revolutionaries were
nothing less than murderers. In a few days public opinion among Canadiens did a
complete about face. On April 24, Lieutenant Governor Clarke proclaimed that
the population was at war with the Revolution. He did not dare to ask the
people to go to war against France, as he believed this would provoke division,
but he was certain that everyone would follow him if he declared war against
The elected bodies therefore
assured the governor of their indignation against the country which had
guillotined its king. On November 9, Monsignor Denaut reminded the faithful of
the loyalty they owed the king of England. He even listed six reasons in favour
of compliance with the established order:
First, because by the capitulations
of Quebec in 1759 and Montreal in 1760, and still more by the peace treaty of
163, the ties that bound them to France were entirely broken, and all the
loyalty and obeisance they owed to the king of France they now owe to His
Majesty the King of England.
Secondly, because the oath taken by
them or their peers to the King of England when this country was conquered binds
them in such a way that they could not violate it without being grievously
culpable toward God himself.
Thirdly, because in addition to the
strong obligation that results from such an oath, there is the conduct -- full
of humanity, gentleness, and beneficence -- that the British government has
always displayed toward them.
Fourthly, because the constant
protection accorded to their Holy Faith by this same government, should make
them desire ardently never to fall under the dominion of any other country.
Fifthly, because the spirit of
religion, of submission and attachment to one's king which was once the glory
of the Kingdom of France, has given way over the last few years to a spirit of
irreligion, independence, anarchy and parricide which has not only resulted in
the death or exile of honourable French citizens but has taken their virtuous
king to the scaffold and justly incurred the indignation of all the European
powers; and that the most unfortunate occurrence that could happen in Canada
would be to welcome these revolutionaries.
Sixthly, because, in the present
circumstances, the government is not the only party interested in keeping the
French out of this province; any good subject, any true patriot, any good
Catholic who wishes to preserve his freedom, laws, moral standards, and
religion is also particularly and personally interested.
From that time on, there was
practically a holy war against the Revolution. This open battle was everyone's
business; it would continue under the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire
In 1794 the English numbered
25,000, and the Canadiens, 150,000. The former were afraid that the Revolution,
despite everything, would reach Canada and gain ground there. They also feared
the United States and learned to use a new tactic against the Revolution:
There were constant reminders of
the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette since the Canadiens were actually
very strong royalists. They swore an oath to the king of England but they were
still faithful to the king of France.
There were also constant reminders
of the massacres of priests, and nobles and the ransacking of property. The
Canadiens were attached to their seigneurs and the seigneurial system. The
seigneurs were not at all like the feudal lords in France; most often they were
Canadiens who had been given a parcel of land to manage.
The English took exceptional
measures against foreigners, and passed laws to prevent anyone coming recently
from France from entering Canada by sea, or land by way of the United States.
The borders were sealed and watched carefully.
Furthermore, the fear of the French
fleet was used against the populace. A French fleet had indeed mutinied in
Santo Domingo and headed for the United States. One of the purposes of this
operation had been to reach Quebec and bring the Revolution to North America.
The English exploited the situation, regularly instilling fear into the
populace with stories of the horrible atrocities that would be committed by the
Lastly, they encouraged spying.
Suspicions were aroused, plots invented -- there was fear on all sides. A few
incidents that occurred between 1794 and 1796 were exploited to the full.
In 1797 a spy was finally captured
by the English -- one David McLane. There was a major trial, at the end of
which McLane was hanged. Fortunately he was American, not French. That might
have been going too far. An American could be hanged, even at great expense.
The sentence had its intended effect: the English strengthened their hold on
the clergy, which became fiercely counter-revolutionary. Several Te Deum would
be sung to celebrate the victories of he English over Napoleon in 1798, 1802,
1804, and 1812.
Clericalism and Counter
The arrival of French immigrants,
especially French priests, helped England in its efforts. In 1798 a
considerable number of French immigrants arrived from England, where they had
taken refuge. Several ships brought French nobles, led by Mr. Joseph de
Puisaye. The latter and about 300 companions established themselves in the
Toronto area, with the aim of creating a French settlement. Although the area
had once been French the English were now in the majority and these immigrants
would almost all return to France after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.
The case was completely different,
however, for the 51 carefully chosen French priests who came to Quebec between
1792 and 1815. Most were Sulpicians. They settled around Lac St-Pierre, near
Trois-Rivières; in fact, the area would even be called "La Petite
France". At the time there were only 140 priests in all of Quebec, so the
arrival of 51 more marked the second foundation of the Church in Canada.
The priests were men of worth and
reputation. One of them was the brother of Louis XVI's first minister. These
priests would stay with the Canadiens, and not leave to convert the Indians, as
had happened before. They also brought with them many beautiful things, such as
151 paintings dating from the l6th to the l8th century. These would be
distributed among several churches and give birth to a new kind of holy art in
Canada, a pictorial school.
The Church was extremely pleased.
With the help of the French priests it would create the myth (one that the
English would perpetuate), that the conquest of Canada by Britain before the
Revolution had been providential. The English victory became an act of
providence that allowed the Canadiens to save their souls and escape the
sacrilegious, anticlerical and regicidal French Revolution. The Canadiens would
accept this relatively well because they also would think that they had bee
able to save their property.
Thus, after the French Revolution
had roused the enthusiasm of Canadiens by means of a budding parliamentary
system and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it ended up mainly serving the
cause of the English, who took advantage of it to reinforce their power ,and
assisted the Church, which then took over the destiny of Quebec for the entire
Some Canadiens did resist. Many
realized, especially the most educated, that the English were taking advantage
of the Revolution to change the spirit of agreements and dominate them
completely. From 1791 on, although they applauded the new law, they quickly
realized that it was better in appearance than in substance. Protests were
quick in coming. In May 1794, when the English established a militia on the
pretext of defending the country, the Canadiens refused to register: they were
afraid of conscription. In 1796 the English wanted to pass a public works act
and force each Canadien to maintain the road in front of his house. The
Canadiens refused to build their portion of road. From this point on, all the
rumours circulated by the English about Napoleon's fleets or French fleets from
the United States were no longer entirely groundless: several Canadiens turned
them to advantage, and others would have been happy to see them become a
reality. A few even circulated a petition to ask Napoleon to help Canada
against the English, but it was signed by only 12 Canadiens.
The Nineteenth Century
Just as certain sentiments that
cannot easily be expressed are often hidden within, the revolutionary spirit
was not dead: it lived within the spirit of the Canadiens.
Certain ideas, that had originated
with the French Revolution and had been enriched by contact with the United
States and the effects of the American Revolution, would mark the entire l9th
In 1834 Le Parti Canadien, which
had become the Parti des Patriotes, obtained 77 percent of the vote. Headed by
Louis-Joseph Papineau, the party tried in vain to persuade the British governor
that the Assembly which had been established in Lower Canada should be a
completely responsible government. The governor then refused even to convene
the Assembly. The Canadiens, in response, organized assemblies at the village,
county and provincial levels. An Assembly met at St-Charles, and faced with the
British government's refusal to meet any of its demands, decided to take up
arms. Quebec rebelled, and the Patriotes won a first victory at St-Denis. The
English army then organized and crushed the insurgents, whose rebellions were
then systematically repressed, and whose leaders fled to the United States.
Many of the Patriotes died; several others were imprisoned. The Rebellion had
Papineau, who had not advocated
armed revolt, was the first to take refuge in the United States in 1837. Robert
Nelson followed, and others after him. On February 28, 1838, at the head of 300
men, Nelson, proclaimed the Republic of Lower Canada and, hoping for aid from
the United States, crossed the border to recapture Canada. These
revolutionaries were crushed and the English, wanting to prevent any repetition
of the revolt, repressed it brutally. Several villages were burned and sacked.
One thousand people were thrown in prison, 108 of whom would be prosecuted and
The Church excommunicated the
Patriotes, although they were rehabilitated in the 20th century. Since 1960 the
figure of the Patriote, with his toque, long woollen sash, pipe and rifle, has
become a sort of folk hero. The Rebellion of the Patriotes did not succeed, yet
the ideals of liberty would seem to have produced a movement with a
considerable following in the last century. However, it was not until the Quiet
Revolution of the 1960s that significant changes began to occur.
The Quiet Revolution and Beyond
Following his victory in the 1960
Quebec election Jean Lesage led a Liberal administration which took over
health, education and even social services for which the Church had been responsible
for two hundred years. Another important event was the nationalization of
Hydro-Quebec, the asbestos industry, and natural resources, as well as the
greater democratization of Quebec society.
Another important change was taking
place. The term Canadien had gradually fallen out of use. In 1967 when General
De Gaulle made his triumphal tour of the "Chemin du Roy" he was
speaking to the French of Canada or French-Canadians. But the Quiet Revolution
was already in the process of giving rise to a new Quebecois identity with a
new mentality and a manifestation of the revolutionary spirit in poetry and
song. This Revolution was indeed "quiet". When the Front de
Libération du Québec (FLQ) assassinated Pierre Laporte in 1970, Quebeceurs were
horrified, just as they had been when the French Revolution turned violent.
In 1976 the Parti Québécois came to
office on the platform of independence for the province but it modified its
ambitions when, in a 1980 referendum, it failed to obtain enough backing to make
independence a reality.
The passion for independence cooled
after the failure of the referendum but since then Quebec has played an
increasing role in the international Francophone movement and the organization
of the second Francophone Summit held in Quebec in September 1987.
French President François
Mitterrand had chaired the first Summit for Heads of State and Government in
Paris in February 1986. Eighteen months after the first summit, it was Quebec's
turn to welcome the forty Heads of State and Government. At the instigation of
the province of Quebec (a remarkable fact at the time, and one which has not
been emphasized enough), a Declaration of Solidarity was issued at the end of
This Declaration, which passed
relatively unnoticed, draws once more upon the spirit that was behind the
French Revolution. The community no longer wishes to be seen as evolving around
France, with the other Francophone countries on a slightly lower plane, a kind
of sous-France, as it was once called by the late Congolese poet Tchicaya U
Tam'si. The Heads of Government wish to be collectively responsible:
Recognizing the importance of our
freely constituted association, in which, as equal partners, we are bound by a
common desire to contribute to a renewed equilibrium in our relations and
inspired by the use, to varying degrees, of the French language as a tool for
learning, dialogue, development and innovation....
After two centuries of struggle,
after a Quiet Revolution, and after a referendum on independence it is perhaps
within the framework of "la Francophonie" that Quebecois will best be
able to realize the spirit of the French Revolution.
1 The area today known as Quebec
was, at the time of the Revolution called Canada and the inhabitants,
Francophone for the most part, referred to themselves as Canadiens, and to
their British conquerors as the English. This would continue for the entire
first half of the 19th century. The name Quebec would not really be used until