Notes on 11th Text for Reading Field: Ouellet

Canadian History, Week Two

Fernand Ouellet, Economy, Class, and Nation in Quebec: Interpretive Essays. Translated and edited by Jacques A. Barbier. Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1991.

In this series of interpretive essays, Fernand Ouellet builds on social and economic arguments — set out as early as 1966 in Histoire économique et sociale du Quebec 1760-1850: structures et conjuncture. In applying these arguments, he seeks to address historiographical assertions on a number of issues that have grown out of the debate about the role of the Conquest on economic development and the emergence of nationalist sentiment in Quebec.

Ouellet counters the nationalist idea that problems in Quebec arose as a consequence of external forces leveled against a unique society. He seeks to demonstrate that internal social forms interacted over time with a changing economic structure, and with an institutional network that determined political power bases. Ouellet rejects the historiographical interpretation that holds that the seigneur was a mere representative of the state in such matters as the distribution of lands. Rather, he argues, “the seigneurial system, like other parts of the ancien régime’s institutional network, redistributed agricultural revenue from the peasantry to privileged groups.”[1] In Ouellet’s view, in the ancien régime society of Quebec: the seigneurs were dominant (with the clergy — as second largest landlord next to military nobility — being unusually powerful); the merchants were dependant; and the peasants were oppressed. He finds that the Conquest did not alter this dynamic in any significant way. The societal trends that Ouellet seeks to connect, because he regards their relation as fundamental to understanding trends in Quebec, include: demography; ruralization; agricultural production and labour supply; trade and technological adaptation; and the emergence of a bourgeoisie.

Ruralization, in Ouellet’s view an uninterrupted movement to the countryside, continued from the time of early settlement to about 1850. The movement was attributable to the peasant’s need to have a means of subsistence and of meeting the demands of seigneurs and clerics. He points out that, initially, seasonal participation by habitants in the fur trade, as engagés, was directly related to a lack of internal and external markets capable of driving agricultural production far enough above subsistence levels to constitute commercial production. Practicing a form of ‘economic dualism,’ male members of farming families used fur trade employment to earn cash needed for essential imported goods. As agriculture became progressively more commercialized in the latter 18th century, peasant participation in the fur trade decreased. In Ouellet’s view, the merchant response to this occurrence is visible in the historical record, as is the fact that merchants were production and cost conscious. He argues that, in order to limit increasing transportation and labour costs, merchants progressively increased the size of water-borne vessels – without proportionately increasing crew sizes.

According to Ouellet, between 1803 and 1812 there was an agricultural crisis related to demographic expansion.[2] From last quarter of 18th century to 1803, Lower Canada’s population number had continued to rise with each generation (it more than doubled from 1760 to 1820), but in the crowded seigneurial districts, the rate of farm-making slowed appreciably. The seigneurial system reached its fullest exploitive possibilities in the early 1800s. Ouellet asserts that by the 1810s the agricultural crisis “marked the final stage of a transition to market economy.”[3] Peasant and bourgeois discontent grew dramatically as the transition took hold and long afterwards.

According to Ouellet, however, the origins of discontent trace back to the mid 1770s. At the time of the American threat at the Battle of Quebec (31 Dec. 1775), when American colonial forces sought to drive the British military out and gain French Canadian support for the Revolutionary War, the peasants had already begun reacting against the onerous burdens they were under (fiscally and militarily due to cens et rentes, tithes, militia service, and corvées). From the time of Quebec Act (1774), the mercantile bourgeoisie (enamored since the 1760 defeat to the British with remaking themselves in the image of the aristocracy through the purchase of seigneuries), had begun to struggle against a lack of opportunities to increase their status and political power relative to the nobility in Lower Canada. Ouellet maintains that, whatever their aspirations or successes, the merchants were “held to ransom” by aristocrats, who, by dint of their political influence, had the power to hold them so (for example by monopolizing access to congés de traits, and land grants).[4]

Ouellet, in downplaying the effects of the Conquest, finds the genesis of Quebec nationalism in the period 1785-1806, during which the rise of the bourgeoisie and its attendant claims to power marked the emergence of a nationalist ideology. His thesis is apparent in the following passage:

the petite-bourgeoisie, made up of professionals and merchants, which saw itself as the legitimate ruling class of the nation … not only supported liberal, democratic, and republican ideals … it also defended the seigneurial system, which it portrayed as indispensable to the survival of a nation menaced by its natural enemies the anglophone merchants and immigrants. This was the group that ultimately gave birth to a varied mythology about the seigneurial system. Wishing to deny the connection between feudalism and aristocracy and wanting to hide the fact that the system was simply designed to extract revenue from the peasantry, they devised the thesis that the seigneur was a mere agent de colonisation and the guardian of social equality, that he was the shield of the nation against speculators and foreign intruders.[5]

Thus Ouellet sets the stage to advance his proposition that a theme of internal exploitation of Quebecers by Quebecers might be further explored through analyses of the histories of such groups as the working class and women. Of the former, through a survey of existing historiography, he finds that researchers have misunderstood the significance of demographic data and misread trends. Of the latter, his historiographical survey finds that the specificity of gender inequalities in Quebec has been obscured by adopting an approach which does not adequately address ethnicity and class because confused by ‘the national question.’ Finally, he notes that the ‘Quiet Revolution’ may be understood as a logical continuation of the nationalist ideology first expounded in the bourgeois rebellion of 1837.


[1] Fernand Ouellet, Economy, Class, and Nation in Quebec: Interpretive Essays, Jacques A. Barbier, trans. and ed. (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1991), 61.

[2] The debate over the existence of a crisis initially centred on the notion that French Canadian farming practices were singularly ‘backward.’ Some historians of Lower Canada suggested that, after the Conquest, poor farming methods in the region brought on an agricultural crisis by the early nineteenth century, and may well have underlain the social and political unrest of the 1830s. Fernand Ouellet agreed that this was the case in Le Bas-Canada, 1791-1840: Changements Structuraux et Crise (Ottawa: Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1976), translated as Lower Canada, 1791-1840: Social Change and Nationalism, trans. Patricia Claxton (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983). Allan Greer challenged the argument in Peasant, Lord, and Merchant: Rural Society in Three Quebec Parishes, 1740-1840 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), as did Frank Lewis and Marvin McInnis, “The Efficiency of the French-Canadian Farmer in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 3 (Sep., 1980): 497-514, and Gilles Paquet and Jean-Pierre Wallot, Lower Canada at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century: Restructuring and Modernization (Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, 1988). In the book commented on in this Reading Field note, Ouellet appears less committed to asserting a crisis due to farming techniques than a crisis due to demographic pressure on available resources.

[3] Ouellet, Economy, Class, and Nation, 84.

[4] Ibid., 65-66.

[5] Ibid., 82.

____________________________________________________________________

Additional Information:

Stephen Charles Eno, “Commonly Used Words, Phrases, and Symbols in French Canadian Genealogical Sources,” Énaud\Hénault dit Canada and Allied Families website (1996-2005) http://bit.ly/ILH6F supplies definitions of cens et rentes, corvées, and other terms.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 2 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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