Canadian History, Week Two
Dale Miquelon. Society and Conquest: The Debate on the Bourgeoisie and Social Change in French Canada, 1700-1850. Vancouver: Copp Clark, 1977.
This collection of historiographical arguments with supporting primary documents addresses the issue of what meaning to ascribe the cession of New France, by France, to Britain in 1760. Dale Miquelon supplies an illustrative selection, and useful translations into English, of influential writings from French historians such as Maurice Séguin, Michel Brunet, and Jean Hamelin. Miquelon’s organization of texts shows the historiographical debate about the conquest to be traceable to the first work penned by an English historian who professessed authoritative familiarity with conditions in New France — Francis Parkman.
Broadly, Parkman attributed the superior economic performance in colonies of New England to the superior structure of British political culture. Later historians opined that the conquest in and of itself was at best a superficial event. A basic polemic division arose between those in agreement with Parkman for whom the conquest represented a fortunate liberation from economic repression, and those who countered that the event was a traumatic catastrophe for a distinct people.
From about 1920, Lionel Groulx repudiated the ‘happy calamity’ interpretation with his assessment that the conquest had undermined a harmonious social order that had achieved remarkable balance. Thus, in his view, people formerly of New France, in becoming inhabitants of Quebec, were forced into a collective struggle to preserve aspects of their society and culture that their history had proven to be valuable.
Groulx’s nationalist, romantic, and even racialized interpretation was emphasized anew by Guy Frégault in the 1940s and 1950s. He argued that, in response to English invasion and usurpation of French positions at the top of the social hierarchy and land-use system, the host population was forced to retreat into the pursuit of agriculture. They developed a self-perception defined by the location of their holdings and their occupation – one that was characterized as ‘peasant.’
For his part, Séguin, also writing in the 1940s and credited with starting the ‘Montreal School’ of historiography, argued that an agricultural revolution could not take place in Quebec without the advent of an industrial revolution. This event was forestalled in Quebec because ‘Britons’ were determined to see it advance first in Upper Canada so as to strengthen their hand.
Brunet adopted the Séguin thesis, to argue in the 1950s that while a diminutive proportion of the French population had returned to France, the colonists that had remained suffered from the loss of leadership. As a consequence of ‘social decapitation,’ they were forced into a pattern of subordination, lacking the means to control their own development.
Not surprisingly, a number of historians objected to these interpretive stances. On the one hand, Fernand Ouellet described it as weakened by anachronism: ‘nationalism,’ in his view, could not have occurred in New France prior to the advent of a clear conception of ‘nations’ as entities, and the articulations of doctrines associated with nationalism that began about 1789.
Jean Hamelin, on the other hand, argued that the idea of social decapitation was flawed. In this, Hamelin adopts a position first espoused by L.F.G. Baby in 1899, who compiled evidence to refute what to his mind was an anti-Catholic, anti-Canadian myth that a significant emigration had ever taken place. In Hamelin’s estimation, the group that supposedly represented la grande bourgeoisie cannadienne-française, was never in a political economic position sufficiently strong to supply the leadership and impetus that development, along the lines of the British-American model, required. First, émigrés of the 1760s were typically either military or civil officials of the highest ranks, or merchant sojourners without strong ties to the settlement. Second, remaining merchants and traders – the thwarted ‘middle-class’ movers of Brunet’s conception of development — had never risen above marginal and tenuous solvency during French rule.
W.J. Eccles argued that the nationalist and anti-nationalist interpretations outlined above miss a critical point: the military, rather than the commercial aspect of society in New France defined its character and political economic prospects. Eccles regarded the pursuit of military honours as the most important avenue to social status and leadership. Thus the substitution of British for French merchants – whether regarded as a continuity or a discontinuity – is beside the point in terms of internal dynamics. The merchant class did not inspire any greater respect after the conquest than it had before. It therefore neither inspired nor demoralized residents. For Eccles, what is of interest is that local militia captains appear to have retained their positions within the colony, undisturbed by the transfer of rule. He finds social continuity in this phenomenon, as well as a suggestion of accommodation.
Ultimately, Ouellet does not regard the subordination of French to the British in North America as a long and tragic history of a struggle for cultural survival, but a story that illustrates how the ambiguities of past aspirations and outcomes can be turned to serve political passions of the present.
 See Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development 1536-1966 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), for a similar argument in another context. Hechter characterizes this particular form of development dynamic as one of ‘internal colonialism.’