Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/April 1886/The French Problem in Canada


THE rapid growth of the French population in the Canadian provinces and the New England States has given rise to much speculation as to the future of the race. Thoughtful men in the Dominion see in its steady increase and aggressive character elements of danger to the stability of the Confederation.

The last census returns show that over one third of the population of Canada is of French origin, while in the New England States there is a large and growing French-Canadian element, wedded to its language, religion, and traditions, and controlled to an extraordinary degree by its astute and admirably organized clergy. Quebec, though a province in a British colony, is as thoroughly French as it was before the conquest. A century and a quarter of British rule has had no effect in Anglicizing the race, or leavening it with the progressive ideas which prevail in all English-speaking communities. As the Canadian French were at the conquest, their descendants remain to this day—a race isolated and apart from all others on the continent, having little in common with their neighbors, or even with their kindred in France. While the great tide of modern progress and civilization is surging everywhere else through the continent, the Province of Quebec is the one stagnant pool which is never rippled by a freshening current, and over which hangs the miasma of mediæval superstition.

The non-progressive character of French civilization on this continent is due partly to the feudal institutions introduced by the early settlers, but mainly to the concessions granted by the victors to the vanquished when Canada became a British colony. By the terms of the treaty with France, and by the Quebec Act passed by the Imperial Parliament on the eve of the struggle with the Thirteen Colonies, the French population of Canada were granted the free exercise of their religion, and were allowed to retain their language, customs, and laws. By the conquest they secured all the privileges of British citizenship, without losing any of their cherished rights and privileges. Through the prodigal liberality of the British Government, the Church of Rome became the established church of Quebec, vested with all the powers which it possessed in France in the days of the "great monarch," to collect tithes and enforce its decrees. The clergy were not slow to avail themselves of those enormous powers for their own aggrandizement, and to strengthen their influence over the people. The policy of the Church from the first, but more especially of late years, has been to isolate its people from their Protestant and English-speaking fellow-citizens. It controls all the public schools and most of the higher educational institutes in the province, and from their childhood it instructs the French Canadians to jealously guard their treaty rights—to preserve their language, their laws, and their institutions. The education of the people in the public schools consists mainly in memorizing the doctrines and dogmas of the Church, and the time which is devoted in the free schools of Ontario to acquiring secular knowledge is spent by the French children in devotional exercises. The masses of the population are kept in ignorance, while the few who can afford to attend the colleges are trained by the Jesuits. Thus the press, the bar, the bench, and the Legislature, are controlled by the pulpit.

Among their public men are some of splendid ability, but with minds narrowed by provincialism and race-prejudices, and warped by religious bigotry. Occasionally one among them ventures to express independent opinions, which subject him to the censure of the bishop of the diocese. If he repents and abandons the error of his ways, he is received back into favor; if he persists in his independence, he may expect, at the very next election, to be relegated to the obscurity of private life. Thus the control of the Church over the French population of the Province of Quebec is complete, and is constantly exercised to prevent their amalgamation with other races on the continent. Intermarriage with Protestants is sternly denounced, and early marriages are earnestly advocated from the pulpit. Their faithful obedience to their pastors in these matters is proved by the census returns.

During the one hundred and fifty years that France held possession of Canada, the population increased but slowly. In 1763, four years after the conquest, it was estimated at about 65,000. Under British rule, in one hundred and twenty-five years it has grown to about 1,500,000 in Canada, and it is estimated that there are nearly half a million of the race in the United States.

The increase of population in the Province of Quebec has, however, been attended with some disadvantage as well as profit to the Church. The system of subdividing and over-cropping farms has impoverished the soil and led to much poverty in the older communities. Adventurous colonists as the early French were, their descendants manifest little inclination to establish settlements in the wilderness. They prefer, when crowded out of their old homes on the banks of the St. Lawrence, to emigrate to the New England States, where they can obtain in the manufacturing establishments employment better suited to their taste and social instinct, and larger remuneration than can be had in their own country. This exodus became so extensive during a period of depression some seven years ago that it excited alarm in the minds of the ecclesiastical and political leaders of the province. The Quebec Legislature, which is practically controlled by the clergy, and the Dominion Parliament, in which they hold the balance of power, voted large sums to repatriate the self-exiled population, but their efforts were attended with anything but gratifying results.

About that time the Province of Manitoba, which had been partly colonized by the French prior to the purchase of the Hudson Bay Territories by the Dominion, was thrown open to settlement by the establishment of railway communication with the Red River Valley. A determined effort was made by the French-Canadian loaders to convert this land of promise into another Quebec, in which the French language, French laws and customs, and the Roman Catholic religion, should prevail. With that end in view, through the influence of Sir George Cartier, Manitoba was originally made a small province, in which the French half-breeds had a large majority. To wean them from their nomadic habits, and to give them an influence altogether disproportionate to their numbers and intelligence, they and their children were granted extensive tracts of land in the Red River Valley, and large inducements were held out to the French Canadians in the United States to locate lands and settle in the neighborhood of their Metis kindred. Some were persuaded to repatriate themselves and assist in carrying out the designs of their leaders, but the vast majority preferred to remain in the manufacturing towns of New England.

From Ontario a steady stream of settlers flowed into Manitoba, and, in a very short time, the hopes of Quebec were blighted. The French element was swamped by the flood from Ontario. The control of the province passed into the hands of the Ontarians, the boundaries of the province were enlarged, and Manitoba, instead of becoming a second Quebec, promises to be a new and greater Ontario.

Balked in their design to capture the great Northwest, the French Canadian leaders turned their attention to the easier task of "freezing out" the small English-speaking clement in Quebec. The population of British origin, outside of Montreal, was principally in the Eastern Townships and in the counties north of the Ottawa River, and formed about one sixth of the whole. The French Canadians were offered inducements to settle on the wild lands in the Eastern Townships. Considerable numbers were in this way led to return to their native land. Wherever an English-speaking farmer was found willing to part with his property, a French-Canadian purchaser was always at hand to secure it. Where English-speaking owners of unpatented lands had failed to comply with any of the numerous conditions of settlement, their lots were confiscated, no refund was made of the purchase-money or compensation allowed for improvements, and they were resold to French Canadians.

This policy, although inaugurated but three or four years before the census of 1881 was taken, had such a marked effect that the returns attracted attention and excited much comment throughout the Dominion. While the entire population of the Province of Quebec had increased slightly, but steadily, during the decade, the English-speaking population had remained almost stationary, and the disproportion between the two races had become more marked. And this had occurred in face of the fact that there had been a large exodus of the French population, not only to the New England States, but also to East Ontario, where they filled up the gaps made by the movement of the Ontario farmers to the Northwest. The English-speaking population are being steadily rooted out, and their places filled by settlers of French origin. Not content with wresting Quebec from the conqueror, the French Canadians are spreading into New Brunswick on the east and Ontario on the west. In the latter province they control two counties already, and will soon have majorities in two others; and it is only a question of time when they will have possession of the capital of the Dominion, a consummation which the French-Canadian members of the Dominion Cabinet are endeavoring to hasten by filling every vacancy in the civil service, so far as they can, with their countrymen.

The rapid increase and aggressiveness of the French-Canadian race, coupled with their determination to hold themselves aloof from the other sections of the population, have led thoughtful men to despair of the future of the Dominion. The hope that the confederation of the provinces would bring about a fusion of the races must have died out of the breasts of the most sanguine who have watched the agitation in Quebec over the Northwest rebellion and the execution of Riel. The French throughout the Dominion have, with few exceptions, made the cause of the rebel half-breeds their own, and exalted their mercenary leader into a national hero and a martyr. Their public men, casting aside all party ties ami patriotic considerations, have formed themselves into a provincial party whose object is to avenge the death of the late rebel leader, and to give to Quebec, by their united action, a predominant influence in the Parliament of the Dominion. That their unpatriotic stand will lead to a coalition of the English-speaking majority no one who is aware of the violence of party feeling in Canada will expect, and the only hope, in the opinion of many, of preserving the Dominion from the disaster of French domination lies in the success of the Government party in the next appeal to the country, or in annexation to the United States.

The facts which are above set forth have caused many of the leaders of public opinion in Canada to take a pessimistic view of the future of the Dominion. But there arc, on the other side, indications that a brighter destiny awaits the Confederation.

The self-exiled Quebecers in the New England States, though followed to their new homes and carefully advised and guarded by their clergy, come in contact with a population which, bred under republican institutions, has always manifested a manly independence in spiritual as well as in temporal matters. The habitant never loses his love for his native land, but residence in the Great Republic brightens his intelligence and gives him a more exalted idea of his importance as an individual, and a sense of independence which is wholly foreign to the character of his countrymen at home. These men revisit their native province from time to time, carrying with them their new and advanced ideas, and thus they are leavening the masses in Quebec. Railways penetrate localities which, until recently, were as isolated from the rest of the continent as if they had been situated in the heart of China. Visitors from the outside world, who know not the curé and ignore the clergy generally, find their way into the most remote hamlets, carrying with them new ideas of life. Even the schools, though employed by the clergy more to prevent the spread of knowledge than to impart instruction, by teaching the youth of the country to read, enable them, when the opportunity occurs, to enlighten their minds by tasting the forbidden fruits of literature proscribed by the Church. The growth of public intelligence is necessarily slow, opposed as it is by the most powerful organization the world has ever known, but every year some slight advance is made, and to a corresponding extent the power of the Church is diminished.

When freed from ecclesiastical tyranny, the French race in Quebec possess native ability and qualities which will make them a valuable element in the population of the continent. Their industry, economy, frugality, and docility, their power of imitation, and their disinclination to become citizens of the United States, have led their enemies to brand them as the "Chinese of the East"; but, with those valuable characteristics of the Celestial, they combine others which will place them, when emancipated from the thralldom of the Church, abreast of the most enlightened and progressive nations of the world. When that time comes, they will cease to be regarded as a burden upon the Dominion and a barrier to its progress. They will be recognized as equals, in every sense of the word, of their brethren of British origin, and their rapid increase will be viewed as a benefit rather than a disaster to the Dominion.

It is difficult to understand why the growth of the French-Canadian people should excite misgivings in the minds of the statesmen of Canada. The French race outside of Quebec has increased but slowly. It has never been successful in colonizing. In France itself the growth of the population is exceptionally slow; in the colonies of the republic the progress is even less. While Canada was a colony of France, owing to frequent wars and the exactions of the seigniors and the Church, the population in a century and a half had reached only 65,000; it is only since they have been emancipated from feudal serfdom and enjoyed the blessings of free institutions that they have developed any marked power of reproduction. In one hundred and twenty years under British rule they have increased to nearly 2,000,000, and this rapid increase has been aided little if any by immigration from France. It is due almost entirely to natural increase, and to natural increase it must be restricted in the future.

The growth of the French population on this continent has been rapid, but not phenomenal. It bears no comparison with the extraordinary expansion of the Anglo-Saxon race, even in the Dominion of Canada. Quebec had a population of 100,000, and there was a French colony on the east side of the Detroit River before there were any English-speaking inhabitants in Ontario, where they now number nearly 2,000,000. With all the advantages of a start of a century and a half, the French in Ontario do not exceed 120,000, and in the entire Dominion not over 1,500,000, out of a total of 4,500,000. Until the western movement of the Ontario farmers, some eight years ago, the spread of the French race in Ontario was almost unnoticed. It was confined almost exclusively to laborers employed by lumbering firms in their mills and in the woods, a fluctuating population as little disposed to remain permanently away from their native land as the Chinese on the Pacific coast. While Ontario is rapidly colonizing Manitoba and the vast Northwest Territories, and filling up her waste lands at home, Quebec is making but slow progress in comparison in its work of gallicizing Ontario, and her people prefer expatriation to facing the hardships incidental to pioneer life in the inhospitable wilderness north of the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa. Of the seven provinces of the Dominion, Quebec is the only one in which they possess a controlling influence; in the others, and in the United States, they are merely hewers of wood and drawers of water for the more energetic and intelligent Anglo-Saxon.

While the only fecund branch of the Gallic race is that which inhabits Eastern Canada, the British people at home and abroad have displayed marvelous powers of expansion. Every year populous swarms leave the parent hive, yet they are scarcely missed. Despite the constant drain, the Island races in Europe double every fifty-six years and in the colonies every twenty-five years, whereas the population of France doubles only in one hundred and forty years. The French commenced the work of colonizing America at the same time as the British, yet the latter have expanded to 00,000,000, while the former are represented by a total of 2,000,000. The wonderful development of the Island races continues to follow the British flag in every quarter of the globe. In Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other colonies, the increase has been almost as marked as on this continent, and in strong contrast to the sterility of the French at home and in their colonies everywhere.

The capacity of the Island races to absorb foreign elements of population has been illustrated to an extraordinary degree in the United States. The surplus population of every country in Europe pours in a constant stream into the republic, bringing with it customs, languages, and ideas of government wholly different from those which prevail in the United States. Yet, in a short time, this foreign mass is assimilated. The aliens become naturalized citizens; they acquire very soon a knowledge of the prevailing language and the form of government. In a few years they are Americanized, and the second generation speak the language of the continent with the fluency of other natives, and are as thoroughly American citizens as the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. In Louisiana a population of French origin have found it to their advantage to adopt the English language and the customs of the people among whom their lot is cast.

There can be little doubt, therefore, that the French Canadians would long since have blended with the dominant race, to their own great benefit and the advantage of the continent, had it not been for the mistaken policy of the British Government over a century ago, and the efforts of the Church of Rome to prevent a consolidation of the people of Canada into one nationality.

In view of these facts there is yet some hope for the future of the Dominion. The diffusion of knowledge among the people, their contact with more enterprising and advanced communities, now rendered practicable by the development of railway communication, and the investigating spirit of the age which priestcraft can not wholly subdue, must sooner or later produce changes which will make of the Canadians a homogeneous population. This is a solution of the problem as desirable as the only other one that has been suggested—a continental union which would crush out at once and forever the aspirations of those who are seeking to establish a new France on the banks of the St. Lawrence.