Francophone Quebecers in Canada’s Odyssey: Pillar or Passengers?

Peter H. Russell’s Canada’s Odyssey is a sweeping reconsideration of the foundations of Canada’s constitutional order that has garnered considerable attention and praise. This essay is the second in a three-part series assessing the book’s significance.

Donald Fyson

My comments focus on the pre-Confederation chapters of Peter Russell’s Canada’s Odyssey. I’ll concentrate on Quebec and more specifically, on the place in Canadian constitutional development of one of Russell’s three “founding pillars” of Canadian society: what he regularly calls “French Canadians”, but which are essentially European-origin francophone Quebecers and their Canadien ancestors.

Overall, it would be hard to criticize the basic intent of this book: as a “corrective” (p.4) which more fully integrates the history of Indigenous and francophone Canadians into the constitutional history of Canada, notably by better addressing the pre-Confederation period. However, the way in which this is accomplished represents in many ways a return to a very old, anglo-centric view of pre-Confederation Canadian constitutional and political history. With regards to Quebec, this expresses itself in a particularly paternalistic attitude towards the francophone population, both historiographically and historically, which in large part denies their agency and portrays them mainly as passengers on Canada’s constitutional odyssey.

Historiographically, it is always disconcerting for Quebec scholars such as myself to read scholarly works on Canadian history which give almost no voice to francophone historiography. The absence is particularly blatant in this book. There is only a single work in French in the bibliography (Guy Frégault’s venerable La guerre de la Conquête, cited in just one note) and only a tiny handful of francophone Quebec historians in translation. I can’t conceive of a better demonstration of what is wrong with some English-Canadian scholarly attitudes towards Quebec. More generally, it is truly unfortunate that Russell didn’t make the effort to engage with the last two or three decades of scholarly production on pre-Confederation Quebec, given that one of his arguments is that the period is key to understanding the current Quebec-Canada relationship. Instead, it’s almost as if the pre-Confederation Quebec-Canada question has been done, with liberal anglophone historians of the 1950s and 1960s being the last word. Affirming that the book “is not a history of Canada, nor am I a historian” is no excuse for a lack of basic scholarly due diligence, especially since Canada’s Odyssey is in fact presented as “an argument about Canadian history and its bearing on Canada today” (p.4).

A case in point is the British Conquest of Quebec, which figures directly in the book’s subtitle, A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests (the other conquest being that of Canada’s Indigenous peoples). On the Conquest and the Canadiens, apart from surveys and textbooks, Russell’s secondary sources are mainly the aging but still doughty array of Burt, Coupland, Neatby, and Wade, along with military historians such as C.P. Stacey, Gordon Donaldson, and Fred Anderson, a handful of older DCB articles, and an undergraduate essay produced for his class. And yet, the past decade in particular has seen a flowering of studies on the Conquest, in both French and English. This would have become evident from even a cursory glance at the two volumes edited by Philip A. Buckner and John G. Reid and published in 2012 (Revisiting 1759 and Remembering 1759), or the five collections in French edited variously by Laurent Veyssière, Sophie Imbeault, Denis Vaugeois and Bertrand Fonck. Contributions to these volumes, along with many other recent studies, resituate regime transition in Quebec in its broader imperial context, both French and British, and show among others that Quebec was not such a unique constitutional case after all. Detailed studies of the post-Conquest period in Quebec itself have also led to reinterpretations of issues such as the attitudes, agency and adaptability of the Canadiens.

Similar basic historiographical absences affect Russell’s interpretations of politics and ideology in the pre-Confederation period. The place of republicanism in Quebec is a good example. According to Russell, the French Revolution solidified Canadien support for the monarchy and closed the door to republicanism in the 1790s. This is a very old clerico-nationalist view, rejected long ago by Jean-Pierre Wallot, F. Murray Greenwood, and others. Or again, Russell asserts that the Patriotes were in no way influenced by American-style republicanism, and even extends this to Quebec nationalism as a whole, in which “republican aspirations have never figured prominently” (p.66). Quite the contrary has been demonstrated by Louis-Georges Harvey, Yvan Lamonde, and many others who have looked at the shift in Patriote ideologies, from support for British constitutionalism to a much greater appeal to American and even Jacksonian republicanism.

Russell’s weak grasp of recent Quebec historiography results in Canada’s Odyssey adopting a fundamentally antiquated and nostalgic historical narrative. The essential thrust in regard to the Canadiens and the constitution is that eternal English-Canadian trope of the “French Canadians” as willing but empty receptacles for British constitutionalism, and their society as fertile but uncultivated ground in which the “first seeds of a civic culture” (p.7) were planted by arriving British settlers. The book’s chronology itself is the first indicator. At least in terms of the European population of Quebec, Canada’s constitutional history apparently starts in 1759, with the arrival of the British. This is indeed the classic Canadian approach to constitutional history, embodied in hoary old classics such as Short and Doughty’s Documents Relating to the Constitutional History of Canada (about the only primary source material Russell cites directly), which begins with the 1759 Articles of Capitulation of Quebec. For Russell, just like for Short and Doughty, before the British, there was no civic culture to speak of in French Canada. French colonial government was absolutely absolute, “unencumbered by constitutional limitations” (p.7). So the French regime isn’t addressed at all, even though Russell could have contrasted Peter Moogk’s unfortunate “the apples do not fall far from the tree” affirmation (that modern Quebec culture traces its roots back to the supposed absolutism of New France) with the many other studies that have looked at the far more complex nature of politics and power relations under the French regime. Russell’s book also utterly disregards the civic culture of ordinary Canadiens, embodied in pre-Conquest popular traditions of both local democracy and collective community action, which rural inhabitants in particular had long developed and which helped them navigate the difficult transition to British rule and British institutions, which also emphasized local representation and indirect rule. It also ignores the direct and unmediated influence of French Enlightenment thought on 18th-century Canadiens, disseminated through imported French books and through newspapers such as Fleury Mesplet’s Gazette littéraire de Montréal, and seems unaware of actions such as the broad participation of Canadien middle-class reformers in the political agitation and mass petition campaigns of the 1780s that helped lead to the Constitutional Act of 1791 (as Pierre Tousignant showed long ago). Instead, the survival of the Canadiens’ culture and traditions, and their inculcation with (British) civic culture, becomes mainly the result of the big-heartedness and toleration of British authorities, including post-Conquest administrators such as Murray and Carleton.

All of this effectively erases any notion of constitutional and political agency on the part of the Canadiens. This is neatly summed up in Russell’s declaration of his book’s main argument: “the existence of nations or peoples preceding Britain’s imperial presence in Canada, and Britain’s decision not to attempt a complete conquest of these peoples, are the crucial facts about Canada’s founding” (p.4). Canadiens (and Indigenous peoples) existed; the British decided. What agency the Canadiens had was essentially reactive and defensive. So too was their burgeoning “national sentiment”, which Russell portrays as fundamentally traditionalist. For Russell, that traditionalism was embodied in Le Canadien‘s slogan “notre langue, nos institutions et nos lois”, which “concentrated on defending the French against their English enemies” (p.92). This ignores the key role of the newspaper and others like it as vehicles for constitutional debate in Quebec’s public sphere, and the deep constitutional expertise of Parti Canadien leaders such as Pierre Bédard. The downplaying of Canadien constitutional and political agency even at a time of nationalist ferment is even more clearly visible in the book’s portrayal of the lead-up to the Rebellions, which relies on Alfred Decelles, Helen Taft Manning, Jacques Monet, Chester New, and Fernand Ouellet, and closely follows Ouellet’s highly contested ideas. With “French Canadians” controlling the Lower-Canadian Assembly, opposing an intractable British-controlled executive, the colony became “virtually ungovernable” (p.63); “the French majority had voice but no power, no share in the responsibility of governing. The English governed, the French protested” (p.91). Again, utterly untrue on both stasis and Canadien involvement in governance, as anyone who has done the least reading on state formation in Lower Canada knows. In this tale, the habitants in particular lose all agency: the Rebellions were led by Canadien middle-class politicians, and the habitants were simply “susceptible to nationalist rhetoric that gave their economic plight an ethnic spin” (p.94), contrary to what Allan Greer, Gilles Laporte and other have shown about the importance of habitant political culture and local leadership. Exit any notion of linking the Rebellions in Lower Canada to popular emancipatory struggles elsewhere in the Western world. And as for Durham, his report is apparently “widely regarded as a great work” (p.109). Not in francophone Quebec it isn’t, where since the 1840s, Durham has almost uniformly been presented as one of the great boogie-men of Quebec history.

None of this advances us much beyond what was taught in English-Canadian universities a half-century ago. Despite its good intentions, Russell’s book does not take francophone Quebec seriously, either its history or its scholarship. Francophone Quebecers were but passengers along for the constitutional ride. Thankfully, this is not the view of many current English-Canadian historians; hopefully Russell’s work can serve as a reminder of how far the historiography of politics and society in pre-Confederation Canada has come, but also, of how far it has to go.

Donald Fyson is professor at the Département des sciences historiques of Université Laval and a specialist in Quebec history. His work focuses on the relationship between state, law and society, especially as seen through the criminal and civil justice systems, the police, prisons, and local administration. He is currently working on a book on capital punishment in Quebec between 1760 and 1960.

Featured Image: “Quebec,” 2016-2017, by Adam Miller.

Latest Comments

  1. Lisa Dillon says:

    Thank you Don! And I will be forwarding your review to my PRDH students, one in particular who wishes to study maternal mortality before, during and after the Conquest.

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