History and memory of the seigneurial regime in Quebec

Olivier Guimond

Benoît Grenier, ed. Le régime seigneurial au Québec: fragments d’histoire et de mémoire. In collaboration with Alain Laberge and Stéphanie Lanthier. (Sherbrooke: Les Éditions de l’Université de Sherbrooke, 2020).

The abolition of the seigneurial regime in 1854 has, paradoxically, “ratified the maintenance of seigneurial property”[2] in Quebec. Indeed, in addition to a compensation for the loss of lucrative revenues to the seigneurs, the Seigneurial Act provided for them the acquisition of property rights on plots not yet conceded. An annual payment, the rente constituée, persisted for censitaires. The vast majority of censitaires would keep paying a rentto seigneurs almost a hundred years after the abolition until it was bought out by the Quebec state in the 1940s. But this was hardly a gift offered to the censitaires: they then had to reimburse the capital of those rents through a special municipal levy. In the end, former censitaires paid a “seigneurial tax” until 1970.[3]

From an economic standpoint, the seigneury was far from having drawn its last breath in 1854. But what could be revealed by the memories and representations of the persistence of the seigneurial regime following its abolition? Are there some cultural remnants? These are questions partly answered by Le régime seigneurial au Québec: fragments d’histoire et de mémoire.

Benoît Grenier, professor of history at the Université de Sherbrooke, is joined for this book by seven recent history bachelors recipients. All participated in a seminar entitled “Histoire et mémoire du régime seigneurial”[4] over the 2018 winter term during which students had to write an essay on a seigneury. They had to shed light on the history and the memory of local seigneuries with the help of regional monographs, the archives of the Syndicat national du rachat des rentes seigneuriales[5], and, chiefly, a dozen or so interviews with descendants of seigneurial families and other keepers of the seigneurial memory previously conducted by Grenier and his team from 2015 to 2017. The technical details and the theoretical framework of the research project are explained in the introduction written by Grenier.[6]

The first chapter (Nicolas Théroux) touches upon the seigneury de Trois-Pistoles and follows the itinerary of the Rioux family. Of modest origin, this common family forms an interesting case of continuity whereas seigneuries held by families of similar means would often change hands over time. The Rioux family is also a rare instance of a dynasty that acted throughout the whole seigneurial period. Of humble means and inhabiting a sparsely populated area, the Rioux mingled with the local families of habitants as well as with notables with which they forged alliances. This undoubtedly explains the persistence of a status at once distinctive and “familiar” of the Rioux following the abolition and their fairly strong grasp on the local memory. Anita Rioux (1920–2017), daughter of the last seigneur who held the rentes constituées in Trois-Pistoles, was still referred to as the “seigneuresse” at the time of her death, just as her son, Gaston, proudly mentions that he bears the nickname of “le seigneur.” Through their conversations, Anita and Gaston explained that the family kept playing an important part in the 20th century: it benefited from the trust of the Pistolois when securing elective positions, it kept its own pew in the church and would regularly grant tracts of land to the municipality, making the main seigneurial holding a territory favoured for the urban development of the area.

The second chapter (Alexis Tétreault) deals with the seigneury of Rouville (Mont Saint-Hilaire). Tétreault shows, among other things, that the local seigneurial memory has largely been built around the “first elite” represented by the figure of the seigneur, especially Thomas E. Campbell (1811?-1872), a British seigneur-entrepreneur who took over from the Hertel family a decade before abolition and who actively lived in the seigneury for a long time. The chapter also offers a careful consideration of seigneurial power (partly woman-led) at the time of the purchase of the rentes constituées in Rouville and their possible financialization in the 1920s.[7] Tétreault also discusses the importance of Thomas Guérin’s (1886–1963) Feudal Canada: The Story of the Seigniories of New France (1926), a book written with close contact with the Campbell seigneurial family. Feudal Canada was likely instrumental in the formation of a positive local seigneurial memory, particularly regarding the figure of the seigneur; a memory that is still carried by Guérin’s daughter, Carroll, who still resides in the old seigneurial mill. Finally, it should be noted that this chapter allows readers to familiarize themselves with the Manoir Rouville-Campbell which, as a sumptuous property built at the very end of the seigneurial regime, illustrates the fact that Canadian seigneurs did not envision themselves as a social class in agony even though the days of the seigneurial regime were numbered.[8]

The third chapter (Anthony Trouilhas) offers an analysis of the Bic seigneury centred around the idea of a type of bourgeois seigneurial “country retreat”[9] that developed in the 19th century. The author draws a link between the existence of a holiday destination in this area and the rather late development of the seigneury, which remained a summer retreat for the Campbell seigneurial family for quite some time. The Campbells, moreover, divested themselves of the rights to the rentes constituées at the end of the 1880s, which reinforces the idea, according to Trouilhas, that the real interest of the family in Bic had long resided in its usefulness as a summer retreat and not in its economic potential. As a place of intimate connection with nature, the seigneury of Bic has prevailed, to this day, as an idealised land[10], “God’s land” in the words of the great-uncle of Douglas Cann, a “living descendant of the last seigneurial lineage of Bic.” Additionally, the current Bic National Park, created in the 1970s from former ungranted seigneurial lands, represents a true public continuation of the long tradition of the Bic seigneurial holiday resort.

The seigneury of Aubert-Gallion, the subject of the fourth chapter (Frédérick Gosselin), showcases how important certain seigneurial families and merchant seigneurs of foreign origin have been in the expansion of Canadian seigneuries after the Conquest and after the abolition. Among other things, Gosselin links the lasting impact of the Pozers, of German origin, in the development of the Beauce seigneury, acquired in 1807 and in which they resided, to the local seigneurial memory that exclusively echoes these seigneurs.[11] This is exemplified by the various mentions of the Pozer name in the local toponymy and by the descendants interviewed who commented on the good relations between the Anglo-Protestant seigneurial family and the Roman Catholic French-Canadian censitaires of the area. Finally, it should be noted that, in exploring the role of the Pozer family on the municipal political scene, Gosselin’s text raises the crucial question of the transition of power within the local Quebec elite from the mid-19th century onward.[12]

The fifth chapter (Hubert Cousineau) explores a singular example of the safeguarding of local seigneurial memory by a bearer of memory. Indeed, in the former Beauce fief of Cumberland Mills, the seigneurial past comes to life thanks to the curiosity and work of James Dean Hunter, an Albertan who came to settle in the Beauce region in the 1990s. Hunter was impressed by the seigneurial history of the place, which he discovered first by chance and then through the friendship he formed with Eva Taylor (1894–1994), the last representative of the seigneurial family who resided for a long time in its fief. Surprised that this history was relatively forgotten, Hunter acquired some of the old buildings—including the manor house—restored them, and promoted their history. The arrival of an outsider thus constitutes a complete change in the “relationship with the local seigneurial history,” whose English-speaking dimension, otherwise inseparable from the founding moments of the seigneury and the later chapters of its story, seemed partially overlooked.

The last two chapters of the book deal for their part with religious institutions. Chapter 6 (Raphaël Bergeron-Gauthier) studies the case of the Séminaire de Québec, owner of the Seigneury de Beaupré (1 600 km2 of forested land). Canon Jacques Roberge, Superior General of the seminary, explained that the seigneury is the largest source of income for the institution nowadays[13]: hunting and fishing, logging as well as wind-power activities take place on the land. As a direct, tangible legacy of Bishop François de Laval (1623–1708), the seigneury is also important symbolically; it bears the memory of its first seigneur—the first bishop of New France—portrayed as a benevolent and visionary man by Canon Roberge. The latter acts likewise as a bearer of an idealized memory. This memory upholds, among other things, the role of the “benevolent” seigneur played by the Seminary, which “‘nurtured with care’ the people of Beaupré,” notably by building mills, churches, and schools.[14] A number of other indicators of the benevolence of the Seminary, both before and after the abolition of 1854, are discussed by the author, who focuses on this complicated issue. But, as Bergeron-Gauthier acknowledges, it remains difficult in the end to distinguish the real intentions of the seigneurs. Were they prioritizing local development and the well-being of the region’s inhabitants? Were their actions prompted only by their obligations as seigneurs? Were they simply benefitting from a position of economic and moral superiority as well as from seigneurial privileges and monopolies? In any case, well-known instances of neglect by the Seminary on seigneurial matters are reported by Bergeron-Gauthier, which encourages caution from the outset. In fact, benevolence will always remain a particularly contentious hypothesis, especially when approached through the memory of the seigneurs themselves. Nevertheless, this question deserves to be seriously investigated, as Bergeron-Gauthier has done.

The seventh and final chapter (Claude Pelletier) deals with the seigneury of Île de Montréal. Pelletier highlights the uniqueness of the abolition of the seigneurial regime in Montreal and assesses whether the particularity of this case colours current seigneurial remnants. Pelletier reminds us that an ordinance allowing commutation on a voluntary basis was adopted for Montreal in 1840. When the Seigneurial Act of 1854 and the 1859 amendments called for mandatory commutation for all censitaires in the colony, “the city and parish of Montreal” was excluded. Consequently, so long as the censitaires residing in this territory did not ask for their lots to be commuted, they remained bound to seigneurial rights.[15] Thus, as notary André Dufresne and Bishop Goulet mention in their testimonies, certificates of commutation of seigneurial rights were still being issued to the former censitaires of Montreal in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, Pelletier cleverly verifies whether the “Montreal exception” in seigneurial legal matters was still being taught, which turns out to be the case at the Université de Montréal and the Université de Sherbrooke. According to Pelletier, this illustrates that “the seigneurial institution seems to never want to die in Quebec.”

The various contributions have overall a few defects of form: the tone is often too academic, typos and other editing errors are quite numerous, and the quality of the language is rather uneven. A more thorough presentation of the sources (how long the interviews lasted, where they took place) coupled with a more critical assessment of them (how reliable they are, what they represent historically) would also have been desirable. Space is another challenge. In fact, in just a few pages, the authors must cover the local history over several centuries and use of new and unwieldy sources. The challenge was surely great, but it was overall well met. Each text adequately covers local history, from New France to the British Regime, readily follows with the context of abolition and then effectively covers a century and a half, pushing the analysis to contemporary seigneurial memories.

Le régime seigneurial au Québec: fragments d’histoire et de mémoire undeniably contributes to an understanding of the persistence of the seigneurial regime in Quebec’s collective memory and culture, even if said persistence is quite uneven from one region to another. The families of seigneurial ancestry, especially those who resided in their fiefs, and the bearers of the seigneurial memory interviewed offer beautiful windows into this reality. The interest of the book is therefore real and, moreover, allows us to return to the monographic approach to rural history. The grand narrative of the seigneurial regime—multisecular and national—is thus illuminated in a new way by the petite histoire.

Olivier Guimond is a graduate student of intellectual history at the University of Ottawa. As part of his doctoral research, he is particularly interested in the seigneurial question in Lower Canada and Quebec in the 19th century.

Translated from French by Benoit Longval.

[2] Benoît Grenier, “Le patrimoine seigneurial du Séminaire de Québec ou l’héritage matériel de François de Laval,” in Le patrimoine des communautés religieuses: Empreintes et approches, ed. Étienne Berthold (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2018), 30.

[3] Benoît Grenier, Brève histoire du régime seigneurial (Montréal: Boréal, 2012), chap. 6.

[4] History and memory of the seigneurial regime

[5] National Commission for the Repurchase of Seigneurial Rents

[6] See also Benoît Grenier, “Sur les traces de la mémoire seigneuriale au Québec: identité et transmission au sein des familles d’ascendance seigneuriale,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 72, no. 3 (2019): 5-40.

[7] See also André LaRose, “La Montreal Investment Association, le Montreal Investment Trust et la seigneurie de Beauharnois (1866-1941),” The Canadian Historical Review 98, no. 1 (2017): 1–34.

[8] Benoît Grenier, “Les paradoxes de la mémoire seigneuriale au Québec: entre la mythologie et l’oubli,” in Mémoires canadiennes: Actes du colloque de l’Association française d’études canadiennes (Rennes 2013), eds. Marc Bergère et al. (Rennes, PUR, 2018): 161.

[9] « Villégiature » in French.

[10] See also Benoît Grenier, “L’héritage seigneurial d’Anne Hébert: famille et enracinement comme marqueurs identitaires,” Cahiers Anne Hébert, no. 15 (2018): 7–29.

[11] The illustrious British predecessor, William Grant (1744–1805), had neither colonized nor developed the Beauce fief.

[12] Benoît Grenier, Seigneurs campagnards de la Nouvelle France: Présence seigneuriale et sociabilité rurale dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent à l’époque préindustrielle (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2007), chap. 5.

[13] It should be noted that Bergeron-Gauthier does not take into consideration the testimony of Jacques Laliberté, who was employed by the Seminary at the Seigneury of Beaupré for decades.

[14] Bergeron-Gauthier refers to Noël Baillargeon, Le Séminaire de Québec sous l’épiscopat de Mgr de Laval (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1972: 207 and establishes a close parallel between the words of the historian and those of the canon.

[15] Georges Baillargeon offers a significantly different opinion in La survivance du régime seigneurial à Montréal: Un régime qui ne veut pas mourir (Ottawa: Le cercle du livre de France, 1968), second part. Indeed, Baillargeon demonstrates that a 30-year limitation period has long since nullified the Seminary’s claims to seigneurial rights in the “city and parish of Montreal”. He contends that in the absence of cadastres, as elsewhere in the colony, commutation rights in that territory were debts whose amounts had to be precisely calculated by the Seminary to be converted into rentes constituées whose capital would have been imprescriptible. Having failed to do so, the commutation right was therefore declared extinguished after 30 years.

Featured image: L’ancien manoir seigneurial au Bic, Le régime seigneurial au Québec : fragments d’histoire et de mémoire (Sherbrooke, Les Éditions de l’Université de Sherbrooke, 2020), 102.

Latest Comments

  1. Wayne Laverdure says:

    Were there an le regine seigneurial au Quebec in the upper Ottawa valley Iles au grand callumet area thanks. My great great grandfather worked for coln by on the Rideau Canal till its completion and then i believe colonel by offered him land on this island in Quebec on the Ottawa river i am trying to find out id colonel By

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