Fragments of a Revolution, Part I: 1759

Over the next week or so, I’ll be publishing a series of posts on the political history of modern Quebec and the ways in which its internal transformations have shaped and defined the broader Canadian experience. Many of the issues which continue to dominate Canadian politics and structure our party system have their origins in the Quiet Revolution, and the subsequent debates about Quebec’s role within the Federation – a fact often overlooked or at any rate underplayed by the dominant historical accounts. Commentary on Quebec in English Canada is notably poor and lacking in either empathy or historical understanding and, in the opinion of this writer, a great many commentators in our media would do well to better acquaint themselves with the historical origins of the Quebecois identity and the ideological contours of its nationalism.

(NOTE: The phrase “incomplete conquest”, which will make frequent appearances in these posts, was coined by Professor Peter Russell, with whom I studied Canadian constitutional history at U of T. WARNING: There may be footnotes…)

Fragments of a Revolution

The period of cultural upheaval known as the “Quiet Revolution” transformed Quebec from a society deeply insular, traditional, and conservative to one at the vanguard of liberalism and modernization. But it also signaled the onset of a new and turbulent epoch in the broader Canadian experience characterized by three decades of debate and political contestation around issues of power and identity, ultimately culminating in a series of mega-constitutional struggles which forced the country to contemplate the nature of its existence as a political community like never before. Two hundred years after a British victory on the Plains of Abraham subordinated the colonists of New France, the Quiet Revolution unleashed a wave of nationalism that would be felt as much in Ottawa as in Quebec City or Montreal. Two referendums on Quebec sovereignty, the Charter of 1982 and the subsequent negotiations at Meech Lake and Charlottetown all find their origins in Quebec’s mid-century transformation from dormancy to self-assurance; in the political awakening of a distinct society which had been militarily defeated – but not quite conquered – by the British Empire in the eighteenth century.

These posts will be a study of how that incomplete conquest shaped the constitutional struggles of modern Canada and gave birth to three competing visions of the Canadian political community. The first three will examine the political culture of Quebec from its conquest in the eighteenth century to the Quiet Revolution, exploring its transition from a Catholic, quasi-feudal agrarian society to one which hungrily embraced secularism, mass culture, and activist government. The next three will explore the constitutional visions of three figures at the centre of the Quiet Revolution and its national aftermath: those of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, René Lévesque, and Charles Taylor; figures who represent not only distinctive constitutional visions of Canada, but radically different theories of the political identity, the modern state, and the individual citizen’s relationship to both.


Part I: 1759

The conquest of New France in 1759 marked the consolidation of British hegemony on the North American continent[1] ensuring that, henceforth, it would be controlled by English-speakers rather than French, and that its further colonization and development would be directed from Westminster rather than the Château de Versailles. In the Treaty of Paris (1763) the New French colony and its sixty-five thousand inhabitants – the Canadiens – were officially transferred to British rule.[2] As Christian Dufour notes, the transfer as much signified France’s abandonment of the colony as it did England’s conquest. The French government might easily have retained Canada during the peace negotiations, but its investments in North America were pithy compared to England’s and its colonization efforts numerically inferior. As such, it readily surrendered New France and the colony quickly faded from its national memory.[3] The abandonment wrought a profound psychological impact, the significance of which cannot be understated. Canadiens would refer to the conquest as the “Cession”[4] (which translates both as “surrender” and “disposal”) and the deep connection they had once had with their motherland would not really be repaired until Charles De Gaulle’s call for an independent Quebec more than two hundred years later.[5] Dufour:

The young Canadien identity had, as yet, no existence independent of France…that identity would be deeply marked [and] bruised by this desertion…[France’s] only inhabited colony, the only part of itself the had started to take root elsewhere, was yielded freely and without regret to the hereditary enemy.[6]

This psychological trauma was compounded by the humiliation of military defeat and the destruction wrought by the Seven Years’ War. One seventh of the Canadien population was killed and British troops raised a number of villages on their march up the St Lawrence. After the fall of Quebec City and Montreal, the colonists were forced to turn over their weapons to the victors in public ceremonies and from 1759-1764 New France was placed under martial law.[7] The Royal Proclamation of 1763 enshrined English common law, created a legislative assembly, and declared non-Protestants ineligible for public office.[8] But these early attempts to assimilate the French and Anglicize the colony were soon abandoned in the face of nearby American unrest and a lack of English settler migration. In spite of Britain’s efforts, New France had remained “resolutely French”.[9] As such, the subsequent Quebec Act of 1774 recognized the legitimacy of the two foundational elements in Canadien society: French civil law and Catholicism. This legislation also marked the first instance in the history of the British Empire that subjects of the King had been permitted to live under non-English law.[10]

New France’s semi-feudal agrarian society was philosophically and ideologically an outgrowth of pre-Enlightenment France: absolutist, clerical, aristocratic, and deeply hostile to English liberalism.[11] Yet there was one essential modification wrought by the conquest. With its transfer to the British Crown, New France’s small commercial class was replaced by a new group of Anglophone merchants.[12] Any vestige of the bourgeois elements that would later win independence for the Thirteen Colonies and storm the Parisian Bastille was purged from French Canada. The seigneurs, its landowning class, lacked significant power and were without a political base upon which to mobilize. As such, the Church assumed the position of cultural leader[13] and became the principal intermediary between the Canadiens and their colonial administrators[14]. This clerical ruling class was not to be supplanted until the Quiet Revolution passed the baton of social leadership from Church to State nearly two hundred years later.

Having been conquered and severed from its motherland by the Treaty of Paris, but not successfully anglicized, Quebec possessed what Dufour calls an “embryonic collective identity”[15]. Both its traditions and social institutions remained distinct from those found elsewhere in North America. But its pathology as a conquered society and allegiance to a deeply conservative clerical hierarchy hindered the emergence of an assertive nationalism and made its orientation overwhelmingly one of defensive insularity. According to Nelson Wiseman, “Quebec’s Catholic hierarchy…reached in[wards] to consolidate and shield an established homogeneous community and its faith”.[16] This pattern would persist as a constitutive feature of French Canadian political culture until 1959, reinforced by the explosions of liberalism in France and America and their bitter repudiation by the Quebec clergy. The increasing liberalization and modernization of continental Europe and North America gave the collective identity of the French Canadians an increasing sense of its own distinctness and singularity, though it would become more enclosed within itself as a consequence. “Feudal ideology served as the conscious national ideology of the French Canadian fragment” and “modernity was rejected in the boast that French Canada’s language was closer to that of the Golden Age under Louis XIV than anything spoken in Europe”.[17]

This mentality was reflected in the literary culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In stark contrast to the prevailing narratives of America and English Canada, with their emphases on western expansion and material progress, the French Canadian tradition heavily invoked the themes of remembrance and the past, the earliest days of New France idealized as a halcyon golden age. Lionel Groux, a Catholic priest and influential nationalist historian treated the conquest as a foundational event and identified the French Canadians as “a conquered but not spiritually defeated people who persevered through their relative goodness and the superiority of their religion and rural lifestyle”.[18] Thomas Champais’ Cours d’histoire du Canada even celebrated the conquest as a “providential” episode that saved French Canada “from the horrors of the French Revolution [and] the anti-clericalism, and materialism of modern France”.[19] Quebec’s sense of particularity was thus founded on a spiritual belief in the sanctity of its own traditions. It was to be a place of reverence for the past: the last society with a pre-liberal spirit, at risk of being drowned at any moment in the surrounding ocean of rationalism and materialism.

Quebec’s journey from conservatism and insularity to the very sudden onset of socialism and assertive nationalism is thus an interesting puzzle.

Part II: Postwar Quebec, Conservation and contestation


[1] Dufour, Christian. A Canadian Challenge: Le Défi Québécois. English ed. Lantzville, British Columbia: Oolichan, 1990. Print. 25.

[2] Ibid. 31.

[3] Ibid. 30.

[4] Ibid. 30.

[5] Ibid. 31.

[6] Ibid. 30.

[7] Ibid. 25-27.

[8] Ibid. 32.

[9] Ibid. 42.

[10] Ibid. 42.

[11] Wiseman, Nelson. “Quebec: The Political Culture of a Distinct Society.” In Search of Canadian Political Culture. Vancouver: UBC, 2007. Print. 178.

[12] Ibid. 178.

[13] Ibid. 178.

[14] Dufour. 35.

[15] Ibid. 41.

[16] Wiseman. 172.

[17] Ibid. 171-172.

[18] Ibid. 161-164.

[19] Ibid. 171.


2 thoughts on “Fragments of a Revolution, Part I: 1759

  1. Pingback: Fragments of a Revolution, Part IV: Federalism, French power, and Canadian nationalism | LukewSavage

  2. Pingback: Fragments of a Revolution, Part V: Francization, Quebec Nationalism, and Sovereignty-Association | LukewSavage

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