Québec History

During the pandemic I was privileged to receive a communication from the Cultural Services of the City of Donostia in the Basque Country, to participate in an international 3-day summer school called “Reset”, that the University of the Basque Country was organising, called to review the past forty years of Basque presence on the international stage and assist in an expert conversation of where they could take things next.

I had already had contributed to similar debates in Europe, including in Catalunya and the Canary Islands, because of my long term of service establishing a Cultural Service for Québec in London. During that period I developed what became known as The Québec Model following the success of Québec cultural relations with the UK and the Nordic Countries.

This long read is taken from the notes compiled in June 2021 for attendees at the 2021 Basque Summer School and presented in Donastia, Euskadi on 22 July 2021. 

The history of the Québec-UK relationship is very rich and complex. Given the time limitations on my presentation on the actual day, I will not be able to spend time on the historic roots of the UK scenarios within which our cultural relations work for Québec from 1992-2010 had to operate. To understand my presentation, there will be no need to read whole seminal texts on the vagaries of the Québec-UK relationship, but it might help you understand the root of some of our decisions if you can find some time to read the following potted history (from a certain Québécois point of view), and so supplement your own background knowledge of that part of the French language population of Canada now known as the Québécois. A sufficient amount of reliable information to help you will be found by following the links in the text, or by Googling any topics and names of interest to you to find data in online resources such as Wikipedia.

By way of introduction

The first essential observation concerning the Québécois is that we are not dealing here with an indigenous population: for details of those search for Mi’kmaq, Inuit and the Iroquois. The mass of Franco-Canadiens now called “Québécois” are an ethnic group who trace their ancestry back to French colonists who settled in Canada from the 17th century onwards and make up a very important part of the remaining North American French-language population. These settlers originated in the majority from Ile-de-France, Normandy, Poitou-Vendée and Aunis-Saintonge in metropolitan France, and is itself only part of the total European settler diaspora on the North American continent.

In the interests of a balanced view, a parallel observation should also be made that the population of England (Angleland) – somewhat ironically – is not indigenous either, being itself made up of Angles, Saxons (hence Anglo-Saxon), Friesians and Jutes who arrived in Britannia from the 7th Century onwards, after the departure of the Romans in the 5th. The invaders displaced the indigenous and Celtic Britons who had remained unconquered by the Romans in the West of the country, many of whom now fled from their Brythonic-speaking homelands of Cumbria, Wales and Cornwall to take their language and customs as the Breton diaspora to Brittany and Galicia. In the 9th-11th centuries, Vikings from Scandinavia took over the north of the country, followed by the French-speaking Normans who then conquered the southern Saxon kingdoms in the 11th century, and were themselves part of that same Norsemen (Northmen) diaspora that had invaded Britannia in 900 AD.

As far as European settlement activity in the future-Canada is concerned, there is firm evidence that the Eastern seaboard of Canada and the banks of the St Lawrence River were known previously to other Europeans, such as the Norse population as early as the 10th century (see the Vinland Sagas for more details), right up to Basque whalers, who were regular visitors from 1517, some 17 years before the French arrived (see https://www.euskadi.eus/contenidos/informacion/06_revista_euskaletxeak/en_ee/adjuntos/75_04_05_i.pdf). In 1497, Henry VII of England commissioned Zuan Chabotto (anglicised to John Cabot), a Venetian navigator and explorer possibly using stolen Portuguese charts, to kickstart various English explorations of coastal North America and Hudson Bay. These appear to have lasted until the accession of Henry VIII in 1509 who was not interested in westward expansion. Not much evidence has yet been found that truly permanent settlements were established by these populations, despite their several attempts.

French colonisation

In April 1534, after a 20-day transatlantic sail from St Malo (Britany) in April 1534, Jacques Cartier (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Cartier) arrived at what he believed was a gateway to Asia, to describe and map the Gulf of St Lawrence and claim the land for the King of France. A second trip in 1535 saw him sail up the St Lawrence on 2nd October as far as an Iroquois village at the rapids called Osheaga (distorted to Hochelaga and now Montréal) and, convinced he had discovered a route through to China (the name Lachine still remains in use locally), a third trip was organised in 1541 to establish a settlement. However Samuel Champlain was to be the first to establish a permanent European settlement in 1605, namely Port-Royal in Acadie (modern-day Nova Scotia). Cartier did eventually establish that the North American continent was separate from Asia, named the territory Canada (misunderstanding that kanata in the Huron-Iroquois language means just “village”) and from that time the French language population were known as “Canadiens”.

With the founding of three cities along the St Lawrence: Québec city in 1608 from the M’ikmaq word kebecmeaning “where the waters get narrow”, Trois-Rivières in 1616 and Montréal – “mount royal” – in 1642, the colony of New France was established. 


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At its height, this vast territory stretched from l’Acadie to La Nouvelle Orléans (New Orleans) via the St Lawrence, the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi. The Acadiens (modern-day Cajun) were 17th and 18th century French settlers from Poitou-Charente and Aquitaine who had set up a separate colony in the modern-day east coast Maritime provinces. It is also worth mentioning in this period a bizarre episode in 1629 when Champlain surrendered Québec to the English Kirke brothers without a fight before it was restored to French rule under treaty in 1632.

As can be ascertained from the above map, running along the westward boundary of the Appalachians these possessions effectively prevented any internal expansion west from the 13 British colonies established on the Eastern seaboard. Yet to defend this territory, the total colonial population of New France was only 60,000, whereas 2M had settled in the British colonies. Inevitably New France was to fall into British hands through a series of wars stretching from 1613, via the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and finalised in the Treaty of Paris in 1763 when France opted to retain its more lucrative possessions in the Caribbean in a swap for what, in his novel “Candide”, Voltaire sneeringly called the “quelques arpents de neige” of Canada (just a few acres of snow). Every Québécois can quote this phrase of betrayal to this day.

Salient Political and Historical Timeline subsequently – from a Québec point of view:

1713 The Treaty of Utrecht cedes parts of Acadia and all of Hudson Bay to Britain

1755 “Le Grand Dérangement”: the enforced expulsion by the British from the Maritime provinces of the Acadien population, deported into slavery in the English colonies. Some are recruited by the Spanish government to populate Luisiana, where they develop what is now known as the “Cajun” (Acadien) culture

1756-1763 The Seven Years’ War, which Churchill called the first true world war

1759 Canada falls to the British at Québec City battle on the Plains of Abraham

1760 11 years of military government 

1763 The Treaty of Paris ends the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France, as well as with their respective allies. France gives up all its territories in mainland North America, ending any foreign military threat to the British colonies there.

1763 A Royal Proclamation renames Canada “Quebec Province”, removing the acute accent for all time when naming the Province. The French population however stubbornly maintain the accent and the identity “Canadien” for themselves, right up to the 20th century; many contemporary Québécois still identify with this name (even in the naming of the Montréal hockey team) in opposition to “les Anglos” (anglophone Canadians)

1774 The Quebec Act restores the Catholic religion, and the French language and legal system. 99% of the provincial population at this point are French and needed to be kept on side in the coming war with the USA, but in the small print no French language bishops could be appointed to the local Catholic dioceses. The church sets about teaching English in its schools which undermined the dominant language in spite of the Act promising otherwise

1775-1783 The American War of Independence results in the loss of the 13 British colonies 

1783 The Peace of Paris (the second Treaty of Paris) sets exceedingly generous boundaries to the nascent USA, ceding territory from the British Empire in North America that will go on to create the current economic “special relationship”. British relations with US allies France, Spain and the Dutch Republic are also resolved at this time 

1789 The French Revolution

1791 The Constitutional Act renames Quebec “Lower Canada” and now creates an English language entity called “Upper Canada” in order to break the dominance of “the French fact” by splitting Canada in two. As with Ireland in the 17th century, the English use their own subservient populations to oppress other indigenous populations by supporting a Scottish Canadian diaspora peopled by Scottish Protestants. These are brought in to replace the French population and populate Upper Canada with anglophones, initially through enforced exile from the Highland Clearances or famine, but later with attractive offers of economic opportunity, peaking in 1851. An elected House of Assembly (modelled on Westminster parliamentary democracy) in each half of Canada gives an illusion of power but the Governor can veto their decisions 

1792-3 Fear of “La Terreur” in France reinforces British efforts to pacify/marginalise Canada’s French language population

1837-8 “Les Patriotes”: Lower Canada eventually initiates armed conflict under Louis-Joseph Papineau but is defeated by the British Army – 99 rebels are condemned to death but only 12 actually hanged; 141 others are sent to Australia

1838 Lord Durham, a leading reformer of nation governance in the Reform Act of 1832, is made Governor-General of Canada to recommend a way forwards

1840 The Act of Union now creates of the “Province of Canada” from Upper and Lower Canada and the Maritimes, in favour of “responsible government” and to resolve the antagonistic model of government previously erected between the three populations. The British Government tarries 10 years before beginning this process however

1845-1855 The Great Hunger in Ireland, as with the earlier Scottish diaspora, promotes the enforced exile of Irish Catholics to Canada through a manufactured crisis of famine in the subservient population. At $8pp the passage to Canada was cheaper than to Albany by $2pp: however 5,000 are buried on arrival at the immigration centre on Grosse-Ile and the orphans distributed by the nuns among the French Catholics. This means that 30% of the current Québécois population is now proud to claim Irish ancestry

1848 Québec and Ontario join the Union

1855 New Brunswick joins the Union

1867 The British North America Act now creates the “Canada Dominion” and introduces federation across all the colonies of British North America. This is a major tool in the final dilution of the French influence in British Canada by apparent democratic means

1870 Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut all join the Federation

1871 British Columbia joins the Federation

1873 Prince Edward Island joins the Federation

1907 The title “British North America“ is finally dropped

1908 The first Quebec legation office opens in London

1936 Maurice Duplessis becomes Premier of Québec and closes the London office for “economic reasons”

1940 A Québec International office is opened in New York

1944-1959 “La Grande Noirceur” (during Duplessis’ time as prime minister): a period where the Québec population is increasingly marginalised by its own provincial government

1949 Newfoundland joins the Federation and, although at 22% of the overall population, Québec is now finally decisively out-numbered governmentally by a ratio of 1 francophone province to 12 anglophone 

1961 “La Révolution Tranquille”: significant creation by the Québec Government of an initial apparatus of state and consolidation of a sense of nationhood. Hostile Anglophones initiate the flight of their capital to Ontario (the former Upper Canada) to undermine the Québec economy

1961 Québec International office opened in Paris

1962 Québec International office opened in London

1965 Québec develops an international strategy under the Guérin-Lajoie doctrine

1967 April-Oct: Expo 67 puts Montréal on the world map

1967 July : the famous De Gaulle visit (« vive le Québec libre! ») emboldens the Francophone population and Canada sends him home early

1969 In a conciliatory gesture to prevent separation, the Federal Official Languages Act give French and English equal status in the operations of the government of Canada

1970 Terrorism by Le Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) sets off The October Events: tanks appear on the streets of Québec and Canadian martial law is declared in the Province

1976 July – The XXI Olympiad again puts Montréal on the world map

1976 November – the Parti Québecois is elected to the Provincial Assembly by 71 seats out of 110. René Lévesque is Prime Minister

1977 La Charte de la langue française (Loi 101) makes French the national language of Québec. The Bank of Montreal moves its HQ to Toronto and the flight of capital accelerates

1980 The first Independence Referendum is held and lost by a 40/60 split

1982 Canada repatriates the Constitution from the UK Parliament: which Québec does not sign, because its vision of a multiple Canadian nation rewrites history to diminish the historic contribution of the Francophone population in its creation

1992 The Québec Cultural service is created in London

1995 A second Independence Referendum almost succeeds by a 49.42/50.58 split

2001 Montréal, finally, is no longer the largest city in Canada, having been twice the size of Toronto for almost all of the 20th Century

The July 22nd presentation added relevant and more culturally determined parts of the 1992-2010 period to the above notes.

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