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November 2010 - Nr. 11

The Conquest of 1760 was the culmination of 70 years of sporadic warfare between Great Britain and France. France’s main North American colony, New France, stretched from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Mississippi valley and prevented the British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard from expanding into the interior. The British colonies were, moreover, far more populous and much richer than New France. New France’s main defence against them was hundreds of kilometres of wilderness along the frontier and a collection of Indian allies who feared and hated the British more than the French.

New France’s main military weakness was at sea rather than on land. The British navy greatly outclassed the French and could cut communications — and hence supplies and reinforcements — from France to North America. At the same time, the British could reinforce and resupply their colonies at will. When war broke out again in the 1750s, that is exactly what they did, though it took the British a few years to organize their armies in North America and find competent generals to command them. At the same time, France’s Indian allies fell away, leaving New France to its fate.

In 1759 a young British general, James Wolfe, brought an army to Quebec, the capital of New France, and, after a two months’ siege, defeated the French army on the Plains of Abraham just outside the city. Quebec surrendered, and the next year three British armies converged on the remaining French forces at Montreal, forcing its surrender on September 8, 1760. It was an overwhelming and convincing military victory, and it persuaded the French to cede Canada to the British when peace was formally made in 1763.

The French of Canada (who called themselves Canadiens) were now officially separated from the French of France. There were already regional differences, and soon there were more, as French history diverged from Canada’s. The French revolution of 1789, which overthrew the French monarchy and deprived the Catholic Church in France of its privileged status, did not occur in Canada. The Canadiens still had a king, even if he was British and Protestant, the Catholic Church was effectively their state religion, and they still had a feudal system with a local nobility (called seigneurs). Quebec for the next 200 years could be seen as a much more old-fashioned version of France, and the differences between the two were profound.

Great Britain now had a French-speaking Roman Catholic colony (which they named the province of Quebec) in an English-speaking and Protestant empire. The British promised religious tolerance to the inhabitants, permitted them to retain their civil law, and did not interfere with their use of the French language. At the same time, English-speakers arrived, settling mainly in Quebec City and Montreal, and the two groups, English and French, settled down to construct an uncomfortable, illogical but workable compromise between their two languages.

The language of trade became mainly English. Government functioned in both languages, especially after the British established an elected legislature in 1791, while the Catholic church remained overwhelmingly French. The courts functioned in both languages. French-Canadians who wished to advance themselves had to learn English, and they did. To take one example, Joseph Masson, a carpenter’s son, hired himself to an English merchant and soon became a partner. Ultimately he became a director of the Bank of Montreal, a seigneur, and Canada’s first millionaire. Some French-Canadian nationalists found Masson’s career impure — he had let down French values by becoming bilingual and leading part of his life in English. But Masson remained a French-Canadian by any reasonable standard; he merely demonstrated the advantages of bilingualism.

Many French-Canadians intermarried with the English, and sometimes their descendants had names like Burns or Blackburn or Johnson — and in the 20th century Burns, Blackburn and Johnson were all names of separatist politicians in Quebec. Sometimes it produced unusual results, as when the title of Baron of Longueuil passed through marriage into the Grant family. Ironically the current Baron Grant is a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and lives in England. One nationalist premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis, visited his ancestral turf in Europe, but it was Scotland he visited, in honour of his Scottish ancestors, and not France.

It is true that the Conquest of 1760 derailed the possibility of a purely French-speaking society on the banks of the St. Lawrence and forced the French-Canadians to live with the English. Quebec and Canada became bilingual, officially and unofficially. Yet the British victory in 1760 protected French, even if it demoted the language from its unique status. Arguably one result of the Conquest is that there is still a French-speaking group of some 7 million people in Canada.

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