Quebec is Canada’s oldest province. The French explorer Samuel
de Champlain established the first continuous permanent
settlement in North America in 1608 on the shores of the St.
Lawrence River at what would become known as Quebec City. The
area had already long been inhabited by Iroquois and Algonquin
First Nations, and further north by Inuit, but with Champlain’s
settlement the French staked a claim to Quebec.
Controlling the territory proved much more difficult than
planting the flag. Early Europeans in Quebec were interested in
commerce — searching for gold, a trade route to China and,
finally, and more successfully, engaging in the trade of furs
between North America and Europe. They were also interested in
saving souls, regarding the First Nations inhabitants of Quebec
who they saw as godless and in need of Christianity. But English
settlers were rapidly migrating to North America as well,
interested in all the same things as the French, and the two
empires became locked in a constant battle for control of the
The struggle between the French and the English culminated in
the Seven Years War, a global conflict fought by the two
European countries, their allies, and their various colonies
around the world between 1756 and 1763. In North America, the
French in Quebec were initially quite successful in fighting the
English, but in the end they lost the Battle of the Plains of
Abraham in Quebec in 1759. This defeat, known in Canada as the
conquest, and while hardly pivotal in the Seven Years War,
nevertheless marked the end of French control of Quebec.
English government supplanted French rule, but Quebec remained a
predominantly French colony — of Britain, now, rather than
France. It had a largely agricultural economy, although the
large urban communities of Montreal and Quebec City thrived as
centres of commerce, education and finance, where the English
tended to dominate.
The awkwardness and unfairness of a colony in which the majority
were French-speaking, but the political and industrial elites
were English-speaking led to a small, short-lived rebellion in
the 1830s. It also suggested to the British that Quebec should
be united with the English-speaking colony of Upper Canada to
the west in the hopes that the French would slowly assimilate to
the dominant English culture.
That was a foolish proposition. The union of the two colonies,
one French and one English, proved not to work. The solution was
to separate into the original two colonies, Quebec and Ontario,
and unite with other British North American colonies as the new
nation of Canada.
Quebec has remained primarily French-speaking. Political and
cultural leaders have cultivated the French-Canadian nationalism
that has stemmed from this distinctive characteristic of Quebec.
Sometimes, this has meant that Quebec seems particularly
insular, more interested in what goes on within the province
that in being a part of Canada. Superficially, Quebec seemed to
remain a very rural, very traditional society throughout the
first half of the 20th century. In the 1960s Premier Jean Lesage
undertook major modernization projects — taking over the
delivery of hydro electric power, introducing a new education
system, and revitalizing the financial institutions — as part of
a new French-Canadian nationalism. The Quiet Revolution, as the
process of modernization became known, established Quebec as a
modern French-speaking state within Canada.
But modernization was not enough for many people. By the end of
the 1960s, separation from the rest of Canada had become a goal
for many of Quebec’s leaders. René Lévesque, the founder of the
Parti Québécois, was elected as Canada’s first separatist
premier in 1976, committed to exploring the possibility of an
independent Quebec nation.
Lévesque was followed by other separatist premiers, but none
have so far been successful in pulling Quebec out of Canada. Two
referenda, one in 1980 and one in 1995, asked Quebeckers whether
they were prepared to separate, and in both cases the answer was
no — although it was a pretty weak no in 1995.
The process of modernizing the Quebec state has sometimes come
at the expense of the rights and hopes of others living within
Quebec. The French struggle for independence, for example, has
often come in conflict with the efforts of First Nations to
secure land. The stand-off at Oka in 1990, during which Mohawk
warriors prohibited non-natives from using highways that crossed
their territory, was one of the most violent confrontations
between the Quebec state and the First Nations it was
displacing. Similarly, the goals of immigrants who are seeking
to become Canadians rather than Québécois have often been
represented as contrary to the objectives of the Quebec
Just as Quebec premiers have worked with various degrees of
enthusiasm to secure an independent nation, Canadian prime
ministers from Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau through to
Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien have fought to keep the country
whole. In Canada, the struggle between French and English that
began in the 17th century continues through to the present.
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