Notes of Alexis de Tocqueville in Lower Canada

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The famous author of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville left us some interesting notes of his 1831 visit in the province of Lower Canada, today the province of Québec.

25th August 1831

Alexis de Tocqueville painted by Théodore Chassériau in 1850.

External appearance: Canada is beyond comparison, of those parts of America which we have visited so far, that which bears the greatest analogy to Europe and, especially, to France. [...]

The basis of the population and the immense majority is everywhere France. But it is easy to see that the French are a conquered people. The rich classes mostly belong to the English race. Although French is the language most universally spoken, the newspapers, the notices and even the shop-signs of French tradesmen are in English. Commercial undertakings are almost all in their hands. They are really the ruling class in Canada. I doubt if this will long be so. The clergy and a great part of the not rich but enlightened classes is French, and they begin to feel their secondary position acutely. The French newspapers that I have read, put up a constant and lively opposition against the English. Up to now the people having few needs and intellectual interests, and leading, in material things, a very comfortable life, has very imperfectly glimpsed its position as a conquered nation and furnished but feeble support to the enlightened classes. But a few years ago the House of Commons, which is almost all French Canadian, has taken measures for a wide extension of education. There is every sign that the new generation will be different from the present generation, and in a few years from now, if the English race is not prodigiously increased by emigration and does not succeed in shutting the French in the area they now occupy, the two peoples will come up against one another. I do not think that they will ever merge, or that an indissoluble union can exist between them. I still hope that the French, in spite of their conquest, will one day form a fine empire on their own in the New World, more enlightened perhaps, more moral and happier than their fathers. At the present moment the division of the races singularly favours domination by England.

27th August 1831

John Neilson, member of Parliament in Lower Canada

Conversation with Mr. Neilson

Mr. Neilson is a Scot. Born in Canada [sic]1 and related by marriage to French Canadians, he speaks French as easily as his own language. Mr. Neilson, although a foreigner, may be regarded as one of the leaders of the French Canadians in all their struggles with the English government. Although he is a Protestant, for fifteen years continuously the French Canadians have elected him as a member of the House of Assembly. He has been an ardent supporter of all measures favouring the French Canadians. He with two others was sent in 1825 [sic]2 to England to plead for redress of grievances. Mr. Neilson has a lively and original turn of mind. The antithesis between his birth and his social position leads sometimes to strange contrasts in his ideas and in his conversation.

  • Q. What does Canada cost the English government in the current year?
  • A. Between oe 200,00 pounds and oe 250,000.
  • Q. Does Canada bring in anything for it?
  • A. Nothing. The customs dues are used for the colony. We would fight rather than give up a penny of our money to the English.
  • Q. But what interest has England got in keeping Canada?
  • A. The interest that great lords have in keeping great possessions that figure in their title deeds, but cause them great expenses and often involve them in unpleasant lawsuits. But one could not deny that England has an indirect interest in keeping us. In case of war with the United States, the St. Lawrence provides a passage for goods and armies right into the heart of America.
In case of war with the peoples of Northern Europe, Canada would supply the timber for building which she needs. Besides the cost is not as heavy as one supposes. England is bound to rule the sea, not for the glory of it, but for existence. The expenses which she is obliged to incur to gain that supremacy make the occupation of her colonies much less costly for her than they would be for a country only interested in intercourse with its colonies.
  • Q. Do you think the French Canadians will soon throw off the English yoke?
  • A. No, at least unless England forces us to it. Otherwise it is completely against our interest to make ourselves independent. We are still only 600 [000] souls in Lower Canada; if we became independent, we should quickly be enfolded by the United States. Our people would, so to say, be crushed under an irresistible mass of immigrants. We must wait till we are numerous enough to defend our nationality. Then we will become the Canadian people. Left to themselves the people here are increasing as fast as in the United States. At the time of the conquest in 1765[sic]3 we were only 60,000.
  • Q. Do you think the French race will ever manage to get free from the English race? (This question was put cautiously in view of the birth of the man to whom I spoke.)
  • A. No. I think the two races will live and mix in the same and, and that English will remain the language of official business. North America will be English; fortune has decided that. But the French race in Canada will not disappear. The amalgam is not as difficult to make as you think. Here it is above all the clergy who sustain your language. The clergy is the only enlightened and intellectual class which needs to speak French and which speaks it unadulterated.
  • Q. What is the character of the French Canadian peasant?
  • A. In my view it is an admirable race. The peasant is simple in his tastes, very tender in his family affections, very chaste in morals, very sociable, and polite in his manners; with all that he is very well suited to resist oppression, independent and warlike, and brought up in the spirit of equality. Public opinion has incredible power here. There is no authority in the villages, but public order is better maintained there than in any other place on Earth. If a man commits an offence, people shun him, and he must leave the village. If a theft is committed, the guilty man is not denounced, but he is dishonoured and obliged to flee. There has not been an execution in Canada for ten years. Natural children are something almost unknown in our country districts.
I remember a talk with XX (I have forgotten his name); for two hundred years there had not been a single one; ten years ago an Englishman who came to live there seduced a girl; the scandal was terrible.
The French Canadian is tenderly attached to the land which saw his birth, to his church tower and to his family. It is that which makes it so difficult to induce him to go and seek his fortune elsewhere. Besides, as I was saying, he is eminently sociable; friendly meetings, divine service together, gatherings at the church door, those are his only pleasures. The French Canadian is deeply religious; he pays his tithe without reluctance. Any one could avoid that by declaring himself a Protestant, but no such case has yet occurred. The clergy here is just one compact body with the people. It shares their views, takes part in their political interests, and fights with them against the powers-that-be. Sprung from the people, it only exists for the people. Here it is accused demagogy. I have never heard that that is a complaint made against Catholic priests in Europe. The fact is that they are liberal, enlightened and nonetheless deeply believing, and their morals are exemplary. I myself am a proof of their tolerance; a Protestant, I have been elected ten times by Catholics to our House of Commons, and I have never heard it suggested that anyone had ever tried to create the slightest prejudice against me on account of my religion. The French priests who come here from Europe, have the same moral standards as ours, but their political approach is absolutely different.
I told you that our French Canadian peasants have a strong social sense. That sense leads them to help one another in all moments of crisis. If one man's field suffers a disaster, it is usual for the whole community to set to work to put it right. Recently XX's barn was struck by lightning; five days later it had been rebuilt by the voluntary work of neighbours.
  • Q. There are still some traces of feudalism here?
  • A. Yes, but so slight that they are almost unnoticed; firstly, the lord receives an almost nominal rent for the land which he originally granted. It may for instance be 6 to 8 francs for 90 acres [about 135 English acres]. Secondly, corn must be ground at his mill, but he may not charge more than the maximum fixed by law, which is less than one pays in the United States where there is freedom and competition. Then there are dues for lods et ventes, that is to say that when feudally held land is sold, the seller must give one twelfth of the purchase price to the lord. That would be rather a heavy burden, were it not that the strongest determination of the people is to remain invincibly attached to the land. Those are all the traces of feudalism that remain in Canada. Beyond that the lord has no titular rights and no privileges. There is not and cannot be any nobility. Here, as in the United States, one must work to live. There are no tenants. So the lord is normally a farmer himself. However, no matter how equal the footing on which the lords now stand, there is still some fear and some jealousy in the people's attitude towards them. It is only by going over to the popular party that a few of them have succeeded in getting elected to the House of Commons. The peasants remember the state of subjection in which they were held under French rule. One word lingers in their memory as a political scarecrow, that is the taille. They no longer know exactly what the word means, but for them it stands for something not to be tolerated. I am sure they would take up arms if there were an attempt to impose any tax whatever to which that name was given.
  • Q. What conditions of eligibility are there for entry into your House of Commons?
  • A. There are none.
  • Q. Who are qualified as voters in the country districts?
  • A. Anyone with 41 francs income from land is a voter.
  • Q. Have you no fear of such a great mass of voters?
  • A. No. All the people have some property and are religious and order-loving; they make good choices and although they take a great interest in the elections, there are hardly ever disturbances at them. The English tried to introduce their system of corruption, but it ran completely aground against the moral standards and honour of our peasants.
  • Q. What is the position with regard to primary education? 4
  • A. It is a long story. In the time of the French there was no education. The French Canadian always had a weapon in his hand. He could not spend his time at school. After the conquest the English were only concerned for their own people. Twenty years ago the government wanted to start education, but it took the matter up clumsily. It shocked religious prejudices. It gave the impression that it wanted to get control of education and to direct it in favour of Protestantism. That at least is what we said, and the scheme ran aground. The English said that the Catholic clergy wanted to keep the people in ignorance. Neither side was telling the truth, but that is the way parties do speak. Four years ago our House of Commons saw clearly that if the French Canadian population did not become educated, it would end up by being entirely absorbed by a foreign population that was growing up by its side and in its midst. Speeches were made, encouragement was given; funds were raised and finally school inspectors were appointed. I am one and I have just completed a tour of duty. Nothing could be more satisfactory than the report which I have to make. The impulse has been given. The people are most active in taking advantage of the chance to get educated. The clergy are all out to help us. We have already got in our schools half the children, about 50,000. In two or three years I am confident we will have them all. Then I hope the French Canadian people will begin to leave the river banks and advance towards the interior. At present we stretch about 120 leagues along both sides of the St. Lawrence, but our line is seldom as much as to leagues in depth. However beyond that there is excellent land which is almost always given away for nothing (that is literally so) and which could easily be cultivated. Labour cost 3 francs in the villages and less in the country. Food is very cheap. The French Canadian peasant makes all necessities for himself; he makes his own shoes, his own clothes and all the woollen stuffs in which he is dressed. (I have seen it.)
  • Q. Do you think French people could come and settle here?
  • A. Yes. A year ago our House of Commons passed a law to repeal the aliens legislation. After seven years' residence the foreigner becomes a Canadian and enjoys citizen's rights. [...]

28th August 1831

Habitants playing cards by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1848

Mr. Neilson came to look for us today to take us to see the country. (As for Mr. Neilson, his character and position, see the conversation.) This walk could not have given us a more favourable impression of the French Canadian population. We found well-cultivated fields and houses redolent of well-being. We went into several. The main room is furnished with excellent beds; the walls are painted white. The furniture is very clean. A little mirror, a cross or a few engravings of scriptural subjects complete the whole. The peasant is strong, well-built, well-clothed. His welcome has the frank cordiality which the American lacks; he is polite without servility, and receives you on a footing of equality but obligingly. Among those we visited there was even something of distinction in their manners which struck us. (It is true that we were taken to see the first families in the village). All in all this race of men seemed to us inferior to the Americans in knowledge, but superior in qualities of the heart. One had no sense here of that mercantile spirit which obtrudes in all the actions and sayings of an American. The French Canadian's power of reasoning is little cultivated, but it is simple and straightforward; they undoubtedly have fewer ideas than their neighbours, but their sensibility seems more developed; theirs is a life of the heart, the others' of the head.

29th August 1831

[...] We broke away into the paths and gossipped with all the inhabitants whom we met, trying to turn the talk to serious matters. This is what seemed to come out from these talks: [...] They clearly feel their position as a conquered people, not counting on the goodwill, I would not say of the government, but of the English. All their hopes are fixed on their representatives. They seem to have that exaggerated attachment to them, and especially to Mr. Neilson -"But he is English", they said to us, as if in astonishment or regret- which oppressed people generally have for their protector. Several of them seemed perfectly to understand the need for education, and to take lively pleasure in what had just been done to help it on. All in all we felt that this population could be led, although still incapable of leading itself. We are coming to the moment of crisis. If the French Canadians do not wake out of their apathy, in twenty years from now it will be too late to do so. Everything indicates that the awakening of this people is at hand. But if in this effort the middling and upper classes of the French Canadian population abandon the lower classes, and let themselves be carried in the swing with the English, the French race is lost in America. And that would truly be a pity, for there are here all the elements of a great people. The French of America are to the French of France as the Americans are to the English. They have preserved the greater part of the original traits of the national character, and have added more morality and more simplicity. They, like them, have broken free from a crowd of prejudices and false points of departure which cause and will cause all the miseries of Europe. In a word, they have in them all that is needed to create a great memory of France in the New World. But will they ever succeed in completely regaining their nationality? [...]

We were able to notice in our talks with the people of this country, a basis of hatred and jealousy of the lords. But the lords have, so to say, no rights; they are, as much as one can be, of the people, and are almost all reduced to cultivating the soil. But the spirit of equality and democracy is alive there as in the United States, although it is not so rationalistic. I found again at the bottom of the hearts of those peasants the political passions which brought about the Revolution and which are still the cause of all our ills. Here they are inoffensive, or almost so, since nothing stands against them. We thought, too, that we noticed that the peasant did not see the clergy's right to levy the tithe without repugnance, and that he was not without envy contemplating the wealth which this tax put into the hands of some ecclesiastics. If religion ever loses its sway in Canada, it will have been by that breach that the enemy has come in. [...]

1st September 1831

General remarks.

[...] But it is certain that:

1. Lower Canada, luckily for the French race, forms a State apart. Now the French population in Lower Canada is in the proportion of ten to one to the English. It is compact. It has its government and its own Parliament. It really forms the body of a distinct nation. In a Parliament of eighty-four members, there are sixty-four French and twenty English.

2. Up to now the English have always kept to themselves. They support the government against the mass of the people. All the French newspapers voice opposition, all the English ones support the ministry, with only one exception, The Vindicator, at Montréal, and that too was started by French Canadians [sic] (5).

3. In the towns the English and the French Canadians form two societies. The English make a parade of great luxury; none of the French Canadians have more than very limited wealth; thence jealousy and small-town bickering.

4. The English have all the export trade and the main controls of internal trade in their hands. Yet another cause of jealousy.

5. The English are daily getting possession of lands that the French Canadians regard as reserved for their race.

6. Finally the English in Canada show all the traits of their character, and the French Canadians have kept all the traits of French character.

So the odds are strongly in favour of Lower Canada finishing up with an entirely French population. But they will never be a numerous people. Everything around them will become English. It will be a drop in the ocean. I am very much afraid that, as Mr. Neilson said in his frank, brisk way, fate has in fact pronounced and North America will be English.

2nd September 1831

Five or six years ago [sic](6) the English government wanted to unite the whole of Canada in one assembly. That was the measure best designed to completely break up the French Canadian nation, so the whole people rose at once and it is from that time that it knows its strength. [...]

The appointment of militia officers is a function of government, but the House of Commons having decided that to be a militia officer it is necessary to reside in the place in question, the result has been to put the command of the armed force almost exclusively in the hands of French Canadians.

A French Canadian told me today that the debates in the House of Commons were lively and hot-headed, and that often hasty resolutions were taken of which one repented when heads had cooled. Might he not have been speaking about a French Chamber?


Source: Alexis de Tocqueville, "Journey to America", translated by G. Lawrence and edited by J. P. Mayer, Faber and Faber, London, 1959, p.41-46, 184-185, 188-193. (See also Tocqueville au Bas-Canada. Écrits datant de 1831 à 1859, du voyage en Amérique et après son retour en Europe, electronic edition of Les classiques des sciences sociales)

1. John Neilson was born in Scotland in 1776, and emigrated to Canada at the age of 14. He was joining his older brother Samuel to work at their uncle William Brown's printing shop in Quebec City. In 1793, he inherited his uncle's bilingual newspaper La Gazette de Québec/The Quebec Gazette.

2. John Neilson and Louis-Joseph Papineau were both sent to London to deliver petitions against the Union bill in 1823. In 1828, John Neilson, Denis-Benjamin Viger et Augustin Cuvillier were delegated to London to present petitions against the administration of governor Dalhousie. Tocqueville was most likely referring to the second event.

3. The Conquest occurred in 1760 and was confirmed in international law with the 1763 Treaty of Paris in which the King of France ceded Canada to the King of Great Britain.

{{Refa|4 John Neilson here refers to mass education, specifically, mass literacy which was non-existent under the French regime and most other regimes of the same period. There of course was an education system in the time of New France.

5. The Vindicator, originally the Irish Vindicator and Canada General Advertiser was founded in 1828 by Daniel Tracey from Ireland. It was the voice of the Society of the Friends of Ireland in the province. However, when Tocqueville visited, the newspaper was (since 1829) co-owned by Ludger Duvernay, Denis-Benjamin Viger, Édouard-Raymond Fabre, Jacob de Witt and a few members of the Perrault family. The newspaper supported the patriotic cause of Ireland and that of Lower Canada and Upper Canada.

6. This would be in 1822 when the project of re-uniting the Canadas was introduced in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom without informing any of the representatives of the people in the provinces concerned with the proposed constitutional change.