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Quebec’s history gets even-handed treatment in a new illustrated volume

vendredi 17 août 2012

BY MARIAN SCOTT, THE GAZETTE AUGUST 17, 2012 - Les Filles du Roi, an early-20th-century work by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale : It’s just one of the more than 100 images in An Illustrated History of Quebec, which range from paintings to an Aislin cartoon.

Did the British Conquest benefit the 70,000 inhabitants of New France, or impede their “normal” political development to nationhood ?

Did the defeat of the 1837-38 Rebellions thwart the dream of a French-Canadian state, or protect the French fact in North America from being absorbed into the American melting-pot ?

Such fundamental debates at the heart of Quebec’s history get a fresh and even-handed treatment in An Illustrated History of Quebec, by historians Peter Gossage of Concordia University and Jack Little of Simon Fraser University. Rather than focusing on the usual dualities ­— French vs. English, Catholic vs. Protestant, nationalist vs. federalist — Gossage and Little have chosen a different lens through which to view the evolution of Quebec : the struggle between tradition and modernity.

The approach is well chosen. In fact, Quebec’s journey from a past steeped in Old World traditions to modern, consumer society has been anything but straightforward, and the push and pull between time-honoured values and the pursuit of progress are a large part of what makes its story unique. Quebecers’ distinct collective identity, the authors suggest, in a passage quoting historian Jocelyn Létourneau, derives from the tension between traditional values and modern goals ; provincial autonomy and national participation ; homegrown culture and the desire to explore new identities.

Today’s 7 million French-speaking Canadians are descended from just 10,000 immigrants — a fraction of the one million who settled in Britain’s American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. Why the discrepancy ? In the old country, the authors write, “New France never overcame its image as an inhospitable wasteland where settlers froze in the winter and faced the year-round danger of wild beasts and attacks by hostile Natives.” Also, religious dissenters — who played a leading role among the founders of the British colonies to the south — were barred from New France, essentially an Old World peasant society where colonists had no voice in government.

Depending on which version you believe, the British Conquest of 1760 was either the end of a golden age or the happiest calamity that ever “befell a people,” to cite 19th century American historian Francis Parkman. The authors steer a middle course between the “miserablist” interpretation (a term coined by Université Laval historian Donald Fyson), which maintains that the Conquest interrupted Quebec’s normal evolution toward nationhood, and the “jovialist” one, which holds that British rule brought economic progress and laid the groundwork for constitutional democracy.

In Lower Canada, as Quebec was known after 1791, cultural and linguistic divisions complicated the struggle for responsible government. The 1837-38 Rebellions have been variously portrayed as a freedom fight by political reformers and an agrarian revolt fuelled by poor economic conditions. Whatever the uprisings’ underlying causes, the authors point out, had they succeeded, the result probably would have been annexation to the United States rather than independence, because the colony was not sufficiently advanced economically to become self-governing.

After 1840, the Industrial Revolution transformed Montreal into Canada’s economic powerhouse. Thousands of rural residents poured into the city to toil in factories that produced railway cars, ships, flour, sugar and three-quarters of the shoes worn by Canadians by the 1870s. But the era also saw a phenomenal rise in the power of the Catholic Church, which cracked down on liberal movements like Montreal’s Institut canadien, a cultural institute that was forced to fold after refusing to remove books condemned by the Church from its library.

Catholic leaders promoted traditional, rural values by propagating “the myth that French Canadians had a particular avocation to remain tied to the land.” The Church instituted an aggressive colonization policy whose slogan was “Emparons-nous du sol” (Let us seize the land). The French-speaking population of the Eastern Townships rose from 23 per cent of the total in 1844 to 58 per cent in 1871. In less fertile regions, like the Laurentians, colonists endured untold hardships trying to eke out a living from the thin soil.

Not until the 1960s did the province’s leaders redefine Quebec nationalism as a modern, secular movement. The Quiet Revolution saw a vast expansion of the provincial government, viewed as the vehicle by which Quebecers could become masters of their political and economic destiny and take control of natural resources exploited by U.S. or English-Canadian corporations. The rise of the sovereignty movement in the 1970s redefined nationalism once again. How Quebec’s narrative will evolve in a globalized and fast-changing world is an open question.

Gossage, a social historian and co-director of the website Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History (canadianmysteries.ca) and Little, a specialist on the history of the Eastern Townships, have incorporated a wealth of recent scholarship, from women’s studies to regional history, in this balanced and nuanced overview of nearly five centuries of Quebec history. The more than 100 illustrations range from paintings of habitant life by 19th-century artist Cornelius Krieghoff to a famous 1976 cartoon by The Gazette’s Aislin in which a newly elected Premier René Lévesque tells Quebecers to take a Valium. Well written and handsomely illustrated, this volume is sure to prove a valuable addition to the bookshelf for general readers and students of history alike.

An Illustrated History of Quebec : Tradition and Modernity, By Peter Gossage and Jack Little, Oxford University Press, 396 pages, $40


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