The Heart of New France
Quebec City in the French Era
By Andrew Farris
The story of Old Quebec is fundamental to the history of Canada. It began as a French colony in 1608 that controlled access to the Saint Lawrence River, and the Great Lakes beyond. Over time it was heavily fortified to defend against France's imperial rivals, and was made the seat of colonial government for all France's possessions in Canada, which were known as New France. In 1759, the city finally fell to the British, a pivotal event that would shape all Canada's future history. On this tour we will start in the Lower Town where Samuel de Champlain first built l'Habitation, the first permanent European settlement in Canada. Afterwards we will climb the Breakneck Steps and take a tour of the Upper Town, and learn about life in New France in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Finally we'll walk along the Dufferin Terrace and climb the promontory up to the fort for a fantastic view of the city.
1. Where the River Narrows
Cartier and his men decided to spend the winter here, but their first taste of the Canadian climate was a bitter one. Scurvy haunted their encampment, killing almost a quarter of his men. Catastrophe was only avoided when the Stadaconiens showed the French a remedy made from white cedar fronds. This was a fateful winter for Canada's Indigenous peoples as well: European-introduced diseases are thought to have killed perhaps 50 of Stadacona's 500 inhabitants.1 It was an ominous sign of what was to come. Cartier returned to France in the spring, and came back with a larger expedition in 1541, intending to establish a permanent colony. However, relations with the Stadaconiens broke down and the expedition found themselves virtually besieged in their little fort. After another brutal winter, Cartier abandoned the colony and returned to France. He brought with him barrels of diamonds plucked from the bluffs of Cap Diamant above you now. He hoped to use them to stoke interest in future expeditions. He was shocked and disappointed when French experts decided these "diamonds" were actually just quartz. Cartier's failure meant no new expeditions up the Saint Lawrence River would be launched for 60 years.
2. The Father of New France
Champlain depended on the help of the Indigenous peoples, for trade, to act as guides, and to show the French how to survive in the Canadian wilderness. This last point was hammered home when 16 of his 24 men died that first winter.1 Champlain was "a consummate diplomat", and knew if he was to get the help he needed, he needed to make military alliances with the Indigenous, and aid them in war.2 In the summer of 1609 he forged an alliance with the Algonquins and Hurons against the Iroquois, beginning a long and complicated chapter of Canadian history where shifting alliances of European and Indigenous peoples waged frequent wars. Champlain's settlement was centered on a remarkable three-storey wooden structure, built somewhat in the fashion of a French aristocrat's manor. It was part castle--including a palisade, watchtower, cannons, and even a moat--and part luxury estate, with fine imported glazed windows and tapestries. Even though it was located at the foot of the promontory, it could still control access to all ships navigating the Saint Lawrence. Back in France, Cardinal Richelieu was so impressed with the profits from the Canadian fur trade that in 1627 he oversaw the founding of the Compagnie des Cent-Associes, which was to control all trade in New France and manage the colony's development. Champlain was to be the governor. Unfortunately, at that time France and England were at war, and the British privateer Sir David Kirke was determined to conquer Quebec. In 1629 Kirke succeeded in seizing French food shipments to the colony, and forced Champlain and the 100 starving colonists to surrender. England took control of the colony. After treaty negotiations, Quebec City was returned to France in 1632, but not after Kirke and his men had burned most of it down. Champlain, undeterred, resumed his post as governor and set about rebuilding Quebec City. His boundless energy and expansive vision for New France in those years set Quebec on a path towards a bright future, though Champlain wouldn't be around to see the fruits of his labours: he died on Christmas Day, 1635. As you walk past the Place Royale ahead, read some of the plaques and think about how much Quebec has changed in the 400 years since Champlain's l'Habitation stood on this spot.
4. Canada's First Immigrants
It was common practice for French workers to arrive here, work for a few years, and then return to France. An estimated 33,500 people immigrated to New France during the French era, but only about 20,000 of them ultimately remained.2 We're proud to note that one of the earliest to arrive in 1634, Zacharie Cloutier, is the direct ancestor of On This Spot's Chief Operating Officer, Sean Edmunds. The voyage from France to Quebec was long and dangerous: it's thought 5% of those making the crossing died en route. For many, the risk was worth the shot at a fresh start in life. Most were young men, and two thirds were between the ages of 16 and 30. They predominantly came from the overcrowded French cities, and were mostly artisans or craftsmen instead of rural peasants. At the time 80% of French people were rural peasants, but only 27% of the arrivals in New France were.3 As the historian Leslie Choquette writes, "immigrants to New France did not form a representative cross-section of the French population. As single, young adults from dynamic urban areas, they must have been part of an unusually adventurous, enterprising group in contrast to the stereotype of the ignorant, conservative peasant."4
5. Building a Fortress
After regaining the colony from the British in 1632, the French government began to invest heavily in turning the colony into an impregnable fortress, ringed with walls, bristling with artillery, and garrisoned by thousands of soldiers. From 1642 to 1698, the French continued Champlain's alliance with the Algonquins and Huron, and fought sporadic wars against the British and Dutch and their powerful ally, the Iroquois Confederacy. This series of wars was fought mostly for control of the lucrative fur trade, so they are called the Beaver Wars. The British and their American colonists sent a fleet to conquer Quebec City in 1690, but were beaten back by the punishing bombardment from guns like the ones you see here. Another attempted invasion in 1711 failed when the British fleet foundered on the shoals. Seizing Quebec City would be no easy task.
6. Church and State
From 1627, Canada was officially a Catholic colony. While individual Protestants were tolerated, only Catholics could legally practice their religion openly. Catholicism was not, however, a monolith. Instead it contained a whole spectrum of religious orders. Among those orders that maintained a presence in the Upper Town were the Recollets, Jesuits, Augustinians, Ursulines, Sulpicians, Soeurs Grises, and Capuchins. After the British conquest the Seminaire became a teaching college, and later formed the nucleus of Universite Laval, which was officially established in 1852, making it the oldest university in Canada.
7. The Catholic Way of Life
French society during the Ancien Regime was immensely pious, and the dictates of the clergy permeated almost every aspect of daily life. New France was no different. The colonists observed over 150 feast days a year, one for each canonized saint. These included prayers, scripture readings, and sometimes celebrations. There were expositions of the Blessed Sacraments and frequent religious processions through the streets. The religious orders ran the school system, which focused on teaching the catechism, religious doctrine, and moral behaviour. Children typically graduated when they took their first communion at age 11.2
8. Culture of New France
In those days France was ruled by the Bourbon kings, under a system called the Ancien Regime, when France was the richest, most populous, and most powerful country in Europe. It was a time of French cultural hegemony, with elites everywhere adopting French fashion, music, and even their language--that's where the term lingua franca comes from after all. It's no surprise then that the colonists of New France were extremely proud of the culture they brought to North America. They designed Quebec to look like a French ville, kept up with the latest fashions popular at the court of Versailles, ate French cuisine, read French writers and philosophers, and imported French art. After the British conquest of Quebec in 1759, the original colonists were forced to fight to maintain these traditions in the face of a new Anglo cultural hegemony. That struggle continues to this day, and it's been a remarkably successful one. For over 250 years the Quebecois have safeguarded their unique cultural patrimony in the face of a relentless drive to assimilate. It's impossible to overstate the cultural legacy left on that nation of Quebec, and Canada as a whole, by the 150 years of French rule.
9. Centralizing Tendencies
From 1627 the colony was administered by the private Compagnie des Cent-Associes, but their rule was marked by mismanagement and frequent expensive setbacks. By 1663 they were bankrupt, and King Louis XIV had run out of patience. He stepped in to assume absolute control of the colony himself. The royal takeover established Quebec City as the capital of New France. Two royal appointees would carry out the king's will in New France: a Governor General who commanded the military, and an Intendant with a vast portfolio for domestic administration. They answered to the king's dynamic Minister of Marine Jean-Baptiste Colbert at Versailles. These two officials, housed in the opulent Chateau Saint-Louis and Intendant's Palace respectively, exercised direct control over all the French settlements in Canada. A Sovereign Council of local elites acted as a final court of appeal, but true power lay with the Governor General and Intendant, "which inspired historians to speak of a two-headed government."1 As part of Louis's drive to centralize the government under his control, no municipal government was ever founded to prevent any potential for deviation from the royal will. This structure of government proved very successful in overseeing dramatic growth of the colony from 1663, right up to the twilight of New France in 1759.
10. Women in New France
The early days of the colony were an overwhelmingly male enterprise, as most of the jobs were reserved for men and few expected to settle there permanently. But even in those very early days there were female pioneers, like Marie Rollet, who arrived in 1617 and is remembered as the first Frenchwoman to settle in North America. You walked by a statue of her in Montmorency Park earlier in this tour. Nevertheless the preponderance of men became a major issue, and when Louis XIV took control of the colony in 1663 he began sponsoring women of a marriageable age who wanted to travel to Quebec--the famous Filles de Roi, or King's Daughters. In all some 850 young women took the king up on his offer. The gender imbalance remained an issue throughout the French era, and by one estimate male immigrants outnumbered their female counterparts 4 to 1.1 For those women who made a home in Canada, life was often one of unremitting toil. Women were expected to cook, maintain the house, sew, and, of course, bear children. Many women had ten or more children.2 Yet there were opportunities open to them, and it was relatively common for women to own property, manage businesses, and work as teachers and nurse
11. The Seven Years War
It was the world's first true world war, drawing in almost all the European powers, while the British and French enlisted the aid of Indigenous allies from India to the Caribbean. While France was the strongest land power in Europe, Britain was uncontested at sea, giving her a huge advantage in the fight for overseas colonies. The British had another ace up their sleeve just to Quebec's south. Though Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec 12 years before the Pilgrims ever landed at Plymouth Rock, the French government's belated and intermittent efforts to settle Quebec were entirely outmatched by the explosive growth of Britain's American empire: When the war started in 1756, New France had a population of 60,000, but over two million British settlers lived in the Thirteen Colonies.1 The French relied heavily on their Indigenous allies to even the score, the Wabenaki Confederation, Algonquin, Ottawa, and many others. Montcalm himself was able to win a number of tactically brilliant victories against the British and their American colonists around the Great Lakes. But outnumbered and deprived of French aid by a British naval blockade, the French and their Indigenous allies were driven back. By 1759 they had retreated to their final redoubt: Quebec City. It was here they made their final stand.
12. The Fall of Quebec
The Fall of Quebec was by no means a foregone conclusion. The British naval expedition had begun landing troops near the city on June 27, initiating the siege. The British commander, General Wolfe, knew his forces were not strong enough to storm the fortress. He tried to draw the French out to give battle in the open field, first with an abortive landing at Beauport, and then with a variety of stratagems and a prolonged artillery bombardment of the city. Montcalm never took the bait, and his army patiently bided their time while Quebec was reduced to rubble. By mid-September, with winter closing in, Wolfe was nearly ready to raise the siege and move to winter quarters. In a final gamble, he decided to sneak his ships under the guns of the fortress, navigate the treacherous currents of the Saint Lawrence, and land his entire army at L'Anse-au-Foulon, a couple kilometres upriver from Quebec--all at night. Once ashore he and his men would scale a 50 metre cliff and then deploy on the fields behind the fortress before the French could counterattack. This was an almost unbelievably risky amphibious operation, which could have just as easily ended in total disaster for the British. On September 13, 1759, Wolfe's men pulled it off. The British achieved complete surprise. When the sun rose that morning 4,500 British regulars were arrayed in battle order on the fields opposite the fortress. Up to this point Montcalm had wisely declined to offer battle despite Wolfe's best efforts. Many military historians argue he could have easily done the same that morning too, and waited out the British again from inside the walls of Quebec City. For whatever reason, history doesn't record what happened in those crucial moments, he decided to march his army out onto the plain. Some decisions in history ripple down through the centuries. While the forces were evenly matched in numbers, many of Montcalm's troops were poorly trained militiamen, while the entire British force consisted of battle-hardened regulars. The two armies met and exchanged volleys of musket fire. 15 minutes later the French were routing, and both commanders lay dying--one of the only battles in recorded history with this distinction. Most of the French army escaped, but moved west towards Montreal, leaving Quebec poorly defended. The British renewed the siege, and five days later the new French commander signed the Articles of Capitulation, turning the city over to the British.