French Canadians - History and Cultural Relations

In 1534, a French navigator took possession of the eastern part of Quebec in the name of France. Because of France's involvement in wars, it was not until 1608 that Samuel de Champlain, following the St. Lawrence River, founded Quebec City, the first settlement of the colony named New France. From 1608 to 1760, only ten thousand persons migrated from France to the colony, and present-day French Canadians are almost all descended from these first settlers. New France differed from New England in significant ways. France was a feudal society, which transplanted the seigneurial system, French law, and the Roman Catholic church to New France. The territory was divided between seigneuries headed by a seignor collecting seigneurial dues for granting land to censitaires, or peasant settlers. The New France Economy rested on subsistence agriculture and the fur trade, all furs being exported to France. The territory was then much larger than now, covering the Maritime Provinces, the Great Lakes region, the central part of the United States along the Mississippi River, and Louisiana.

In 1760, New France became an English colony. Since French Canadians formed a distinct society and culture, they resisted assimilation, and in 1774 the English compromised, with the Act of Quebec recognizing French Canadian distinctiveness and affording them the right to live by their laws, religion, and language. From 1774 to 1854, the seigneurial system and the Catholic church dominated the social and economic life of French Canadians. The church allied itself with the seignors and English rulers. This situation was resented by the professional and merchant class, leading to the 1837-1838 revolt, which was put down by the English army. The leaders were killed or jailed and the peasant population demoralized and subordinated to the Catholic church. From 1840 to 1867 the colony had two governments: Upper Canada with Anglophone settlers, and Lower Canada, the French Canadian territory. Each had its own somewhat autonomous parliament to manage its internal affairs. In 1867, a federation of five provinces was founded. Lower Canada then became the province of Quebec. From 1867 to 1949, five other provinces joined Canada. In the federation, Quebec Province maintained its cultural distinctiveness.

A strong nationalist movement seeking more political autonomy for Quebec has developed since 1945. The Duplessis government (1945-1959) obtained its own provincial taxation system. In 1960, a Liberal party government decided to modernize the economic, educational, and health systems, marking the end of the social and political power of the Catholic church and the beginning of a secular society in which the state plays the dominant role. Nationalist aspirations reached their high point in the 1970s. The Parti Québecois was elected in 1976 on a nationalist platform. It lost a referendum to negotiate the independence of Quebec in 1980 but remained in power until 1984. In 1982, the province was excluded from the new constitution of Canada. The Liberal party government was elected in 1984 with the mission to reintegrate Quebec into the Constitutional Act.

Isolated for one hundred years from France, francoquébecois cultural, economic, and political relations have existed since the 1960s and have been extended to all Francophone countries in Europe and elsewhere through the regular participation by the Quebec government in the Francophone Summit for the past twenty years. Québecois have been influenced almost equally by France and the United States, and their intellectual and organizational life is a synthesis of the two. Relations with English Canada have been more limited because of cultural and linguistic differences but also because of strained relations.

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