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Economy and Society in Canada in the Age of New France (1663–1763)

Economy and Society in Canada in the Age of New France (1663–1763)

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Royal Control and Governance

In 1663 New France became a royal colony, a formal province of France. The work of Louis XIV in colonial affairs is forever associated with the name of Colbert, and Colbert's greatest agent in Canada, Jean Talon (1665-1672), the first intendant in the colony. Crafted in a classic mercantilist framework, New France was to be a tightly knit series of settlements that would be relatively self-sufficient and defensible. It would serve as a New World trading center, a source for furs, timber, and minerals, and a market for manufactured goods from France. Encouraging French trade, shipping and colonizing was thus part of an imperial policy which Louis XIV and his ministers pursued by all possible means.


Colbert made efforts to build up the French navy as a force in the international struggle for trade and empire. His efforts extended to the creation of a battle fleet and all that went with it. The step from peace to war at sea was a short one in an age when all but the least vessels were armed, and a merchant ship needed only more men and more guns to become a dreaded privateer.

In short, what was planned in New France was a society in which all persons would be under a jurisdiction and patronage that were at once French, royal, and catholic. Stability would be guaranteed by each person's having a precise place and acting in accordance with the behaviour defined as appropriate to that place. The elements of this society were, of course, diverse - government regulation of economic activity, a special system of land tenure, an elaborate code of law, an established church, royal patronage of the institution of the family-and every effort was made to weld them together into an organization in which discipline would be achieved because each man would remain loyal to the institutions to which he was attached.

The colony’s power structure operated in a hierarchical fashion, with governing authority delegated from the crown through ministers such as Colbert. While the appointed Sovereign Council held the responsibility for military protection, land grants, and justice, real control lay in the hands of three individuals: the governor general, the bishop, and the intendant. No mechanisms for self-governance existed. While English settlers in some American colonies adopted the practice of town meetings, New France fashioned an elitist political culture. Yet despite the autocratic structure, New France’s inhabitants enjoyed a degree of freedom that stood in dramatic contrast to contemporary European peasants.

The governor general represented the crown’s interest in the colony. His duties were a mixture of the ceremonial and functional. The governor was responsible for diplomacy, including relations with Native peoples, and he essentially supervised military affairs. New France’s governors came from the nobility, and many had military expertise. The best example of a dynamic governor in the seventeenth century was Count Louis de Buade Frontenac, who gained a reputation as the “fighting governor” on both sides of the Atlantic. Self-assured and energetic, he ordered forts to be constructed in the Lake Ontario region. During his two terms as governor (1672– 1682, 1689–1698), Frontenac expanded the French connections to the interior, galvanized the fur trade, and proved himself a fearful opponent as New France clashed repeatedly with the Iroquois and the English.

A second important council member was the bishop, the leader of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic population in New France. Given the centrality of religion in shaping political and social events in contemporary France, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the New World became an essential ingredient of colonial governance. By design few Protestants lived in New France, and given the missionary impulse of several Catholic orders in the colony, the bishop potentially wielded a great deal of influence. Indeed, he often played a crucial function in shaping the course of civil affairs. Illustrative of the power that an aggressive and committed bishop could exercise was François de Laval. A seventeenth-century cleric, Laval created a parish system, established a seminary, and developed schools for arts and crafts. Although the bishop’s impact on governing the colony faded over time, the church maintained a central role in determining political and social matters. For example, it became a major landholder in New France. One religious order, the Sulpicians, controlled vast portions of Montreal Island.

The intendant, a bureaucratic position, rounded out the governing elite. Intendants controlled justice, finances, and even military matters because governors required their support to pay for troops and purchase supplies. In the late seventeenth century, intendants instituted a justice system based on a French model, the coutume de Paris. New France’s first intendant after the colonial restructuring, Jean Talon (1665–1672), proved to be one of the most influential in the colony’s history. Faced with the imperative of bringing settlers to clear land and develop agricultural settlements, Talon and his officers drafted town plans and sponsored a variety of industries to provide goods for colonial use, such as shipyards and a brewery. He attempted to improve the fisheries, timber production, and livestock development and sought to diversify the colony’s agricultural output.

Many of his designs to create lasting industries and villages were not successful in the long run; nevertheless, his contributions as an effective bureaucrat helped to increase the colony’s population. In the hands of a skilled administrator, the intendant position wielded tremendous power.

The Peoples of New France

Given the rigors of surviving the transatlantic passage and adapting to life in the New World, New France appealed only to certain kinds of people. Historians have determined that while most colonists came from the French lower orders, they were rarely destitute. Many of the settlers came from Normandy and western France, while cities, especially Paris, provided soldiers. Many single males made their way to the colony for three-year terms of labour. For their promise to work, these engagés received passage both ways, modest wages, and room and board. The system was designed to attract some permanent settlers to the colony as well as to provide a temporary labour pool, but it lacked a requirement for the workers to remain in the colony once their terms had expired. Probably fewer than half the engagés remained in New France.

Military officers and enlisted personnel were another important source of permanent settlers. Committed to protecting the fledgling colony, France regularly sent professional troops to New France for tours of duty. The most famous in the seventeenth century was the Carignan-Salières regiment. Over one thousand men from this contingent defended the colony, especially along the Richelieu River, to block the natural invasion route from Lake Champlain to the south. They also fought repeatedly with the Iroquois tribes, in particular the Mohawk. Administrators successfully encouraged some of the Carignan-Salières regiment members to remain in New France.

Because of the large number of bachelor males, including the engagés and soldiers, French authorities devised a plan to bring women of marriageable age to increase the colony’s population. These large numbers of the so-called filles du roi were young women transported to New France at the crown’s expense. The filles du roi, or king’s daughters as they were called, came from orphanages or from poorer families. Authorities assessed the moral and religious character of each fille du roi before she left France. The plan enjoyed a degree of success. Most were married rapidly after their arrival, thanks in part to the money and goods, such as livestock, that the crown had provided for their dowry. Upwards to 1,000 filles du roi made their way to New France, and because of the large number of children whom farm families in New France typically produced, a significant number of French Canadians can trace their ancestry to these hardy women.

After an initial burst of energy bringing people to New France - the colony’s population doubled from the 1660s to the 1670s - immigration slowed dramatically later in the century. As a result, many of Canada’s French descendants can locate their ancestral roots in seventeenth-century New France. Almost 10,000 people called the colony home by the early 1680s. By 1760, there were approximately 85,000 colonists in all of New France, a not unimpressive number if one remembers this population descended from a permanent immigrant base of only 12,000 souls.

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Even with the large families, the farmers and settlers of New France, called the habitants, enjoyed better prospects of living fuller and more healthier lives than did contemporary French peasants. Nevertheless, the rigors of life in New France—from clearing the forest, to braving the elements, and to coping with periodic attacks by Iroquois—should not be romanticized.

The French Fishery:

France wanted a cheap source of supplies for its colonies in West Indies. Particularly, the low-grade dried fish was a staple item in the diet of the slaves. Expansion into the dry fishery was thus indispensable if the French fishery was to be built up as a source of supply for the West Indies.

The establishment of the fort at Placentia signalled the French intention to enter the dry fishery, in competition with the English and to claim sovereignty over part at least of Newfoundland. In the next years, the expansion of the French fishery and the decline of the English went hand in hand. In some respects, the French bases were better suited for the dry fishery than the English bases on the Avalon Peninsula. Placentia was free from field ice early in the spring, so that French ships could arrive in Newfoundland in February or March and leave in August, thus making deliveries in Europe before the English. In terms of organization, too, the French fishermen had certain advantages. They had good financial backing from the merchants of the Channel and Biscay ports and, unlike the English, did not need to mortgage their ships to pay the expenses of the annual voyage; in Newfoundland they were under the supervision of an established government which gave them a measure of security and prompt arbitration of disputes. There were no conflicts between ship captains and the settlers, which characterized the English fishery. In general, the French dry fishery was better organized, better managed and better financed than the English, due to the involvement of state authorities.

The French also continued their fishing activity in the areas of Acadia (Nova Scotia), Cape Breton, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But French positions in these regions were generally insecure. In Acadia there were only a few scattered settlements, which were hardly more than temporary fishing-stations. Except for the nominal garrison maintained at Port Royal, the colony received little material aid from the French government and neither was done to develop its potentialities either as a source of agricultural exports or as a base for the fisheries. The same thing could be mentioned for the settlements on the St. Lawrence.

The Seigneurial System

As the XVIIIth century began, France had clear claim to what are now the Maritime Provinces of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. French fishermen remained active off Newfoundland, but here there was no clear jurisdiction. Inland, France’s empire extended, by means of alliances with various Native tribes, from its early bases along the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes, and into the heart of the continent. Explorers, fur traders, and missionaries had gone North of the Great Lakes into the Canadian Shield and south along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers systems.

French colonial expansion exhibited some significant changes over time and space. Canada developed from commercial beachheads at Tadoussac, Quebec and Montreal based on resource exploitation - furs and eventually wheat and lumber - into a northern agricultural enclave with its population becoming less urban with each census. By the mid- eighteenth century, four-fifths of the colonists were engaged in agriculture, although most of the immigrants from France had come with manual trades from urban centers.

Codfish, fur, sugar, slaves, provisions, and shipping occupied similar positions in the commercial plans of the French and the English, and trade in these goods and services in turn required provisioning. In the intensely competitive staple markets the relative cheapness and abundance of the saleable staple were largely determined by the relative abundance of contributory agricultural supplies. More than that, territory and trade routes needed defence, for military conflict was inseparable from economic conflict. Settlement of the St. Lawrence and the introduction of the seigniorial system were imperative in the vain hope that French fur-trade routes might be adequately garrisoned against the constant harassing of Iroquois-European alliances. Until 1713 French hopes for an agricultural basis of empire rested on the possibilities of Acadia (Nova Scotia) as well as of the St. Lawrence. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713), however, was proof of the relative ineffectiveness of French agriculture in the two areas; and by its terms the balance was shifted still further in favour of the English with the transference to English control of the Acadian agricultural regions. Establishment of Halifax and colonization of Lunenburg were English defence moves effective in countering French aggressiveness at the middle of the eighteenth century; but of more fundamental importance in the final French withdrawal from the St. Lawrence and Cape Breton was the agricultural backwardness of New France as compared with New England. The New England colonies early developed agricultural resources more than sufficient to provision the British staple trades. France could scarcely withstand an opponent upon whom she continuously relied for foodstuffs. The functional relationship between New World agriculture and commercial and territorial empire is clear throughout the French regime.

Social rank dictated economic behaviour. The elites were often indebted because of aristocratic pretensions and investment in seigneuries, an unwise practice since land was plentiful and labour expensive. Socially and politically, French Canada was known for its strong military ethos, seigneurial land-holding, Catholic exclusivity, benevolent paternalistic administration, and dependency on Amerindian allies for its security and survival in the face of increasing Anglo-American hostility.

One of the colony’s most attractive features, certainly from a landless peasant’s perspective in France, was the seigneurial system. Prompted by the crown, this land grant plan explains the settlement patterns of New France and the persistence of peoples in the New World. Some lively historical discussion circulates around the question of whether the system benefited or repressed the habitants and, given its design and language, whether it represented an attempt of the French elite to transplant the feudal system to Canada. Independent of these important considerations, few dispute the long-term significance of the seigneurial system for drawing settlers to New France, firmly rooting them to the soil and creating the environment for a distinct way of life in the North American hinterland.

Designed to delegate land-granting responsibilities from the crown to seigneurs, who held the responsibility for finding settlers, the system was contractual. The seigneurs, vassals of the crown, acquired large parcels of land to subdivide and distribute to tenant farmers. Although they technically controlled the land, they were bound to reserve for the crown certain trees for masts and shipbuilding and the subsoil for minerals. Their duties included constructing a manor house, building and maintaining a flour mill, overseeing judicial matters, and helping to sponsor a local religious presence in the form of a curé (priest). The seigneurs’ chief responsibility, however, was to facilitate the settlement of habitants on subdivided land plots. The power of the seigneur to dispose of his own domain was limited in such a way as to reduce his manoeuvrability and to make him essentially an agent of the Crown in the achievement of its purposes. He had to clear the land, to settle it with farmers, to support the church and the state, and to keep his subordinates in their places.

Individual seigneurs ranged widely. Some (both men and women) came from the nobility, and some represented the ranks of the military officer corps. Their attention to their responsibilities also varied dramatically as the system developed. Some seigneurs lived on their domain and carefully monitored the development of their seigneuries, while others hired landlords to supervise their estates. A few seigneurs never set eyes on their holdings.

The censitaires, the official term for the settlers, were assigned parcels of land to farm. Typically narrow and long, these strips often fronted on the St. Lawrence River or other waterways for transportation. The censitaires had rights and obligations differing somewhat from their brothers' in France. They had to clear the land lest it revert to the seignior; they owed him rent and mutation fines; they worked for him and gave him part of their catch of fish; they paid him deference; they were not allowed to engage in the fur trade. In addition, they could be called on to work for a few days a year building or maintaining roads. Virtually all male habitants served in the militia for most of their adult years. Yet, their duties were less onerous than in France, and they were protected from excessive exploitation by a solicitous officialdom. Besides, the prospect of improvement was such, so it was anticipated, as to induce them willingly to accept their position.

As evidence of the colony’s attachment to the church, habitants were expected to tithe one-twenty-sixth of their annual crops to the Roman Catholic Church.

While the system existed under an official framework, in practice there was great diversity in the relationship between habitants and seigneurs and in the relative strengths and weaknesses of individual seigneuries. Although some habitants became seigneurs, New France was not a place of genuine social mobility. The habitants, who preferred not to be called peasants, mirrored Old World peasant life in many ways. The relationship between power and the holding of land remained in place throughout the New France era, and although not particularly oppressive, the annual payments and the nature of farming on small plots of land meant that the habitants would remain essentially powerless and closely tied to the land. The system was based on a contractual arrangement, which afforded some protection to habitants and certainly was more equitable than the rights extended to French peasants. At various times in late medieval and early modern times, especially in periods of considerable stress, the seigniors had to offer concessions to their tenants, even to the point of enfranchisement, to prevent the loss of their labour force by emigration.

Seigneurial settlements, clustered along the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries, gave the appearance of one continuous community. Given the hardships of traveling overland in the period, most habitants favoured the front lots on river systems and displayed reluctance to move deeper into the hinterland through back lots. Thus, the approximately 200 seigneuries by the early eighteenth century remained tightly clustered along the major water systems of New France, chiefly between Quebec and Montreal. The farming that took place on the plots was not sophisticated yet gave evidence of some crop rotation.

Habitants overwhelmingly devoted to growing wheat as their primary crop, also planted peas, oats, barley, rye, and corn (maize). Some of the more successful farmers exported wheat. New France clearly experienced a rhythm of life, with powerful official connections between church and state, tenant and landholder. Social distinctions remained important.

One of the main problems was the slow development of agriculture. Much of the land was of mediocre quality and climatic conditions were generally worse than the French settlers experienced in France. Although summer temperatures and rainfall were not much different than in the north of France, winters were longer and much more severe. Unlike the early settlers of New England, most of the immigrants to New France were relatively unskilled and poor. In most years the colony could hardly supply its own requirements, far less produce a surplus for export. This was largely a result of concentration on the fur trade and on military defence-tasks which left little manpower available for farming. In addition, due to the geographical location, New France, handicapped by distance and climate, could not compete with New England as a supply base for the West Indies.

New France’s hierarchical society harked back to the Old World in many ways. Yet ample evidence suggests that habitants enjoyed some freedoms, aggressively asserted an independent streak, and regularly ignored state regulations or church edicts. Despite the severe sanctions imposed by church and state, an increasing number of people, excited by the “bad example” of the coureurs de bois and by the profits that they had made, left the field for the forest in search of furs. In the year 1680 approximately one-third of the adult male population had escaped the discipline of society by entering the fur trade. Not only did they deplete an already inadequate labour force, but they infected those who remained with the example of their rebelliousness.

The French government was faced with the twofold problem of maintaining order and stability in Canada and of motivating its subjects to perform the tasks given to them. It sought to assign each man a status, the behaviour of which was defined and regulated; when men behave according to prescription, each can act toward the other with the certainty that his own behaviour will be understood and with the expectation that the other's responses will be the appropriate ones.

Despite all inducements from the mother country, the French population of Canada never reached the desired quantity and quality. From beginning to end, the reports to the authorities in France bemoaned the scarcity of labour and its lack of discipline. Above all, the seigniors failed in their obligation to support the social system that they, more than anyone else, were counted on to uphold. In making use of the major opportunity that existed to escape the discipline of the system - participation in the fur trade - they provided an example that others were quick to follow. The censitaires, too, disrupted the social organization by refusing to behave in accordance with expectations or, even frequently, as custom and law dictated. In the design of the administrators, the censitaires were intended as a docile and obedient labour force. The very concessions, however, that were offered to entice them into the labour force - concessions that took the form both of direct incentives and limitations on the authority of their seigniorial masters - made it impossible to keep them in their assigned position or to fix their behaviour in the desired mould. Their situation in the New World was a very decided improvement over their situation in the Old World, and they acted less in response to old prescriptions than to new imperatives. Rigor and severe discipline broke down in the face of the need to recruit a voluntary labour force. By her own actions, France created in Canada a social basis for disobedience, a society in which deviance became the only means of survival and of taking advantage of such opportunities as existed.

Litigious, independent, insubordinate, the habitants joined the seigniors in making a mockery of the behaviour defined for them. No longer were they willing to act as instruments of those who planned the system; they acted now out of concern for their own survival or improvement. At times they deliberately violated the norms of their society; at times, they violated them unwittingly because, under conditions of rapid change, it became problematic as to how the norms were to be applied. But the society was turned upside down when its sworn defenders themselves subverted it.

So disrupted had the society became and so profitless to its sponsors, that only the merchants of the seaport towns of France objected when Canada was lost to the British. On February 10, 1763, the very day the Treaty of Paris was signed, Voltaire wrote Ethienne Fransois, Duc de Choiseul: "Permit me to compliment you. I am like the public; I like peace better than Canada and I think that France can be happy without Quebec."

The Fur Trade

There can be little doubt as to the importance of the fur trade in early Canadian history. For hundreds of years, the exports of beaver and other pelts was the foundation of the country’s commerce. Historians have pointed to the crucial role of this trade in conditioning white-Natives relations and in establishing a transcontinental transportation network linking the far-flung regions of what would become the dominion of Canada. The exchange of European goods for furs resulted in the rapid growth of demand among the Natives for such European products as fire-arms, metal tools, kettles, and rum.

Agriculture by the eighteenth century by far outpaced the fur trade, yet the latter remained a central focus of New France and helped to set the stage for continental rivalry. The independent-minded French-Canadian, coureurs de bois became adept at avoiding governmental controls. Their life offered excitement and the prospect of quick profits which attracted labour away from the unexciting toil of pioneer agriculture. These trappers and traders availed themselves of Amerindian technologies, guidance, and often partnerships. They used birchbark canoes, snowshoes, and toboggans and learned survival skills from Native peoples. These coureurs de bois, or voyageurs as they were called after about 1680, depended on the merchants for backing but they operated their trading expeditions quite independently, generally forming partnerships of three or four men to complete the crew of a canoe.

Trapping was an attractive lifestyle to the offspring of many engaged in the enterprise for part of a year or a portion of their life. With increased sophistication, large groups of voyageurs, often engagés working in teams, were contracted to bring furs out of the Great Lakes region and the deep hinterland. Furs, especially the beaver, were rapidly being depleted in certain areas. This is explaining the steady push of French influence ever deeper into the interior of North America. And as penetration proceeded, the cost of conducting the trade raised, particularly the fixed costs associated with maintaining a long transportation route (forts, trading posts, the staff to maintain the posts) whatever the supply of furs. Commercial capital involved in the fur trade was thus tied up for longer and longer periods of time.

Protestant (Huguenot), English and Dutch trading with England and the English colonies is the background against which we need to set the founding of the English Hudson's Bay Company in I670. This famous event, far from being isolated or unique, took place in an age of rising English competition for the French domination in North America. In 1664 England took command of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which then became New York; in the northern part of that colony the Dutch trading post of Fort Orange, not far from Montreal and deeply engaged in illicit trading with Canada, then became Albany.

In New France, Montreal became the most significant trading center as trappers filtered into the upper country of the West and North, called the pays d’en haut. Greater distances made the traders hard to regulate. Ironically, in spite of the fact that the trappers’ activities were often technically illegal, the French dramatically extended their knowledge of the interior through their efforts. Forts and trading posts were built deep in the continent to facilitate and protect trade along the major water routes, an example of which was Fort Michilimackinac, at the narrow passage between Lakes Michigan and Huron.

Other factors made the fur trade empires complex and sharpened the imperial rivalry that would bring about the collapse of New France. Traders Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson, upset at having their furs confiscated for running afoul of regulations, offered their mapping and exploration services to the English and thereby provided the spark for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Chartered by Charles II in 1670, the company received a vast territory, Rupert’s Land, with drainage to Hudson Bay. At roughly half the size of present-day Canada, the grant encompassed diverse groups of Native peoples without their consultation. The Hudson’s Bay Company immediately set up an intensely competitive fur trading dynamic in North America by offering an alternative system. The English traders relied extensively on Amerindians to bring furs to small posts, called factories, on Hudson Bay for processing and shipping to England. The other more traditional system, controlled in New France, relied on a lengthening overland route that used waterways and the Great Lakes. Traded in Montreal, furs passed out the St. Lawrence River on their way to Europe. In 1713, through the peace treaty from Utrecht, France ceded exclusive rights to the shores of Hudson Bay to England.

The merchants of Montreal and those of Albany engaged in mutually profitable illicit inter-colony trade, thanks in good measure to Iroquoian intermediaries who were not subject to the commercial laws of either New France or New York. The fur trade based on Montreal was threatened both by the operations of the Hudson's Bay Company to the north, and by the Albany traders to the south. Competition among these rival groups was far more than commercial rivalry; it was part of a world-wide struggle between empires and was thought of by imperial and colonial governments in precisely these terms.

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The fur monopoly of the Compagnie des Indes required it to accept all the furs arriving at its Quebec warehouse, but by 1696 the company was unable to dispose of all these furs accumulating on the wharves of cities like Rouen, the Parisian hatters refusing to buy beyond their requirements. Two safety valves emerged. One, at Montreal, where about one-third of the furs from the upper country were diverted to Albany to be sold in England by New York merchants, some of them presumably in competition with the Hudson's Bay Company on the London market. A second escape route was through the Dutch connection in France by which furs ended up on the voracious Leipzig market of Eastern Europe, and a few also on the London market. Prices were determined by demand and supply. Furs were very well suited for trans-oceanic transportation because they were commodities light in weight and small in bulk in relation to value. However, furs were luxury items with inelastic demand and beaver hats in particular were subject to abrupt shifts in demand due to the whims of fashion. These features of the market caused large price variations and hence large fluctuations in the fur sellers’ profits.

In general, French Canada traditionally suffered from a trade deficit, its growing population demanding a greater value in imports than the fur staple could buy.

Towns and Trade

Although New France had an overwhelmingly agricultural orientation into the eighteenth century, between one-fifth and one-third of the population lived in non-rural settings. Town life differed substantially from life in the seigneuries. Montreal, despite its roots as a religious bastion, rapidly became a thriving trading location thanks largely to the fur trade. Quebec City, the administrative capital, remained the largest town in New France. Even after the construction of a road between the two cities in the 1730s, various waterways remained important year-round transportation routes by boat or sleigh. French merchants controlled the bulk of the colony’s trade, but on a local scale, merchants, including women who ran provisional and clothing businesses, maintained a robust livelihood.

While limited manufacturing took place in New France, such as shipbuilding, the cities and towns basically served as trading, merchant, and financial centers.

A wide range of people inhabited the colony’s cities. A Canadian aristocracy partook of social engagements that reportedly impressed European visitors. Merchants hawked manufactured goods and foodstuffs, such as rum and molasses, from France and its West Indian colonies. Cultural and social gulfs separated the comfortable townspeople from the habitants, reinforcing the sharp class distinctions of New France. Upwards of 4,000 slaves were present in the colony - both Amerindians from the Mississippi River region and people transported from the Caribbean. The upper classes owned most of the slaves, who were not extensively used for agricultural labour as was the case in the English colonies.

Over several generations, the population of New France became Canadien, despite the French imperial model for growth and control. By the eighteenth century, the colony exhibited a unique culture and set of values. Thousands of colonists had successfully adapted to the North American environment. Most of the inhabitants were humble subsistence farmers. Rural farms required the labor of children to function as a family unit of production, whether salt-marsh cultivation in Acadia, mixed farming in Canada and the Illinois country, or commercial plantation practices in Louisiana. Yet the farmers enjoyed a freedom of movement and certain benefits within the seigneurial system. Moreover, at least for males, the opportunity to seek one’s fortune in the fur trade provided an alluring alternative to wringing a living from the land. Even with its obvious class layering, the colony’s society provided an essential component of the future Canada.

Another important element, the English and their American colonial allies, had been affecting New France from the earliest moments of exploration. The centuries-long contest between the French and the English for North America would determine the continent’s fate and irrevocably chart the unfolding of Canada’s history.

Various factors shaped the struggle for the continent, including imperial rivalry, competition for trade and furs, strategic command of ports and waterways, and the historic tension between the predominantly Protestant and relatively self-governing American colonies and the Roman Catholic and autocratically ruled New France.

Identifiable patterns underscored these engagements, which ranged from small raids to elaborate battles. Mercantilism, practiced by all major European powers at the time, implied a zero-sum rivalry. If your enemy or competitor had more possessions, then it was by definition richer or better positioned to trade and exerts influence. The wide range of economic directives commonly known as mercantilism was beneficial to Canada in several ways. It offered the colony protected markets within the empire for its limited exports, price controls on imported goods; controls over what could only have been ruinous enterprises such as hat-making in Montreal, and the imposition of the burdens of insurance and losses at sea on the metropolitan merchants and the Crown. On the other hand, Acadia up to its cession in 1713, and Louisbourg up to its capitulation in 1758, profited from trade with New England in spite of the numerous prohibitive decrees. Trade even then followed the price list as often as the flag.

Native peoples were triangulated into the European-based agendas from the earliest moments of contact. This dynamic in times of peace and war meant that Amerindians would be increasingly marginalized, despite the fact that they continued to outnumber whites in vast regions of Canada well into the nineteenth century. Moreover, colonial peoples, French and English alike, pursued their own agendas for defence or control over resources. The colonial struggles typically overlapped with wars on the European continent, although they generally had distinct names and a different chronological range of armed engagement. These wars were early illustrations of global conflicts. Finally, diplomats and militarists determined the territorial makeup of the New World through peace treaties in the Old World. Inevitably they did not have colonial interests foremost in their thoughts. As a result, grander imperial considerations subsumed colonial ideas.

The French employed many strategies to maintain their possessions in the New World. They effectively used an extensive network of relationships with Amerindians. Their knowledge of the North American hinterland was far superior to that of their English rivals because of their extensive fur trading empire. In addition, the French maintained, or at least claimed, an expansive fort network that ranged from staffed enterprises to abandoned palisades. In the broadest sense, the French planned to keep English troops and American colonists hemmed in by the natural boundary of the Appalachian mountain chain that followed the North American spine.

The French could count on many advantages in periods of conflict. The military and militia command system was clearly designed and well staffed; virtually all males served in the militia. The typical French fighter, experienced in battle, used natural defenses and hit-and-run raids to harass the enemy. In addition, the French-controlled waterways that the English considered ideal invasion routes, such as the St. Lawrence River and the Lake Champlain/Richelieu River corridor, which froze over for almost half the year and were thus relatively easy to defend. Algonquian allies, from the Mi’kmaq in the East to the Illinois in the Great Lakes region, provided formidable support in times of hostilities.

English American colonial dynamics also shaped events. The various colonies disagreed on a host of issues, and while their sporadic attempts to work together in a collaborative fashion become one of the important ingredients of the American Revolution, only the northernmost colonies of Massachusetts and New York earnestly supported the struggle to defeat New France.

The French also faced deficiencies and flaws in their colonial design, problems that would become more debilitating over time. For example, New France’s population of roughly 50,000 in the mid-eighteenth century paled when compared with the almost one million American colonists. The colony had only a few key ports and cities for the English and their American allies to target for attack. They repeatedly sought to capture the prizes of Quebec, Montreal, and the important French trading center and fort at Louisbourg. In addition, the English were generally in a more favourable economic position to wage war. Both the English treasury and the far more diverse and richer American colonies would have defining roles in bringing about a French defeat in North America. Canada, dependent still on the fur trade for payment of administrative costs and necessary supplies, was ranked as of less value than Santo Domingo by the French Government itself; indeed it was regarded as valuable only when considered as a part of a planned French imperial policy based on the establishment of Louisiana and the maintenance of the West Indian colonies.

French Canada, then, was still in the eighteenth century harassed by an unbalanced economy, dependent on a metropolitan market in which Canadian produce would not pay for Canadian purchases; and Canada was part of a French strategy for control of the Ohio-Great Lakes-Mississippi water system, a strategy which English colonials and English statesmen alike accepted as a challenge and a threat.

To summarize, New France may have been prepared to fend off glancing blows and loosely coordinated series of attacks by the English and Americans indefinitely. But if the English devoted a great deal of attention to events in the colonial phase of their broader struggles, then the French would find themselves in a more precarious position. France was involved in costly wars in Europe and because of that could not pay enough attention and money to its North-American colonies; the mercantile class failed to obtain any corresponding freedom and power to influence national policy in France (as it happened in Holland and England); French industrial progress lagged behind that of England and relied on the government for support and protection; the French agriculture remained traditionalist and lacked dynamism; France did not succeed to integrate its colonial empire in an unified economic body; finally, as naval power was the trump card of maritime nations, France was not able to keep on equal terms with the English.

Actually France proved to be primarily a European power and her colonial policy was influenced more by the exigencies and distractions of continental defence in Europe. Involved in different wars in Europe, France could not afford to invest much in his overseas colonies. Consequently, the instrument of the chartered company (Company of the West Indies) was extensively used, largely as a means of minimizing the direct financial burden upon the government. These chartered companies did not prove themselves as being suited for establishing strong and permanent colonies as well as for building up France’s external trade and her merchant marine.

The relatively low rate of immigration, the scarcity of capital and skilled labour, and the authoritarian form of social organization within the semi-feudal framework of the seigneurial system, combined with the ever-present necessity for defence and the competing attractions of the fur trade, prevented New France from developing into the strong and diversified economic base which was necessary for the consolidation of French empire in North America. A main weakness was that each part of the French empire in North America traded directly with France and there were no links between the colonies and this was in contrast to the English colonies, which already had a much larger population than the French colonies.

This failure to achieve consolidation and integration combined with failure to achieve and hold command of the seas, was in the end to prove fatal, for it meant that the economic development of the various regions tended to drive them farther apart, not closer together. Some French settlements were rather dependent of New England for supplies. The French empire, in short, developed centrifugally. Concentration on the fur trade diverted resources away from other lines of activity and prevented New France from developing as a source of supply and a market for the rest of the French colonial empire. Trade voyages between New France, Newfoundland, and the French West Indies were rare experiments; each area had far closer connections with Europe than with the other French colonies in North America. The British colonies, in contrast, were linked together by a complex network of trade. The Navigation Acts, starting with 1651, bound them commercially to England. The British colonial system in North America was characterized by a flourishing intercolonial trade; the French was not. What the French empire needed, if it was to hold its own against the slower but surer expansion of the English colonies was a cheap source of foodstuffs and of shipping services - a commercial and agricultural centre, in short, which could perform approximately the same functions for the French empire as New England did for the English. This was a role which New France was never able to fill.

In 1763, after a series of military and political events, all French possessions in present-day Canada were ceded to Britain. After the conquest of New France, the focus of the economy remained initially unchanged, apart from the transfer of control from French to British merchants.


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