Canada – The Habitant

THE French Canadian of today is, in a measure, a race apart. Indeed, to enter the town of Quebec, which is the stronghold of French Canada, is to enter a French town. The people are mostly French, the language is French, the Roman Catholic Church is supreme. The buildings have the picturesqueness of the old French style ; the whole atmosphere of the place, as compared with the typical Canadian city, is redolent of the courteous, easy-going methods which obtained in old France. Two hundred years of life in a new country has not deprived the people of racial characteristics.

The inhabitants of Quebec were mostly the product of the ambitious schemes of Louis XIV for a Colonial Empire. A few, it is true, were descended from the small exploring parties of Cartier and Champlain, but the incursion of the 4,000 peasants and others did nothing at all to alter the character of those already there, since all were of the same race, and had the same ideas in common. The Frenchmen who came out were of the peasant class, led by a few of the petit noblesse of the seventeenth century. They were not ambitious, they were perhaps not progressive. They were simple-minded folk whose laudable desire in life was to till the soil, to live in well-swept comfort, and to rear their families in peace.

The Aristocracy, or the Seigniors, were a manufactured aristocracy, to whom grants of land were given, and these in turn handed over to the habitants, portions of their estates to be cut up and cultivated. The tenure was semifeudal and the influence was wholly ecclesiastical. Seigniors and priests worked hand-in-hand, and the system adapted itself to the needs of the population.

The conditions of his tenure imposed upon the Seignior the necessity of opening up his estate, which was held in trust, so to speak, for the Crown. If these conditions of ownership were ignored the Crown had the right to resume the land ; and this right was often exercised. The Seigniory had usually a frontage of three or four leagues along the river, with a varying depth of five leagues or more inland. On these Seigniories the peasantry settled, building their quaint gabled houses along the bank of the river, each holding having a frontage of two or three hundred yards and running inland for a mile or more.

The tenant, or censitaire, was secure in his holding so long as he paid the nominal rent to his lord, and per-formed such feudal duties as might be required of him. Subject to a fine of a twelfth part of the purchase-money he could sell his interest in his holding, such fine being paid to the Seignior who had placed him upon the land. The Seignior, in his turn, could sell his Seigniory on the payment of one-fifth of the value of the ground.

It will easily be understood that with such conditions of holding there was little or no money to be made from a Seigniory, and whilst Seigniors remained aristocratic they also remained poor. Politically, this French aristocracy in the old days counted for nothing. Beyond a certain quasi-feudal power over his tenants, the Seignior had no voice in the government of the Colony, which was controlled by a Governor, Intendant, and the Clergy, who, in their turn, were entirely in the hands of the King and his council in France. The habitant, besides owing duty to his Seignior, was obliged to serve in the militia, and was liable to be called upon in war time.

He was, moreover, liable to the government for corvée or road making. His duty to his Seignior and his duty to the Crown performed, there was yet his duty to the Church. The parish priest held in some ways a higher rank than the Seignior, and his dime or tithe had to be paid by the decree of the Church, which carried the force of law.

On the whole, the life of the habitant of those days was one of quiet, unostentatious prosperity, broken by occasional periods of scarcity when the crops failed. But he was well clothed, well housed, and fairly free from the tiresome exactions under which his brother in France was even then groaning.

With ancestors of this kind it is no wonder that the French Canadian of to-day stands out from the rest of the inhabitants of the country as a distinct people. With the passage of years and the death of the Seignioral system the customs of France have still survived in many ways ; the habitant still remains, living in his unostentatious fashion, farming in the style of his forefathers. He is content with little, he is fond of his family and his home, and his family is generally large in number. He does not emigrate easily, even from province to province ; he prefers to divide his land that his sons may gain a living side by side with him. This trait leads to some over-crowding, and coupled with the high birth-rate tends to cause the French Canadian to overflow the province which he regards as peculiarly his own.

In some quarters there has been a great deal of nonsense uttered about the ” disloyalty ” of the French Canadian. It is perfectly true that the French Canadian, like the American ” invader,” is no Imperialist ; he probably cares very little for the rest of the British Empire outside his beloved Canada. At the same time he is a shrewd man of affairs, and he knows perfectly well that he is as happy, as prosperous, and more free to follow his inclinations under the Union Jack than he would be under any other régime.

In short, the French Canadian minds his own business and wishes to be left at peace ; and any attempt to alter this condition of affairs would meet with the repulse it deserved.