The Habitant

A MILLION of happy, self-centred habitants still live, little knowing and little known, among the other self ruling millions of the Empire. They were, originally, the habitants of lands “conceded” to Canadian seigneurs by the Crown of France, according to the theocratic feudal scheme of Richelieu. All emigrants were “good Catholics “—Huguenots being expressly forbidden ; the firstfruits in their new home were apportioned to the Church ; and every able-bodied man was also bound to answer the King’s call to arms. The seigneur did homage for his lands, which he was obliged to settle on pain of forfeiture. The habitant paid seigniorial dues of cens et rente, ground his corn at the seigneur’s mill, baked his bread in the seigneur’s oven, and gave tithes of all fish caught in seigniorial waters. In those days Canada was administratively a part of France ; and, as every acceptable feature of separate French life has since been guaranteed by every succeeding Constitution and fostered by every feeling of intense race-patriotism, it is little wonder, nowadays—with every French disability long since forgotten and every present benefit appearing daily in a French disguise-to find the habitant still more devoutly French than ever. The term habitant is now generally applied to the whole country population but, as it excludes that other million of French-Canadians who live in towns or cross the line to work in New England factories, it still denotes the classes farthest removed from outside influences, most cut off by difference of language, readiest to look upon race and religion as one and the same, and always hearing, whether they will or no, the voice of the Mère-Patrie calling to them through every tale and song.

If, then, we wish to understand something of their peculiar differentiation, we must consider them as having lived under the care of a great theocracy as still speaking a pure form of French, with truly derived adaptations to Canadian needs and as still cherishing a folklore quintessentially French both in letter and spirit, and distinctively Canadian only through much selection and a little variant development.

Ordinary manifestations of priestly power are too well known to be dwelt upon here. We need only note that Canada has her share of them, and more. Every village has its towering church, its convent, school, and presbytère, with straggling clusters of little white cottages meekly grouped about them. The wealth of the Church is not only very great in itself, but simply overwhelming in comparison with that of the community at large ; moreover, it is free from all taxation. Yet, under the double stimulus of their own faith and priestly pressure, the people contribute enough to support a church living on pious offerings alone. There is, virtually, a State establishment n the Province of Quebec, with ” all accustomed dues and rights” ; and Provincial, Dominion, and Imperial authority alike have all united in guarantees for its continued security. And the habitant has generally been content with most things as they are. He believes that his lines are laid in pleasant places, and he knows that, however far afield they run, they will always, and surely, turn within the guardian circle of his mother Church.

But, time and place and people all considered and the point of view once granted, there is no gainsaying the fact that the Church has fairly won her predominance over the mind and her pre-eminence within the soul. For the home-bound France of modern anti-clericals and perpetual colonial sterility has always been “le Soldat de Dieu ” abroad, sending generation after generation of her chosen sons and daughters to go forth pioneering for the Lord of Hosts. And her first Canadian martyr-missionaries, and their successors in less perilous times, have set up a standard of leadership which still makes the “black robe” a mighty power in the land. Illustrations of this power abound everywhere. The place-names were, originally, as various here as elsewhere ; but, as ecclesiastical power came home to the people so much more nearly than any other, the names of the local patron saints have now supplanted the place-names proper in quite two-thirds of the French towns and villages. St. Anne is the great exemplar of this victory in nomenclature. And the most important single instance is La Bonne Ste. Anne, the transatlantic Lourdes, where so many pilgrims gather that the entire population of London visit ing an English shrine would not proportionally outnumber these good Canadians. Equally apposite illustrations are by no means wanting in the comic vein. A habitant, who had unwillingly taken part in a very boisterous celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, summed it all up by making the saint the eponymous totem of all les Irlandas—” C’est un terrible Saint, ce Sin-Pattarraque I” Another, after listening to my explanation of the points of likeness between the two different Churches, showed his appreciation of the Anglican position by the remark, “Eh, oui, Monsieur, c’est une espèce de religion comme il faut.”

But the all-pervading influence of the “black robe” is nowhere better shown than by the way in which Christian songs have become engrafted on Canadian folklore-and folklore is always the last refuge of paganism. The “noel” D’oû viens-tu, bergère ? is a perfect Christmas picture-poem, become a folksong for childhood. Le Voyageur Chrétien is for the full vigour of manhood. And old age has the quaintly solemn religious dance, Il n’y a qu’un seul Dieu. The words of this are a French translation of a Latin paraphrase of the Series, once used for the initiation of Druidic novices. At the words Il n’y a qu’un seul Dieu the chain begins to turn, each dancer continuing in the same direction until the first line of the half-way couplet—Six urnes placées, remplies, when all pause together to make profound obeisance to each other twice ; then, at its second line—’ Cana, en Galilée, the chain continues turning until the series ends with les douze apôtres. The order of enumeration is then reversed and the dance ends, as it began, with the key-line so often used, Il n’y a qu’un seul Dieu. Strange that this series, of unknown antiquity even in Druidic times, should have come down, through all the Latinized conversions of the middle age, to find its last fulfilment here, in this Old-World corner of strenuous America ! And yet familiar too, for many an immemorial ark enshrines new covenants, made more appealing to the human soul. The Druids began and ended with vain elaboration–” There is no Series for the number One Fate itself, and Passing forth, the Father of Grief : Nought before, nor any After.” But the Canadians, though with the same Druidic form, are worlds apart with the new indwelling Spirit there, and faithfully content with the twice-sung line-Il n’y a qu’un seul Dieu. “Nought before, nor any After “—but, with Unus est Deus, the soul flies back per omnia saecula saeculorum and forth again to all Infinity.

The habitant speech is a very genuine old French—not a patois, much less a degenerate form of any standard tongue. It is, indeed, the next-ofkin to Molière’s own, carried oversea two centuries ago by the most conservative of emigrants, and still living in unconscious fidelity to the France of the Grand Monarque. Its imported variants are generally of Norman origin, or nautical and military terms applied to everyday life, a very natural transference in a colony founded by seamen and maintained by force of arms. New conditions soon called for new expressions. Some Indian words were adopted ; and Anglicisms have since crept in at different times. But the natural growth of new Canadian terms out of pure Old French has always been the truest form of development ; and such terms have now acquired a legitimate technical precision in their New-World acceptations.

When a habitant says he will acertainer, he is not using an Anglicism, but an excellent obsolete French word : did not Francis I himself tell the Parliament of Paris, on April 9th, 1526, “Que nous sommes duement acertenés” ? Bachelier and bacon have a similar history ; the English words coming from the Old French, which are now obsolete in Paris, but flourishing in Canada. The emphatic assavoir is still used here ; so is fiable, now only expressible in France by some such circumlocution as “digne de confiance.” People sometimes say cheux eux and ganif and astonished habitants always exclaim cray yez !-” croyez,” our own “who’d a’ thought it ! ” In spite of locks, doors are always barrées, as in the time of the ” gudeman ” hero of “Get up and bar the door.” A single line of Molière has two obsolete words still current in Canada : ” Demain, du grand matin, je l’enverrai quérir.” Du means dés and habitants still “go in quest of” what they want je va le kri. As nearly all the emigrants came by way of the north of France, we naturally find many northern peculiarities reproduced among the habitants. Such are : a for elle ; i for il, ils, lui or y ; amain, “handy” ; espérer, “to wait” ; houiner, our “whinny”; bers, a cradle ; and escousse as a space of time, instead of the space run in order to make a good jump. Pronunciation is decidedly broad and rather harsh ; with a for é, aw for a, sibilant initial dz for d, and final d, r, s, and t often sounded in places where they are now mute in modern French.

A few military terms are very common in ordinary life. The personal effects which we call our ” things” are invariably known as “booty” butin. The big round ” steamer” on the winter stove is a bombe. A fur cap is a casque. And old habitants still talk of their village as le fort, in reminiscence of warpaths and scalping-parties. But nautical terms meet you everywhere. You steer your way about the country by the points of the compass. The winter roads are marked by buoys-balises; and, if you miss the channel between them, you will founder—caler, and become, like a derelict, dégradé. You must embarquer into, and débarquer out of, a carriage. A cart is radouée —refitted. A well-dressed woman is bin gré-yée—” fitted out to go foreign.” Horses are always moored—amarrés ; enemies reconciled by being ramarrés;. and winter heralded by a broadside of snow-la bordée de la Ste. Cathérine.

Indian words are comparatively rare. Tobogane and mocassin are familiar to every one. Others are more recondite : like sassaquaw, ” no end of a row” ; micouenne, the big wooden spoon for the camp kettle ; ouaouaron, an onomatopoeic name for the bull-frog ; and ouannaniche, the land-locked salmon of Lake St. John.

The use of English idioms is a very real danger; and, unfortunately, this insidious form of barbarism has perverted the truer ways of speech. Most of the common Anglicisms are merely bad superfluities forced into use by the closer pressure ,of modern Anglo-Saxondom. Steamers and trains being unknown until generations after the old French time we naturally hear of stimeurs, of “boarding” les chars, and even of a traction-engine as une espèce de stime ! Un Franças de France, who was superintending the erection of the Champlain monument in Quebec, could not get “un cric till someone thought of un djack-scrou. The habitant will clairer his land, curse with all the English he knows, and sometimes get un blackeye sur le nez ! When husband and wife go to town they can enjoy sand-wedges together, and she may buy des gants de kid, while he chooses a pair of trousers from une grande variété de pantings.

Canadianisms proper are quite different, and altogether justifiable. In a country of canoes and waterways certain words soon became locally specialized. Aviron is always “paddle”; sauter, to “run ” the rapids bateau, a slow jib-and-mainsail river cargo-boat of some 40 tons. Portage has actually been taken by the Academy, which stooped to conquer an immortality of ridicule as well, by seizing upon this wonderful example ;

” Depuis Québec jusqu’à Montréal, il y a tant de portages” ! Ref oul is the strong Acadian contraction of “refoulement,” describing the sudden tumult of subsidence as the mighty ebb rushes out of the Bay of Fundy. Life in the woods has turned brûlé into a noun, meaning a burnt patch. Bois-brûle, however, is something very different. It means “half-breed,” in allusion to the darkening of the “pale-face” complexion. A road through sticky black earth is a pot-a-brai, or sailor’s pitch-pot. And “boucan,” “the place where hams are smoked,” has become boucane, meaning smoke itself, of any kind at all. Lumbering is responsible for the cage—raft, cageuxraftsman, crible—” crib,” and glissoire—” shoot.” Sugaring has l’érablière—the “sugar-bush” of maple-trees ; la sucrerie, where sugar is made dalleaux, nautically ” scuppers “—spouts for “tap-ping” trees ; mouvette—a stirabout “paddle” for the brassin—thickening ” syrup ” ; cassot—tiny birch-bark cornucopia, full of “setting” sugar ; and la tire—both the “pulling” of half-hardened sugar and the “pulled” sugar itself. Snow and ice have their own vocabulary. Canadians go to le patinoir, not “le skating-rink” affected by Parisians. Les bordages are shore ice ; pont de glace, any stretch of ice capable of bearing traffic across water ; croûte, “crust” of snow, good going for raquetteurs snowshoers. The chief drawbacks to the pleasure of winter driving are the baraudage, ” slewing,” of the sleighs—carrioles ; bourguignon—frozen clots after rain ; un chemin boulant, where hoofs “ball up”; and cahots—not the bumpings of the carriage, as in France, but transverse gouged-out snow-ruts which cause the bumpings. And frasil, snow hanging suspended in water, is the natural foe of every miller. This ” fraw-zee ” is from ” fraisil “–” coal-dust.” Extremes meet in similitude !

There are few words to show that the seamy side of life has called for special terms. But the frequent use of zigonner, ” to saw a horse’s mouth,” is one proof of the lamentable fact that habitants are among the very worst horse-masters in the world. Unpleasing turns of thought, too, are revealed by the universal word for women-les créatures, by the bogey-name for the Devil—la Gripette, and by the feminine form of ” tom-fool ” —la bêtasse.

But, in spite of these exceptions, and partly by reason of the general contempt for the opposite fault of affected fine language- parler en termes, the habitant’s own new-found phraseology will pass with the best. Even his distance de quelques arpents is correct enough, where farms are staked out “on the square,” and the side of an acre naturally becomes a fixed measure of length. Fumez donc is no bad form of inviting you to sit down and spend the evening ; nor could people whose axes are worth half a chest of tools describe a penniless but capable man better than by calling him un homme a la hache. And what an old-time charm there is in the everyday remark about any honest pair of lovers—le cavalier fréquente sa blonde ; in the high road being still le chemin du Roi ; and even in the word octroi, the Canadian use of which, in the original sense of “assistance granted,” takes us far back to the old largesse of princes. How deeply, too, must the patriarchal lore have touched a popular fancy which sees a yearly manna for the teeming rivers in the infinitude of those flies so aptly called la manne des poissons. And, surely, the name peculiar to Laurencian twilight is drawn from the very source of poetry itself ; for, at the chill of sunset, the warmed hill-tops smoke with thickening mist, the afterglow burns through the dusking brown, and then, when darkness and light have met awhile—d la brunante, the Canadian day is over.

Habitant folklore is one more witness to the scientific truth that older forms live longest in self centred and remote communities. For the habitant, coming out from the remoter Northern Provinces while mediævalisn still existed there, have ever since preserved their ancient lore in a new environment so very favourable to a segregated life.

Priestly influence banished galanterie from the fête des noces and pagan wakes from every bel enterrement. The vaudeville meanings are not given to blonde and maîtresse. The cantica nefaria, abhorred by St. Augustine, are rare enough. Ste. Anne is invoked in song for missing sailor sons : “Bonne Sainte, rendez-moi mon fils—Il vente-C’est le vent de la mer qui nous tormente.” And pagan rites are only known in their Christian guise : La Guignolée, or cutting of the sacred mistletoe at the winter solstice, becoming a Christ mas quête for the poor ; and the summer fire in honour of the earth-gods becoming le feu de joie de la St. Jean. But unconverted relics of paganism still survive. Within quite recent years an old magicienne has sold favouring winds to sailors. Little trees are still put up on new houses, though without any conscious purpose of giving a new home to the dispossessed spirits of the wood cut down for building. Marianne’s donkey changes skins at Michaelmas. Wise animals and talking birds abound. The miller tricks the Devil into a sack and ties him to the mill-wheel. The voyageur sings bonsoir, Lutin, and shares a common superstition with the fisherman, whose blanc, blanc loup-marin is a mermaid or werwolf. And the plus savante rival supplants la fille du Roi by means of the Black Art.

The chief interest, however, centres in the folk-songs. Impersonal and objective in themselves they have the unselfconscious native insight of all true folklore ; and their appealing simplicity calls forth our sympathy at once and holds it fast with all the intimate and yearning charm of “Nature’s old felicities.” Not that they have any “natural magic” of their own ; for Nature is only a conventional background to some of their vivid little dramas. What really gives them their vital popularity is their intensely social qualities and it is this one companionable touch of Nature which makes them all akin. Habitants will always gladly turn away from the stern or beautiful immensity of Canadian scenes to sing their fancy back into that quaint, strayed, old-French life,, where all their common joys and sorrows of to-day still find a home. Verse and music are inseparably one. The more ancient airs link the songs still more closely with the past ; for folk-melody is far older than any modern music, and you may still hear Gregorian love-songs among the remoter habitants, while the more modern airs help to wing the verse both fast and far ; for many of them are singularly pure, some of them excellently apt, and a few have learnt the spell which binds ear and heart for ever.

But, though man alone may form the burden of his song, the true Canadian folksinger is, in himself, always and everywhere a voice of Nature’s own. And once, in particular, I happened to hear his own wild melody blent with hers in supremely perfect harmony. It was far up the fiord-river Saguenay, amid a scene of beauty hushed in awe. The warm, mid-summer night was wholly calm, the great cleft gorges full of soft moonlight, which turned to gleaming silver at the touch of water, and floated there at rest, over vast, still depths. The two gigantic guardian Capes of La Trinité and L’Eternité flanked the little bay, where my tiny yacht swung quietly at anchor, as the last of the flood pulsed slumberingly along the shore. The white whales had come in here to seek their prey, and turned seaward again with a tumult of snorting plunges. A far-off loon had given his last weird, re-echoing laugh. And then there came another—and this time a human—voice, from nearer by, among the full-leaved shadows ; at first in wayward snatches, like a bird’s prelude ; but soon rising to the full outburst of a heart caught unawares, and singing unconscious of the world around. And this lone strain of love importunate was then as much a part of Nature’s wildness there as the cry of that calling night-bird, the mighty breaths of those leviathans, the deep pulsation of the tide, or the sheer silence of those everlasting hills.