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Canada, An Early History, Part Two

Edited by: Robert Guisepi


The French government supplied more active support after the remarkable revival of royal power carried out by Cardinal de Richelieu in the 1620s. Richelieu sought to make French colonial policy comparable with that of England and the Netherlands, joint victors with France in the long struggle in Europe against Spain. These countries had found a means of both raising capital and enforcing trading rights through the medium of the joint stock company. Richelieu used his power to create such a company to exploit the resources and settle the lands of New France. This was the Company of New France, commonly called the "Hundred Associates" from the number of its shareholders. It was given broad powers and wide responsibility: the monopoly of trade with all New France, Acadia as well as Canada; powers of government; the obligation to take out 400 settlers a year; and the task of keeping New France in the Roman Catholic faith.

The company was chartered and its capital raised in 1627. The next year, however, war broke out with the English, who supported the French Protestants, or Huguenots, in their struggle against Richelieu. The war was mismanaged and inconclusive, but it gave a pretext for the Kirke brothers, English adventurers who had connections in France with Huguenot competitors of the Hundred Associates, to blockade the St. Lawrence in 1628 and to capture Quebec in 1629. For three years the fur trade was in the hands of the Kirkes and their French associates, the brothers de Caën. It was a stunning blow to the new company and to Champlain, who was taken prisoner to England. At the same time, Acadia, already raided from Virginia in 1613, was claimed by Scotland. An attempt at settlement there was made by Sir William Alexander, to whom Nova Scotia (New Scotland) had been granted by the Scottish king James VI (after 1603, James I of England).It is difficult to estimate the effect of the war on the policy of the Hundred Associates. The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye restored Canada and Acadia in 1632, and the company retook possession in 1633. On the surface all seemed to go smoothly. In 1633 Champlain returned as governor, the government and settlement of Acadia was farmed out to the vigorous Isaac de Razilly, and the Society of Jesus assumed sole responsibility for Roman Catholicism in Canada. The fur trade was resumed, and the Trois Rivières settlement was founded in 1634 to control the Saint-Maurice River. Settlement began, but the company seemed unable to recoup the losses caused by the capture of Quebec and by five years of trade disruption and seemed unable to make profits that would both pay dividends and provide for the costs of settlement. The company remained the proprietor of New France until 1663, providing a succession of governors and other officials, but it never succeeded in meeting its obligations to colonize. Weary of its profitless task, the company leased the fur trade to private companies and then, in 1645, to a group of Canadian residents known as the Community of Habitants.  

The character of French settlement

The fur trade was not the sole enterprise of New France. By 1645 settlers in Canada and Acadia were producing provisions for the fur traders and the annual ships. A characteristic mode of landholding, known as the seigniorial system, began to evolve. Under the system, the state granted parcels of land to seigneurs, who were responsible for securing settlers, called habitants, and for providing them with basic services such as a mill or a road to the nearest town. The habitants were granted large plots (averaging about 100 acres) and were obliged to pay dues--cens et rents--that included several days of service per year to the seigneur. On the surface the system appeared to resemble the feudal like seigniorial system in France. Three factors, however, made the system far more flexible and less feudal than its French counterpart: in New France, it was not the seigneur but the local militia captain who was district military leader; the seigneur was usually not of noble blood and enjoyed no special political distinction to set him apart from the habitants; and the abundance of land and the existence of a forest frontier undermined efforts by a seigneur to impose a true feudal like discipline on his habitants. One of the most important differences in the Canadian seigneurial system was that in New France the habitants effectively owned their plots and even had the right to will them to their children.

The great partner and sometime rival of the fur trade was the missionary endeavor of the Jesuits. They had two obligations: (1) to keep New France Catholic by ministering to its people and excluding Huguenots and (2) to convert the Indians. The missionaries made the conversion of the agrarian Huron their principal concern. Huronia was the hub of the inland fur trade. To make Huronia a Christian community would create a centre of Christianity and confirm the French commercial alliance with the Huron and their Algonquin clients. French missionaries had already visited Huronia in the mid-1620s, and in 1634 the Jesuits resumed the mission, which thrived, at least outwardly, for 10 years.

As the French-Huron alliance tightened, Iroquois hostility toward both parties increased. This was a case of traditional tribal trade rivalries being exacerbated by newer trade rivalries involving Europeans. The introduction of European weapons and the imperatives of the fur trade transformed the nature of Indian warfare, which once had been little more than blood sport. The Iroquois sought to eliminate the Huron and take complete control of the interior fur trade. Using firearms obtained from the Dutch in the Hudson River valley, they launched ever more devastating raids on Huronia. The French tightly controlled the firearms trade with their Huron allies, putting the latter at a tremendous disadvantage. In 1648 and 1649 the Iroquois inflicted major defeats on the Huron, virtually eliminating them as a significant factor in the region.

These checks to both the fur trade and the missions, at least in terms of the intentions and hopes of 1627, were the result not only of bad luck and poor management but also of the economic conditions of New France, which depended almost entirely on the fur trade for profit. Settlement was unprofitable to both the company and the colonists. The population of New France, therefore, grew quite slowly, rising from an estimated 200 residents (habitants) in 1642 to perhaps 2,500 by 1663; and by no means were all of these farmers. The fur trade, however, was booming, borne up by the fashion of the beaver felt hat in Europe. The traders brought French goods to trade with the flotillas of canoes that carried the furs of the Ottawa and Great Lakes countries, which before 1648 were usually manned by Huron middlemen. This was the sole commercial enterprise of New France.  

Royal control

New France, though a proprietary colony, was governed by the company, which appointed governors for Canada and Acadia, and a few dependent officers. The kings of France remained interested in the colony, both because of the vast potential wealth of the area and because the crown might have to resume the powers of government given to the Hundred Associates. Government was, in fact, very much what it would have been if the colony had been directly under the rule of the crown. In 1647 a council was established in New France that included the governor, the chief religious authority, the superior of the Jesuits, and the governor of Montreal. During the brief rule of the Community of Habitants, representatives (syndics) of the people of Quebec, Trois Rivières, and Montreal were consulted on local matters. This, however, was the nearest approach to anything like representative government. Government in New France, as in old, was authoritarian and paternalistic.

The assumption of power by Louis XIV, however, and the colonial ambitions of his great finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, led to a recasting of French colonial policy and of the government of New France. Colbert entrusted commercial policy to a new Company of the West Indies. Politically, he made New France a royal province, governed much like a province of France itself. It was to be governed by three persons: a governor, an intendant, and a bishop. The governor was the largely titular head of this triumvirate, although he was responsible for matters of defense and relations with the Indians. He was aided in his decision making by the Superior Council (first called the Sovereign Council), which was to advise him during the long periods when he had no communication with France. The intendant was responsible for internal matters, and the bishop administered mission work and the church. Both the intendant and the bishop were members of the council. Bitter rivalries were not unknown among these officials.

The general effect of Colbert's reorganization, however, was to give New France firm and rational government thereafter, strongly centralized and efficient for the times. The exception was Acadia. Torn by feuds among French rivals, claimed by England, and occupied by New Englanders eager to exploit its fishery, Acadia did not again become an effective part of New France until 1667-70.The strength of the royal government was in inverse proportion to the weakness of a small and scattered population. Great efforts made by the first intendant, Jean Talon, did indeed bring some thousands of settlers, hundreds of them women, to New France in the 1660s and early '70s. The population in 1666 reached 3,215; in 1676, about 8,500; thereafter, however, the population grew largely by natural increase, fortunately at a prodigious rate. Most of the population lived in the three towns (Montreal, Quebec, and Trois Rivières) and in seigneuries along the banks of the St. Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal. Scores of the men, however, went inland with the trading canoes, and some of these voyageurs remained inland permanently, marrying Indian women and fathering the Métis, or people of mixed French and Indian ancestry.

The frontier of New France was not a broad front of advance but, rather, a penetration of the wilderness via the rivers in search of furs and strategic position. Alliances with Indians continued to be necessary, and the Iroquois, who controlled the region south of Lakes Ontario and Erie in the 1650s, constantly challenged those alliances. Thus war with the Iroquois continued, as did the push into the interior, the explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette penetrating via the Mississippi River as far as the confluence with the Arkansas River.

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