The Peopling of Canada
Phillip Buckner looks at the characteristics of a double wave of colonisation between 1700 and 1900, which gave Canada its unique character.
Canada's experience of European imperialism has been both longer and more diverse than any of the major European colonies of settlement in the Americas. Indeed, parallels with those colonies are misleading for Canada alone was the creation not only of two imperial powers but of two distinct periods of European colonisation.
During the first period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries all of the European colonies of settlement grew painfully slowly but none more painfully and slowly than the French colonies in Canada. Neither Acadia nor New France possessed the potential for plantation economies and the only exports that they produced of value to the mother country were fish and furs. The fisheries were of considerable economic importance, but did not require permanent settlements for their exploitation. The fur trade drew France into the interior of North America, but it could not sustain a large population base.
The French crown placed responsibility for colonisation in the hands of a succession of chartered companies until 1663 when it made a concerted effort to increase the population of New France. The costs were high and after 1672 the French monarchy returned primary responsibility for transporting colonists to French merchants. The flow of emigrants dwindled to a trickle. When Acadia was surrendered to the British in 1713, its population was about 1,000. At the time of its surrender in 1763 New France numbered around 75,000.
No more than a few hundred French settlers paid their own way across the Atlantic and there was a substantial preponderance of single, particularly single male, migrants. Peter Moogk estimates that about 10,250 migrants made their home in Canada between 1608 and 1760: 3,500 soldiers, 1,800 Acadians, 1,500 French women, 1,200 indentured workers, 900 slaves, 600 British subjects (most taken captive during the wars with the British), 500 male clergy, 250 self-financed migrants, and 200 deported prisoners. If these figures are correct, New France was even more of a military settlement than previously thought since soldiers formed a third of the total number of colonists. Since at least some of the soldiers and workers did not come from France, the origins of the population were also considerably more diverse than is traditionally assumed. The role of the French women, who had the highest retention rate of any group of migrants to the colony, was undoubtedly critical in the transmission of French culture, as was the role of the church, since all residents had to be Catholic.
Initially the chartered companies lacked incentive to colonise and the fur trade hindered agricultural development by employing large numbers of men in the interior of the colony. Yet after the first half of the seventeenth century the fur traders were aware that without a substantial base along the St Lawrence their furs and their scalps would end up decorating an Iroquois longhouse. The failure to create a larger colony had more to do with the imbalance of the sexes. Women of marital age continued to be outnumbered by men by more than two to one during the mid-seventeenth century and without a wife a male could not establish a viable farm. After 1700 the sexes came into balance but without substantial immigration New France grew slowly through natural increase.
Since half-a-million French Protestants left France between 1660 and 1710 the decision to exclude Protestants may have denied to the colony a valuable source of immigrants. Yet it is far from certain that a large number of French Protestants would have emigrated if allowed to do so. In any event the Catholic population of France was large enough to have supplied New France with all the settlers it required. Why then did they not go? One explanation emphasises the demands of the French army, which was many times larger than that of Britain's, and it is plausible that employment opportunities in the army reduced the number of potential emigrants.
But a large pool of itinerant land-less labourers and unemployed artisans still existed in France and a peasant class suffering from high levels of feudal exactions and taxation. Some historians have therefore suggested that it was the land tenure system in France which discouraged emigration. In England the peasantry had lost their title to the land and had become tenants or wage labourers. In France, on the other hand, the peas- ants not only retained their titles but clung to the land tenaciously. But this hypothesis fails to explain why so many of those who did migrate subsequently abandoned New France. Something of the order of 27,000 French men and women emigrated but close to 70 per cent returned to France.
Historians have, in fact, been beguiled by the obvious comparisons with New England, which was created in one rush by a large number of families who came not to trade but to farm and who had the resources to establish viable communities. New France did not begin with this initial advantage and so could not offset the locational disadvantages of its climate, harsh environment and limited resources. Moreover, New France was almost continuously at war, with the Iroquois in the seventeenth century and the Thirteen Colonies in the eighteenth. It is hardly surprising that such a large proportion of the French immigrants were drawn from the military. New France began life as a fur trading post but ended it as a military outpost with a small colony attached to the base.
In the years immediately following the conquest the former French colonies received only a handful of British emigrants. Between 1763 and 1775, 125,000 emigrants from the British Isles sailed for British America, but virtually all of them went to the Thirteen Colonies. Indeed, the Thirteen Colonies, not the British Isles, was responsible for most of settlers who came to Canada prior to 1815. Americans came in three waves. The first consisted of some 7-8,000 New Englanders who occupied the lands forcibly vacated by the Acadians in Nova Scotia, and a few hundred Americans who went to Quebec. The second and largest wave were Loyalists, compelled to leave the newly established United States after 1783. Around 60,000 came to build new homes in the remnants of the first British Empire in North America. In the 1790s a third wave of American immigrants (erroneously described as Late Loyalists) came in search of land. The war of 1812-14 put an end to further migration from the United States but there was precious little about British North America that was British in 1815. By far the largest colony was Lower Canada with a population of about 335,000, of whom nearly 90 per cent were descendants of the original French emigrants. Outside of the urban areas, the French-Canadians had no need to learn English and they continued to live under their own civil law and to follow traditional inheritance practices. With virtually no migration from France for half a century French-Canadians had developed a strong sense of ethnic solidarity. In the remaining colonies the of population was approaching 200,000, a substantial majority of them descendants of American migrants; most of their trade and their cultural ties were with the United States.
All this would change because of a second wave of colonisation from the British Isles after 1815. Over the next half century substantially more than a million British emigrants poured into British North America. Many did not stay but moved on to the United States. Nonetheless, the population of Canada at the time of Confederation in 1867 was around 3 ½ million, nearly seven times what it had been in 1815. The migration to Canada was remarkably homogeneous compared with the much larger migration to the United States in this period. Except for a small influx of Germans, almost all of the immigrants came from the British Isles.
The sheer scale of the migration, which peaked in the quarter century from 1830 to 1854, meant that every province except Quebec had a majority composed of the British-born and their children by 1867. Even in Quebec the British minority had grown to nearly 25 per cent of the population.
The vast majority of the migrants paid their own way across the Atlantic. Since none came as indentured servants and slavery never took root, British North America was developed almost entirely by free labour. Male migrants slightly out-numbered women, but the majority came as part of a family migration, even though some members of the family often had to precede others. Most migrants, even those from urban areas, sought to acquire land of their own and most ended up in rural areas occupying family farms.
The frontier experience of these immigrants was remarkably short-lived. Since the majority came after 1830 and settlement was virtually complete by the 1860s, eastern British North America was trans- formed from a wilderness into a series of comparatively densely populated communities within a single generation. Nor did nineteenth-century British immigrants face a prolonged conflict with native peoples. They were not a kinder, gentler people than earlier migrants, but they settled in areas where, because of the ravages of European diseases and the prolonged conflicts of an earlier period, the native peoples were too few in number to offer effective resistance to the spread of settlement.
The British immigrants also overwhelmed the earlier American migrants. Lower Canada continued to have a substantial French-Canadian majority, but even the French-Canadians were compelled to make substantial changes in their society in order to survive within the second British Empire and within a Canada in which the British immigrants and their descendants formed a numerical majority.
Although migrants came from all parts of the British Isles, the English Canada that came into being in the first half of the nineteenth century was more Irish and more Scottish than the mother country. The Irish formed close to 60 per cent of the emigrants. Most of what has been written about the Irish in Canada has suffered from erroneous comparison with the Irish in the United States and an obsession with the Irish Famine. In fact, the mass movement of Irish to Canada peaked earlier than to the United States and the vast majority of Canada's Irish arrived before the onset of the Great Famine in 1845. The famine years did see an enormous increase in immigrants, but most of them continued on to the United States. In the later 1850s Irish migration to Canada dropped precipitously, at a time when Irish migration to the United States was dramatically increasing. Not only did Irish migration to Canada largely precede the famine but the majority of those who settled in Canada were Protestants, not Catholics.
Early nineteenth-century transatlantic Irish migrants were rarely destitute. More typically they came from comfortable farming classes who feared a future loss of status. They migrated as part of a family movement and were destined not to become indigent labourers but to acquire land and become agricultural pioneers. In the later years the income and skill level of the migrants dropped hut the vast majority of those without resources were attracted to the United States. In many of the urban centres, in the lumber and railway construction camps, there were clusters of Irish labourers, but they were not the norm. Even the Catholic Irish were not so dramatically over-represented among the labouring classes as is usually assumed. Moreover, the Irish were significantly represented among the educated elite of the colonies; many of the judges, customs officers and surveyors were graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, and every colony had its Irish-born merchants, lawyers and doctors. In large parts of New Brunswick and the Canadas the Irish presence was so large that they did not so much overwhelm the existing settlers as absorb them.
The Scots were also disproportionately represented among the migrants, forming about 15 per cent of the total. Small numbers of Highlanders had begun to trickle into British North America before 1815. A people in transition from a clan-based society dependent upon subsistence agriculture, they moved across the Atlantic as part of communal groups under traditional clan leadership to protest against the economic transformation of the Highlands. But Highlanders composed a diminishing pro- portion of the migrants after 1815, because as economic conditions in the Highlands deteriorated, fewer and fewer could afford the costs of a passage. The majority of Scottish migrants came from the highly commercialised economy of the central Lowlands. By the early nineteenth century Lowland Scots were already a highly mobile people. Like the Irish, most moved as families and settled on the land as farmers, although there was a significant proportion of artisans among the migrants.
Not surprisingly, in view of the superior Scottish system of higher education and the over-supply of professionals in Scotland, Scottish university graduates played an important role in developing Canada's system of higher education and were strongly represented in the fields of law and medicine. Moreover, Scottish commercial links with British North America were strong. Scottish involvement in the fur trade increased the numbers of Scottish merchants in Quebec in the late eighteenth century but the real growth came with the expansion of the colonial timber and grain trades in the nineteenth. Scottish firms dominated the import and export trade of the colonies and provided the leadership in organising the Canadian banking system.
Less is known about the pattern of migration from England and Wales. Welsh migrants were comparatively few and probably came from groups suffering from the same kind of dislocation as the Scottish Highlanders. English migrants outnumbered Scottish, forming some 20-25 per cent of the total. They also migrated as families, though rarely as part of a community. Many were moderately successful farmers or skilled artisans and, particularly in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the English influx included a substantial proportion of recently demobilised army officers. As with many of the Scottish and Irish migrants, this was probably not the first move for many of the English and in British North America many would move again to achieve eventual economic security for themselves and their families.
The migrants would take with them, and for a long time would preserve, the ethnic and regional distinctions that had divided them in the Old World. But nineteenth-century Britain was less fragmented than in the past. The prolonged wars with France had contributed to this process of unification and to the growth of a sense of British nationalism. There remained a good deal of popular unrest throughout the British Isles after 1815 but the rapid growth of the British economy in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the opportunities offered by an expanding empire, and Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the Great Reform Bill of 1832 channelled the discontent along constitutional lines and consolidated this new sense of British nationalism.
British immigrants carried these attitudes with them to the colonies. They were the children of the second British Empire, an empire infinitely larger and more impressive than the first. The heirs of the Loyalists already had a tradition of loyalty to crown and empire. The arrival of the British immigrants reinforced this tradition; indeed, they appropriated it. No group was more pronounced in their loyalty than the Protestant Irish who expressed their commitment to both Protestantism and the British constitutional monarchy through the Orange Order. In Canada the Orange Order expanded far beyond its ethnic roots and by the end of the nineteenth century about one-third of all English-speaking adult Canadian males belonged to it. Many Irish Catholics did not, of course, share the enthusiasm of the other British immigrants for the imperial connection, but those most disaffected made their way to the United States. While Fenianism had its supporters in Canada, it possessed nothing like the popular appeal it had either in Ireland or in the United States and was opposed by many leading Canadian Irish Catholics.
By the time of Confederation these immigrants had transformed the landscape. In 1815, except in Lower Canada, British North America had consisted of a series of thinly populated colonies. Most settlers were engaged in subsistence agriculture, although the fisheries were important and the timber trade had begun to develop. There were few urban centres and limited contact between the tiny provincial capitals and the outports scattered around the colonies. Except for small numbers of Americans and a trickle of Scots, there were few immigrants after the 1790s and population growth occurred largely through natural increase. In the half century after 1815 the population soared. All of the good arable land – and much of the not so good – was occupied and the land cleared of trees. Villages sprung up across the countryside and were linked by roads and by the 1850s in the more densely populated regions by canals and railroads. The newcomers were used to a competitive market economy and they quickly turned to the production of timber and wheat, the two great staple industries of early nineteenth-century Canada. They were encouraged to do so by the rapidly expanding British market in which colonial wheat and timber had a comparative advantage because of the system of protective duties imposed during the Napoleonic wars. Of course, subsistence agriculture persisted in remoter or less well endowed areas, but it usually had to be combined with some kind of wage labour in order to purchase manufactured goods, most of them now imported from Britain.
The commercial system was based on a chain of credit that stretched back to the mother country. Britain had a larger volume of trade with the United States than with Canada but there was not the same degree of dependency in the United States on the British market, which continued to absorb the bulk of British North America's exports even after the protective duties were removed. Most of British North America's imports also came from Britain, as did the capital that financed the railways of the 1850s and 1860s. British North America was not settled by small self-sufficient farmers gradually inching along the frontier. It was settled in one great influx by British immigrants who were quickly integrated into the nineteenth-century imperial economy.
The benefits of that integration were not universally shared. There was upward mobility in British North America. The earlier settlers benefited from later expansion and the inflation in land prices, but those who came out to the colonies with even small amounts of capital possessed an enormous advantage over those who did not. The latter group might eventually acquire land but it was more likely less desirable land suitable only for subsistence agriculture. By the 1860s many rural communities contained a class of backland farmers who were compelled to supplement their incomes by off-farm labour. In those industries requiring greater capital investment, such as the fisheries and the timber trade, most of the profits inevitably remained in the hands of British merchants and their colonial partners. In the urban centres disparities of wealth were even more pronounced. Social mobility was for those with capital or at least connections. Indeed, the real beneficiaries of economic growth were the colonial merchants, lawyers and administrators who acted as intermediaries for British merchants and investors. Inevitably they were largely drawn from among the British immigrants and quite naturally they were the most enthusiastic supporters of the imperial connection.
The colonies not only imported British manufactured goods and capital but also British engineers and technology, British troops to defend them during boundary disputes with the United States, British lawyers and judges to shape and to run the legal system, doctors from British medical schools to establish standards for the medical profession, British university graduates to teach in their colleges, British textbooks to use in their schools, and British architectural designs for their public buildings, their churches and even their homes. Particularly in the period after 1830, when most of the immigrants arrived, Britain was in the words of George Kitson Clark 'an expanding society', spreading its influence across the globe, but few countries experienced the force of this pressure as Canada did. British North Americans were not immune to influences from the United States, but the distance between Britain and her North American colonies shrank during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The passage across the Atlantic became easier and quicker. Colonial newspapers carried regular reports of events in Britain and they were seldom more than a few days out of date after the laying of the Atlantic cable.
The British North American elites frequently crossed the Atlantic to lobby British politicians, to arrange for loans from British bankers, to strengthen commercial alliances with British merchants, to visit friends and relatives they had left behind, or simply as tourists. A number of prominent British North Americans retired in Britain and members of the colonial elites eagerly sought titles and honours from the imperial! government. Loyalty to the empire did not, of course, mean subservience, for British North Americans considered local self- government as part of their birthright and all of the colonies received the institution of an Assembly.
In Upper Canada and Lower Canada disputes between the Assemblies and the imperial Government led to rebellions in 1837. These rebellions reflected the growing anxiety felt by groups who did not want to see British North America more closely integrated into the second British Empire. French Canadians were legitimately fearful of the growth of a substantial British community in their midst and the rebellion of 1837 in Lower Canada was born of those fears. In Upper Canada the rebellion was a much smaller affair supported primarily by descendants of the pre-1815 American migrants. In Lower Canada the rebellion was crushed by the combined might of imperial forces and the British minority; in Upper Canada the rebellion was so weakly supported that no imperial troops were required. In the aftermath of the rebellions the British Government soon realised that to retain the loyalty of its subjects, including the ever larger British-born population, it would have to give them control over their own internal affairs. The solution was the adoption of the principle of responsible government, a principle gradually extended to all of the colonies of settlement. The British Government would continue to play a part in the running of the colonies, but British North Americans now had the power to shape their own future as part of f the larger empire to which they quite happily belonged.
Even most French Canadians came to accommodate themselves to the imperial connection. In 1846 one French-Canadian politician predicted that:
We will never forget our allegiance till the last cannon which is shot on this continent in defence of Great Britain is fired by the hand of a French Canadian.
Not all French Canadians shared this enthusiasm but as the economy of Quebec became increasingly commercialised and the French Canadian bourgeoisie benefited from the prosperity generated by the imperial connection, the elite certainly did.
In 1867 British North Americans decided to unite into a single political unit, but they did not do so in order to create an independent state. Indeed, 'the majority of the immigrants of the post-Napoleonic period and their offspring felt themselves to be part of a common British culture. To them Confederation was seen as the best way of preserving the imperial connection. More British immigrants went to the United States than to British North America in the nineteenth century but there they became, in Charlotte Erickson's words, 'invisible immigrants', forced to adapt to a society and a political culture that had been shaped by the descendants of those who had emigrated during the first period of European colonisation. In Canada, however, British immigrants came in such r large numbers during the nineteenth century that they were able to over- whelm the existing settlers and lay the foundation for an enduring imperial connection.
Phillip Buckner is Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick and author of The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America 1815-1860 (Greenwood Press, 1985).
- Peter N. Moogk, 'Reluctant Exiles: Emigrants from France in Canada before 1760', William and Mary Quarterly (1989)
- W.J. Eccles, The Canadian Frontier 1534-1760 (1983)
- Helen I. Cowan, British Emigration to British North America: The First Hundred Years (University of Toronto, 1961)
- Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement: Patterns, Links & Letters (University of Toronto, 1990)
- P.A. Buckner, English Canada – The Founding Generations: British Migration to British North America, 1815-1865, Canada House Lecture Series Number 54 (Academic Relations Division, Canadian High Commission, 1993)
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