Brief History
Lower Canada refers to the Lower reaches of the St Lawrence River. It is similar to the modern day Quebec. Although the term Quebec, or New France, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries referred to a much larger area. It basically referred to the entire Great Lakes and surrounding tributaries of internal America. This area had come to be dominated by the French from 1603 onwards when hunters, trappers and missionaries plied the waterways in disbelief at the quantity and quality of wildlife that they came across. They eagerly traded with local Indian tribes and built small communities along the St Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and all of their tributaries. By the Seventeenth Century they were the dominant European power internally within the Northern Americas.

However, the British would challenge this hegemony from the Atlantic Seaboard. Initially, the continent was so vast that the small Europeans could exist in isolation from each other. However, as they grew and their populations swelled they began to compete with each other for resources; whether it was for fishing grounds, furs and pelts or trading rights with Indian tribes. Added to this local antagonism was the wider European rivalry between the English and French which was a barely concealed war between Catholicism and Protestantism. The English settlers in particular were devout Protestants and wished to restrict the influence of the Catholic church wherever it appeared - often refusing to allow Catholics to settle in their colonies. The French returned the complement and from 1627 forbade the settlement of non-Catholics anywhere in the New France territories.

Population increases would favour the English over the French throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From day one, the English settlers were committed to starting life afresh in the New World and set about growing enough food to make themselves self-sufficient and be able to support themselves. The good farming land meant that they could support a large population. It also helped that these more southerly colonies were significantly warmer and their winters were not as devastatingly cold as those in New France. The initial French settlers were fishermen, hunters and trappers and whilst they built small trading settlements these could not support large populations. This actually had the benefit of affording the French friendlier relations with the native Indian population as the Indians did not feel so threatened by these small French outposts. One other disadvantage to the French was the restriction of settlement to Catholics only. The French had a large (and industrious) Protestant Huguenot population that was attempting to flee persecution back in France. Many of these Huguenots ended up settling in the English Atlantic Colonies instead. Whereas although the English did have restrictions on Catholic immigration in some of the colonies, it was by no means universal. Indeed the colony of Maryland was specifically set up to accept Catholic settlers. So, as time went on the English colonies outgrew their French rivals. This was to have strategically important consequences as European rivalries spilled into North America.

As expected, the pressure on New France would come from the Atlantic seaboard colonies. In 1753, the British launched attacks to try and take the Ohio Valley and dislodge the French from the lower reaches of the Great Lakes. These attacks, although unsuccessful, presaged the fighting of the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763. This was a huge world wide war but manifested itself in the Americas as the French and Indian War. The first disaster for the French was the fall of Fort Louisbourg at the entrance of the St Lawrence in 1758. This disaster was quickly followed up in 1759 by General Wolfe's defeat of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City. The French had been overconfident going in to the war with what they regarded as the smaller and weaker Britain. They had not realised that British could build up a huge Navy and Army at short notice due to a modern banking system that allowed them to use credit and loans to fight the war. The French had no such course of action available to them and had to finance the fighting directly from taxation. The result was that the British would decisively outmanouevre the French and punched well above their weight. As a consequence, the French were forced to withdraw from the Americas by the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

Britain now found its American holdings to be the largest that they would ever be. They stretched from Florida to the Arctic Circle. They were also in charge of large numbers of Catholic Francophones who were not entirely happy at the change of their masters. The British used the term Quebec to refer to all of these captured territories. Although they also set aside a huge area to the West of the Appalachians for the Indians.

The British were suspicious of the loyalty of their new subjects but this loyalty would quickly be tested more than the British anticipated. Barely a decade later, the 13 colonies would rise in revolt and try to overthrow the British. The British were worried that their French speaking subjects would keenly join in with their troublesome colonists to the South and so tried to diffuse any problems before they started. In 1774, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act giving recognition to French law, Catholic religion and French language in the colony; before that Catholics had been excluded from public office and recruitment of priests and brothers forbidden, this had effectively shut down Quebec's schools and colleges. This was a significant concession and one that was probably better than anything they could have expected to extract from the 13 colonies. Despite some fighting in Quebec, the French population remained quiescent and did not join the revolt in any significant numbers. However, the ultimate victory of the 13 Colonies meant that the Quebec territories to the South of the Great Lakes were ceded to the new United States at the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

The American Revolution would have one more unintended consequence. Tens of thousands of loyalists would flee the American colonies seeking a safe haven. They settled throughout the Canadian colonies. However, many of these were English speaking Protestants who were not keen on finding themselves in a Francophone region with its own laws and customs. The British Government therefore passed a law in 1790 dividing Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada. Upper Canada would allow these loyalists to live in an area with British laws, customs and institutions whilst the French-speaking population of Lower Canada could maintain French civil law and their Catholic religion.

Not all the colonists were content with British rule and felt constrained in their dealings with Indians and the respect afforded to the various treaties that they had signed. In 1837 there was a significant rebellion led by Louis-Joseph Papineau and Robert Nelson. They formed an armed resistance group to seek an end to British colonial rule. Their actions resulted in rebellions in both Lower and Upper Canada. An unprepared British Army had to raise a local militia force. The rebel forces were soon defeated after having scored a victory in Saint-Denis, Quebec, east of Montreal.

This rebellion reawakened memories of the American Revolution for the British authorities. They quickly despatched Lord Durham to investigate and write a report on the causes and reasons for the rebellion. He stated: "I found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state: I found a struggle, not of principles, but of races..." He recommended that the two provinces be reunited into a single Province of Canada, but still maintaining a slight administrative division. Lower Canada would now be referred to as East Canada but it lost many of its rights in the Union.

This unhappy Union would actually prove a spur in the creation of the Self-Governing Federation of Canada in 1867. They were economically hurt by the British repeal of the Corn Laws which meant that they had lost their guaranteed price to a guaranteed market. French and English Canadians alike felt that they could regain control over their respective colonies if they combined into a Federation. They still had to worry about security from the United States - there were disputes over Maine and Oregon which nearly led to war on several occasions. The Canadian colonies needed to be able to provide each other with support if necessary but also had to still have British military support as a last resort. The American Civil War, despite distracting the Americans, also displayed their growing military power. Therefore there was no serious discussion of independence.

As a result of those deliberations, in 1867 the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, providing for the Confederation of four of these provinces: Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Union Flag
Union Flag
Map of Lower Canada
1721 Map of Canada
1763 Map of British America
1830 Map of Lower Canada
1763 - 1867


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by Stephen Luscombe