Quebec’s relationship with English speaking Canada begins in 1759 with the British victory over France in North America during the Seven Year’s War and the seizure of their colony, New France aka. present day Quebec, though it extended through southwestern Ontario at the time. Known simply as the Conquest, the defeat of French general Louis-Joseph de Montcalm by English General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham (just outside Quebec City) ended the share of French resistance in the New World. The war wouldn’t conclude until the Treaty of Paris in 1763, but the remainder of the conflict was decided on European battlefields. In the Treaty of Paris, France surrendered the colony of New France in exchange for the more prosperous island of Guadeloupe. New France had been an expensive colony with a hard climate and produced few resources in return (remember they mostly had the fur trade posts and a handful of settlements along the St Lawrence), while Guadeloupe produced sugar.
The British assumed control of the colony and treated their new subject fairly well. This was surprising given the large number of Catholic French-speaking peoples now controlled by an anti-Catholic Protestant land of English speakers. Remember that less than a century before James II had been forced out as King by Parliament for being Catholic in 1688. But the British of 1763 were worried about the stability of their North American colonies (still including the US), and granted the French colonists the freedom to practise their religion, to speak their language, and other benefits. Remember that the expulsion of the entire French population in Acadia (present day New Brunswick/Nova Scotia) had occurred in 1755! With British control of the North American eastern seabord secure and the much larger New France population, expulsion was not considered.
This special treatment angered the Americans to the south and became one of the causes of their Revolution, as well as set an important precedent: Canadiens would be treated well. Even though the British undoubtedly took control of the province’s economy and political offices (those that existed at the time), it could have gone far worse.
The Canadiens survived under British rule for the next century. They twice refused to join an American war against the British, once during their Revolution and again during the War of 1812. Both times the French Catholic episcopate (the bishops) declared that their people had no interest in fighting a war that was not their concern. The Catholic hierarchy had a lot of influence among Canadiens. After the Conquest, much of the “ruling classes” had returned to France (or more likely had never set foot in the New World at all). In that social vacuum, the Catholic Church easily filled the void and formed a vital nexus for the broken French communities of New France. To survive in a sea of Protestant English speakers required a strong identity and connection to each other. That connection was only strengthened when threatened. In the first decades of British rule, it’s clear that Canadien isolation increasingly bound their religious faith to their language and culture.
The threat of assimilation was a constant one. After the American revolution, Americans still loyal to Britain fled north to what would be known as the Second British North America, Canada. The first being the now-independent American states. British Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia by the thousands, so much that they demanded their own colony be separated and New Brunswick was created in 1784. Thousands more were arriving in the sparsely populated lands of present day southwestern Ontario. The French Canadians were surrounded. French Canadians now because the English speakers had been immigrating into Montreal as part of the North American fur trade and other resource based industries. English Canadians became a fact when the Constitution Act of 1791 split the former colony of New France into Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Upper Canada (called so because it up the St Lawrence river) is present day Ontario, while Lower Canada is Quebec.
The British originally ceded the lands of Ontario to Indigenous peoples with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, but after the War of 1812 the Indigenous influence on the balance of power in North America between Britain and the United States was lost. Without being able to leverage a place between the two powers, as they had done for centuries between France and Britain and briefly with the Americans, North America’s Indigenous people were ignored and excluded. As a result English speakers settled the fertile and productive lands around places like York (Toronto) and Sandwhich (Windsor) that had been originally given to them.
Quebec was not immune to outside influence despite their isolation and the wishes of its Catholic Church. Ideas about American republicanism and secular government easily passed over the border and slowly spread throughout both Canadian colonies. In Lower Canada, American immigrants were also settling the land opened after the War of 1812 between the Great Lakes, also bringing ideas about the relationship between the government and its people. In 1837-38, two rebellions were launched. One in Upper Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie (grandfather of the Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King), which was small and failed quickly. One in Lower Canada led by Joseph Louis Papineau and was much larger and widespread. Both were put down relatively quickly, and Papineau and his compatriots fled to the US for some decades. These “revolutionaries” in Lower Canada wanted to remove the Church’s control over education and institute more democratic government. The colonies were still ultimately under the rule of the monarch-appointed Governor General, who led the colonies along with a small appointed “Cabinet” of advisors.
Two important developments should be noted in the decades leading up to Confederation 1867. One was the work of political leaders like Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin to institute “Responsible Government” in the Canadian colonies. Instead of being led by the Governor General, the colonies were led by a Cabinet of elected officials. The leader of the Cabinet was the Prime Minister – that is, the Chief Minister to the Monarch’s representative in the colony, the Governor General, just as the British Prime Minister served the Monarch directly. Though these liberal ideas eventually changed the political system of the colonies, they were never as pervasive and far-reaching as the 1837-38 revolutionaries in Lower Canada desired. The Catholic Church was still the chief institution in the colony, though it had nurtured a developing sense of French Canadian culture and identity.
In the aftermath of 1837-38, the British sent John Lambton, known to Canadians as Lord Durham, to resolve the crisis. The British were wary of another messy war for British North America and were determined to avoid a second (North) American Revolution. Lord Durham’s report, the Report on the Affairs of British North America, a famous historical text in Canada. One of its major conclusions that within Canada there were “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state.” The solution to the threat of revolution was to further assimilate the French Canadians into British culture since they possessed neither a history or a culture.
Luckily Durham’s more extreme suggestions were not implemented, but the French Canadians were outraged that at his claim that they had no history or culture. François-Xavier Garneau was a city clerk in Quebec who responded to Durham’s report by writing a history of Quebec, Histoire du Canada, that was published between 1845 and 1848. He detailed the survival of North America’s French speaking peoples, against the hard life of the colonies as well as the onset of British rule. Garneau’s history was accommodating to the Church, especially after receiving criticism for his first volume. He consciously portrayed them as saviors of the French people due to pressure from the Church. The Church still controlled French Canadians and played a vital role in government (in charge of education) and influenced their opinions. The most important fact of Garneau’s work was that Durham was wrong – the French Canadians had a story of their history as a people, unique to them among all the people in the world, and they alone were capable of telling it.
Skipping a few decades of political history: In 1867 Confederation united the colonies (now provinces) of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the Dominion of Canada. Quebec had agreed to Confederation as long as it was explicitly promised protection for all French speakers, inside and outside the province, in Dominion. In return, it promised to protect its English Canadian minority that lived in Montreal. Montreal had been a hub for North American trade for centuries, and since the Conquest, English speaking merchants had steadily arrived in the city. Quebec would respect their rights as long as French Canadian minorities would be protected in other provinces.