With the Eccles Centre Visiting Canadian Fellowship I was able to pursue my research into French Canadian Loyalism between the 1763 cession of Canada and the 1840 Act of Union, writes Damien-Claude Bélanger. The British Library’s excellent material relating to parliamentary debates and committees was important to my research and reveals new insights into French Canada’s relationship with Britishness and the Empire.
I spent a month in the British Library researching the various French Canadians delegates who came to London to lobby the British authorities between the 1763 cession of Canada and the 1840 Act of Union. The project is tied to a wider programme of research that I am pursuing on French Canadian loyalism, and will form the basis for a scholarly article that I was able to get underway during my time at the library.
Before arriving at the British Library, I had compiled a list of persons, using secondary sources, who had been delegated by a significant body or institution within French Canada and who came to London in order to lobby the imperial
authorities in favour of the expansion French Canadian rights. These delegates were most often appointed by the Roman Catholic Church, French Canada’s leading institution before the 1960s, but they were also selected by the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada and by various ad hoc committees and assemblies.
I chose to examine French Canadian delegations rather than Quebec delegations because my focus is on those missions that sought to expand French Canadian political, legal, and religious rights. Missions to London were also organised during the British Regime by leading English-speaking colonists, but these often had the goal of preventing the expansion of French Canadian rights.
Delegates were attempting to negotiate a place within the British Empire for French Canada. They hoped to participate in civic life within the framework of British political institutions while retaining the religious and social institutions that were particular to French Canada. In my research, I wanted to understand how successful these delegations were, overall, and what they reveal about French Canada’s relationship with Britishness and the Empire.
The British Library’s remarkable collection contains a great deal of material related to Quebec, and I was able to locate many sources related to my topic. The papers of Governor Frederick Haldimand and those of apostate Jesuit Pierre Roubaud were of great use to understanding the delegates who came to London in the 1780s, as were those of Lord Goderich for the 1830s. The British Library’s excellent material related to parliamentary debates and committees was also important to my research, especially to the missions that were organised as a response to legislative initiatives in the 1770s, and again in the 1820s and 1830s. Finally, I should note that the British Library’s general collection of books and microfilms contains remarkable material related to Quebec, including some, like Michel Chartier de Lotbinière’s 1774 pamphlet on the Quebec Act, which not currently available in any Canadian library. Indeed, the British Library’s collection of Canadian material compares quite favourably with that of some of Canada’s best research libraries.
The material at the library helped me to establish a list of 12 missions to London that were organised between 1763 and 1840. Some of the persons that I had initially regarded as delegates, like Joseph-Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry (1721-1797), who was the first Canadian seigneur to be presented to George III, do not appear to have been delegated by any particular group and were thus eliminated as a result of my research.
The goals of the various missions to London mirror the shifting priorities of French Canada’s elites. The issue of religious rights is present throughout the period under study, as a Catholic nation, French Canada, attempted to negotiate its place within a Protestant Empire. It was most acute, however, in the 1760s, when religious leaders sought to ensure the basic survival of Catholicism in Quebec. The issue of political and legal rights emerged soon thereafter and had become central to French Canadian missions by the 1820s and 1830s.
Most French Canadian missions met with little success. They failed because delegates were often denied the support of the British authorities at Quebec, or because their requests ran contrary to British policy. They also failed because they did not enjoy the support of powerful British lobbies and interest groups. For instance, unlike the representatives of Quebec’s Protestant merchants, French Canadian delegates were not successful in being able to cultivate support among the Britain’s business community. By and large, delegates from Quebec, a Catholic society that had recently been integrated into the British Empire, did not have entrées to Britain’s circles of wealth and power. Instead, the allies that they were able to cultivate tended to come from groups who were politically marginalised within the United Kingdom, like English Catholics, Irish nationalists, and radical reformers.
But the story of French Canadian efforts to directly lobby London is not by any means characterised by unrelenting failure. On the contrary, several missions achieved notable successes. When success was achieved, it was usually because delegates had the support of the British authorities at Quebec. Successful missions also enjoyed the support of the Roman Catholic Church and civil society in French Canada. They advanced moderate claims that ultimately fostered Britain’s long-term goal of maintaining order and British rule in Quebec. Prescient officials in fact understood that allowing Quebec to retain its culture and institutions was likely in Britain’s best interests.
Overall, my research on French Canadian delegates reveals the extent to which elites in French Canada sought to negotiate a place for Quebec within the British Empire. Delegates wished for Quebec to participate in imperial life on terms that allowed for the preservation of French Canada’s religious, legal, and cultural specificity. In doing so they developed an essentially civic notion of Britishness, one that rested on political institutions and British notions of equity and the rule of law.
The research I was able to complete during my stay in London will thus contribute to our understanding of Quebec’s place within the British Empire. It would not have been possible without the support of the BAAS and the Eccles Centre, and I am proud to record my appreciation for their assistance.
Damien-Claude Bélanger is an Associate Professor of Canadian history at the University of Ottawa and the co-founder of Mens : revue d’histoire intellectuelle et culturelle.