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French Canada: A Modern Feudal State

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

When the British conquest of Canada officially-ended the one hundred and fifty years of warfare against the French way of life in America, French Canadians had already lost sympathy with the new religious and political trends in France which were preparing the way for the Revolution there. Thenceforth, they turned their eyes inward upon America, and commenced their bloodless, but ceaseless, struggle for the continuation of their peculiar heritage. Today, no less an integrated people than they were during the Old Regime, they form one-third of the population of Canada, and are recognized as the most significant minority in the Western Hemisphere.

In some quarters in Canada and in the United States, especially in those which feel the pressure of French Canada’s increasing population, these people are feared, much as they were in colonial times, and to the older legends of their ignorance and backwardness are now added an assortment of current bugaboos. On the other hand, the ever-recurrent fear of the French Canadian is that in the name of “Liberty” and under the guise of “protection against aggression” he will be absorbed and regimented by a great power in the struggle for world domination.

As world events bring the inhabitants of this continent closer together, we are now faced with the necessity of piercing the fog that has so long obscured French Canada and of discovering for ourselves this civilization which for three hundred years has flourished to the north of us.


Essentially, the colonization of Canada was a religious crusade, a recrudescence of the mediaeval spirit following the close of the religious wars in France. Practically all the ancestors of the present French Canadian people crossed the seas while religious fervor and enterprise were at their height in this harvest time of the Reformation. It was the intention of the leaders to establish on the banks of the Saint Lawrence a French community—a model France—which would serve as a base of operation for the missionaries and as a school of life for the savages. All other objectives were incidental to this principal aim: the conversion of the Indians to Christianity by way of French civilization.

Of this purpose the rank and file were fully informed, and they, like their leaders, volunteered their services to the cause. Having found fulfillment—or rather, integration—in the Catholic way of life, they were impelled by their vision of the perfect society to renounce a secure life in France for a life of sacrifice in behalf of a people less fortunate than themselves. This was a regeneration of the finer intent and spirit of the Crusades. It was a crusade without the hatred, without the brutality and the violence, of the earlier movements. It was modified by a rise of several centuries in the European cultural level, and was characterized by good will and friendliness toward the intended proselytes. Demanding little of the Indian in the way of material things, it gave him much; it respected his property, his rights, and even his system of government.

In New France there was established a class society openly acknowledged as such by all the participants. Founded on the religious principles enunciated by the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, it was governed by the social and political principles of feudalism; it was directed by the schooled minds of clerical and lay aristocrats, whose unselfish devotion to their people is one of the brightest pages of Western history. It was a balanced society: that is, the three classes which composed it were numerically proportionate to one another. There was no serfdom in New France. All were free men and free women; such was their status in France before they undertook their perilous journey to the New World and none of them was in flight from oppressive conditions in the homeland.

Champlain was the outrider of the enterprise. Mont-magny, Maisonneuve, Laval de Montmorency, the Jesuits, the Sulpiciens, the early Seigneurs, and their followers were the men who gave conclusive form to French Canadianism. They were the first French Canadians. They received the blessing of the Crown exactly as had the earlier Crusaders to the Holy Land. And in the style of Crusaders, they set up in Canada a feudal government, which, in spirit and in actuality, stripped the Crown of the pretensions it had taken on since the days of Louis XI. When despotism became a reality in France, the colonists escaped its designs upon them, for their political skill had set up in New France a chain of local governments—feudal entities—that were independent of the state and allowed the colonists to pursue their own chosen way of life.

The Crown lost all but titular control when it vested the management of French Canadian affairs in the leaders named above. Their way of life had been fashioned by the trials and searchings of the Reformation. In their repudiation of the appalling moral breakdown which had taken place during the Renaissance, and in their unwillingness to be diverted by the alluring laissez-faire inherent in Protestantism, they reaffirmed their faith in the basic principles of Christianity. Thus they were an exception to the already crumbling nobility of Europe—a nobility which had forgotten its raison d’etre during the Renaissance, which was disregarding the lessons of the Reformation, and which was about to find its grave between the Scylla of Versailles and the Charybdis of English mercantile theories. These early French Canadian leaders exemplified a continuation of the feudal spirit which had led the Western peoples out of barbarism. They led the way to New France not by king’s command but by virtue of an authority above kingly power. The king in their eyes was like a king of feudal days, and they considered his authority an ideal authority: to be real and to merit obedience, it had to be in harmony with a scheme of social relations whose rules were known to all, and it had to exemplify the concepts of Christianity as they were formulated by centuries of thought and experience.

Even functionaries who were sent over later by the Crown recaptured in this new milieu some measure of the independence they had lost at the puppet show at Versailles. Royal decrees which infringed upon the liberties of French Canadians were quietly set aside and nonchalantly forgotten by royal appointee and colonist alike. This was not rebellion; it was the way obnoxious royal decrees were handled in the high days of feudalism. There was no degradation of the common people here as there was in the France of the later Bourbons; and there is ample proof that they were lively, spirited, courteous, and free in the best sense of the word.

In contrast to the conditions which prevailed in the thirteen British colonies, the native-born in French Canada took over, as time went on, nearly all the executive and judicial positions in the colony. Also, such graft as New France yielded was garnered chiefly by French Canadians. Voltaire was more justified than is generally recognized when he dismissed Canada as a disappointment—”a million acres of snow.” France in the meantime had become a mercantile state, and Voltaire, as an orthodox merchant, demanded immediate profits. These not having been realized, France had long before practically washed its hands of the venture.

The striking success of feudalism as it was practiced in New France has been overlooked even by students of that form of government because the history of New France has been confounded with that of France itself. For the world-shaking events which took place in France from 1600 to 1700 —the transition from feudalism to despotism—so overshadow French Canadian affairs that historians have indiscriminately assumed that they parallel the developments in New France. But from the time when the colony was firmly established in 1632-1633, its history should be disentangled from that of France.

The relation of New France to France was that of a free walled town on the outskirts of a despotism, and a free walled, town French Canada has endeavored to remain during the developments leading to the present world anarchy. The voice of TAbb6 Lionel Groulx, speaking a few days after the departure of their Britannic Majesties from Halifax in 1939, seems like a voice out of the Middle Ages: “We want collaboration, national union; but we want a collaboration in which we shall be treated as partners, in which we shall have full liberty to remain what we are—French Canadians.” This is but an adaptation of the basic statement of feudalism. For this was the cry of the feudal chieftains and peoples against the encroachments of the Crown, against unreasonable demands of a central government, against aggressive neighbors. It is an accurate summary of the French Canadian attitude toward the Bourbon Kings, the British Imperial government since 1763, English Canadians, and now toward the outside world, democracies and dictatorships alike. It is the cry of the French Canadian against the regimentation the modern state is imposing upon its citizens. It is a concept rooted in the best thought of mediaeval times; it strips nationalism of its murderous proclivities; and it is repeated now, at a time when a half-dozen swollen nationalities are acting in a manner that bids fair to bring about the total collapse of Western civilization.

Unlike the French of Canada, most of the settlers who came to the Thirteen Colonies had left their homes in protest against religious, economic, or political conditions prevailing in their motherland. From their beginning, the American people have been a part of that great movement of protest known as the Reformation, which began as an attempt at reform within the Catholic Church, then progressed, for a large part of European society, to protests against certain sections of Church doctrine, and finally expanded into a repudiation of the entire mediaeval way of life. Theirs was a general revolt against authority-—not merely a revolt against the Church—and its mainsprings lay in the efforts of the common classes to wrest control of society from the upper classes.

But in the new orders that followed, only a few were able to better their condition; and the bulk of the common classes were no less, and perhaps more, dispossessed than they had been in the old order; they still protested; and they turned to the New World for opportunities which the Old World denied them. Shrewd mercantile interests in England financed the emigration of these people, and set them to work. Encouraged and often misled into indenture, an astonishingly large proportion of the emigrants reached the Colonies not as free men but as indentured servants. . Moreover, countless thousands—the shanghaied, transported criminals, civil offenders, the unwanted poor, and the Negroes—were unwilling participants in the enterprise.

In general, the men who occupied positions of rule in the British colonies sprang from families which had achieved eminence in trade, and from the common classes. Even those accustomed in some degree to exercise rule were excessively outnumbered by the rank and file. There were not enough such men to go around, and as wave after wave of immigrants arrived, the proportion of the upper classes to the remainder of the population steadily diminished. American historians are fond of writing that the feudal impulse withered away in the Thirteen Colonies. None of them has grasped the primary fact that the colonists had no choice in the matter. A feudal society cannot exist unless the three classes which compose it are present in workable proportion to each other.

All these colonists, willing and unwilling, free men and partly free, were “on the make.” They lacked the directing hand of the upper classes, particularly of an intellectual class, And their tendency has been—in the name of Liberty—progressively to throw off all restraint. For as the demands for laborers became more and more urgent, the system of indentured servitude was slowly replaced by a system of undisguised slavery—for the Negro. Then, with loud shouts of “Liberty I”—their abuse of which still leaves the observer appalled—the Americans started their slow march across the continent, during which they ousted everyone in the way, and that despite the well-meaning nobility of thought in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. On only two occasions has this march been checked, and both times by French Canadians. And now that the vanguard of the dispossessed, as personified by the Joads, has recoiled upon the main American body, is not our reawakened interest in Canada most timely? If French Canadians seem likely to resist our new wave of expansion, they are already courting rough handling, as history shows, and as current publicity about them begins to give evidence.


The Quebec Act of 1774 conceded all that French Canadians asked of the British government, short of evacuation of the province. It guaranteed to them the free exercise of their religion, the establishment of their Church, and the retention of their language and civil law. They welcomed the Act; but Americans greeted it with a storm of abuse almost impossible to exaggerate. It was denounced in pulpits, public meetings, and newspapers in all the Colonies. Reflecting accurately all this sentiment, the Continental Congress of 1774 sent letters of protest to the British Crown, Parliament, and people, in which it called the Act

unjust, unconstitutional, and most dangerous and destructive of American rights. . . . We cannot suppress our astonishment that a British Parliament should ever consent to establish in that country [Canada] a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.

Congress then immediately wrote an open letter to French Canadians, urging them to join the rebellion against British tyranny. This letter, an extraordinary blending of barefaced lies, flattery, and intimidation, contained this clause: “We are too well acquainted with the liberality of sentiment distinguishing your nation to imagine that difference of religion will prejudice you against a hearty amity with us.” The circulation of all these letters in England enabled Doctor Samuel Johnson to entitle his broadside on the subject, “Hypocrisy Unmasked.”

French Canadian leaders, acquainted with the letters, reassured the British government of their loyalty. But at this time, the authorities in London asked Carleton, Governor of Canada, to conscript six thousand French Canadians for the purpose of suppressing the revolt in the Thirteen Colonies. Carleton, innocently enough, expected that French Canadian appreciation of the Quebec Act would lead the people to rise as one man in defense of British interests not only in Canada, but also outside Canada, specifically in the Thirteen Colonies. He therefore called on the Seigneurs to assemble the militia and proposed to send it to the rescue of the British besieged in Boston.

After some hesitation, the Seigneurs undertook their task, but the French Canadians refused to be mobilized. When the Continental Army crossed the border, Carleton himself called out the entire militia, basing his action on the feudal law of the Old Regime. But in conscripting them, he violated their feudal laws, which did not call on them for military service in a purely British crisis. He was therefore met with an adamant non-compliance which was by no means a new development in the history of the French Canadians. The great majority of them looked on the American Revolution as a civil war among the English people. It was a violent quarrel over the loot of the continent. This was not their affair, and they stubbornly refused to be used by either side. And when their leaders, Seigneurs and clergy, urged them to active participation on the English side, their indignation fell on the heads of the seigneurial class, but passed over the clergy for reasons which will follow.

In the meantime they had received the Continental Army with courtesy, even with hospitality, and had provided the food and clothing which it desperately needed. How else could one receive an army which had arrived in Canada sick, woebegone, and nearly destitute? But in the disappointment over their failure to take Quebec, the American soldiers pillaged the countryside, or paid for purchases with worthless paper money—and all this not without violence.

Nevertheless, many French Canadians, smarting under unpleasant contacts with the English, undoubtedly sympathized with the Americans; others were influenced by American propaganda; and a small but increasing number extended aid to the cause. But at this point their clerical leaders enunciated a policy which coincided with the innermost wishes of the whole people. While continuing to recommend aid to the English, the Church issued stern warnings against treason. The people were reminded of their oath of allegiance, and of the sanctity of that oath. Church policy did not require them to fight for English interests, but it did exact loyalty as the minimum obligation. Thus the question of behavior was transformed from a purely political to a moral issue, which in truth it was. And they have since as a group consciously and consistently preferred to maintain their heritage by orderly and peaceful means within the law of an empire which they did not enter voluntarily. This is the French Canadian foreign policy.

In their disappointment over French Canadian non-participation in British or American wars, critics have overlooked the services this neutrality has rendered to both British and American interests. It is now recognized that French Canadians held the balance of power on the continent during the Revolution. They could muster fifteen thousand well trained and fully armed soldiers who greatly outnumbered the British stationed there. Had these soldiers joined the Americans, few will deny that the British must have lost Canada. If, on the other hand, these soldiers had fought actively with the British, Burgoyne in all probability would not have been forced to surrender. Thus the American alliance with France, which was clinched by his defeat, might never have been consummated and the Revolution might have lacked the decisive aid rendered by the French Crown, A similar situation prevailed during the War of 1812. On each occasion a certain number of French Canadians fought on the English side, more in 1812 than during the Revolution. English and American historians minimize their numbers and the extent of their aid; French Canadian historians exaggerate them. The decisive factor was the utter neutrality of the overwhelming majority.


The concept of separateness of church and state, taken for granted by Americans, is the greatest obstacle in the way of comprehending French Canadianism. The Quebecois have never subscribed to such a separation. They came to Canada to establish a Christian community, and a Christian community they have ever since maintained. Their way of life is based on the scholasticism of Aquinas. Untouched by Cartesian rationalism, they hold that man is a unit, that any one of his activities is inseparable from the whole, and should be scrutinized in the light of his highest guide in life, which is accepted to be his religion. In their schema, education has remained in the hands of the Church and has been administered by the ablest and most disinterested men and women the community can produce.

When Andre” Siegfried wrote: “If French Canadian civilization is to be complete, it must build up a culture of its own, and not rely on a Catholic culture. . . he failed to grasp the essence of that civilization. For it is the primary aim of this people to build a Christian culture and only secondarily a French Canadian culture. The central idea is universalism, not sectarianism, not racialism, not the hateful nationalism of today. French Canadianism is a localism such as prevailed in Europe when people were united by a central philosophy which was above any political party, above any mere man, whether cleric or king or even pope, and certainly above the idea of the State to which we are subjected today. Feudalism, political label for the whole system, protected the local way of life and yet prohibited it from exploding into violent Nordic movements, Italian-Aryan-isms, empires on which the sun never sets, or one hundred per cent Americanisms. Siegfried was advising the French Canadian people to go the way of modern nationalism. This, up to now, they have refused to do. For their ideal is substantially the kind of society advocated by such men as Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, Bernard Idd-ings Bell, and Ralph Adams Cram, whose criticisms of the present order are fundamental and based on a morality.

French Canadians remain a feudal society in which the clergy is freely acknowledged as a ruling class by the whole people. But as such it has been answerable to the people for its power. The authority which it exercises rests on the rock of noblesse oblige. By conscious policy, superior ability has been sought out as it appears in the parochial schools. For the son of a poor family a way is found to continue his training for leadership. Thus this tightly knit society has continued and extended a system which develops an ever-renewed intellectual class and places its members in positions of authority—not on the basis of chance or votes or business acumen—but on the basis of merit early recognized and carefully trained. This is a desideratum to which our own leaders have awakened only within the last generation.

French Canadian policies are forged by clergy and people. In differences between the two—more frequent than outsiders suppose—compromises have been reached which represented the best morality in the whole people. For all have been fundamentally guided by an authority they willingly and sincerely accepted: the cardinal principles of Christianity. Neither the Church nor the people imposed the will of one upon the other during the American Revolution. The Manitoba school crisis of the eighteen-nineties, which divided Canadians into two bitterly opposed nationalities, was settled by Laurier on a basis of principle which few will deny today. But his proposal was originally not satisfactory to the Church and he was clamorously denounced by the entire clergy. He then carried the question to the Canadian people, and the popular vote in French Canada was overwhelmingly in his favor. During the last war, Bourassa opposed the Church hierarchy on its war policy, and was supported by a large section of the lower clergy itself, But when the whole war issue was crystallized by the imposition on French Ca-nadians of conscription for overseas service, the Church played its usual moderating r61e, insisting upon loyalty to the constituted government, and no resistance beyond legal resistance. In this policy, both Laurier and Bourassa concurred, for they were faithful, even devout sons of the Church.

These are examples of a class society functioning within a moral code to preserve not only individual liberties but also the whole society. One class acted as a check on the other. Both on occasion have fallen short of the religious idealism which led to the establishment of the colony. But in the stress of a crisis, they eventually found reunion on a basis which has progressively rejected war or violence as an instrument of national policy.


The relative material poverty of French Canadians— traditional since the conquest—is undeniable. But that this is due to an equally traditional poverty of education does not follow. By relating material poverty with a lack of education and then charging the Church with what is called “the backwardness of the French Canadian,” Britishers are again urging upon them the English and American way of life, holding out economic reward as bait. “Get an education”— meaning an English-American education—”and all will be well” is the English Canadian’s advice to his French countryman. But this sets up a criterion of education which French Canadians have shown little disposition to accept. Moreover, it ignores the fact that most North American fortunes and near fortunes were accumulated by uneducated men.

The dissatisfaction of French Canadians over their economic position has existed since the conquest. But since the last war, it has found voice. After having disengaged themselves from political servitude—at least partially—the French Canadians who now seek the prizes of economic success find themselves in the midst of an era of both genuine and pseudo specialists in science and business. They feel that the material rewards which have gone to certain English Canadian groups and corporations have been very great, and that their services to the whole Canadian society have been inadequate. Moreover, as American Big Business, chain stores, and utility money increasingly cross the border and set up shop, French Canadians are being driven out of small business as well. They are the “workers” while the others are the “bosses.”

Their approach to economic betterment is political, always allowing that in politics as in all their other activities the Church exercises a pontifical role, though this is limited to the enunciation and the application of the basic moral principles which the whole society insists be its final court of appeal. They recognize that the economic advantages which the English Canadian enjoys were secured by political means, violent in their primary aspect, but none the less political. And they are unlikely to change radically their system of education, in which the ideal is a general education, A scholastic training, as opposed to training ad hoc. It is true that some Americanization of their many schools and colleges has taken place recently, and that commercial courses have been added to their curricula. But nowhere is there any evidence of the widespread degradation of academic standards which has occurred in even the greatest American institutions of higher learning.

The whole French Canadian people quickly rejected Communism, for the Russians had openly set up the Godless State. Hence the attempts, some wise, some unwise, to protect French Canada from it. The padlock law—much criticized, but only sporadically enforced—was an effort to solve a problem which has not yet been solved by the outside world except by similar methods or by war.

The Quebecois have been especially interested in the Scandinavian co-operatives and in the corporatism of Fascist Italy. From this have come some twenty different varieties of corporatism as well as a medley of other movements variously labeled. But it must be remembered that French Canadians enjoy only a relative political freedom; they have no power to initiate or to carry into effect the sweeping changes involved in corporatism. Their position is necessarily a negative one, and it is in this aspect that their intentions become most evident. They reject in toto the corporatism attempted in the United States: the N. R. A., for instance, when the people were subjected to the rules and regulations drawn up by the employers alone. They reject emphatically the kind of corporatism that results in the appointment of a James Walker, or any other purely political figure, as the czar of an industry. The grandiose ideas of the A. F. L. and the C. I. O. they look on as a manifestation of class warfare which can lead only to disaster. Their one positive contribution has been the formation of Catholic unions which aim generally to bind the employers and the workers of an industry into a whole to be governed essentially by a moral code—Christianity. In disputes between the two, the umpire is the trained and trusted clergy, itself subject to the code.

Since corporatism is associated in the common mind with the unpleasant Italy of Mussolini, groups hostile to French Canadians have not hesitated to label the whole people as Fascist, and for good measure as anti-Semitic. These charges, based on misunderstanding and fear, are greatly exaggerated, and are in part a projection upon them of lamentable factors in English Canadian-American life itself. For despite mournful predictions that by displaying this interest French Canadians are courting a “new” slavery, it seems assured from every precedent in their history that any would-be French Canadian duce would meet the same fate as did Papineau, who was deserted when he attempted to introduce the revolutionary ideas of France and the United States.

In so far as concerns anti-Semitism, Arcand’s party-mouthpiece for all the indecent anti-Jewish sentiment in French Canada—attracted an admittedly very small following, a small fraction of the whole people. Relatively few newsstands carried his newspaper when it was published; there was not enough demand for it.

Lord Durham and Andre Siegfried, ubiquitous twins in any discussion of Canada, the one an English imperialist and the other a modern Frenchman, were on more certain ground when they commented on English Canadians. They believed that English Canadians would revolt or would secede before they saw themselves outvoted by French Canadians. (It is estimated that the year 1971 will see French Canadians outnumbering their English countrymen.) Of late this judgment has been receiving renewed attention from English Canadian publicists, who are discussing possible union with the United States, usually in connection with the present international crisis.

French Canadians know how prevalent this sentiment is throughout English Canada, and it tells them without equivocation what they have already learned through experience. It means that were English Canadians in the political and economic position in which French Canadians now are and have been for more than one hundred and fifty years, they would repudiate all their fine words about an ideal Canadian state based on religious, economic, and political equality. And it describes more eloquently than anything else the actual condition of Canada today. It not only constitutes a challenge to French Canadianism; it makes a travesty of democracy itself, and puts at naught the effort of generations of both English and French to solve this problem that must be solved if civilization is to survive: the problem of different peoples living side by side without one dominating the others.


Today, the French Canadian is the counterpart of the Frenchman of feudal France, that is, of the France that existed before Louis XIV destroyed the remnants of feudalism there, and before France became a mercantile state on the English model. The alienation of French Canada from France dates from the last quarter of the seventeenth century, not from the so-called abandonment of 1763, nor from the French Revolution, which merely increased the rift between the two. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Remy de Gourmont—fin de siecle aesthete and master of the French language—counseled the French to look to French Canadians for the best method of protecting their language from Anglicisms, and called attention to the creative vitality the language had retained in Canada. This and other similar factors helped to bring about a rediscovery of French Canada by France, and interest in Quebec’s development has steadily increased. And in this twilight of the modern French state, it seems not at all unlikely that more and more Frenchmen will again co-operate with French Canadians on the basis of their original relationship.

The French Canadian sees little difference between the American and the English Canadian, always excepting the “Loyalists” of Ontario, whose aim in life seems to be to relegate the French Canadian to political servitude. But this last group French Canadians have met successfully, though not without the help of innumerable English Canadians and of the Crown itself. It is true, however, that French Canadians will resist Americanization. And here beginneth a paradox. For by Americanism the French Canadian means not only “liberalism” and “international trade unions,” as has been advertised, but materialism, Big Business, standardization, Hollywood movies, the trash of the radio, and the degradation of democracy as well. These are the things that strike at the very root of his life. And these are things that have struck terror into more than one American heart. French Canadians, looking on the American scene, could agree with Henry Adams, who wrote:

As I look back on our sixty years of conscious life, I have to search for a word of warm satisfaction. Again and again we pinned our hopes on some figure, but it always got drowned in the mud. The “Lives” of our contemporaries now fill our book-shelves, and not one of them offers a thought. Since the Civil War I think we have produced not one figure that will be remembered a lifetime.

French Canadians know and feel with Henry Adams what had been the promise of America in the early years of the American Republic, particularly during the Administration of Jefferson. With him they see the rule of the Grants, Blaines, McKinleys, Carnegies, Goulds, and rotten political machines. He, on the other hand, would have seen with them the extensions and intensifications of these ills in present-day life. But with Adams’s despair, with his abdication, which has been paraphrased, “This is a business man’s world; let the business man run it,” French Canadians will not agree.


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