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The French Canadian
At Penetanguishene you see the original pioneer of
the West, that unmistakable French Canadian, a good-natured,
indolent man, who is never active but in his canoe singing, or à
la chasse, a true voyageur, of which type of human
society the marks are wearing out fast, and the imprint will ere
long be illegible. It makes me serious, indeed, to contemplate the
Canadian of the old dominant race, and I shall enter a little into
Res ardua vetustis novitatem dare; and never could an author
impose upon himself a greater task than that of endeavoring
succinctly to trace such a history, in this age of railroads and
steam-vessels, or to bring before the mind's eye events which have
long slumbered in oblivion, but which it behoves thinking minds not
to lose sight of.
Man is now a locomotive animal, both as regards the faculties of
mind and of motion; unless in the schools, in the cabinet, or in
amusing fictions founded on fact, he rarely finds leisure to think
about a forgotten people.
Canada and Canadian affairs have, however, succeeded in interesting
the public of America and the public of Europe—the "go-ahead"
English reader in the New World—because Canada would be a very
desirable addition to the already overgrown Republic founded by the
Pilgrim Fathers and Europeans; because French interest looks with a
somewhat wistful eye to the race which at one time peopled and
governed so large a portion of the Columbian continent. Regrets,
mingling with desires, are powerful stimulants. An unconquerable and
natural jealousy exists in France that England should have succeeded
in laying the foundations of an empire, which bids fair to
perpetuate the glories of the Anglo-Saxon race in its Transatlantic
dominion; whilst the true Briton, on the other hand, regards Canada
as the apple of his eye, and sees with pleasure and with pride that
his beloved country, forewarned by the grand error committed at
Boston, and so prophetically denounced by Chatham, has obtained a
fairer and more fertile field for British legitimate ambition.
Tocqueville, a sensible and somewhat impartial writer, is the only
political foreign reasoner who has done justice to Canada; but it is
par parenthèse only; and even his powers of mind and of
reasoning, nurtured as they have been in republicanism, fail to
convince fearless hearts that democracy is a human necessity.
That the American nation will endeavor to put a wet blanket over
the nascent fires of Spanish ambition in the miserable new States of
the Northern Continent, and to absorb them in the stars of Columbia,
there can be no doubt. California, the most distant of the old
American settlements of Spain, has felt already the bald eagle's
claw; Texas is annexed; and unless European interests prevent it,
which they must do, Mexico, Guatemala, Yucatan, and all the petty
priest-ridden republics of the Isthmus, must follow, and that too
But what do the people of the United States, (for the government is
not a particeps, save by force,) pretend to effect by their enormous
sovereignty? The control probably of the Atlantic and Pacific
seaboards is the grand object, and, to effect this, Canada and Nova
Scotia stand in the way, and Canada and Nova Scotia are therefore
marked down as other Stars in the American galaxy.
The Russian empire is cited, as a case in point, for immense
extension being no obstacle to central coercion, or government, if
the term be more pleasing.
We forget that each individual State of the present Union repudiates
centralization, and acts independently. Little Maine wanted to go to
war with mighty England on its own bottom; and there was a rebellion
in Lesser Rhode Island, which puzzled all the diplomatists very
considerably. Now let us sketch a military picture, and bring out
the lights and shades boldly.
Suppose that the United States determines upon a war with Great
Britain, let us look to the consequences. Firstly, an immense
re-action has taken place in Canada, and a mass of growlers, who two
years ago would perhaps have been neutral, would readily take arms
now in favor of British institutions, simply because "impartiality"
has been evinced in governing them.
Next, the French Canadians have no idea of surrendering their homes,
their laws, their language, their altars, to the restless and
destructive people whose motto is "Liberty!" but whose mind is
"Submission," without reservation of creed or color.
Then, on the boundless West, innumerable Indians, disgusted by the
unceremonious manner in which the Big Knife has driven them out, are
ready, at the call of another Tecumseh, to hoist the red-cross flag.
In the South, the negro, already taught very carefully by the North
a lesson of emancipation, only waits the hour to commence a servile
and horrible war, worse than that exercised by the poor Cherokees
and Creeks in Florida, which, miserable as were the numbers, scanty
the resources, and indomitable the courage, defied the united means
and skill of the American armies to quell.
A person who ponders on these matters deplores the infatuation of
the mob, or of the western backwoodsmen, who advocate war to the
knife with England; for, should it unhappily occur and continue, war
to the knife it must be.
American orators have asserted that England, base as she is, dare
not, in this enlightened age, let loose the blacks. I fear that,
self-defense being the first law of Nature, rather than lose Canada,
and rather than not gain it, both England and the United States will
have recourse to every expedient likely to bring the matter to an
issue, and will abide by that Machiavelian axiom—the end sanctifies
An abominable outcry was raised during the last war against the
employment of the savage Indians with our armies; but the loudest in
this vituperation forgot that the Americans did the same, as far as
their scanty control over the Red Man permitted, and that, where it
failed, the barbarous backwoodsman completed the tragedy.
Making razor-strops of Tecumsehs' skin was not a very Christian
employment, in retaliation for a scalp found wrapped up in paper in
the writing-desk of a clerk, when the public offices were sacked at
Little York. The poor man most likely thought it a very great
curiosity; and I dare say there are some in the British Museum, as
well as preserved heads of the South Sea islanders.
A war between England and the United States is a calamity affecting
the whole world, and, excepting for political interest, or that
devouring fire burning in the breasts of so many for change, I am
persuaded that the intelligence of the Union is opposed to it.
America cannot sweep England from the seas, or blot out its
escutcheon from The Temple of Fame. It is child's play even to dream
of it. England is as vitally essential to the prosperity of America
as America is to the prosperity of England; and, although American
feelings are gaining ground in England, by which I do not mean that
the President of the United States will ever govern our island, but
independent notions and axioms similar to those practiced in the
Union; yet the time has not, nor ever will, arrive, that Britain
will succumb to the United States, either from policy or fear, any
more than that her grandchildren, on this side of the Atlantic,
could pull down the Stars and Stripes, and run the meteor flag up to
the mast-head again.
The United States is a wonderful confederation, and Nature seems, in
creating that people, to have given them constitutions resembling
the summers of the northern portion of the New World, where she
makes things grow ten times as fast as elsewhere. A grain of wheat
takes a decent time to ripen in England, and requires the sweat of
the brow and the labor of the hands to bring it to perfection; but
in North America it becomes flour and food almost before it is in
ear in the old country. Nature marches quick in America, but is soon
exhausted; so her people there think and act ten times as fast as
elsewhere, and die before they are aged. The women are old at
thirty, and boys of fifteen are men; and so they ripe and ripe, and
so they rot and rot.
Everything in the States goes at a railroad pace; every carter or
teamster is a Solon, in his own idea; and every citizen is a king
de facto, for he rules the powers that be. They think in America
too fast for genius to expand to purpose; and as their digestion is
impaired by a Napoleonic style of eating, so very powerful and very
highly cultivated minds are comparatively rare in the Union. There
is no time for study, and they take a democratic road to learning.
And yet, ceteris paribus, the Union produces great men and
great minds; and if any thing but dollars was paid attention to, the
literature of America would soon be upon a par with that of the Old
World; as it is, it pays better to reprint French and English
authors than to tax the brains of the natives.
For this reason, the agricultural population of the States are more
reasonable, more amiable, and more original than those engaged in
incessant trade. I have seen an American farmer in my travels this
year, who was the perfect image of the English franklin, before his
daughters wore parasols and thrummed the piano. Oh, railways, ye
have much to answer for! for, although the prosperity of the mass
may be increased by you, the happiness and contentment of the
million is deteriorating every day.
I am not about to write a history of Canada at present, for that is
already done, as far as its military annals are concerned, during
the three years since I last addressed the public; but it shall yet
slumber awhile in its box of pine wood, until the time is ripe for
development: I merely intend here to put together some reminiscences
which strike me as to the part the French Canadian has played, and
to show that we should neither forget nor neglect him.
Canada, as it is well known, was French, both by claim of discovery
and by the more powerful right of possession.
Stimulated by the fame of Cabot, and ambitious to be pilots of the
Meta Incognita, that visionary channel which was to conduct European
valor to the golden Cathay and to the rich Spice Islands of the
East, French adventurers eagerly sought the coveted honors which
such a voyage could not fail to yield them, and to combine
overflowing wealth with chivalric renown. France, England, Spain,
Portugal, and Italy, sent forth those daring spirits whose hopes
were uniformly crushed, either by encountering the unbroken line of
continental coast, or dashed to pieces amidst the terrors of that
truly Cimmerian region, where ice and fog, cold and darkness,
contend for empire.
Of all those heroic navigators, who would have rivaled Columbus
under happier circumstances, none were successful, even in a limited
sense, in attempting to reach China by the northern Atlantic,
excepting the French alone, who may fairly be allowed the merit of
having traversed nearly one half of the broadest portion of the New
World in the discovery of the St. Lawrence and its connecting
streams, and in having afterwards reached Mexico by the Mississippi.
Even in our own days, nearly four centuries after the Columbian era,
the idea of reaching China by the North Pole has not been abandoned,
and is actively pursuing by the most enlightened naval government in
the world, and, very possibly, will be achieved; and, as coal exists
on the northern frozen coasts, we shall have ports established,
where the British ensign will fly, in the realms of eternal
frost—nay, more, we shall yet place an iron belt from the Atlantic
to the Pacific, a railroad from Halifax to Nootka Sound, and thus
reach China in a pleasure voyage.
I recollect that, about twelve years ago, a person of very strong
mind, who edited the "Patriot," a newspaper published at Toronto,
Mr. Thomas Dalton, was looked upon as a mere enthusiast, because one
of his favorite ideas, frequently expressed, was, that much time
would not elapse before the teas and silks of China would be
transported direct from the shores of the Pacific to Toronto, by
canal, by river, by railroad, and by steam.
Twelve years have scarcely passed since he first broached such an
apparently preposterous notion, as people of limited views
universally esteemed it; and yet he nearly lived to see an
uninterrupted steamboat communication from England to Lake
Superior—a consummation which those who laughed at him then never
even dreamt of—and now a railroad all the way to the Pacific is in
progress of discussion.
Mac Taggart, a lively Scotch civil engineer, who wrote, in 1829, an
amusing work, entitled "Three Years in Canada," was even more
sanguine on this subject; and, as he was a clerk of works on the
Rideau Canal, naturally turned his attention to the practicability
of opening a road by water, by the lakes and rivers, to Nootka
Two thousand miles of water road by the Ottawa, the St. Lawrence,
and the Welland, has been opened in 1845, and a future generation
will see the white and bearded stranger toiling over the rocky
barriers that alone remain to repel his advances between the great
Superior and the Pacific. A New Simplon and a peaceful Napoleonic
mind will accomplish this.
The China trade will receive an impulse; and, as the arms of England
have overcome those of the Celestial Empire, and we are colonizing
the outer Barbarian, so shall we colonize the shores of the Pacific,
south of Russian America, in order to retain the supremacy of
British influence both in India and in China. The vast and splendid
forests north of the Columbia River will, ere long, furnish the
dockyards of the Pacific coast with the inexhaustible means of
extending our commercial and our military marine.
And who were the pioneers? who cleared the way for this enterprise?
Frenchmen! The hardy, the enduring, the chivalrous Gaul, penetrated
from the Atlantic, in frail vessels, as far as these frail barks
could carry him; and where their service ceased, with ready courage
adopted the still more fragile transport afforded by the canoe of
the Indian, in which, singing merrily, he traversed the greater part
of the northern continent, and actually discovered all that we now
know, and much more, since lapsed into oblivion.
But his genius was that of conquest, and not of permanent
colonization; and, trammeled by feudal laws and observances,
although he extended the national domain and the glory of France
beyond his most ardent desire, yet he took no steps to insure its
duration, and thus left the Saxon and the Anglo-Norman to
consolidate the structure of which he had merely laid the extensive
But, even now, amidst all the enlightenment of the Christian
nations, the descendants of the French in Canada shake off the dust
of feudality with painful difficulty; and, instead of quietly
yielding to a better order of things, prefer to dwell, from sire to
son, the willing slaves of customs derived from the obsolete decrees
of a despotic monarchy.
Whether they individually are gainers or losers by thus adhering to
the rules which guided their ancestors, is another question, too
difficult for discussion to grapple with here. As far as worldly
happiness and simple contentment are concerned, I believe they would
lose by the change, which, however, must take place. The restless
and enterprising American is too close a neighbor to let them
slumber long in contented ignorance.
The Frenchman was, however, adapted, by his nature, to win his way,
either by friendship or by force, among the warlike and untutored
sons of the forest. Accommodating himself with ease to the nomadic
life of the tribes; contrasting his gay and lively temperament with
the solemn taciturnity and immoveable phlegm of the savage; dazzling
him with the splendor of his religious ceremonies; abstemious in
his diet, and coinciding in his recklessness of life; equally a
warrior and equally a hunter; unmoved by the dangers of canoe
navigation, for which he seemed as well adapted as the Red Man
himself; the enterprising Gaul was everywhere feared and everywhere
The Briton, on the contrary, cold as the Indian, but not so cunning;
accustomed to comparative luxury and ease; despising the child of
the woods as an inferior caste; accompanied in his wars or
wanderings by no outward and visible sign of the religion he would
fain implant; unaccustomed to yield even to his equals in opinion;
unprepared for alternate seasons of severe fasting or riotous
plenty; and wholly without that sanguine temper which causes mirth
and song to break forth spontaneously amidst the most painful toil
and privations; was not the best of pioneers in the wilderness, and
was, therefore, not received with open arms by the American
aboriginal nations, until experience had taught the sterling value
of his character, or, rather, until it became thoroughly apparent.
To this day, where, in the interminable wilderness, all trace of
French influence is buried, the Indian reveres the recollections of
his forefathers respecting that gallant race; and, wherever the
canoe now penetrates, the solemn and silent shades of the vast West,
the Bois Brulé, or mixed offspring of the Indian and the Frenchman,
may be heard awakening the slumber of ages with carols derived from
the olden France, as he paddles swiftly and merrily along.
Such was the Frenchman, such the French Canadian; let us therefore
give due honor to their descendants, and let not any feeling of
distrust or dislike enter our minds against a race of men, who, from
my long acquaintance with them, are, I am fully persuaded, the most
innocent, the most contented, and the most happy yeomanry and
peasantry of the whole civilized world.
I have observed already, in a former work, that, as far as my
experience of traveling in the wilds of Canada goes, and it is
rather extensive, I should always in future journeys prefer to
provide myself with the true French Canadian boatmen, or voyageurs,
or, in default of them, with Indians. With either I should feel
perfectly at ease; and, having crossed the mountain waves of Huron
in a Canada trading birch canoe with both, should have the less
hesitation in trusting myself in the trackless forest, under their
sole guidance and protection.
Honneur à Jean Baptiste!
C'est un si bon enfant!
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Source: Canada and the Canadians, Volume I, 1849
Canada and the Canadians