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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 his history.

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 very soon.

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 the means.

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 Sound.

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 foundation.

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 welcome.

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!

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Source: Canada and the Canadians, Volume I, 1849


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