Thursday, November 29, 2012

Notes on the Durham Report and French Canadians

"In a Report from a Committee of the Assembly in 1826, of which Mr. Andrew Steuart was chairman, it is stated, that since 1784 population of the seigniories had quadrupled, while the number of cattle had only doubled, and the quantity of land in cultivation had only increased one-third. Complaints of distress are constant, and the deterioration of the condition of a great part of the population admitted on all hands. A people so circumstanced must alter their mode of life. If they wish to maintain the same kind of rude, but well-provided agricultural existence, it must be by removing into those parts of the country in which the English are settled; or if they cling to their present residence, they can only obtain a livelihood by deserting their present employment, and working for wages on farms, or in commercial occupations under English capitalists. But their present proprietary and inactive condition is one which no political arrangements can perpetuate. Were the French Canadians to be guarded from the influx of any other population, their condition in a few years would be similar to that of the poorest of the Irish peasantry.

There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature."

This passage from the Durham Report demonstrates how important it was in instigating Canada's long bourgeois revolution from above. As the strange Other that spearheaded the 1837-38 rebellions, the French Canadians were a central concern of Lord Durham. Durham was commissioned by the Crown to report on the political crisis in British North America.

Durham proposed assimilating the racialized French Canadians through forced dispersal into majority English regions within British North America. This was not a far-fetched idea. It had been carried out before with the Acadians. Another way of dealing with the French Canadians was proletarianizing them, subjecting them to dependence on wage labour and the discipline of the market. They could either work on the farms as waged labour, or become an urban working class where English capitalism was king. The latter route was taken, initiating the emergence of an urban French Canadian workers movement by the late 1860s (in sometimes violent competition with the Irish, Quebec's other racialized urban work force). French Canadians would, until the early 1960s, provide a massive pool of cheap labour for Canadian capitalism.

Much of the racialization revolved around blaming the French Canadian character for the population's economic woes. In reality, Quebec was going through a major agricultural crisis not uncommon to the feudal mode of production. This included soil exhaustion, land-crowding and the absence of a developed home market. Many French Canadian farmers recognized this problem. The abolition of the seigneurial system was one of their revolutionary demands in the 1837-38 rebellions, along with abolition the ruling "Chateau Clique" in favour of popular democratic sovereignty.

While the rebellion was put down, both these demands were eventually implemented as reforms from above. "Responsible government" was granted in 1848 and the seigneurial system abolished in 1854 (at the height of Canada's first railway boom). Canada's bourgeois revolution started with a genuine popular uprising. While the uprising was defeated, it set in motion a bourgeois revolution from above that was not completed until 1885. Riel's hanging on November 16 1885 came only nine days after the CPR's last spike.

It is not until the last half of the 20th century, from the 1940s through the 1970s, that French Canadians destroyed this century-old founding pillar of Canada in which they were a racialized and super-exploited segment of the population living in economic and cultural apartheid. Quebec's workers movement was the largest and leading social force in these 20th century transformations. This is only one example of how profound revolutions are required if the injustices embedded in Canada's long-standing economic and political arrangements are to be resolved.