MY FRIEND, JEAN BAPTISTE
“It all goes back to the old days,” says Mr. Pearson, in explaining the reason for what others regard as some curious agricultural methods of Jean Baptiste. And he shows us that these same ‘old days’ have left the French-Canadian of to-day a legacy which is not without its disadvantages.
THE soil! That is the whole thing to these people. They have the French peasants’ love of the soil; they are not like us, they remain rooted in one spot.
“It is we who are Canadians,” they say,
“and you who are the newcomers, immigrants!” They are devoted to the soil in a spirit which no other class of people on the American continent can share or, perhaps, even understand. They won that soil from the forest, and they have remained on it.
Much of it was rocky; all had to be cleared of trees, if not stones; and stones still keep working up. With no resources but their hands and high hearts, they had to wrest from this rocky soil a livelihood for the inevitably large Quebec family. They did so wrest it, and in the effort, learned to love it. They are hard workers, patient and uncomplaining. The famous Montreal melon is an illustration. It is a Quebec product; it has never been successfully grown elsewhere, probably, because it requires such unremitting nursing as no other class of farmer has the patience for.
The tenacity with which the French cling to their own bit of land is indicated by the record. In 1908, toe Quebec government awarded medals to 270 families who still lived in homesteads created or acquired by their ancestors from two hundred to two hundred and fifty years before, and by 1916, when more publicity was given the matter, 1,400 such families were discovered who had maintained continuous residence in one spot since 1700 and before.
The government, of course, encourages large families and at one time a free grant of land was made to the heads of families that attained a certain size. According to the 1921 census, there were, then, 8,788,483 people in the Dominion, of whom 2,361,199 were in Quebec and 2,933,662 in Ontario. Twenty years before, there were only 1,648,898 in Quebec and 2,182,947 in Ontario. Thus, with over half a million people less than Ontario in 1901, the increase in Quebec in twenty years was almost equal to Ontario’s, and was almost entirely the natural increase of the native stock.
The birth rate is the highest in the world, with the exception of Roumania’s. In Ontario, it is twenty-four per thousand; in Quebec it is over thirty-eight. And in some rural districts, it is extremely high, as in Chicoutimi where it was sixty-nine per thousand in 1924.
But large families are no new development. They always have been favored and are historically in order. In the days of the French occupation, bachelors could not secure even a license for the fur trade, the only lucrative industry, nor for any other favored service. The settlers were thus not only encouraged to marry and rear families, but were penalized for not doing so. Twenty and more children in a family were not uncommon; and Premier Taschereau relates that in the family of one of his ancestors there were thirty-six children. When one hundred acres of land were granted to the fathers of twelve living children some years ago, three thousand qualified. In view of the fact that there are now three million or more descendants of the original thircy thousand French left in Canada, it is not unnatural that French-Canadians ascribe some of the credit of their survival as a race to their prolific tendencies and incline to continue them.
When these people are forced by conditions to move, they do not go far if they can help it, usually to some other portion of the province, or at least close to it. Formerly, the immigrants settled in many directions without pre-arrangement, but about fifty years ago, the Church took hold of the matter and began to direct this movement in such a manner as to prevent the
people scattering and being absorbed by their neighbors, and it was as a part of this policy that the country on the Gatineau River and around Lake St. John, and other portions of Quebec, were largely settled.
They have done wonders in places the outside world knows nothing about. Even in such an out-of-the-way place as the upper Saguenay River, above Chicoutimi, there are farms, than which there are no better anywhere, well-built and roomy houses, big fields of hay and wheat, and a happy-looking people. One hears that big business concerns are backing the French-Canadians and the Church. It is because they are conservative and would never countenance anything of a radical nature. Big business believes that as long as the Church maintains its authority, there never will be the labor, communist and other troubles rampant elsewhere. Long possession of the land has made them a contented and a happy people. Even French-Canadian factory labor has rarely felt the
unrest so common in most industrial districts; and the fact that this condition is always expected to continue, is the strongest talking point of the government of the province, and of the municipalities, in attracting new industries to Quebec. Certainly, they have every reason to believe such a prophecy, for every agency inculcates the workman with respect for authority and contentment with the lot in which it has pleased God to put him.
They are inspired by the fanatical tenacity of the Jews in the belief of a second coming, a second blooming of their race. They see it spreading and they point to their retention of their racial and lingual purity as proof. Much of the national life becomes the medium for the expression of this doctrine. Public men stress it i n their addresses and bishops urge it in pastoral letters to the clergy who similarly exhort theirtlocks; they live close to the soil and pass their beliefs down by word of mouth through the generations. With such a background so firmly imbedded in their hearts, is it any wonder these people love the land with supreme passion?
The Hon. Mr. David relates that one day, travelling between Quebec and Montreal, he saw, next to the railway, a farmer raking a field for the few wisps of hay which had been left behind. The train was thundering by at fifty miles an hour; the man, when the train passed, just barely turned his head and immediately resumed his labor.
“That,” said Mr. David, “is Quebec!” And so it is. Unlike the usual type of French-Canadian, who is thick and squat of build, many of the local people are slight and wiry, with shrewd, sharp features. About the middle of the last century, an epidemic of some virulent fever, which has passed into local history as ‘The Plague,’ swept Montreal and the adjacent countryside. Among the victims were a number of the tenants of the ‘Seigneur de Vaudreuil,’ similarly the newly-arrived Irish emigrants on board some ships in the harbor of Montreal. The Seigneur was anxious to replace his tenants who had died, and the survivors amongst the Irish emigrants were equally anxious to locate themselves, as soon as possible, far away from the plaguestricken ships, so they applied to be received as tenants. The Seigneur investigated the present character and former antecedents of the applicants, particularly as to religion and amenability to the proper authorities, and, after satisfying both himself and the religious authorities that the Irish emigrants were and with proper handling would continue to be, a satisfied peasantry, he received them into his seigneury and gave them lands, under the old system of tenure by which they held the land in fief from him at a nominal rent, paid in produce, mostly, as his ancestor had originally received it under similar terms from the French crown.
The result is that this countryside to-day is rich with these Murphys and others bearing old Irish names, who cannot speak a word of English and who are entirely French. But it means nothing to them; they associate only with the French, speak only that language; and if one asks them, they will reply that they are French. Now and then one will refer in a disinterested manner to a story he once heard that his grandfather was ‘English,’ for such is their description of anyone who speaks English, even though he be an American!
The Eastern Townships of Quebec offer the classical and most often-quoted example of the extent to which the French have thus assimilated or replaced English-speaking Canadians in Quebec and on the Ontario border. The counties of the Eastern Townships, Arthabaska, Brome, Compton, Drummond, Megantic, Missisquoi, Richmond, Shefford, Sherbrooke, Stanstead and Wolfe, constitute one of the most prosperous sections of Quebec, the heart of an extremely prosperous dairying and cheese district, which lies a few hours east of Montreal with the city of Sherbrooke for its centre: once English, they are now almost entirely French.
To come nearer home again, the South Shore of the St. Lawrence is populated with MacDonalds and Frasers and others of good old Scottish names who are FrenchCanadians in all but name, totally unacquainted with English speech or British ways; these the descendants of British soldiers w'ho married French girls after the loss of Canada by the French. In this village is an English emigrant, a Barnado boy, who was raised by a French family. He, too, is wholly French, married a French girl, has forgotten his native tongue and goes each New Year’s to his wife’s father to receive his blessing for the New Year. And until quite recently, he had never been so far away as Montreal; his wife has never been there.
Ribbon Counter Farms
IT ALL goes back to the old days. To understand the Quebec of to-day, to visualize what it may be to-morrow, one must reconstruct the past and remember that it voll always affect the future of this race. Climb the top of any hill near here, and one will see, in all directions, those long, narrow ribbons of farms lying, side by side, in summer-like strips of bright green ribbon, their bases resting on road or river; and in the villages, main streets a mile long, both a constant cause of laughing wonder to the unthinking tourist; they look so odd. In the old days when the new settler was accepted as a tenant by the seigneur and a site of land agreed upon for his farm, he was given a strip so many arpents, or acres, wide, for as far from the river as he could see a white horse from its banks on a clear day. At first it was always the river, one can imagine, for that was the only highway of travel and naturally the settler wished to be on it. Later came roads, adjoining which, farms were awarded on the same basis. In both cases it was length, and not breadth, that Jean Baptiste wanted, for his title to the land included certain responsibilities that were in direct proportion to the breadth of his frontage on the public highway of road or river. Thus on the road, he must maintain it on his frontage in the summer and keep it open for travel in the winter. And, in both cases, there was, in the presence of narrow farms, the added advantage of safety and of that social intercourse so dear to the French heart. Naturally, with a system of narrow farms, houses would be closer together, good alike for purposes of defense and for nights of fiddling and dancing and lusty singing of the old songs on cold winter nights when the snow lay deep and crackled under foot. With the years, the custom went on, refined to the point of hair-splitting when the farmer had a large family of sons to each of whom, was due a good warm farm. With such a precedent, how else could the parental acres be divided than by splitting them lengthwise, facing the road or the river? And when those sons in turn had sons, the division was made again, hence those narrow ribbons of farms and those long straggling main streets that characterize FrenchCanadian villages to-day.
A Portrait of a Drab
I HAVE said so much that is favorable of a people with whom I feel a greater affinity than I do with my own race, it is time to redress the balance, if a true picture is to be drawn.
There is a small settlement near here, in which a great deal of intermarriage has occurred, with its attendant depreciation of the human stock; a circumstance not peculiar to Quebec; publicity has been given to similar conditions in the Southern States of America, and quite recently in certain portions of Ontario. In this settlement the people are habitually destitute of everything needful, from food and clothes to a decent self-respect. In filthy rags all summer, in winter the pitiful little faces of children are pressed against the dirty window panes, either insufficiently clad to be allowed outdoors, or kept in because of the prevailing belief that the cold winter air is bad for them; and habitually huddled around the Quebec heater. On one farm, the woman, a young one, with, what in happier circumstances, would be some pretence to beauty, shares her husband’s labors; she chops, saws and piles wood and does all that he does, but sullenly and resentfully, a blasted life. In the Spring and Fall I always encounter them plowing their small and stony patch of ground grubben out between the cedars. She drives the ancient team and he holds the plow which, as it strikes the rock beneath, throws him, swearing good-humoredly, high in the air; she stalks along beside him, wordless, a scarecrow clad in rags so comical they are
the epitome of tragedy, potato-sacks tied together for a scanty skirt, a torn shirt of his for a ragged blouse that fails to hide her shrunken young breasts, nor does she care; coarse, soiled stockings, the wrecks of her husband’s working shoes, the faded finery of what was once a vast picture hat, its lonely, imitation ostrich feather still forlornly rooted in the weather-rotted straw; that is her costume: wordless, with face of stone she stumbles on, nor will she even say, ‘Bon jour!’ to the stranger when her man stops the team and shouts his cheery greeting. With
downcast head she eyes the earth, trembling in her rags, with fatigue or shame or both. “Giddap!” he cries, and still wordless, she stumbles on . . . Quebec at its worst.
There is amongst such people a curious lack of pride, almost of any decent self-respect, as though poverty had deprived them of it. But they seem to accept that poverty as their natural lot and do not give way to despair. Few of them but what are glad indeed to receive any charity offered them, and most of the farm women who come to the village to sell their produce, habitually ask their customers for old clothes or any other thing which might possibly be used. So general is that condition, that one charitably inclined neighbor who drives about the back-country a good deal, habitually carries with her all the old clothes of her own family and friends.
One would think that with such large families, the women would be expert in the care of children and babies, but such is not the case. Infant mortality is high, and with reason. P'ortunately, the present educational programme under the direction of the Hon. Athanase David is aimed at the correction of just such ignorance. The women lack initiative in the care of children as the men do in other departments. As employees, they do what
they are told, but they have too much respect for authority to venture anything on their own account.
It is a too common sight, even in the village, on a winter’s day, to see the little faces pressed against the window, shut up in the kitchen with a great fire in the stove, over which the home-made cradle of the last baby hangs, warm for the baby and convenient for the mother to swing as she prepares the family meal, quite satisfied to have the children in rooms from which all fresh air and sunlight is religiously excluded from an atmosphere so foul it makes a strong man ill.
But with it all, however, great the poverty or the ignorance of some things, one never fails to find in those who suffer thus a kindliness and a courtesy as delightful to experience as it is astonishing to find in such circumstances. The visitor is invariably offered a share of what food or comfort there may be; always there is the bright word and the merry quip, be the mother ever so weary or things ever so bad, for even the poorest and most ignorant are full of a great wisdom about much that is simple and good and true.
That baby, swinging in its box over the hot stove is altogether too common a sight. Not long ago, in this village, I saw one which, even then, was in the throes of spinal meningitis, swung over the stove which heated the house, and on which the family meals were cooked; and the remaining children were all cooped up in that death-trap, forbidden the clean crispness of the winter air outside.
Babies are commonly wrapped tightly in rolls of newspaper— especially in the winter time, and all but the minimum of air necessary for existence successfully excluded from them. Their mothers bring them to the back door when they deliver butter and eggs, and entering the kitchen, lay their progeny on the table like any other package. Until one learns what to expect, the presence of human life in that compact package is never suspected, unless a faint cry warns.
The country and village people are credulous to a degree: they rarely doubt anything told them, by anyone in authority, anyhow. Their lesser Bible is the Almanach Rolland, or the Almanach Beauchemin, the ‘Old Moores’ of Quebec. They tell the weather, how to get married, to be born and die. There are recipes, little stories, politics and religion. When the farmer wants to know what the ' weather is going to be, he does not look at the night. He takes ‘The Book’ down from its place on the shelf beside the clock. In this year’s issue of one Almanac, there is a long and circumstantial description of the forthcoming destruction of New York this summer, as foreseen by the ‘Prophetess Jeanne’ who possesses miraculous powers of divination.
It speaks volumes, not only for the government of the people, but for their moral nature, that in spite of some conditions which might seem to be favorable to criminality, the average number of criminals per hundred thoussand in 1922 was one hundred and eighteen, the third lowest of any of the provinces, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick being the lowest at seventeen and seventy-six respectively and Ontario much the highest at two hundred and twenty-eight per hundred thousand.
Credited with being Liberal, Quebec is really Conservative to the bone. Eliminate the Imperialism from the Conservative party and the Quebec French could all qualify as Die-Hard Conservatives. Politically, the French are a great safeguard; they are contented with their lot and would never have any part in an annexation movement, annexation with the States would be annihilation for them, and they know it; and they are the heart of the movement to prevent this country going into any European pact, for they are not militaristic.
The newspaper charge that the war was made the issue of the 1925 Federal election in Quebec was no mere political canard. It is the sober truth, that politicians of both parties made the war their chief talking point, each individual endeavoring to prove that he had nothing to do with it, that, even though he was a member of the Union Government and perhaps had been a general, at heart he was opposed to it. It is difficult to say whether the politicians manufactured the issue and imposed it on a credulous electorate, or whether the electorate demanded such arguments, but that was the issue. One speaker, as evidence of his sincerity, brought to the platform twelve young men who confirmed his statement that he had secured their release from military service after they had been conscripted. And. although he did not get the votes, the manner in which Patenaude captured the French-Canadian imagination illustrates the power of fiery appeal to them.
This is the third of four articles by Mr. Pearson on Quebec. The fourth will appear in an early issue.