THE ROOTS OF THE STRUGGLE
A TURBULENT PAST HAUNTS QUEBEC
It is perhaps fitting that the history of French-speaking Quebec began with an acrimonious territorial dispute. In 1534, seeking gold and passage to the fabled Asia, navigator Jacques Cartier and his crew of 61 fishermen anchored their two ships in a Gaspé harbor, where the St. Lawrence River spills into the Atlantic Ocean. On July 24, after several days of tentative contact with the Iroquois, Cartier ordered his men to assemble an enormous wooden cross. In the centre was a shield with three fleur-de-lys, the heraldic emblem of the French crown; above the shield, a wooden board proclaimed, “Long five the king of France.” In the name of his monarch, Francis I, Cartier raised his cross—and thus staked his claim—to a rich land teeming with fish and furs. The Iroquois chief, Donnacona, reacted with fury. Clad in a black bearskin, he paddled his canoe up to the interloper’s vessel. As Cartier recorded in his journal, “He pointed to the land all around about, as if he wished to say that all this region belonged to him, and that we ought not to have set up this cross without his permission.”
That bitter episode epitomizes the tangled and troubled history of the Quebec landmass. First settled after 9,000 BC, as the glaciers of the ice age retreated northward, the sprawling province that today covers 600,000 square miles has been the home of great peoples and the hostage of proud empires. The Quebec of Cartier’s time was home to aboriginal peoples as varied as those of Europe: Cree, Micmac, Inuit, Naskapi, Montagnais, Algonquin, Iroquois. Oblivious to the territorial claims of those peoples, the French pushed their empire across the heart of the continent, from Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico.
Struggle: But the frequent wars between Britain and France, which spilled across the high seas into their new world, interfered with French expansionism. Eventually, in 1763, France lost its continental North American possessions; New France went to Britain. The victorious English promptly divided their winnings: they carved out “Quebec,” a rectangular slice of land along the shores of the St. Lawrence. For the next 164 years, from 1763 to 1927, as French Canada struggled for cultural survival, and as Canada evolved into a nation, the boundaries of Quebec repeatedly grew and shrank in response to political forces or judicial decisions. With the flourish of a pen or the pounding of a gavel, boundary lines shifted hundreds of kilometres across territory rich in forests and minerals and rivers and peoples.
Those dizzying boundary shifts are now the focus of modern-day tension sparked by the possibility of Quebec’s separating from Canada. Most Quebec separatists, for one, maintain that an independent Quebec should lay claim to Labrador: they reject a 1927 British Privy Council decision which confirmed Newfoundland’s ownership of territory traditionally claimed by Quebec. In response, prominent Toronto lawyer James Arnett, who has extensively researched the issue, counters that Ottawa should have a contingency plan: if Quebec attempts to secede, the federal government should pass legislation to take control over the administration of Ungava, the huge northern territory stretching from Hudson Bay to Labrador that Ottawa deeded to Quebec in 1912. Finally, many aboriginal peoples, such as the Montagnais and the Labrador Naskapi, claim huge swaths of Quebec territory, insisting that they never relinquished title to their land.
Wrenching: Those vehement positions rest upon differing interpretations of Quebec’s past. The story of its boundaries is, in fact, an essential theme in the dramatic, tumultuous and often wrenching history of Quebec. As the authoritative geographer Norman Nicholson, who died in 1984, noted, “In a growing country like Canada, boundaries have frequently changed in accordance with new situations and needs. Therefore, their development is an indication of the development of the country.”
That development actually began thousands of years before the Europeans discovered their new worlds. Most scholars believe that aboriginal peoples, first streamed into uninhabited North America from Asia between 12,000 and 30,000 years ago, across a strip of land, now called the Bering Strait Land Bridge, that then joined the two continents. The movement into modem Quebec probably began around 11,000 years ago. Over the next millennium, different aboriginal peoples—with differing ways of life—settled.
Their values and institutions evolved; peoples moved or perished. When Cartier, for one, reached North America, the so-called St. Lawrence Iroquois dominated the area around the St. Lawrence River from the Gaspé to Lake Ontario. More than seven decades later, in 1608, when the explorer Samuel de Champlain founded his settlement at Quebec City, all traces of that tribe had disappeared—probably because of warfare with other aboriginal nations. Instead, the explorer usually encountered Algonquin peoples with whom he forged alliances and fought battles, incurring the lasting enmity of the Iroquois peoples.
With the guidance of its native allies, the French pushed into the heart of the continent, expanding the boundaries of New France. Their motives were mixed: to expand the French empire; to discover a passage to the elusive East; to secure a rich supply of furs; and to convert the natives to the Roman Catholic faith. Throughout the 17th century, through the zeal of its missionaries and the greed of its traders, New France expanded from the shores of Labrador and Acadia through southern and central Quebec and Ontario, southward along the Mississippi River.
But that empire, magnificent on early maps, was fragile. The British empire, equally anxious for furs and glory, was also forging alliances with natives, especially the anti-French Iroquois—and staking its rival territorial claims. In 1670, the English monarch Charles II granted the entire Hudson Bay watershed, named Rupert’s Land after the king’s cousin Prince Rupert, to the Hudson’s Bay Co.—with the exception of lands “possessed by the Subjectes of any other Christian Prince or State.” But the notion of possession was ill-defined and, as a result, the territorial claims of England and France overlapped in a broad band across the north of New France. And to the south and east of New France, in a semicircle around Britain’s American colonies, British claims also overlapped those of the French.
Those territorial rivalries sparked bitter clashes in the ferocious wars that France and Britain waged between 1689 and 1763. With each new peace treaty, whole chunks of North America changed hands: in 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht, France ceded Newfoundland and Acadia to Britain. Those French losses were merely a taste of the disaster ahead. In 1759, British troops defeated a French army at Quebec City. In 1760, the British took Montreal. Three years later, with the Treaty of Paris, France lost the rest of its mainland North American empire.
The resulting peace was uneasy for both the losers and the winners. The losers, 70,000 French-speaking people, desperately clung to their distinct language, culture, religion and legal system amid two million British North Americans. The winners held a huge empire— but their security was largely dependent upon the goodwill of France’s former native allies. That goodwill was strained. As University of Ottawa historian Susan Mann Trofimenkoff noted in The Dream of Nation, “Numerous groups of [Western] Indians were unhappy. The war had not only cut the flow of trade, it had raised prices of trade goods.”
Throughout the summer of 1763, irate natives attacked British forts to the south of the Great Lakes. A nervous Great Britain issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763—primarily to contain that unrest. The rich hinterland across the north and the west of the former French colony was reserved for the natives. The Labrador coast went to Newfoundland—a separate British colony. As well, England drew the boundaries of French-speaking “Quebec”—a rectangular chunk of land around the St. Lawrence River. This drastic alteration in the boundaries of French Canada was accompanied by the imposition of English laws and English courts. And the British further angered their new subjects by decreeing that Quebec would be governed by a non-elected council and an elected assembly whose members would have to take anti-Catholic oaths.
Loyalty: A decade later, England backed away from its hard line in the face of new threats to its empire. Alarmed at the increasing restiveness of its American colonies, Britain took steps to secure the loyalty of its unwilling subjects to the north. The Quebec Act of 1774 guaranteed the rights of Quebecers to the Catholic faith and French civil law. As well, to boost the colony’s economy and to placate western natives who preferred to trade with the French, Britain expanded Quebec’s boundaries. Quebec now stretched north to Rupert’s Land, eastward over all of Labrador, westward over the Great Lakes and southward to the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
The repercussions were extraordinary: French Quebec survived. But those concessions only increased the tensions between Britain and its American colonies, who were infuriated because the expansion of Quebec blocked their dreams of western growth. Two years later, those colonies revolted. When peace was concluded in 1783, Quebec’s boundaries were again truncated: land to the south and west of the Great Lakes had suddenly, with the slash of signatures on a treaty, become part of the United States.
Other concessions to the new United States eventually resulted in further boundary changes. The 1783 peace treaty allowed U.S. fishermen to dry their catch on the unsettled shores of Labrador. As a result, American fishermen thronged to the fish-rich seacoast. But the government of Quebec could scarcely administer a coastal area that was thousands of kilometres from its Quebec City capital.
In 1809, the British Parliament transferred to Newfoundland the “coasts of Labrador” from the Saint-Jean River to Hudson Strait. Quebec fishermen in their traditional fishing grounds off southern Labrador were suddenly subject to Newfoundland’s laws. In response to their complaints, the British Parliament restored a portion of the coast of southwest Labrador to Quebec in 1825. It moved the Labrador boundary to the east, specifying that it stretched from Anee Sablón on the coast to the 52nd parallel.
Estranged: Meanwhile, to the west, peace had another profound effect on geography. In the wake of the American War of Independence, thousands of United Empire Loyalists flowed over the new international boundary into Britain’s northern colonies. Some settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. But others chose to carve out homes in Quebec’s Eastern Townships and the wilderness of the interior stretching southwest between Montreal and the Detroit River. Those English-speaking colonists of the interior felt estranged from the customs and laws of the Quebec government. In response, Britain divided Quebec into Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). A British cabinet order drew a boundary that ran largely along today’s boundary between the two provinces. As well, the British Parliament provided each colony with a British governor, an elected assembly and appointed legislative and executive councils.
But the new arrangement sowed the seeds of its own destruction. For the next 46 years, each colony’s elected assembly battled the government for control of the public purse strings—and over demands for real representative government. In 1837, those democratic stirrings erupted into rebellion in both Upper and Lower Canada. Although military forces quickly extinguished both protests, the alarmed British government hastily appointed Lord Durham to investigate the uproar. His infamous 1839 report damned the French-Canadians as “an old and stationary society in a new and progressive world”—and he recommended the assimilation of French-speaking Quebec through political union with Upper Canada. A year later, the British Parliament united the two colonies into the Province of Canada, governed by a governor general, an appointed legislative council and an elected English-language assembly containing 42 representatives from each colony.
The history of 19th-century French Canada is a story of survival. French-Canadians overcame the assimilating tendencies of the Province of Canada—in spite of Lord Durham—largely because of an alliance forged by reformers in French Canada and English Canada. The two groups eventually ensured that the members of the governing council were largely drawn from the elected parliamentary majority: in effect, they won responsible government. Elected French-Canadians could now govern in their voters’ interests.
By the 1860s, however, the Province of Canada had become a troubled colony saddled with an enormous debt—the result of ambitious railroad and canal construction programs. Events south of the border contributed to the unease: Canada feared that the victorious North in the bloody U.S. Civil War would retaliate for Britain’s support of the southern Confederacy. And ultimately, Canadians were tired of political instability after a dizzying series of coalition governments among the competing parties.
In 1867, in a bid for prosperity, security and stability through unity, the Province of Canada united with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to form the Dominion of Canada. With Confederation, the Province of Canada devolved into its two components, now called Ontario and Quebec. But Confederation did not mark an end to domestic turmoil. For the next 30 years, Quebec and Ontario challenged Ottawa’s constitutional powers in the courts. That struggle for provincial rights became particularly poignant in Quebec, however, as other provinces rescinded rights held by their French-Canadian minorities. Many Quebec nationalists uneasily concluded that the boundaries of Quebec were becoming the boundaries of French Canada.
It was against this turbulent backdrop that Quebec’s northern boundary was defined—and redefined. In 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Co. transferred Rupert’s Land to Canada. Under the Quebec Act of 1774, the southern boundary of Rupert’s Land was also the northern boundary of the colony of Quebec (which then included much of present-day Ontario). But no one knew precisely where that boundary lay. The new province of Ontario insisted that its northern boundary ran along the Albany River, 250 km north of Lake Superior—well into the Hudson Bay watershed. The federal government countered that the boundary of Rupert’s Land fell much further to the south, a mere 25 to 80 km north of the shores of Lake Superior and Lake Nipigon. In 1878, an arbitration panel supported Ontario’s claims. But Ottawa refused to implement that decision. Finally, in 1884, Canada sent the question to its highest court, the British Privy Council. Without giving any reasons, the Privy Council favored Ontario’s claims, but defined only a portion of Ontario’s northern boundary. In 1889, Ottawa accepted the implications of the council’s ruling: it drew Ontario’s boundary along the Albany River.
Quebec had followed that dispute with fascination. The province argued that the Privy Council had, in effect, set the southern boundary of Rupert’s Land. As a result, Quebec contended, its northern boundary also extended well into the Hudson Bay watershed; it argued that its growth should, in fairness, match Ontario’s growth. The province suggested that its boundary should run along the Eastmain and Hamilton rivers to the “coasts” of Labrador (which belonged to Newfoundland). That line ran roughly along the same latitude as the Albany River. Ottawa did not rule upon the legal merits of Quebec’s arguments. But, in 1898, it officially endorsed that line as the northern boundary of Quebec.
Complex: Still, complex boundary problems remain unsolved. Because the British Privy Council did not give its reasons when setting Ontario’s boundaries, the extent of Rupert’s Land is still open to debate. Some English-Canadians, such as McGill University law professor Stephen Scott, say that if Quebec secedes, it should receive only the territory that it possessed at the time of Confederation. But the location of Quebec’s northern boundary in 1867 remains a hotly contested question. Many scholars maintain that when Ottawa set Quebec’s boundaries in 1898, it was expanding the province. Others suggest that Ottawa may have merely recognized an already existing boundary. Osgoode Hall law professor Kent McNeil argues that issue is too complex for pat answers: “In 1884, the Privy Council simply decided where the northwest boundary of the colony of Quebec was as a result of the Quebec Act of 1774.”
There was more turmoil in the first six decades of the 20th century. Quebec’s industrial base expanded from light manufacturing to natural-resource-based industries such as hydroelectricity and pulp and paper. Its population poured from the farms into the cities. Confronted with social and economic upheaval, the province’s nationalists worried about the preservation of Quebec’s distinct identity. They resisted English Canada’s attachment to Great Britain—Quebecers bitterly denounced conscription in the two world wars. And they resisted Ottawa’s centralizing impulses. Premier Maurice Duplessis, for one, refused to accept federal tax transfers from 1947 to 1954, arguing that the province should collect its own personal and corporate taxes.
In this climate of anxious nationalism, two other boundary changes aroused intense interest. In 1908, Parliament granted a large chunk of Rupert’s Land, the Territory of Keewatin, to Manitoba. Despite impassioned French-Canadian pleas, that legislation provided no guaranteed right to Roman Catholic schools for the Keewatin French-Canadian minority. Quebecers reacted with hurt—and anger. Partly to soothe that dismay, the federal government endorsed the province’s requests for a further northward extension. In 1912, federal legislation authorized Quebec’s annexation of Ungava, a northern territory that also once formed part of Rupert’s Land.
Meanwhile, another territorial dispute sim-
mered—this time over Labrador. In 1902, the Newfoundland government granted leases to a pulp company to cut timber on 297 square miles of land along the Hamilton River, 100 km north of the 52nd parallel. Quebec protested vehemently. According to the 1809 and 1825 acts of the British Parliament, it argued, Newfoundland governed merely “the coast” north of the 52nd—and “the coast” did not run along the Hamilton River. The argument festered. In 1922, both sides turned to the British Privy Council. Quebec contended that “the coast” was a 1.6-km-wide strip along the water. Newfoundland—which did not join Canada until 1949—countered that “the coast” followed the watershed of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean north of the 52nd parallel. In 1927, the council ruled for Newfoundland: in a complex decision, it reasoned that under international law, occupation of a seacoast included the right to the territory around the rivers that drained into that coast. That controversial boundary, which gave 112,000 square miles of rich land to Newfoundland, was confirmed in the Terms of Union when Newfoundland joined Canada. And that document, in turn, is part of the Constitution of Canada.
The final chapter in the story of Quebec’s boundaries is perhaps the most ironic. In 1960, Quebec Premier Jean Lesage began the so-called Quiet Revolution, modernizing the province’s social and economic institutions. Over the ensuing 31 years, the changes have been massive: the province has mobilized its own savings to invest in Quebec-based companies; its once antiquated school system has produced a formidable technological sector. In that climate, Quebec nationalism has proudly flourished.
But Quebec nationalism has also clashed with the increasing assertiveness of aboriginal peoples. In 1975, Quebec experienced a small taste of what the future may bring when it was forced to negotiate a land-claims settlement with the Cree of northern Quebec. Now, the Cree are again mobilizing their forces against the Quebec government’s planned Great Whale expansion of the James Bay project, claiming it violates the terms of their earlier settlement. Other aboriginal groups, such as the Labrador Naskapi or Innu, have extensive claims to large areas of Quebec. And most refuse to relinquish title in exchange for a small land base.
Those sentiments may be setting the stage for the next act in the history of Quebec’s boundaries. The tale of the landmass is rich; the claims of its competing groups are tangled. After centuries of struggle to preserve and enlarge its own boundaries, Quebec now faces the same wrenching dilemma that once confronted Cartier and Donnacona.