Following the Conquest of Canada by the English, ratified by the Treaty of 1763, our ancestors developed an ideology referred to as la survivance – survival. It has been said that in the early years following the English Conquest, Les Canadiens, as we were known at the time, expected the French to return. They could not believe nor would they accept that the French king would abandon his vast North American Empire, which had included a sphere of influence over some of the finest real estate on the continent.
Our ancestors reasoned that, inevitably, there would be another war with their rivals, the English, and this future war must bring the triumphant return of the armies and governors of the Kings of France. And when they returned, they must find everything in the colony formerly known as Nouvelle-France just as it had been before. Like the early Christians who expected the imminent return of the Savior, la survivance entailed the fervent preservation of our ancestor’s traditional cultural institutions in expectation of the ultimate return of France triumphant.
This return might have occurred within two decades of the Treaty of 1763. During the American War of Independence of the 1770s and 1780s, France allied itself with the fledgling American Republic against its common enemy, the British Empire. Historians claim that there was some talk of France recovering Canada in the negotiations that followed the English defeat in the Revolutionary War. However, Gallic diplomacy saw a greater advantage in allowing Canada to remain a part of the British Empire as a permanent menace to the Americans. By allowing the British to retain Canada, reasoned the French Crown, the United States might be made dependent on French military and naval power, maintaining a favorable (for France) balance of power on the North American continent.
The Cession of 1763 was the first break separating our ancestors from the mother country. Unbeknownst to them, the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which brought to an end the War of the American Revolution, would represent a second break.
Another Revolution, in France in 1789, would constitute a third and final break between our ancestors and their European mère patrie. The French Revolution, a cultural as well as a political milestone, swept away the ancien régime, ensuring that no future French King would rule over Canada.
The Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath created permanent cultural, ideological and political differences between the two French-speaking peoples on either side of the Atlantic. Staunchly Catholic, the more conservative elements among the Canadien elite, viewed the anti-clericalism, modernism and republicanism of the French Revolution with alarm.
Whatever the ideology, the France of 1815, when the dust from the Napoleonic Wars began to settle, was not at all the France from which the ancestors of the Canadiens had departed. With the Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath, France crossed a Rubicon separating the mother country from its former colony. It is at this point that the French-speaking people of Canada took on the character of a remnant – a remnant of an older French culture, the France of the Sun King, the Catholic France of seigneurs and the fleur-de-lys.
At this stage, having lost its initial raison d’être, the strategy of la survivance in French North America took on a different task with a new intent – to preserve a pre-Revolutionary French ideal, against the secularizing tendencies of the modern world. This ideal possessed three main characteristics: a society which was French-speaking, Catholic and rural. To these three watchwords we might add a tendency – implicit in Catholicism – toward hierarchical institutions and viewpoints.
This culture, said this new version of la survivance, would stand as a bulwark on the continent against what one cleric at the time of the War of the 1750s had called “the detestable errors of Luther and Calvin.” The survival of this pre-Revolutionary French culture would provide an alternative vision of North America, one which was, claimed these ideologues, more spiritual, more ordered, less materialistic, and less addicted to change and mobility than was the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority on the continent. To some degree, this vision still exists in modern Canada, which wishes to portray itself as more humane, more pacific, less avaricious and less violent than its Southern neighbor.