Thursday, March 28, 2013

Canadien, Canadien-Français, Québécois

Early in the history of Nouvelle-France a distinction was made between les Français and les Canadiens. Les Français were those born in France and intending to return there. It included officialdom, and many of the clergy and military personnel. The term les Canadiens signified the French-speaking colonists born in Canada or permanently settled there. The term was used as early as the 1680s.*

After the Conquest, ratified by 1763, the new English colony was called the Province of Quebec but its people remained Canadiens despite the fact that the colony’s name and frontiers changed several times.

The place where most Canadiens dwelled was called successively Canada, the Province of Quebec, Lower Canada, Canada-East, and again the Province of Québec (and perhaps a couple of names I’ve forgotten) but the inhabitants continued to call themselves Canadiens.

With the American Revolution many of the Anglo-American colonists who wished to remain loyal to the Crown found homes in the British Province of Quebec. The division of this Province into two units, called Upper and Lower Canada, and the reorganization of its constitution in 1791, were to accommodate this new English-speaking population.

Upper Canada (the root of today’s Ontario) was the home of many of the American Loyalists, while Lower Canada constituted the older, solidly French settlements. We should not forget, however, that there were already Francophones in Upper Canada and Anglophones in the Lower province in these days.

Les Canadiens continued to call their Anglophone neighbors les Anglais. The children of Anglophones born in Upper Canada, however, began to claim the right to be called Canadians. The children of immigrants to the British North American provinces from many lands also claimed this right in later times. Yet, many Francophones spoke as though only they were Canadiens.

After the union of Upper and Lower Canada in the 1840s, a new variation was required. The uniqueness of the national identity of the Francophones was signified via the hyphenated label Canadien-français. This label persisted into the mid-20th c.

This label’s English equivalent, French-Canadian, is still the recognized term in the USA. If I say to most Americans that I am Franco-American or use the word Québécois they might not know what I’m talking about. I find that the easiest route to comprehension is to say that I am of French-Canadian descent. Americans seem to have some hook, however small, on which to hang that term.

The label Canadien-français crossed geographies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a Canadien-français was a Canadien-français whether one lived in Maine, Michigan, Ontario or Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! This term was a national label unconnected to any particular geography. It represented a nation without a state.

Then came the great social and political revolution in Québec known as la révolution tranquille: the Quiet Revolution. This period in the 1960s, followed by the ascendancy of the Parti Québécois in the 1970s, changed the culture of Québec more swiftly than at any time in its history. The sixties were a time of social change throughout the Western world but perhaps nowhere else were the changes as profound as in Québec.

With this change came a new national label: Québécois. This label affirmed the new, secularized, forward-looking stance adopted by the Quiet Revolution. It rejected the former, hyphenated identity, a hybrid something-or-other, some part Canadian and some part French. The rapidity with which the Francophones of Québec embraced this label is astonishing. It was a brilliant piece of what we would now call rebranding.

So thorough and successful was this rebranding that the term is used even retroactively. For instance, in Québec one might speak of “the Québécois who were involved in the Rebellion of 1837.” But the Patriotes of 1837 would not have recognized the term. They were Canadiens. For them, I suspect, the term Québécois would have designated a resident of the city of Québec. **

This bold and decisive rebranding of the Francophone people of Québec is not without its ironies. After all, it was the English who called the community centered on the Saint-Laurent, the Province of Quebec. The French called it Canada. If we were to revive someone’s Franco-American great-grandmother she might wonder why we are surrendering our national label to les anglais. “We’re the Canayens!” she might say. “Why are we allowing les anglais to convince us that we are no longer such?”

One of the innovations of the term Québécois is that, unlike the terms Canadien or Canadien-français, the new designation is tied to a specific geography, that of Québec. Whereas my grandfather would have been recognized as a "Canadien des Etats-Unis,” is any Franco-American a “Québécois(e) des Etats-Unis”? Is such a category possible?
Canadiens des Etats-Unis:
WWI-era ad in
a Franco-American newspaper
Source: Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College
It appears that the intention of the nationalists who transformed the Canadien-français of Québec into Québécois, was to reinforce the viability of the latter as a nation with its own territory as a prelude to establishing an independent republic. As such, the rebranding was formidable although it had consequences keenly felt among the Francophones who lived elsewhere in today’s Canada.

Canada became a land that the Québecois began to speak of as a foreign country. The art in the label Québécois is precisely in this distancing from anything Canadian. In declaring themselves to be not a type of Canadian (i.e. "the French type"), an identity at least as unique as that of any other nation-state is affirmed. 

With the Quiet Revolution, the newly minted Québécois, having survived a series of setbacks, circled the wagons. The gaze of Québec nationalism became focused on fortress Québec. Increasingly, there became a sense of Québec as a lone Francophone holdout in an unvariegated Anglophone landscape.

Once, however, the Francophones of Québec had continental ambitions. The Louis Riel affair, the question of French language schools in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, as well as various Franco-American events, were burning issues in Québec, debated in the press and followed with care.

I note with reluctance that nowadays, even among well-educated Québécois, I find little cognizance of the Francophone or Franco-gene groups in North America beyond the borders of la belle province. In fact we live all over the continent. I suggest gently that le fait français might be reinforced if we looked beyond our separate fortresses to renew our ancestors’ broader, continental perspective.

I hold that Québec’s best allies are Franco-Americans. As a general rule, we have maintained our affection for Québec and support its people in whatever path they choose.

Monsieur René Lévesque understood the potential importance of Franco-Americans to Québec’s future. Last year I learned from participants in these events that Monsieur Lévesque visited the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine during the campaign for the first referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1980.

Still waging a Cold War, there were fears in Washington that an independent Québec could become “another Cuba.” Monsieur Lévesque turned to Franco-Americans to help explain Québec to the USA. He understood that Franco-Americans were a link between his people and the mainstream USA which could be a great benefit to Québec.

Feebly, writing in English no less from a humble blog, I offer a hand to the rebranded Québécois behind the fortress walls. If you come to know us better you might find that we are not foreigners but long lost family.

* cf. Gilles Havard and Cécile Vidal, Histoire de L'Amérique Française (Paris: Flammarion, 2003) 403f
** To avoid this anachronism, on this blog I have used the older term Canadien, with the French spelling and usually italicized, to designate the 19th c. descendants of the former French colony of Canada although I have not always used the term consistently.


  1. Lol I to have started identifying myself of Quebecois Ancestry, as opposed to French Canadian but also use the term Franco-American as you are correct as there were pockets of America in Cajun (Acadians) Country, Michigan and Missouri that held onto French as a first language well into the mid 20th Century. My father when serving in combat as a Marine in Korea had another Marine in his company that spoke his exact dialect of French, Dad's was learned from his parents from Quebec but the other Marine was from Ste.Genevieve Missouri where many of the French who lived in Illinois moved to after Nouvelle France was abandoned to the English and as the new American Nation moved west.

  2. In the 1970's, Bernard Landry, ex-prime-minister of Québec, was in Rome, when he met a group of elderly nuns from Québec. He asked them where they were from. One answered: " We are all "Canadians" (Québécois) , except her, she is "English" (Canadian).