Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Yes, There Was A Conquest

It is a war with three names. For some it is the Seven Years War. In the USA it is the French and Indian War. For the Québécois it’s often known as the War of the Conquest. That this 18th century war entailed the conquest of Québec by the English forces, that left the Canadiens a conquered people, is a founding narrative for many of those we now know as the Québécois.

However, in recent years there has been some pushback, mainly from Anglophone Quebeckers, who claim that in fact there was no such Conquest. In a March 2016 article in the Montreal Gazette by Celine Cooper, calling for an overhaul of the history curriculum in Québec schools, Cooper epitomizes this revisionist view. She characterizes the events of 1763 as "the abandonment of New France by the French monarch and its surrender to the English." 

This sentence reframes a military conquest in passive terms. The agency is given to the French Crown rather than to the conquering English. It’s not the English who take the initiative to conquer the colony, but rather the French who "abandon" it, despite the fact that they had held it for the better part of a century and a half. It makes it seem as if France simply faded away without firing a shot. 

Some years ago, Brian McKenna’s film Battlefield Quebec: Wolfe and Montcalm was an extended treatment of the revisionist view. In a preview of the film in the Globe and Mail, McKenna announced a new discovery. He claimed that a few days before the climactic battle on the Plains of Abraham, General Wolfe “[wrote] out the terms of Quebec's capitulation in the event of a British victory, terms which centered on the protection of French institutions, notably the French language and the Catholic Church.”

But McKenna’s argument contradicts itself. Who dictates terms of surrender but a conqueror? Assuming McKenna is correct that Wolfe’s overtures were beneficent, the fact that Wolfe anticipated giving his terms to a defeated city tends to prove the opposite of what McKenna's revisionist thesis contends.

And the revisionist view must also account for other, far less conciliatory words that Wolfe addressed to the Canadiens in 1759 as his flotilla made its way toward destiny: “If by vain obstinacy and a misguided courage [the Canadien civilians] want to take up arms, they must expect the most lethal consequences; their habitations will be pillaged, their churches exposed to an exasperated soldiery, their harvests completely destroyed, and this most formidable fleet will prevent them from having any relief.”1 If these aren't the words of a conqueror then what are?
Québec City, 1759:
But don't call it a conquest!

Getting Real About History
Whatever name we give this mid-18th c. conflict, it entailed warfare in N. America involving tens of thousands of combatants. Wolfe’s fleet in 1759 alone included 30,000 sailors and 9000 soldiers.2 After years of warfare, the British forces sailed up the river that year with purpose. The colony’s political capital was taken and its commercial capital, Montréal, surrendered into the hands of the looming British military. Although fighting continued after that, the war was won for the British and lost for the French and the Canadiens when it was British rather than French ships that were seen coming over the horizon in the Spring.

In the negotiations following the hostilities, France opted to negotiate the return of the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, which Britain had taken from France, while she ceded her claim to Canada to the English. The decision to cede Canada was made as a result of strategic and/or economic calculations on both sides of the treaty negotiations. The British dealt from a position of strength since their military held the country. 

The notion that there was no Conquest does violence to history because it ignores the considerable pains the English had taken to seize the colony by force and it ignores the bargaining position that their military posture gave them. It also papers over the loss of life (about 10% of the Canadiens were killed) and property damage involved in that war. In fact it argues that the prolonged period of warfare was simply inconsequential since, revisionists pretend, the power was in the hands of the French who opted to “abandon” the colony.

Gaslighting the Québécois
In summary, there was warfare in N. America over a period of years; the capital of the colony of Canada was taken by force; there was an occupation; there was a military government; and there was what we now call “regime change.” And it was permanent. The British monarch is still officially the Queen of Canada. If that’s not a conquest then we’re equivocating on the meaning of the word. Invariably, Orwellian equivocations serve a political agenda.

The agenda here is clear. The revisionist view is intended to undermine Francophone Québec's sense of itself as a distinct society. It attempts to establish that the Québécois were always on an equal footing with their British-descent countrymen and it suggests that there was always a perfectly level playing field between the two groups. 

Another reason for the revisionism is that the Québécois do not fit prevailing N. American racial narratives. The Québécois are in the anomalous position in North America of being a white-identified people who had been subjugated by another white-identified people. In this, they resemble the Irish.

Even if the British conquest of Canada were the most benign conquest in the history of the world, to be conquered and occupied by a foreign power is humiliating and traumatic. In all such cases, the conquerors hold the cards and the conquered have no choice but to submit to their fate be it benevolent or the opposite. Today, the descendants of the conquered Canadiens face the further humiliation of having their historical memories, a memory of cultural survival and eventual prosperity in the face of defeat, denied by the revisionists.

And, no, the point is not to wallow in victimization regarding events that happened long ago. It's about telling the truth and understanding the basis on which Québec's sense of collective self rests. The narrative that today's Québécois are the descendants of survivors of the Conquest is justified by the historical facts. Revisionists must not succeed in manipulating history.

In psychology there is a term for such manipulations: gaslighting. This is a form of psychological abuse where one person causes another to doubt their perception of reality through manipulation, distortion and denial. It is time for the historical revisionists to stop gaslighting the Québécois. It is time they faced up to the past as it really was and not as their political counter-agenda wishes it to have been.
1 Lamonde, Yvan. Histoire Social des Idées au Québec 1760-1896. Montréal: Editions Fides, 2000. Print. Cf. p 18. [The translation from the French is my own.]

2 Havard, Gilles and Cécile Vidal. Histoire de l'Amérique française. Paris, Flammarion, 2003. Print. Cf. p 442.

Picture credit
A. Bennoist, engraver, after Richard Short (fl. 1754-1766), A View of the Church of Notre Dame de la Victoire, built in Commemoration of the raising the Siege in 1695 and destroyed in 1759. Hand-colored copperplate engraving. London, 1761. Graphics Division, Prints B-7.


  1. Probably the best short summary of the reality of the conquest that I have seen to date. Thank you David

  2. Must read: La Guerre de la Conquête, Guy Frégault. The intensity of the struggle, and the fact that it was far from one way for the perfidious English (their reputation dates from that war, in fact) are well documented.

  3. Even though some of our families have been in the New England States for two or three generations, many of us keep the flame for our native Quebec. I believe that the English conquered Quebec but they DID have the help of some factions in France who I believe helped to sell us out. I think that America and Quebec have one main thing in common. It took colonists with a certain steel and courage to come and stay in a new world to build something new when their more timid cousins in France and England stayed behind to remain peasants instead of mastering their own destiny. I travel north to La Belle Province several times a year and am very proud when I walk atop the walls of Vieux Quebec and look all about me and say "My families started this"

    1. Very well said. We are one big family and bienvenue chez-vous!

  4. No one can doubt that there was a conquest in Quebec. However revisionism has been at work in both camps. For example francophone revisionists are responsible for the framing of the 1838 rebellions in Quebec as a nationalist issue. It was originally about responsible government and representation. There were a fair amount of anglophones among the patriotes and a rising in upper Canada at the same time led by William Lyon McKenzie King. The important issue here is our education curriculum. The teaching of strict national narratives is not education but rather indoctrination. The teaching of history should ideally be a transfer of skills and skills that allow the student to construct their own point of view and arguments about historical events. At the root of ourproblem in Quebec is the states role in determining the contents of the history curriculum. What is needed is an independent body of scholars and educators (who overwhelmingly agree that methods are far more important than narratives) to determine the curriculum. This is the only way I can foresee an end to the constant revision of the history curriculum every time we switch between federalist and nationalist parties in power.

    1. Alex, I agree that history education should cultivate the ability to read and evaluate sources critically and to build credible historical arguments. Students should understand that there are different narratives surrounding the same events and they should be taught to see how these underlying narratives creep into how specific events are framed. I was not addressing Celine Cooper's point about the history curriculum as much as using her own brief construction of the events of 1763 to give an example of how underlying narratives are instrumental in framing events. I was not addressing the very good questions you raise about how history should be taught and, as a Franco-American, I leave it to the people of QC to have that debate. My focus in this piece was on a specific interpretation of history, being floated in the Anglophone press of QC more and more (it seems to me) in recent times, which denies that there was a Conquest. I thought it worth writing something in the that same language to counter this narrative because I believe it is far from the best interpretation of events and it has a political agenda of its own. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    2. It's true that sometimes looking at 1837-1838 with a too modern nationalist interpretation can be an error, but saying they did all of this for the mere responsible government is just ludicrous. Here's an article from an famous historian specialized in that period, Gilles Laporte :

  5. Always interesting commentary. I had no idea there was a revisionist viewpoint on this subject. And the drawing of the destroyed Quebec gave me a shiver because I think I know where that is and I've stood there. Isn't that the square in the lower city in front of Notre Dame des Victoires?

    1. Yes, it's la Place royale indeed. However, the appearance of the town is very magnified in order to exaggerate the importance of the Conquest the English made back in England.