Conquest can cause long-term traumatic effects. Let us take notice of what historian Arthur Lower says:
Conquest, like slavery, must be experienced to be understood.…The entire life-structure of the conquered is laid open to their masters. They become second-rate people. Wherever they turn, something meets their eyes to symbolize their subjection. It need not be the foreign military in force, it need not be the sight of the foreign flag, it may be some quite small matter: a common utensil of unaccustomed size and shape, let us say, taking the place of one familiar. And then there is the foreign speech, perhaps not heard often, but sometimes heard, and sometimes heard arrogantly from the lips of persons who leave no doubt that the conquered are, in their estimation, inferior beings.
(Colony to Nation, 1946, pp. 63-4).
History is swarming with military conquests that were never accepted by the vanquished, thus giving rise to ongoing resistance, violent or otherwise, before collapsing and foundering in disgrace in the eyes of historians. We must admit that the British conquest did not kindle staunch resistance in French Canada. How can we explain that the conquest was relatively well accepted for a long time by those subjected to it? After all, the war had been difficult and accompanied by vast destruction. How can we explain that in the mid-19th century a high-ranking French Canadian politician could exclaim that the last canon shot fired to defend the British Empire in America would be by a French Canadian or that in the early 20th century André Siefried could write that rarely had foreign domination been so completely accepted by those subjected to it. Here are some observations for analysis.
1. The final years of French regime had given way to widespread corruption and many unpleasant memories. The conquest meant, at minimum, a peace that the French colony had hardly known.
2. Abandonment occurred as well as conquest. France could have tried to win Canada back through diplomatic negotiations as it had done after the Kirke Brothers’ conquest of Québec, even if it meant giving up its West Indian colonies. With the Treaty of Paris it chose to abandon Canada, because the colony lost on the battlefields cost more than it returned. Subsequently, there was no attempt to regain Canada, for example owing to the American Revolution. Even at the height of his power, Napoleon shed the last piece of the French Empire in America by selling it to the Americans. This total retreat by France, emotionally difficult to accept, forced Canadians to come to terms with the existing balance of power.
3. The conquest took place prior to the French Revolution and before the birth of the concept of nationality. In the 18th century, a period when monarchs exchanged territories like commodities, nations defined themselves by religion and common allegiance to a sovereign - not by the language of their inhabitants. It is revealing that in the capitulation treaties of Québec and Montréal and the Treaty of Paris not a single word was mentioned about the French language, although these treaties guaranteed free exercise of religion.
4. The conquered community was Catholic with the clergy among the scant select group that remained after the French merchants had departed. Catholics tend to accept ordeals as expressions of divine will. “God never strikes without admirable intentions," wrote Cardinal Villeneuve to Maurice Duplessis the day after the 1939 elections in keeping with a Catholic tradition that expects providence to direct man’s destiny. The church would be quite well treated by the conquerors, and would preach respect for the established authority to its faithful in difficult times such as the American invasions, the 1837 rebellion and the 1917 conscription crisis.
5. The conquerors granted the conquered conditions that were quite enviable by the standards of the time. There were two dissenting viewpoints: impose their yoke and reinforce the conquest, or offer concessions and make it more acceptable. The former attitude, which prevailed in Ireland with the known outcomes, was evident in the Royal Proclamation (oath of allegiance, British civil law) and would resurface in the Durham Report. It always failed, and the English unilingualism imposed following the Durham Report would be abolished a few years later. The latter view would be manifested in the attitudes of the first governors (Murray and Carleton) and find legal expression in the Act of Québec, an exceptionally liberal measure at the time in that it granted Canadian Catholics a freedom that British Catholics would only obtain in 1829. This measure, which rallied clergy and seigneurs to the British crown, had its origin in the apprehended rebellion of the American colonies. Canadians refused to join the American Revolution. If they had, it is doubtful that they would have survived total Americanization. British military strength would long be viewed as a guarantee against American invasion.
6. It was as a conquered people that Canadians would be initiated into parliamentary democracy and criminal law that was more favourable to the accused. The conquerors brought with them new ideas that constituted real progress. It is telling that those seeking a more democratic political regime from the British governors cite England as an example.
7. This vision would predominate in French Canada until the early 20th century, after which the perspective changed: the imperialism that obliged colonists to take part in defending the Empire was very poorly accepted by French Canadians; the Boer War and the 1917 conscription crisis caused England to be perceived as a threat rather than a security against the decreasing threat of American expansionism; and the treatment of Francophone minorities outside Québec suggested that British tolerance stopped at the Québec borders. The British Empire declined after 1918, particularly after 1945, when the Church’s hold over Québec society lessened. The perspective implied by the motto “Je me souviens. Né sous le lys, j’ai grandi sous la rose" (I remember. Born under the lily I grew up under the rose) was gradually substituted, under the influence of the Montréal school, for a pessimistic reading of French Canadian history that saw the conquest as a catastrophic event responsible for a long decline that would only be curbed by independence.
Louis Massicotte, Université Laval