Your RDA of Irony

Serfs Up

“On this day in 1854, the British Parliament abolished feudalism in Canada.”

But for that, the Governor-General might have had the right to sleep with any bride on her wedding night. However, that would have made an interesting episode on “Anne of Green Gables.”

In fact, Parliament’s act was really meant for Quebec and the French populace. Les Canadiens still maintained a seigneurial system. After its conquest of Quebec, Britain found herself with 100,000 new and less than loyal subjects. Expelling them all would have been impossible. (Acadia only had a population of 7,000–and it was conveniently on the coast.) The British, showing surprising–even unprecedented–tact, allowed their conquered French subjects a generous autonomy.

The day to day affairs in the villes were left to the local chieftains and bullies: the usual cabal of landowners and priests. In fact, these Canadien dignitaries now enjoyed more power than the bureaucrats of France had allowed them. They were able to control and maintain their conservative, seigneurial society well into the 19th century.

That accommodation did keep les Canadiens loyal to Britain. Given their conservative temperament and comfortable arrangement, they certainly were not tempted to join the American radicals in their rebellion against Britain. And the French Revolution and Napoleon would have been abhorrently liberal to them. This was a society where the pulpits and church-run schools equated Voltaire with the Anti-Christ.

By 1854, however, Britain felt that Quebec was ready for the 19th century–or at least the 18th. Of course, Parliament’s noble sentiments required shrewd application, and the Crown played a skillful political game. The Byzantines may have invented the strategem of “divide and conquer” but the British made an art of it. There were two powers controlling the Canadien society; the British would undermine one while embracing the other. Britain’s affection for the Catholic Church would have amazed any Irishman, but it was the official and conspicuous policy in Quebec. The Church would have the first word and final say in local matters. For all practical purposes, a priest was an alderman and the bishop was the mayor.

In view of this accommodation, the Church agreed that it was un-Christian to have serfs. The landowners would simply have to regard their farm workers as better than livestock.

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