Life in New France

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The Habitants and the Seigneurial System

The Habitants were the original settlers brought to New France in the 17th Century.

The Habitants settled along the banks of the St. Lawrence River in what is now the province of Quebec. The term “Habitant” is thought to have originated from Samuel de Champlain’s original settlement at Quebec, which he called The Habitation. This term was used by the Habitants themselves and by others in New France. The term was common in Quebec between the 17th and early 20th Centuries. Usage of the term, “Habitant” declined in the early 20th Century in favour of the term “Agriculteur,” which meant farmer.

The Habitants in New France

Unwilling to submit to anyone but the Governor of New France, the Habitants refused to be called “Censitaire,” believing that this made them equivalent to “paysans,” the servile peasants that made up the lowest rank of French feudal society.

Following Confederation, in 1867, the seigneurial system gradually faded from use. As Quebec began to industrialize, much of Quebec’s working class moved to cities such as Montreal and Quebec City in search of jobs.

In spite of this, elements of the seigneural system can still be seen in Quebec today.

The Seigneurial System in New France

The seigneurial system was a semi-feudal system of land distribution used in New France.

The seigneurial system was introduced to New France by Cardinal Richelieu in 1627. The seignuerial system divided the land into long strips called seigneuries which were further divided into long narrow plots of land, and then distributed among the Habitants. Each seigneurie belonged to the King of France and was maintained by a seigneur or landlord, who was responsible for building a church and a mill. In return for their lands, the Habitants would in turn pay rent to the seigneur in the form of food and labour.

The seigneurial system as it existed in New France was somewhat different than the system that had arisen in France. For example none of the seigneurs in New France were from the nobility. In France, all seigneurs were vassals of the king. In Canada, seigneuries were purchased by military officers, Catholic clergy and even co-operatively by groups of Habitants. In New France, the King was represented by an Intendant, who required all seigneurs to live on their seigneuries.

Following the British victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which marked the turning point of the French and Indian War, the seigneurial system was seen as an obstacle to colonization by British settlers. However, the Quebec Act of 1774 took steps to protect French civil law and the seigneurial system.

The seigeurial system remained in use for almost a hundred years. As the seigneuries along the St. Lawrence River made up the best farmland, many English and Scottish immigrants became seigneurs. The seigneuries were also divided between male and female offspring, or tended to by widows until their children came of age.

When Quebec was divided into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791, a 28 mile segment of the inter-colonial border was drawn along the edge of the western seigneiuries along the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers.

The seigneurial system was formally abolished in 1854. A special seigenurial court was established to answer the many legal and economic questions that arose from this action.

Some elements of the seigneurial system continued well into the 20th Century, such as the collection of feudal rents. These were finally abolished when the last of the feudal rents were purchased by the Quebec government through a system of bonds.

Sources

Jacques Mathieu. “Seigneurial system”, in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Foundation of Canada. Nov. 30/09

Bothwell, Richard. The Penguin History of Canada, Penguin, Toronto (2006) Pg. 136

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