Strength In Numbers—Two Thirds Of French Canadians Can Trace Their Roots To 283 Early Settlers

Strength in numbers
Two-thirds of French Canadians can trace their roots to 283 early settlers

Peter O'neil
Canwest News Service
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2008

TOUROUVRE, France -Ralph Mercier was blinking away tears here while stepping inside an ancient stone farmhouse on the outskirts of this tiny town largely unknown in France but of profound importance to Canada's very existence.

It was from this same doorway that the Quebec City municipal councillor's distant ancestor, Julien Mercier, walked out for the last time in 1647.

The 26-year-old single labourer, the youngest of eight orphaned children, was joining a local exodus to Canada of 283 area farmers, labourers and tradesmen during the 1630-1650 period.

This relatively tiny but prolific group of settlers, the forefathers of hundreds of thousands of North Americans from Madonna to Celine and Stephane Dion, was anxious to escape the suffocating tax demands of a French regime trying to finance the Thirty Years War on the backs of the peasantry.

“When you find yourself on the doorstep of your ancestor, it is quite impressive,” Mr. Mercier, 71, said this week of his autumn visit, part of the long string of events in France and Canada to mark the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's establishment of a fur-trading post in Quebec City in 1608.

Mr. Mercier said he was unaware until he toured the $4.5-million Museum of French Immigration to Canada that French Canadians survived and thrived, despite widespread indifference amongst French elites and the general French public prior to the 1759-60 Conquest toward what was then called New France. The Conquest resulted in the British taking virtually all of France's North American possessions.

The 283 were among a tiny number of French immigrants to North America who went not as short-term fishermen, fur-trade workers or soldiers, but as actual settlers seeking a new life.

French citizens at the time had little interest in braving a potential 60-to 70-day sea voyage to a land famous for brutal winters and Indian massacres.

And their rulers — who preferred colonizing “on the cheap” by building alliances with aboriginal nations — were opposed to any mass movement that might de-populate France.

From 1608 to the Con-quest of 1759-60, when the British victory over the French resulted in France ceding virtually all its North American possessions to its rival, only 25,000-30,000 went to New France, and only about 6,500 actually settled and raised families.

France, prior to the Conquest, claimed four times the land in North America as the British, but mass migration from the British Isles meant the French were outnumbered on the continent 20 to one.

Once in Canada, the 283 early French settlers from Tourouvre took advantage of the open spaces and a colder climate, which made them less vulnerable to disease, to begin procreating to a remarkable degree.

These early settlers, convinced of Canada's appeal by a local doctor who spent time at the Quebec trading post with Samuel de Champlain, would sometimes have up to 15 children per woman.

University of Montreal historical demographer Bertrand Desjardins said the 283 settlers from this area, along with the famous 770 Filles du Roy (the King's Daughters were orphans sent by Louis XIV to marry single men between 1663 and1672), are the most important sub-sets of 3,300 French migrants who went to settle in Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River Valley before 1680.

University of Montreal researchers have concluded that these 3,300 are responsible for the gene pool of an incredible two-thirds of the roughly seven million Canadians who currently list French as their mother tongue.

Mr. Desjardins estimates that without those 283 settlers, the current French Canadian population would be smaller by about a million people.

University of B.C. historian Peter Moogk, in his book La Nouvelle France, wrote that France's largest overseas colony, was “like a huge, ungainly child [who] was difficult to love.”

University of Montreal historian John Dickinson told the symposium on Canada-France history in Paris this month that even at the time of the Conquest, French Canadians didn't feel particularly attached to France in the same way British immigrants for centuries looked to the “Mother Country” and eagerly went to war to defend the British Empire.

By the time British soldiers out-manoeuvred and beat the French troops on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, French rulers widely viewed the colony as a lost cause.

The French settlements were vastly outnumbered and ultimately doomed because French peasants, unlike the poor on the British Isles, were far more suspicious of their prospects on the new continent, and were by tradition more bound by family ties, say historians.

“Canada had a bad reputation. It was harsh, dangerous; there were enemies. And the French Crown didn't fight that bad impression enough,” Mr. Desjardins said.