Chapter 12. Children and Childhood

12.3 Childhood in New France and Lower Canada

Figure 12.2 Louis-Joseph Papineau at 10 years.

As we have seen, the French colonies of Acadia and Canada developed along rather different geographical lines. Acadia’s salt marsh farms along the Bay of Fundy provided small nodes of population, genuine communities in which children would be raised surrounded by an extended family, although the communities themselves were relatively isolated, accessible principally by water. This was an environment in which agricultural work in a family setting was a powerful defining feature of life for young people. On reaching maturity they would generally try to find a place to live near their family and few would head out to the frontier of Acadia, wherever that might be.

In Canada, the long corridor of the St. Lawrence worked against “the formation of villages [so] community life did not develop strongly along the valley, and the festivals and communal work patterns of Old France did not become entrenched.”[1] Here, too, kin became the focus and locus of childhood. And the seigneurial system — until about 1820 — offered young adults the possibility of obtaining their own land close to their parents’ home. Historian Peter Moogk has shown how this environment of propinquity impacted parenting, which tended toward less disciplinarian paternalism than was found in Old France; by the 1700s, evidently, this was another way in which Canadiens were distinct from the French of France. The irony is that early French visitors to North America commented critically on Indigenous peoples’ parenting styles, which they regarded as far too lenient and soft.

In both Acadia and Canada children were rarely sent off to apprentice in another household from a young age. While the youth of France were testing the rules in the homes of strangers, the children of the two colonies were both supported by and contained within a network of relatives. It was only when the availability of nearby land dried up that this pattern of growing up in a multi-generational kin-based community began to fracture. From the early 19th century, children were raised knowing that they would have to move away from the familial enclaves and try to develop kin networks of their own. This change signified a break with nearly 200 years of Canadien culture. It gave external, non-familial entities like the Church or the employer more authority and influence, extending to the youngest members of the community.

Church and Childhood

This connection between clergy and child-raising was most obvious in education. In 1642 Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1799) established a teaching order in Montreal for the education of girls — both Indigenous and Canadien. A separate school appeared in 1664 for boys (only colonists, though). In both institutions the clergy either provided the instruction themselves or selected lay people to do so. Social class lines were observed, and fees were charged that put the best education beyond the reach of most children. Those pupils who came from poorer households were more likely to be taught domestic skills or trades than reading and writing.[2]

A greater focus on basic literacy for both boys and girls arose in the first half of the 18th century. Girls continued to be taught needlework and domestic skills, but they were also more likely to learn how to read and write. Some critics at this time expressed the concern that this “expanded” education would turn good farm girls into fine ladies who would shirk their role in building up the agrarian colony.[3] However, the rates of nuptiality and fertility in the colony certainly don’t suggest that happened. The marriage rates show that there was a population of spinsters, but their status as “never married” can be explained in part by the number of girls who opted to join the Canadien nuns, a career path that was both respected and sought after. There were few similar opportunities for boys to be trained into the clergy. The Sulpicians, for example, recruited in France, but not Canada.

For the earliest generations of Canadien children, there is evidence to suggest a strong generational cohort. The arrival of the filles du roi between 1663 and 1673 resulted in a rash of marriages and births. Thus there was a decade in which a large number of first borns arrived on the scene. Twenty years later demographic historians have found evidence of a population boom echo: “Montreal had been peopled almost at one stroke … so that practically all the immigrants’ daughters reached the age of marriage and the period of highest fertility at the same time.”[4] Surrounded by numerous peers, the children of the children of immigrants would be responsible for forging some of the most distinctive features of Canadien culture.

Key Points

  • Childhood was spent surrounded by near relatives in Acadia and Canada.
  • These arrangements changed in the post-Conquest period when apprenticeships and servitude in other households became more commonplace.
  • The clergy in New France played an important role in raising and educating colonial and Indigenous children and were a strong influence on notions of ideal childhood, girlhood, and womanhood.


Figure 12.2
Louis-Joseph Papineau 10 years old by BeatrixBelibaste is in the public domain.

  1. Joy Parr, “Introduction,” in Childhood and Family in Canadian History, ed. Joy Parr (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982), 10.
  2. Louise Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal, trans. Liana Vardi (Montreal and Kingston: McGill–Queen's University Press, 1992), 269-71.
  3. Peter Moogk, “Les Petits Sauvages: The Children of Eighteenth-Century New France,” in Childhood and Family in Canadian History, ed. Joy Parr (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982), 38-9.
  4. Dechêne, Habitants and Merchants, 55.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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