Chapter 9. Economic Transformation and Continuity, 1818–1860s

9.4 The Lower Canadian Economy

As the oldest settlement colony in British North America, Lower Canada had certain advantages. The infrastructure of banks, warehouses, shipping capacity, merchant houses, schools and hospitals, and the military were all much more evolved than in any of the other colonies. Against that, much of the best arable land was spoken for by 1818, some farmland was in need of rest and fertilizing, and the demographic model of large, often extended farm families meant that greater resources had to be dedicated to subsistence than was the case with smaller families in the English Protestant colonies.

Although wheat remained an important share of Lower Canadian farm production throughout the first half of the 19th century, the colony never developed the same degree of dependence on grain as did Upper Canada. Nor did it achieve the same surpluses for export. By the 1830s Lower Canada was a net importer of wheat (overwhelmingly from Upper Canada). This reflects three things: a move to mixed farming geared to feeding Lower Canada first, a rising population that effectively ate up the surplus, and soil exhaustion. It has to be said, too, that Lower Canada’s farm belt was less well suited to wheat than was Upper Canada’s.

Growth in the colony’s economy was stimulated by the trade in timber. The Napoleonic Wars, as we have seen elsewhere, stimulated growth in logging camps and the squaring of timbers. This trend continued into the 1820s and 1830s. The tributaries of the St. Lawrence — including the Ottawa River Valley — hummed with activity as logging camps spread along the fringe of colonial settlement. It has been observed that farming in Lower Canada took place at the heart of the colony, the fur trade far beyond its limits, and logging right at its edge.[1] Each of these sectors was organized differently: from the family farm, to the far-ranging fur trade in which voyageurs and coureurs de bois predominated, to the typically all-male logging camp in which wage labour was the norm. This last mode of production — wage labour with a large number of semi-skilled workers — would emerge as a characteristic of British North America as a whole in the 19th century.

Agriculture remained at the heart of the economy in Lower Canada throughout the 19th century because culturally and socially there were pressures to stay on the land. The clergy and the state alike were heavily invested in the administrative and confessional units bound up in the seigneuries, as were, of course, the seigneurs. The question then arises, why was the Lower Canadian farming sector seemingly stagnant?

One school of thought places the blame on cultural timidity, a mentalité among farmers that was unprogressive. This was the stand taken by Fernand Ouellet in a study published in 1980.[2] Historical geographer Cole Harris took the same view, saying that by the 1820s, “French-Canadian agriculture, inflexible, uncompetitive, and largely subsistent, was incapable of supporting a growing population.”[3] Harris has since changed his view and has joined the ranks of historians who argue that the pre-1850 farm economy in Lower Canada was, in fact, diversifying, that there is evidence of experimentation and growth.[4] The issue arises as to whether stagnation (or growth, come to that) was related to the “peasant” condition of Canadien farmers. Their farms were much more organized around subsistence than commercial sales, so breaking out of that pattern (one that dates back to the 1660s) was a unique challenge.[5] The rise of larger cities and concentrated lumber industries meant new growing markets for farm surpluses, and this was no doubt critical in the move to a commercialized agricultural sector. The archetypal rural cash crop in Lower Canada — maple syrup — would clearly benefit from an urban or working-class marketplace.

Regardless of the historical forces that abetted or obstructed change on the seigneuries, there remained the critical shortfall of the farming sector in Lower Canada: the colony was unable to support its rapidly increasing population. The principal results would be movement within the colony — mostly to the towns and cities but also to more marginal, newly opened seigneurial lands — and emigration. They found a welcome of sorts in New England. By the 1830s industrialization was underway in Massachusetts and demand for labour in the state’s textile mills was expanding more rapidly than could be met by the local labour supply. Rather than move to more marginal farm land in, say, the Saguenay Valley or off to a farming frontier in another part of British North America — that is, to an anglophone, Protestant colony — Canadiens found it easier to sojourn in New England where wage labour was good.

The limits of Lower Canadian agriculture and its ongoing vulnerabilities were issues in the political unrest of the 1830s. So too was the outmigration to New England and the movement off the land into the towns of Lower Canada. From a cultural perspective, economic worries and depopulation of the countryside looked like a threat to the survival of the Canadien fact. Together these social issues would produce political tensions that came to a head in 1837-38.

Historians on Video

Farming and country life were at the heart of the Lower Canadian economy throughout the 19th century. Rural people and their lives are described in the first video below by historian Frank Abbott (Kwantlen Polytechnic University). In the second video, Dr. Abbott takes up the theme of the colony’s farming economy as a whole. Elements of the economic order of New France persisted well into the 19th century. Historian Jack Little (Simon Fraser University) talks about the seigneurial system and class systems in the third interview. The transcripts, respectively, may be found here: Transcript for Video 1 [PDF], Transcript for Video 2 [PDF], and Transcript for Video 3 [PDF].

Key Points

  • The transition out of a subsistence-oriented farming economy into a commercialized agricultural sector was more complex in Lower Canada than elsewhere in British North America because of well-established practices and conditions.
  • The growth of the timber economy provided an outlet for surplus labour and a market for farm products.
  • Constraint in the farming sector was a catalyst for migration to cities and towns and to New England mills.

  1. Kenneth Norrie and Douglas Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 146-7.
  2. Fernand Ouellet, Economic and Social History of Quebec, 1760-1850 (Ottawa: Gage, 1980).
  3. Cole Harris, "Of Poverty and Helplessness in Petite-Nation," Canadian Historical Review 52, issue 1 (March 1971): 23-50.
  4. Cole Harris, The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada Before Confederation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), 242-259.
  5. See also Serge Courville and Normand Séguin, Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century Quebec (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1989). I am grateful to Frank Abbott for his insights into this debate.


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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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