The American Revolution began in the last decades of the eighteenth century and profoundly changed North America. With the recognition of American independence through the Treaty of Paris in 1783, it became clear that three nations now existed: America, Canada and Quebec. Canada would form the northern part of the continent, and thus have the smaller population as dictated by the geography of the Canadian Shield, and would be a bilingual and bicultural country. While the outcome of the American revolution was far from certain at the time, the very fact that the British knew it was looming shaped politics in Quebec, and action in America. The Quebec act before the war, and the provisions agreed to in the Treaty of Paris after, shaped Canada as a nation, and the ramifications can still be felt and seen today.
For many decades, the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies had been trying to expand their territory westward, into land held by indigenous people. This had brought about vicious wars on the frontier, spurred by the French. The Quebec Act of 1774 contained provisions that allowed for the expansion of Quebec territories, bringing back the fear of frontier warfare. It was more than that, though. The Americans considered the Quebec act an Intolerable act as it outlawed representative democracy, put the church and the aristocracy in power, and ensured that French Roman Catholicism would survive. They felt that the British had been too lenient on the Quebecois. Fear was rampant in the thirteen colonies that if the British were restoring old ways of governance that were not democratic in the North, that they would try to pass the same laws in the colonies, which all had representative assemblies by this time. They feared imminent attack from the Quebecois and the indigenous people. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that one of the very first acts undertaken by the new country of America was to invade Quebec.
Both the Americans and the British misunderstood the Quebecois peasants, which led to a different outcome than they had hoped. Based on information from Guy Carleton, a leader of the British army, and later governor of the new state, the Quebec act was designed to be conciliatory to the Quebecois – losers in the conquest of 1759. Provisions were made for the French institutions to remain largely unchanged. French Civil Law remained in place, religious tolerance was extended to French Roman Catholics, a provision that predated the Whig movement in nineteenth century Britain. The hope was that in providing for continuation of their previous way of life, the Quebecois would join the side of the British in the coming revolution. Carleton was a great supporter of the landed aristocracy and the clergy, and allowed for them to retain and, in some cases, grow their power. The peasants were not pleased with this, even going so far as to offer to fight for the British if the Quebec act was repealed. Their dissatisfaction with the act, as well as a weariness of battle, led them to avoid the military in large numbers, even when the aristocracy joined as officers. The peasants might not have been dancing in the streets at the Quebec act, but nor were they running to join the Americans either. They liked the Americans only so long as their money lasted, thereafter becoming anti-American. The Quebecois peasants weren’t swayed by the Enlightenment ideals espoused by the Americans. They chose to remain out of the conflict. The peasants seemed to feel that it was better to side with the familiar than it was to back the Americans, to do what they could to preserve their way of life rather than to invest in the unknown.
The thoughts of the peasants in Quebec were much the same as those of the Loyalists that fought for the British in America. Many of the Loyalists who eventually came to Canada were those who preferred the status quo rather than an unknown outcome. People who had benefitted from the British system were less likely to side with the Americans. Those who were weak, marginalized, minorities, and even slaves, all fought on the British side. When the conflict was decided for the Americans, the Loyalists had to leave, and they were transported to Canada. Many of the Loyalists moved in what Bumsted calls kin groups and three-quarters of them settled in what is now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The remainder settled in Ontario.
The displacement of the Loyalists into Canada brought about changes to the country outside of Quebec. In 1791, the constitutional act was passed, which brought back some representative democracy, it also separated the territory into Upper and Lower Canada, divided along the language and cultural lines. By and large the Loyalists did not like change and though they were responsible for the return of some British common law practices, they did not expand west, and were not as active as the Americans were. Canada did not see the vast expansion that the US did in the nineteenth century. It was not until British citizens began to immigrate to Canada that westward expansion happened.
The Treaty of Paris in 1783, provided for some territory to be ceded to the Americans, much of it frontier territory, with no provision for the indigenous inhabitants. Thus, many of these people became victims of the American expansion. The indigenous people did not fare much better in Canada with changes that came after the constitutional act. Where many indigenous were integrated with the Quebecois, once Anglophone Canada started to expand, those indigenous who did not assimilate were pushed to the edges of society, where many still remain today.
The American Revolution was a game-changer in North American politics. The British wanted to curtail the revolution and instituted the Quebec act as a placatory measure to the Quebecois, which did not rally the war-weary peasants to either their side or to that of the Americans. Certain provisions in the Quebec act survive to this day, such as the Civil Code of Quebec, as compared to British Common Law that governs the rest of Canada. The act that was brought about to unsettle the Americans had its effect, and solidified Canada as a country, but one that is divided along language and cultural lines. It brought in a number of American ex-patriots who took up residence in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, becoming somewhat insular and detached from the rest of the country. Anglophone loyalty to Britain may have been diminished by the inclusion of Quebec in Canadian politics, but there is no doubt that many British institutions, including our form of governance, still exist today, and perhaps may not have been so had it not been for the events of the several decades surrounding America’s first civil war.