William Bennett Munro.

The Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism online

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comply. A writer of the time narrates what happened in
one of the seigneuries, and it is doubtless typical of
what took place in others. 'M. Deschambaud went over to
his seigneury on the Richelieu,' he tells us, 'and summoned
his tenants to arms; they listened patiently to what he
had to say, and then peremptorily refused to accede to
his demands. At this the seigneur was foolish enough to
draw his sword; whereupon the habitants gave both him
and a few friends who accompanied him a severe thrashing,
and sent them off vowing vengeance. Fearing retaliation,
the habitants armed themselves, and to the number of
several hundred prepared to attack any regular forces
which might be sent against them. Through the discretion
of Governor Carleton, however, who hastened to send one
of his officers to disavow the action of the seigneur,
and to promise the habitants that if they returned quietly
to their homes they would not be molested, they were
persuaded to disperse.' [Footnote: Maseres, Additional
Papers concerning the Province of Quebec (1776), pp. 71
et seq.]

As the eighteenth century drew to a close it became
evident that the people were getting restive under the
restraints which the seigneurial system imposed. Lands
had risen in value so that the lods et ventes now amounted
to a considerable payment when lands changed owners. With
the growth of population the banal right became very
valuable to the seigneurs and an equally great inconvenience
to the habitants. Many seigneurs made no attempt to
provide adequate milling facilities. They gave the
habitants a choice between bringing their grain to the
half-broken-down windmill of the seigneury or paying the
seigneur a money fine for his permission to take their
grist elsewhere. New seigneurial demands, unheard of in
earlier days, were often put forth and enforced.

The grievances of the habitants were not mitigated,
moreover, by the way in which the authorities of the
province gave lands to the United Empire Loyalists. These
exiles from the revolted seaboard colonies came by
thousands during the years following the war, and they
were given generous grants of land. And these lands were
not made subject to any seigneurial dues. They were given
in freehold, in free and common socage. The new owners
of these lands paid no annual dues and rendered no regular
services to any superior authority. Their tenure seemed
to the habitants to be very attractive. Hence the influx
of the Loyalists gave strength to a movement for the
abolition of seigneurial tenure - a movement which may be
said to have had its first real beginning about 1790.

It was in that year that the solicitor-general of the
province, in response to a request of the legislative
council, presented a long report on the land-tenure
situation. The council, after due consideration of this
report and other data submitted to it, passed a series
of resolutions declaring that the seigneurial system was
retarding the agricultural progress of the province and
that, while its immediate abolition was not practicable,
steps should be taken to get rid of it gradually. But
nothing came of these resolutions. The Constitutional
Act of 1791 greatly complicated the situation by its
provisions relating to the so-termed 'clergy reserves,'
or reservations of lands for Church endowment, and it
was not until 1825 that the Canada Trade and Tenures Act
opened the way for a commutation of tenures whenever the
seigneur and his habitants could agree. This act was
permissive only. It did not apply any compulsion to the
seigneurs. Very few, accordingly, took advantage of its

This was the situation when the uprising of 1837-38 took
place. The seigneurial system was not a leading cause of
the rebellion, but it was one of the grievances included
by the habitants in their general bill of complaint.
Hence, when Lord Durham came to Quebec to investigate
the causes of colonial discontent, the system came in
for its share of study. In his masterly Report on the
Affairs of British North America he recognized that the
old system had outlived its day of usefulness, and that
its continuance was unwise. But Durham outlined no plan
for its abolition. He believed that if the province were
given a government responsible to the masses of its own
people, the problem of abolition would soon be solved.
One of Durham's secretaries, Charles Buller drafted a
scheme for commuting the tenures into freehold, but his
plan did not find acceptance.

For nearly twenty years after Durham's investigation the
question of abolishing the seigneurial tenures remained
a football of Canadian politics. Legislative commissions
were appointed; they made investigations; they presented
reports; but none succeeded in getting any comprehensive
plan of abolition on the statute-books. In 1854, however,
the question was made a leading issue at the general
election. A definite mandate from the people was the
result, and 'An Act for the Abolition of Feudal Rights
and Duties in Lower Canada' received its enactment during
the same year.

The provisions of this act for changing all seigneurial
tenures into freehold are long and somewhat technical.
They would not interest the reader. In brief, it was
arranged that the valid rights of each seigneur should
be translated by special commissioners into an annual
money rental, and that the habitants should pay this
annual sum. The seigneur was required to pay no quit-rent
to the public treasury. What he would have paid, by reason
of getting his own lands into freehold, was applied pro
rata to the reduction of the annual rentals payable by
the habitants. It was arranged, furthermore, that any
habitant might commute this yearly rental by paying his
seigneur a lump sum such as would represent his rent
capitalized at the rate of six per cent.

The whole undertaking was difficult and complicated. A
great many perplexing questions arose, and a special
court had to be created to deal with them. [Footnote:
This court was constituted of four judges of the Court
of the Queen's Bench and nine judges of the Superior
Court of Lower Canada, as follows: Sir Louis H. La
Fontaine, Chief Justice; Justices Duval, Aylwin, and
Caron of the Court of the Queen's Bench; the Hon. Edward
Bowen, Chief Justice; Justices Morin, Mondelet, Vanfelson,
Day, Smith, Meredith, Short, and Badgley of the Superior
Court.] On the whole however, the commissioners performed
their tasks carefully and without causing undue friction.
Class prejudice was strong, and by most of the seigneurs
the whole scheme was regarded as a high-handed piece of
legislative confiscation. They opposed it bitterly from
first to last. Among the habitants, however, the abolition
of the old tenure was popular, for it meant, in their
opinion, that every one would henceforth be a real
landowner. But in the long run it signified nothing of
the sort. Very few of the habitants took advantage of
the provision which enabled them to pay a lump sum in
lieu of an annual rental. Down to the present day the
great majority of them continue to pay their rente
constituee as did their fathers before them. With due
adherence to ancient custom they pay it each St Martin's
Day, and to the man whom they still call 'the seigneur.'
Seigneur he is no longer; for the act of 1854 abolished
not only the emoluments, but the honours attaching to
this rank. But traditions live long in isolated communities,
and the habitants of the St Lawrence valley still give,
along with their annual rent, a great deal of old-time
deference to the man who holds the lands upon which they

The twilight of European feudalism was more prolonged in
French Canada than in any other land. Its prolongation
was unfortunate. For several decades preceding 1854 it
had failed to adjust itself to the new environment, and
its continuance was an obstacle to the economic progress
of Canada. Its abolition was wise - a generation or two
earlier it would have been even wiser. All this is not
to say, however, that the seigneurial system did not
serve a highly useful purpose in its day. So long as it
fitted into the needs of the colony, so long as the
intendancy remained to guard the people against seigneurial
avarice, the system had a great deal to be said in its
behalf. It helped to make New France stronger in arms
than she could have become under any other plan of land
tenure; and with states as with men self-preservation is
the first law of nature.


In two larger books entitled 'The Selgniorial System in
Canada' (New York, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907) and
'Documents relating to the Seigniorial Tenure in Canada'
(Toronto, The Champlain Society, 1908), the writer has
discussed Canadian feudalism in its technical phases.
The former volume contains a full bibliography of manuscript
and printed materials.

The reader who desires to know more about this interesting
side of early Canadian history may also be referred to
Professor George M. Wrong's 'Canadian Manor and its
Seigneurs' (Toronto, 1908); Philippe-Aubert De Gaspe's
'Les anciens Canadiens' (Quebec, 1863); Professor C. W.
Colby's 'Canadian Types of the Old Regime' (New York,
1908), especially chapter iv; W. P. Greenough's 'Canadian
Folk Life and Folk Lore' (New York, 1897); the Abbe H.
R. Casgrain's 'Paroisse Canadienne au XVIIe Siecle'
(Quebec, 1880); Benjamin Sulte's articles on 'La Tenure
Seigneuriale' in the 'Revue Canadienne', July-August,
1882; and Leon Gerin's paper on 'L'habitant de Saint-Justin'
in the 'Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society
of Canada', 1898, pp. 139-216. There is a short, but very
interesting chapter on 'Canadian Feudalism' in Francis
Parkman's 'Old Regime in Canada' (Boston, 1893), and
various phases of life in New France are admirably pictured
in every one of the same author's other volumes.

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Online LibraryWilliam Bennett MunroThe Seigneurs of Old Canada : A Chronicle of New World Feudalism → online text (page 8 of 8)