How Democracy Became Established in Quebec

The learning of democracy in French Canada started following the conquest of New France of 1759-1760 by the English.

The Plains of Abraham defeat of 1759 and the subsequent Montreal capitulation in the spring of 1760 forced the departure of a large number of French soldiers from New France henceforth called Canada; following this war called the Seven Years War, France and England signed a peace treaty in 1763 called the Treaty of Paris which among other clauses granted French Canadians the right to practice their religion and to continue a partial Seigniorial system.  Later, by the Act of Quebec of 1774, the oath of Loyalty to the King of England was maintained in order to participate in the colony’s government but without the necessity of renouncing the catholic faith.  Governor Murray was worried about the attraction of the American Revolution over the 85,000 inhabitants of the new Canadian colony so the new Act reaffirmed the right of citizens to practice Catholicism while allowing the use of the French legal code in civil cases.  Finally for good measure the French Seigneurial system was reinstated mainly to allow better land management.

The English Governor who had replaced the French Intendant named by Louis XV came from a country with vastly different political traditions and precedents that had prevailed in France.

In England, the Magna Carta of 1215, also called the Great Charter of the Liberties of England, allowed the limitation of the Monarchy’s power to the benefit of feudal Barons; gradually this Charter brought the English King himself under the Rule of Law and according to Lord Jenning " it became the greatest constitutional document of all times- the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot".

This document was followed by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 preventing arbitrary arrests in great contrast to the  "lettres de cachet" issued by the French kings which allowed the imprisonment of often innocent citizens for indefinite periods in dungeons such as the Bastille in Paris.

France went through a very different route: reaching a peak of absolutism with Louis X1V proclaiming to his court in Versailles that "L’État c’est moi"

Until the French Revolution of 1789, it had been impossible to change the very French concept of absolute monarchy so that under both Louis XV and Louis XV1 any suggestions of change toward a constitutional monarchy as in England, was severely suppressed.  The French Revolution of 1789 eliminated Monarchy but replaced it unfortunately in 1805 by the Imperial dictature of Napoleon.

Meanwhile in England democracy was fast progressing: in 1705 an election was held where voters, mainly land owners, were able to elect sitting members of Parliament (M.P.) in the House of Commons.

The English concept of elected representatives crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Canada; following the Constitutional Act of 1791 the English Parliament created two distinct provinces, Upper Canada with a majority Anglophone and Lower Canada mostly French Canadians.  A house of Parliament was needed: in December 1792 under the authority of the English governor two parliamentary Assemblies were created one in Lower Canada (Quebec) located in Montreal and the other in Upper Canada (Ontario).  Following the election of 1792, fifty members of Parliament from each province were elected.

A controversy soon erupted when the assembly of Lower Canada named Jean Antoine Panet as president of the Assembly which annoyed the Anglo Quebecers used to dominating politics in the language of Shakespeare.  Following discussions with London, the new laws voted by the new Parliament were allowed to be drafted in French as long as there was a legal English version.  It was a first in the British Empire which Quebec was a part of:  indeed no other country as part of the British Empire could write its laws in a language other than English.

Soon French Canadians became brilliant parliamentarians and gradually, democratic customs took root in the population of Quebec just as it did in the U.S. recently freed from England’s domination.

Together with absolutism from the French Regime came authoritarism from the Catholic clergy which was no less noxious.  We have to remember that starting with Samuel de Champlain our first New France governor, that no Protestants were allowed in the Colony; this banishment had been implemented after the proclamation of 1627 by Louis X111.  Later, on religious and civil authorities kept new ideas from French Encyclopedists away from the general population so that the citizens of New France could not be aware of what was written by French authors such as Voltaire and Diderot; they were considered sacrilegious by the Quebec religious authorities.  So what a shock to the clergy to realize that the publication of the first newspaper in 1778, La Gazette Littéraire de Montréal, would allow the spreading of all these new concepts of freedom of thoughts and civil liberty.  What was even more worrisome for the clergy, was that the Gazette was quoting extensively the "sulphurous" writings of Voltaire.

Soon an alliance between seigneurs and clergy would coalesce into a powerful lobby consisting of Monsieur Étienne de Montgolfier the Collège de Montréal’s* superior and Monsieur Hertel Sieur de Rouville, a local judge.  Their persistent writings asking for the closing of the newspaper finally convinced Governor Haldimand in 1779 to jail the printer Fleury Mesplet for three years and for the Editor Valentin Jautard considered more culpable, three and a half years.  Locked in an unheated jail cell called the Provost jail, in the Quebec

*Still a school located at the same address as 240 years ago on Sherbrooke Street.

City Citadel, Jautard was given an especially harsh treatment; mostly bread and water served by the jail keeper himself a Franciscan named Father Berey who knew how to treat his "dangerous" prisoner in the "right" manner.  Jautard came out of jail a shadow of himself a broken a man who died less than five years later at the age of 49.* As to Mesplet, once out of jail he continued running his printing operation which had been managed by his wife during his imprisonment.

He then decided in 1785, 3 years after exiting jail, to continue the publication of his newspaper which will become bilingual, and be named "La Gazette de Montréal", "The Montreal Gazette", which would shield it from its enemies (i.e. the English governor and the clergy) because it was read extensively by the Anglo elite.

The newspaper was published until Mesplet's death in 1794 when it was bought out of bankruptcy by anglo investors and is still being published to this day under the name of "The Gazette".


Another story even more dramatic took place during the conquest of New France after the battle of the Plain of Abraham of September 1759.  This incredible story involving a young nun and a young Scottish soldier was recently published in a book entitled "A Bard of Wolfe’s Army" published under the sponsorship of the Stewart Foundation of Montreal.

In this book, A Scottish Sergeant in the English Army named James Thomson (1733-1830) dictated his memoirs which were edited and noted by two historians, Earl John Thompson and Ian Macpherson McCulloh.  Sergeant Thomson educated in Scotland reveals through 30 anecdotes different events one of which describes the Victory of General Wolfe of September 1759 over General Montcalm; after the battle, hundreds of wounded French and English soldiers were taken to the care of the Augustine Nuns at the Quebec General Hospital.

*L’époque de Voltaire au Canada par Jean Paul  De Lagrave.

A badly wounded soldier, Sergeant John Wilson age 23, of the Fraser’s Highlanders, was put in a hospital bed under the attentive care of a comely 19 years old nun by the name of Soeur St. Gabriel.  The young nun was completely devoted to her patient and it was no small part due to her care that the sergeant recovered almost completely from his wounds.

On the April 28 1760, alarms were sounded; there was a counter attack at Sillery by the French forces led by the Chevalier de Lévis.  Despite his state of weakness, Sergeant Wilson decided to volunteer to fight with his regiment; after a medical examination he was declared fit for battle.

His departure brought a distraught Soeur St. Gabriel to tears and I quote:  "she was taken with violent fits which was observed by the other nuns of the convent" which did not yet attract suspicions.  Unfortunately the Battle of Sillery won by the French caused many deaths one of which was of young Sergeant Wilson.

As Sergeant Thomson tells in his own words:  "The news soon found its way to the Convent; and there was the devil to pay!  St. Gabriel was again taken with fits and convulsions and it became necessary to attend to her in particular.  She was undressed and put to bed when what in the name of wonder did not the nuns discover?  Why that the Highland Sergeant, whose death had just been reported was the only cause of her illness.  They proceeded to look closer into the possible cause and lo-and-behold, they discovered that she had her weame * up."


"The Mother Abbess was now sent who began by accusing poor St.Gabriel of vile conduct and threatened to have her put to the torture if she did not acknowledge her guilt, but devil-a-word did the abbess get out of her but merely sobs and sighs.  At length the Abbess calls a council of Nuns and they had the poor Gabriel brought before them, but all they could get from her was:  Ah!  Nous sommes toutes mortelles."

"There was a paper drawn up condemning poor Gabriel to be smothered and to which was obtained the signature of the Bishop.  It was sent by a priest in due form for the confirmation of General Murray, it having been the rule for the Intendants to ratify these judgments during the French time – however, in General Murray they held the wrong sow by the ear for instead of putting his name to it, he sent the nuns a written message, acquainting them they had no right to sit in judgment upon the life of any of the subjects of His Majesty and declared that if the nun was accused of any crime against the laws, she must be brought to trial by a lawfully constituted court and not one of their own forming.  That is they did not desist he would order two field pieces of artillery to be planted opposite the door of their convent, and batter down the walls about their ears and report home to England the shameful transgression that they had committed against the existing laws."

The sentence by the Council of Nuns was postponed indefinitely even if according to the rules of the Order contacts with a person of the opposite sex were forbidden unless for charitable purposes:  in case of transgression according to Sergeant Thomson the nuns had to either smother the culprit between two feather mattresses or imprison her with only bread and water as sustenance.*

Many years later, Sergeant Thomson as civil engineer, had the responsibility of inspecting all public buildings in Quebec:  in his work he had to meet Soeur St. Gabriel who was alive and well and who had been  given the task of making needed small repairs too the convent.

Through the years they became friends and Sergeant Thomson was eventually able to hear from Soeur St.Gabriel that the child born from her love affair with Sergeant Wilson was alive and had been confided to the grand-mother who lived nearby.

Nearly 20 years after the birth of her child Soeur St. Gabriel managed to get a letter from her son thanks to Sergeant Thomson; he was able to deliver the precious letter sewn in his pocket by the grand-mother to Soeur St. Gabriel.  The poor nun died at fourty six years old never having seen her son. **

*Note from the author:  The smothering sentence solved two problems:  getting rid of the culprit and the fruit of her crime.

**The Hôtel-Dieu archivist has confirmed to the Editor John Earl Chapman, that Soeur St. Gabriel did indeed exist and she died in June 1787 aged 46. This confirmation was obtained against the promises of not revealing Soeur St. Gabriel’s family name.  For the time being it has not been possible to obtain the transcript of the Council of Nuns, condemning Soeur St. Gabriel to be smothered.


The history of Mesplet and Jautard circa 1780 shows the Clergy and Seigneurs influence on the British administration while Sergeant Thomson anecdotes of 1760, demonstrate the beneficial influence of an English governor.

The evolution of French Canada toward a democratic system was accelerated by the existence of an English Parliament which had its first election in 1705.  The British regime allowed French Canada to make a gradual transition from religious authoritarism and royal absolutism to a democratic system over a period of a hundred years marked by the bloody repression of 1837-38 and by the Act of Union of 1840 disastrous for Quebec but tempered by the alliance of Lafontaine-Baldwin of 1841-1850.

The Confederate Act of 1867 and the Westminster Statute of 1931 finally created a Canada independent of Britain, a new country which included a Quebec willing to participate in the great Canadian adventure.