Québec Act, British statute passed in 1774 that greatly expanded the British colony of Québec and instituted French civil law within it. The act was meant to address the conflicting desires of Québec’s French- and English-speaking populations, but it failed as a compromise and led to frustration in the colony. The act also prompted a hostile reaction from the 13 British colonies to the south, which were already on the verge of revolting against Britain.
In 1763 Britain defeated France in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and acquired its colony of New France. Britain then passed the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which cut from New France a vast region west of the St. Lawrence River Valley and the Appalachian Mountains. Britain set aside this region for North American Indians because it was trying to appease the Indians who had sided with France in the war. The remainder of New France, the heavily populated St. Lawrence River Valley commonly called Canada, was renamed Québec.
However, Britain could not enforce the provision of the Royal Proclamation that reserved land for Indians, because land speculators from the 13 colonies pushed across the mountains into the rich farmland of the Ohio River Valley, known as the Ohio country. In addition, the Royal Proclamation had done little to address the problems associated with the conquest of New France. The transition to British law proved difficult for the colony, where the majority of the population was accustomed to French laws and traditions. As British merchants settled in Québec though, they demanded British laws and British government. As early as 1764 they petitioned Britain for a legislative assembly.
When Guy Carleton arrived in Québec as lieutenant governor in 1766, he was charged with the task of finding an arrangement that would please the British newcomers and win the loyalty of the French Canadians. The French Canadians wished to keep their laws, and they worried that the British merchants wielded too much influence. Also, an overwhelming majority of the French Canadians were Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholics were prohibited from holding political office in Britain and its colonies. The French Canadians wanted Britain to lift this restriction, and they also wanted an elected assembly. The French Canadians pressed Carleton to appoint a replacement for Bishop Henri-Marie Dubreil de Pontbriand, who had died in 1760. Carleton appointed Jean-Olivier Briand to succeed Pontbriand in 1766. However, Carleton, who was appointed governor in 1768, still had the difficult task of attempting to offer the French Canadians conciliation and toleration on one hand, while attempting to assimilate them into British colonial society on the other.
The Québec Act, which took effect in 1775, expanded Québec south of the Great Lakes to include the territory between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, eastward to include Labrador, and north to the borders of the Hudson Bay watershed. The act reintroduced French civil law, which supported the rigid landholding system of the French Canadian lords, known as seigneurs. British criminal law still applied in the province. The act did not allow for a legislative assembly, but it did allow the governor to appoint a council to make ordinances for the peace, welfare, and good government.
The act provided for the freedom of the Catholic Church but encouraged people of the colony to maintain or adopt Protestant faiths. Roman Catholics would be permitted to hold office if they took a special oath of allegiance to King George. In practice, much local control remained in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church and the seigneurs.
|IV||EFFECTS AND REACTIONS|
Reaction to the Québec Act was universally negative. The British merchants in Québec complained on both economic and political grounds about the provision allowing for French civil law. French law tended to keep property and businesses within a family, making them largely off-limits to newcomers. Many British residents of Québec felt the retention of French laws and institutions made it more difficult for French Canadians to assimilate into the British colonial system. For their part, the French Canadians complained bitterly about the lack of an assembly, which they had hoped to dominate because they were the majority of the population. However, the social provisions allowing French civil law and tolerating Roman Catholicism appeased them.
The loudest complaints came from the 13 colonies, which were upset that the act expanded Québec into the Ohio River Valley. The people in the 13 colonies quickly lumped the new statute with restrictive British decrees known as the Intolerable Acts. In 1775 the colonies took up arms against the British in the American Revolution and later declared themselves the United States of America.
The British government probably anticipated the outrage the Québec Act would provoke in the 13 colonies. By passing the Québec Act, the British government seems to have conceded that the American colonists were set on revolution, so its extension of the boundary was for military purposes. With the Ohio country under the authority of the still loyal colony of Québec, British troops had a better chance of holding it. If this was Britain’s plan, however, the act still failed because the British lost the Ohio country in the war. With an American victory in 1783, the continent was divided into the new United States and British North America, which had its southern boundary at the Great Lakes.
After the revolution, a flood of British Loyalists moved from the United States to Québec, and the number of people who opposed the Québec Act increased. Finally, the British Parliament passed the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided Québec into two provinces: Lower Canada in the St. Lawrence River Valley and Upper Canada to the north and west of Lake Ontario. In mostly French Lower Canada, French civil law, rights of the Catholic Church, and seignorial land tenure were preserved. In mostly British Upper Canada, Protestant churches, particularly the Church of England, were favored, and British laws and land tenure were installed.
In its 17 years, the Québec Act failed to please the people of Québec and failed to give Britain a tactical advantage against the rebellious 13 colonies. However, the act did provide Britain with one important benefit. On the eve of the American Revolution, Britain faced the possibility of losing all of its North American colonies. The Québec Act’s tolerant social provisions for the French Canadians helped ensure Québec’s neutrality, if not loyalty.