The Way We Weren’t


Marguerite de Bourgeouys sculpture, downtown Montreal

I am currently forced to homeschool my daughter. It is just as well. We’ve been going through the prescribed text for Canadian history together. It’s alarmingly bad.

Most recently, it includes a chapter of detail about everyday life in New France. This is, to begin with, not a proper subject for history. We have apparently forgotten why we study history in the first place: to learn the lessons of the past. People’s everyday lives do not, on the whole, provide such lessons, for they had little chance to make choices that might alter the course of history. History properly has to do with matters of government policy, for the most part. Life lessons are important too, no doubt, but these we get from tales of saints and heroes and villains; not the lives of average persons in aggregate.

As to government policy, the book asserts, several times, that the French government saw their North American colony as something to exploit “to make the home country rich.” They did this through the mercantile system, forcing the colony to trade with the motherland. This seems a distortion of history. It should go without saying that a colony needed to pay for itself—that the cost of defending and administering it must not be higher than it returned in taxes. But there is every evidence that the French government saw themselves as also being in North America for the benefit of the natives: in order to convert them to Catholic Christianity and teach them how to improve their lives. And the mercantile system equally committed the mother country to trade with the colonies; trade is not exploitation.

As to the lives of ordinary people, the book goes on at some length over just how exploitative the seigneurial system was, whether there was class mobility, and how large was the pre-conquest middle class. Such class analysis tends to presuppose Marxism; otherwise it is of little interest. In any case, the written records are not sufficient to draw any conclusions. It is all conjecture tainted by political agendas. And such an excursus kills any narrative flow; it is the narrative flow that makes history interesting.

The text also diverts from any narrative continuity to point out that torture was used in the Quebec courts—30 times over a century. It goes into the methods in some detail. This may entertain adolescent boys, but it is not relevant to history. It seems little more than an opportunity to gossip unfavourably about our ancestors.

As is the two pages spent on slavery in New France. This seems disproportionate for a practice that was more common almost everywhere else except continental Europe, and which had no economic impact in New France. It seems mostly, again, a chance to find fault with our ancestors.

The book is openly hostile to Catholicism. It suggests that the average habitant was really more pagan than Christian, because “Canadian children heard tales of flying canoes, werewolves, and encounters with the devil.” Even though the same could be said of Canadian children today, or children at any time or place. 

Most disturbing to me is that the book spends only a half a page on women in New France, under the segregated subhead “Women in the Workplace.” It is not just that this ignores the work of women in the home, despite the concentration on ordinary people and ordinary lives. It also omits much of the history I read and heard as a student in Quebec half a century ago. Then, we knew of Madeleine de Vercheres, who defended almost single-handed against an Iroquois attack; of Marie de l’Incarnation, who founded the first school on the continent; Margeurite de Bourgeouys, who co-founded Montreal, built the first church, and started the first school; Jeanne Mance, who started the first hospital, which grew to a string of hospitals across Eastern Canada; Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, who built the first orphanage and hospice, the origins of the Canadian social security system; and St. Kateri Tekakwitha. 

Now all we get is brief sentences about some woman running a mill, or continuing their husband’s business after his death.

Why this radical devaluation of women? In part, I imagine, because it is now politically incorrect to say anything that sounds good about Catholics or the religious; and most of these women were nuns. In part, I imagine, because it is politically incorrect to admit that women had important roles before Betty Friedan. They were supposed, after all, to be oppressed.

It would all have been a terrible miseducation for my daughter.

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