National Gallery of CanadaA 1770 painting by Benjamin West called The Death of General Wolfe depicts his death at the battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. That battle was part of the Seven Years’ War.
Will the Canadian government celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war that really made Canada?
Except for a brief, small exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, it’s not likely.
The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, settled the Seven Years’ War. That was, in many ways, the First World War. It was fought in Europe, North America, the Caribbean, parts of Africa, India and on the seas. About 500,000 soldiers were killed in total, along with tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of civilians.
It’s the war that ended with most of what’s eastern Canada and part of the U.S. northeast handed from France to Britain. Quebec is still trying to adapt to the severing of those bonds with the mother country. For most of their history, the descendants of the settlers of New France have fought against the political, cultural and social impact of the “conquest.” It was, for good or ill, the defining moment in Quebec’s history.
On the other hand, the Royal Proclamation, which set out the rules for the government of the new British North American lands, is one of the most liberal manifestos ever issued by any government that had just taken control of an enemy territory.
It’s an astounding document that, in itself, had far more impact on the development of Canada than any single piece of legislation, and was certainly more important to the development of modern Canada than, say, the War of 1812.
The Royal Proclamation established the first legislature in Quebec (which included what’s now Ontario and a chunk of what’s now U.S. territory). Property rights were protected. So were the rights of Catholics — in fact, more so than in Britain itself, and with far more generosity than the British treatment of Irish Catholics.
Indian “tribes and nations” were guaranteed their right to negotiate treaties with the government, making this a sort of Magna Carta for Canada’s aboriginal people.
The Seven Years’ War left deep physical scars on Canada. Some 260 soldiers died with Wolfe and Montcalm at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 (which is listed in just about every study of the most important battles in world history, and the only battle in the Seven Years War that most military historians remember.) Another 550 soldiers were killed the next spring, on the same ground, at the Battle of St. Foy, before the British fleet arrived in 1760 and settled the fight over Quebec.
All told, about 5,000 soldiers and sailors died in the fighting in North America, about 1,000 more than were killed in the War of 1812. (And the War of 1812 numbers are skewed by the big British losses at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, which had no Canadian involvement nor any influence on the outcome of the war.)
Civilian casualties also were far heavier than in the War of 1812: Quebec City was smashed by three months of bombardment from the British fleet and from artillery batteries Wolfe built on the south side of the St. Lawrence. British troops burned the farms and villages on the Isle d’Orleans and in parts of the St. Lawrence Valley. The resulting shortage of food, compounded by hoarding and the vigorous black market operated by New France’s leaders, added to the death and misery.
(My own family has an interesting set of links to the war. One of my ancestors was captain of the militia at the Quebec City suburban siegneurie of Charlesbourg, so was almost certainly involved in the defence of Quebec. On the British side, Nehemiah Gilman of Exeter, N.H., a maternal great-uncle eight generations back, was captured and killed by native warriors at Fort William Henry in 1757. That’s the massacre lying at the heart of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.)
Britain did very well in the Seven Year’s War, capturing Canada, Cuba, the profitable sugar-producing island of Guadeloupe, and a good chunk of French-held India. But during the conflict, it was by no means clear that Britain wanted to keep New France: The surrender documents signed during the war by British and French commanders in Quebec City and Montreal have many stipulations that were dependent on the outcome of peace negotiations.
Between the summer of 1760, when the war effectively ended in Canada, and the signing of the treaty three years later, the British army didn’t seriously meddle in New France. Most French merchants stayed put, relying on British guarantees that they could go back to France if London decided to keep the colony.
High school children may snicker when teachers mention in passing that Britain chose to keep Canada rather than hold onto the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. But a close look at New France and Guadeloupe shows the French probably got the better part of the deal, at least in the short term.
Guadeloupe, at the time, was one of the most valuable pieces of agricultural real estate in the world, producing both sugar and cotton. New France, on the other hand, always was a net loss to its colonial masters, who had to send troops to protect a fur trade that fed a dying hat industry. Keeping it safe required the upkeep of a northeast Atlantic naval squadron, and the construction of fortresses at Quebec and Louisbourg capable of withstanding bombardment from enemy warships and gigantic mortars that were carried by men o’ war and set up in coastal batteries.
Ownership of New France by the French tied down a French army that had to sit defensively on a large, unproductive area of real estate. Strategically, the French could never do more than hold what they had and pester the Hudson Bay Company in the subarctic. They could not muster the power to drive the British colonists from their thriving and much more populous territories along the Atlantic coast. In fact, for most of the French period, they couldn’t even protect French settlers from the Iroquois.
France walked away from the negotiations with the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. They, too, seem insignificant now, but they were the core of the lucrative French fishing operations on the Grand Banks that were guaranteed by the Treat of Paris (along with the right to land on the coast of Newfoundland and set up fish-drying operations). Later, the French islands became highly profitable smuggling ports, especially during the Prohibition period. And they were a spy haven when they were controlled by Vichy France, the Nazi puppet regime in the Second World War. France still owns them, and the islands elect a member to the National Assembly in Paris.
Some 40 years after the Treaty of Paris, Napoleon took a look at the map and realized the old New France was a trap. And so, in the negotiations leading up to the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, Napoleon turned down the Britain’s offer to return Canada. For good measure, he sold Louisiana, too.
Conventional wisdom in the United States says Napoleon was snookered on that deal, but the Emperor knew full well that he couldn’t afford to defend a vast swath of nothingness in central North America. Better to sell it for hard cash than to have it snatched away, by the Americans, the British or Spain.
Guadeloupe was, in economic terms, a much better prize. British troops had seized the place at about the same time they took the St. Lawrence Valley. British planters and slave traders began investing heavily in the island. During the three-year British occupation of Guadeloupe, they brought 40,000 African slaves to the island and bought the French plantations at bargain prices.
The investment paid off. British industries and sugar planters turned a profit of more than 300,000 pounds a year during the time Britain occupied the island. (For an idea of the buying power of that money, a one-pound coin, or sovereign, contained about ¼ of an ounce of gold and paid a soldier for a month.)
All of the sugar islands were valuable, as former Trinidadian prime minister Eric Williams pointed out in his pivotal 1964 volume on colonial Caribbean economics, Capitalism and Slavery. For example, between 1763 and 1773, the sugar imported from Grenada (a place less valuable than Guadeloupe) was eight times more valuable than all of the imports from Canada.
There was considerable debate in Paris and London when the treaty-makers were doing their work. Voltaire wondered why France would be interested in “a few acres of snow” when it could have sugar. An anonymous London pamphleteer asked “what does a few hats signify compared to that luxury, sugar?”
(Maybe, over the years, the French should have sent out more geologists and fewer fur traders. They missed out on the great gold fields of northeastern Ontario, where, in 1907, William Wright stumbled down a hill and landed on a 15-centimetre wide vein of gold. They failed to find the bonanza at Silver Islet near Thunder Bay, where a vein of pure silver lay in plain sight, or the silver at Cobalt, scattered in tarnished lumps on forest floor. And they didn’t even search for the copper that Native people had been mining for centuries along Lake Superior.)
Yasmine Mingay, public affairs manager for the Canadian War Museum, said the museum won’t be doing anything to mark the anniversary, which will be this coming Sunday, Feb. 10. She said the museum covered some of the ground in an exhibition six years ago.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization (soon to be the Museum of Canadian History), is also giving the treaty a pass, but will be exhibiting a copy of the Royal Proclamation next fall “for a few weeks.”
So much for the war that, in time, would give the world the nation we call Canada.
Mark Bourrie is an Ottawa-based historian and journalist. His most recent book, Fighting Words: Canada’s Best War Reporting, was published last fall by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @IsotelusRex.