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Greer, Allan.

Toronto, University of Toronto Press, c1985. 304pp, paper, ISBN 0-8020-2559-5 (cloth) $35.00, 0-8020-6578-3 (paper) $15.00. CIP

Reviewed by Robert Nicholas Bérard

Volume 14 Number 5
1986 September

One of the goals of social historians in recent years has been to re-examine persons and events in the past from the perspective of those who have existed at the margins of traditional historiography: women, children, the poor, and so on. This task is, perhaps, all the more important when a .group or community has not been invisible in traditional histories, but has been defined categorically by others, especially when that definition has been drawn from sources that lack both empathy and sympathy for their subject. In the preface to this provocative book, Allan Greer, of the University of Toronto, observes that traditional French-Canadian rural society and the character of the majority of its members, the habitants, are routinely described and assessed in most textbooks in Canadian history as if they had been well-researched and were well known. In truth, little research has been done on rural society in Quebec in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and most of our images of that society and the mass of people who comprised it have been taken from observations made by the literate minority of clergy and aristocracy that governed them.

Employing data drawn from an impressive variety of sources, from parish registers to estate inventories, Greer has sought to draw a more complete, balanced, and comprehensible picture of rural Quebec society and to assess the impact of the intrusion of merchant capital upon it. Rather than attempting to gather information from every corner of the colony or concentrating on a single case study, the author has concentrated on three representative parishes in the lower Richelieu area, Sorel, St.-Denis, and St.-Ours, over a one hundred year period. In this way, he has been able to compare data from an area sufficiently wide and diverse and over a period of time sufficiently long to test and refine his hypotheses. He has also compared his findings about the habitants of Lower Canada with those of research on other, especially European, peasant societies, in order to test and challenge the popular notion that the agrarian experience in French Canada was particularly unusual.

The book's first five chapters analyze and describe the development of the social and economic structures of rural French Canada. French colonial policy sought to replicate in the New World the society of rural France, one marked by clearly defined relations between a largely self-sufficient peasantry and a paternalistic aristocracy and clerical establishment, who were, in turn, deferent towards the Crown. While the colony in its earliest years was too small, scattered, and vulnerable to Indian attack to realize this goal, by 1740 a degree of stability and population growth permitted the emergence of a traditional rural society. Two chapters explore peasant life in this society, examining what the habitants produced and consumed, the homes in which they lived, their marriage customs, and inheritance practices. Greer concludes that the long-standing debate over whether the habitant family was an independent or dependent unit has failed to consider that most families were both, independent in their relative economic self-sufficiency, but I linked to and exploited by other classes. The nature of that exploitative relationship is examined in two chapters that outline the privileges and authority of the seigneurs and the clergy.

The second part of the book is devoted to that impact of mercantile forces on the agrarian society of the lower Richelieu; one chapter to the role of the small country merchant in rural communities and a second to the large fur-trading companies that began in the 1790s to tap rural communities for occasional labour. While both joined in the exploitation of the habitants, they never undermined the traditional agrarian economic and social structure of rural Quebec as capitalist enterprise did in Europe. In a concluding chapter, Greer argues that such urban and industrial growth as there was in the region failed to alter the way of life in rural hinterlands, but rather accommodated itself to the traditional economy. He also maintains that a commercial or market economy did not develop in the region, less because of the habitants blindness to opportunities for profit than because of their lack of clear control over their land and the uncertainty of their food-supply; in short, the underlying causes of peasant conservatism in all agrarian societies. Finally the author challenges Fernand Ouellet's thesis that Lower Canada lay in the grip of an agricultural crisis from the beginning of the nineteenth century, claiming that between 1740 and 1840 there was "a fundamental continuity ... in the structures of rural life."

This book, which grew out of the author's doctoral thesis, carries the trappings of his scholarship; extensive end-notes and useful appendices of data drawn from census and notarial records. Yet Greer writes engagingly, balancing statistical data with fascinating narratives of the lives of representative individuals and families from the lower Richelieu. One may quibble with the use of the term "feudal" to describe Quebec's rural economy, a point that Greer at least addresses, and with the author's limited understanding of the role of religious faith in shaping the attitudes and values French Canadians, but the book's placing of Canadian society in the broader context of agrarian societies generally brings a refreshing perspective to a neglected aspect of Canadian history.

Robert Nicholas Bérard, Dept. of Education, Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S.
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