________________ CM . . . . Volume IV Number 18 . . . . May 8, 1998

cover The People of New France. (Themes in Canadian History Series).

Allan Greer.
Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
137 pp., paper, $12.95.
ISBN 0-8020-7816-8.

Subject Headings:
Canada-Social conditions-To 1763.
Canada-Social life and customs-To 1763.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Ian Stewart.

**** /4


In the mother country, the image of New France was hardly paradisiacal. The severity of the winter climate was well known and the horrors of war with the Iroquois had been widely publicized by Jesuit missionaries. Government efforts to boost the colony's population by bringing over men bound as indentured servants or soldiers had the effect of associating emigration and servitude in the popular mind. "Canada has always been regarded as a country at the end of the world," wrote an official, "and as an exile that might pass for a (sentence) of civil death."
The great 18th century French philosopher Voltaire wrote that fighting Britain over Canada - "a few acres of snow" - was a miserable, unprofitable, enterprise. According to Professor Greer, some would-be colonists were once "rescued" by Normandy townsfolk who could not believe anyone would go to Canada voluntarily. This image of New France is not far from 20th century popular imagination. Greer's lucid book goes a long way towards dispelling this myth, along with many of the other unproductive conceptions, clogging the history of French colonial North America.

      The political history of the governors, bishops, and intendants has been done many times before; it is as uninteresting to Greer as it is to most modern students. These men wrote the laws, preached the sermons and sent the reports to the French colonial officials. The Catholic church's predominance was undeniable, and only the vision of the Bourbon kings was recognized in New France. However, the absolutist theoretical conceptions of the elite classes were not always practical in the colonial environment. Consequently, without overly stretching his point, Greer speaks to a multi-dimensional and multicultural perspective of early Canada instead of the traditional homogenous state interpretation. He focuses on colonial society "as it was" by examining the "frameworks of ordinary life" - death, birth, marriage, food, race, class. True, his Canada is not a paradise; in many ways it did not differ from the old world - people worked hard, died young, and women, the poor, and slaves were often humiliated and brutalized by their husbands and social masters. However, it was different and, in some aspects, unique.

      Colonial administrators and nobility mixed with all classes of people in the "amazing diverse" colonial cities. Although there was no pretext of social equality, there were no rigid class structures. Merchants and traders had opportunities to climb the ladder of social respectability and even purchase a noble title. For most colonists, life on the farms was generally a prosperous, free peasant existence. They had few seigniorial obligations, and church interference in their daily life was limited. There was high infant mortality, but surviving children could be guaranteed adequate farm land. Women had special rights under the law; they could not be put off the land or lose the family business if their husbands died.

      Greer shows that New France's society was composed of a diverse population making up a complex and dynamic social organization. Those holding power had to make accommodations with the ordinary people in every settlement because of economic interests and social conditions. New France is generally equated with the "Canadian" settlements along the St. Lawrence River; however, Greer's chapter analyzing life in Acadia, Ile Royale, and Louisiana, indicates how life differed in these important colonies.

      This is a fine example of the best work being done in Canadian social history. If all historians could write as elegantly as Allan Greer, classes would be full of burgeoning Canadianists.

Highly recommended.

Ian Stewart regularly reviews for CM and other publications.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364