The area known as Quebec, one of Canada’s ten provinces, was first explored by Jacques Cartier, who took possession of it in 1534 in the name of the King of France, Francis I. In 1608, the explorer Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec, the province’s capital and the source of the term “Quebecois,” which originally meant an inhabitant of the city of Quebec but which has come to designate a French-speaking citizen of the province. The seventeenth century saw extensive colonization of this area by approximately 10,000 French colonists. In 1759, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham resulted in a decisive defeat of French forces by the British. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris surrendered this territory to the British crown, and a royal proclamation gave the former French colony the name of Province of Quebec. When in 1867, the Dominion of Canada was created by the British North America Act, Quebec, at that time one of four Canadian provinces, was 85 percent francophone.
During the twentieth century, there was pronounced political activity by those members of Quebec society who wished to secede from Canada, in the belief that the distinctness of the Quebec language and culture made it a country separate from the rest of Canada. Two referenda, held in 1982 and 1995, were unsuccessful in achieving a majority vote by those wishing to create their own country. The population of Quebec at the time of the 1995 referendum, approximately 6.9 million (compared to Canada’s 26.2 million), was 82 percent francophone.
Throughout the history of modern Quebec, many francophone writers, artists, actors, and social activists endeavored to promote the Quebec identity through the protection of the francophone culture from assimilation into the majority anglophone culture and through the preservation of traditions that bear a distinctly Quebecois flavor. The political activism known as the independence movement was clearly strengthened by the participation of all levels of society.
Identity in Modern Quebecois Literature
The francophone literature of twentieth century Quebec evoked a rural, patriarchal society, steeped in Catholic tradition and conservative social and familial values. This evocation was a direct reflection of the dominant ideology, one that espoused the importance of preserving French social and religious customs. Fidelity to the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church, then an extremely powerful institution, was obligatory as was loyalty to family, the microcosm of Quebec society. The dominant agrarian ideology glorified country life, often ignoring, or portraying in a negative light, urban society.
An example of a work that extols the virtues of a conservative patriarchal society is Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine: Récit du Canada français (1914, serial, 1916, book; A Tale of the Lake St. John Country, 1921). A classic in Quebec literature, this novel depicts the life of Samuel and Laura Chapdelaine, their four sons, and one daughter. The Chapdelaines are representative of the ideal Quebec family, for they are devout in the religious faith, and unflinching in their attachment to family values and the continuation of traditional ways of life.
Maria falls in love with one of her three suitors, the adventurer and lumberjack François Paradis. It is symbolic that she is named after the Virgin Mary, as are many daughters in Quebec fiction , and that she is associated throughout the work with the values of commitment to one’s family and land as well as to the transmission to the next generation of the same value system. François Paradis dies tragically one winter in a snowstorm, and Maria, the following spring, marries Eutrope Gagnon, a solitary man who lives off the land. This final image of Maria as a young woman resigned to sacrificing her personal happiness in order to maintain the identity of the Quebec pioneers who live off the land, following the example of colonists of New France, appears frequently in Quebec literature as a symbol of the familial, social, and religious...
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