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The Eastern Townships in Quebec History


The bulk of the information in this report is taken from the concluding chapter (chapter 9) of my PhD thesis From Yankees to québécois: Nation-building and national identity in Quebec’s Eastern Townships (2002). The original thesis contains much content which satisfies academic criteria, but may not be of much interest to those whose interest lies with the Eastern Townships itself.

After briefly summarising my findings chapter by chapter, I make three major contentions from the thesis under the headings of ‘The deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of Quebec nationalism’, ‘Building the multicultural nation’ and ‘Politics’. Finally, I conclude this report with some concluding thoughts about the future of the Eastern Townships.

John Canning

September 2002
1 Chapter by chapter summary

In chapter 1, I note that nationalism needs to be examined on both a macro and a micro scale. In other words any study of nationalism must examine, not only historical ‘national’ texts, but also must be grounded in local experience. Secondly, nationalism must be a unifying force which transcends all forms of difference. It also must appear natural and self-evident. Nationalism changes shape in order to accommodate these requirements. Thirdly, nationalism is continuously contested within a state. This can be a direct contestation through a separatist movement as in Quebec, but all nationalisms are contested, even if they appear to be benign, banal or mundane.

In the second chapter I explored the notion of multiculturalism. With reference to the work of Lefebvre (1991), I drew upon notions of social space as well upon ideas and philosophies of multiculturalism. My most important contention from this chapter was to demonstrate that multiculturalism must not be seen as the diametric opposite of nationalism. Nationalism does, and always has changed shape to accommodate multiculturalism. Moreover, multiculturalism is a phenomenon which has existed almost since the beginning of time and is not a post-World War Two concept. The examination of local spaces is very important in understanding the ways in which nationalism and multiculturalism are negotiated.

I devoted the third chapter to methodological issues and briefly outlining the sources used in my study. This chapter served not only as a discussion of methodology, but also related my situatedness to my work in Quebec. I concluded the chapter by noting that the thesis is very much a personal narrative. I did not go to Quebec as an outside observer per se, but I became an active participant in Quebec life for the period of time I was studying there.

The fourth and fifth chapters were largely historical in nature. Whilst they do serve as an historical introduction for readers not familiar with Quebec and Canada (Chapter 4) and the Eastern Townships and Knowlton (Chapter 5), this is not their primary purpose. Instead these chapters are more concerned with identifying key features of the macro-historical discourses upon which nationalisms and counter-nationalisms are constructed. These chapters conclude by noting that these macro-historical discourses along with their spatial elements continue to unfold in the present and the future. The times and spaces of these historical meta-narratives are always subject to changes in interpretation, as so are the ideological purposes for which these meta-narratives are appropriated.

Chapters 6-8 draw principally upon interviews I carried out with mostly anglophone respondents in the Eastern Townships. In Chapter 6 I examined anglophone perspectives on the PQ. This chapter was strongly bound up with legal issues and demonstrated the importance of reterritorialising Quebec as a French society where it has never been a French society, through the enforcement of French language laws upon a community that has an anglophone majority. I also identified how anglophones feel excluded from the space of Quebec politics- that is to say that Quebec politics is concerned principally with issues of French identity and there is no space for an anglophone contribution to debates about the future of Quebec. Respondents often related the policies of the PQ on issues as varied as taxation, government structure, road building and planning regulations, as being intrinsically bound up with their separatist objectives. This separatist objective was perceived as being the one single aim of the PQ.

The seventh chapter drew strongly on the notion of social space, an idea which I introduced in the second chapter. By examining social space at a local level I found that the idea of a French space and an English space was useful, but to a very limited extent. In essence, most spaces can be seen simultaneously as spaces of togetherness and spaces of separation. I examined this with reference to celebrations such as St Jean-Baptiste and Canada Day whereby there is a simultaneous discourse of community division and community unity. A strong emphasis was placed throughout on good anglophone-francophone relations and although conflicts do occasionally occur, these conflicts are usually benign. I also looked at the role of bilinguals in negotiating between these spaces and found that bilinguals were instrumental in negotiating shared spaces.

Chapter 8 examined Townshippers’ identification with their communities, the Townships, Quebec, Canada and the rest of the world. Townshippers have felt othered by other English Canadians as well as by francophones. However, there is also a strong attachment to being Quebecers and an increased acceptance of Quebec’s French fact. I have emphasised the historical importance of Quebec church and state in binding anglophone Townshippers into the identities and cultures of the Province of Quebec.

It follows that the Townships must not be seen as an appendage to, but as a fundamental part of Quebec history, culture, politics and nationalisms. My next three major contentions elucidate this.

2 The deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of Quebec nationalism
1. Building a national history.

The macro-historical discourse or mémoire upon which nationalism is constructed is not only selective in terms of time, but also in terms of space. The ‘history’ of Quebec is, at best, only part of the history of part of the Quebec nation’s territory. Quebec’s ‘national history’ is not the history of the territory of Quebec; it is essentially a history of the eastern section of the St Lawrence River. This neglects other regions of Quebec such as the Eastern Townships. Hence, in the construction of a nation’s macro-history specific parts of the nation are rendered more important than others. The ideology of nationalism is underpinned by the notion that the history of a part of the nation is equal to the history of the whole. Any explanation of the history of the Eastern Townships verses the history of Quebec demonstrates that ‘national’ histories are constructed through a deterritorialisation and a reterritorialisation, a synecdoche in which the part is presented as the whole. The history of the Eastern Townships is counter-intuitive to the history Quebec as a whole, as it is usually constructed. Whilst the history of Quebec is presented as being Catholic and French, the history of the Eastern Townships is presented as Protestant and English with a strong ethic of local democracy. The construction of Quebec nationalism has privileged the history of the St Lawrence seigneuries and has neglected the English and Protestant heritages of other regions of Quebec such as the Eastern Townships.

On one hand a national discourse, the macro-history upon which an effective nationalism is constructed, depends upon the creation of a mass unity which disregards diversity. However, a complete denial of the concept of nationhood denies a common experience, shared through the language, religion, material experience and the institutions of the State. The role of the Church and State (both given prominence by Sack (1986) in his discourse on the ‘control’ of territory’) in Quebec is imperative in the (continuing) creation of a territorial unity of Quebec. Over the past 200 years the people of the Eastern Townships have shaped, and been shaped by the québécois Church and State, mediated mostly through the medium of French. There may be remnants of a ‘Yankee’ New England heritage, but the geographies of law, Church and State power are those of Quebec and Canada, not of the USA.

Hence, the nation building project of the PQ depends upon the deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of Quebec nationalism, notably through the medium of the law. Legislation such as Bill 101 produces a discourse not only of preserving French in North America, but also upon making Quebec French where it is not French already. Hence policies seeking to preserve and promote French, impact upon communities like Knowlton which are majority anglophone communities.

The notion of the Eastern Townships as different from the ‘rest of Quebec’ is a contention which has important limitations. Discourses of Quebec’s Catholic, Church-led, French history verses the history of the English Protestant Eastern Townships lead to this idea, but chapters 4 and 5 of the thesis represent as much a contrast of imaginations as much as realities. I am certain that had I undertaken my fieldwork in Quebec City, in Lac St Jean, the Gaspésie, in Montreal, or even in the ‘heartland’ of the St Lawrence Valley, I could have still written Chapter 5 as an antipode to Chapter 4.
2. The Eastern Townships

The historical mémoire and geosophy of a community or a region is vitally important to the study of contemporary articulations of nationalism. I do not believe it is contrived to state that Townshippers exhibit a unique set of values that are place-influenced and different to values found elsewhere in Quebec and in Canada. Maintenance of ‘English’ and ‘Yankee’ identities combined with identities relating to Canada and the Province of Quebec make the Eastern Townships unique. The values of Townshippers when set against the Quebec’s ‘macro-history’ differ serendipitously as well as in clear ways. Townshippers display strong anti-government sentiments, which are not simply a pragmatic response to unfavourable provincial language laws of Quebec’s recent history, but also relate to a ‘tradition’ of ‘New England’ town meetings and a strong emphasis on local democracy which goes against Quebec’s ‘tradition’ of being led by elites, firstly the church and then by the state. Historically, as the mémoire (on which the notion of tradition is a part) is constructed, leadership in the Eastern Townships was locally based whereas the French-Canadians were ‘led’ from the outside. This mémoire is important inasmuch as it contributes to nationalism, rather than as a historical reality.
3. English Canada

Quebec nationalisms are not static in time and in space as Chapter 4 clearly demonstrates. Moreover, these shifting social spaces of Quebec nationalism have strongly impacted upon the identities of English Townshippers. There is an increased acceptance of the idea of Quebec being an essentially ‘French’ province and the idea that anglophones are a minority. This minority status is being exploited by organisations such as the Townshippers Association who are promoting an understanding that if English Townshippers recognise themselves as a numerical and political minority this will increase the cohesiveness of the English community. This acceptance of minority status runs alongside the creation of a particular Quebec-English identity that differs from other English Canadian identities. Perhaps the most important propaganda coup for the PQ has been in terms of convincing English Canadians outside of Quebec that nobody speaks English in Quebec. The creation of a Quebec English identity has as much to do with a feeling of rejection by other English Canadians as it does with a feeling of alienation from the cultural and linguistic policies of recent Quebec governments.
3 Building the multicultural nation
1. Unity and Diversity

Whilst the nationalism of the PQ has undoubtedly shifted increasingly towards the idea of a multicultural Quebec, the desire to unify Quebec through the French language remains. It is inaccurate to suggest that nationalism can be equated directly with the idea of ‘unity’ and multiculturalism with the idea of ‘diversity’. This leads to the misguided conclusion that nationalism and multiculturalism are two different paths leading in two distinct directions- rather these paths can be one and same. Nationalism does not seek to suppress diversity; instead nationalism seeks to create unity from diversity through the processes of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation as well as finding new building blocks for the foundations of national identity; in the Quebec case this is the French language. Nation building is always dependent upon the unification of territories that are diverse in terms of their identities and their histories. The current nation-building project of the separatists in Quebec does not represent a unique never-seen-before process of nationalism.

In examining nationalism and multiculturalism in a local context it is possible to see that the laws, policies and directives which the Quebec government has made to promote their articulations of Quebec nationalism often have very different outcomes to those which may be expected. One may presume that Bill 22, which made French the official language of Quebec would be to the benefit of the francophone population and to the detriment of the anglophone population. However, in the Eastern Townships there is a powerful case for suggesting that the exact opposite is true. Increased French language teaching in English schools has ensured that a new generation of anglophones has grown up bilingual, whilst their francophone peers are more likely to be unilingual. This means that anglophones are more likely to get jobs which require bilinguals to mediate between the Quebec government and the francophone majority on one hand and the North American (mostly anglophone) customers on the other. Jobs that require this mediation are not only the prestigious jobs, but also include less prestigious jobs such as working in some shops.(1) Ironically, laws such as Bill 101 are most effective by making it less likely, or protecting against an increased likelihood that francophones will leave Quebec for jobs elsewhere in Canada and in the United States. There is the dilemma that ‘Individual interests’ and ‘collective interests’ appear to be at odds.

Historical ‘memory’, events and values are often presented as being the basis of conflicts between different articulations of nationalism in Canada and in Quebec. For example Canada Day is normally presented as an English-Canadian institution and St Jean-Baptiste Day as a French-Canadian celebration. However, these events are annually celebrated as a show of unity between anglophones and francophones at the local level. Whilst the notion of difference is maintained this sense of difference is appropriated for purposes of community unity. Similarly, through the mechanisms of ecumenicalism even religion can be presented as being as much about ‘Christian unity’ as about long-standing religious differences which are fundamental to understanding the history of the Eastern Townships, Quebec and Canada. Anglophone-francophone differences are celebrated at the local level; hence there is a simultaneous discourse of both difference and unity.

2. Les cultures québécoises.

However, at the same time Townshippers are, and remain Quebecers. Townshippers past and present have played an important role in the shaping of modern Quebec. The ‘English Townships’ have never been an English colony of French Quebec. Although the cultural heartland of French-Canada or the québécois has always lain elsewhere, the Townships have shaped, as well as been shaped by the spaces of Quebec nationalisms. Institutions of Quebec history such as the Catholic Church and Provincial government have always served to bond English Townshippers and other Quebecers with their francophone neighbours and with other parts of Quebec. Historically, the institutions of the state bound Townshippers with the habitant in the St Lawrence Valley, the industrial workers of Montreal and the fishermen of the Gaspésie more than with their English-speaking neighbours south of the 45th parallel. This binding still remains, most poignantly through the Quebec legal system.

Bélanger (1994, 17) invokes the concept of “les cultures québécoises.” laying emphasis on the plurality of cultures in Quebec. There is not a ‘québécois’ culture from which English Quebecers are English Townshippers are excluded, but English-Canadian identities can be viewed as a québécois culture among many. Bélanger discovered two very contrasting ‘cultures québécoises’ within just a few miles of each other in two different villages. The macro-historical discourse I present in chapter 4 of the original thesis is not a representation of past reality, but a spatially, temporally partial representation of Quebec’s past. French Quebec is highly diverse. The cultural heartland occupied by the habitant was not the universal experience of the French Quebecer before the 1960s. Montreal, Lac Saint-Jean, the Gaspésie, the Outaouais, the ‘native’ peoples of Quebec also represent ‘les cultures québécoises’. Lest the inclusion of the latter be seen as being obscure the very name of ‘Québec’ is not a French name, but a micmac word.(2)

Nationalism and multiculturalism look very different when examined in a local context. When these ideas are presented purely in the realm of ideas it appears that nationalism and multiculturalism are incompatible concepts rather than complementary forms. This is Penrose’s (1994) oversight in her analysis of the PQ and multicultural Quebec as she limits her understanding of Quebec nationalism to (a simplified interpretation) discourses of the PQ vis-à-vis the fact of multicultural (English, French, native, other) Quebec. The promotion of French Quebec on one hand and the acknowledgement of linguistic diversity on the other hand, when presented in the realm of ideas appear to be a recipe for conflict. However, when placed in a local context it is evident that the everyday life practices of French and English Quebecers produce very difference outcomes. Nationalism impacts upon life practices and it is a practice itself. These practices do not amount to major conflicts between peoples with different ideologies, but are formed in the often banal practices of everyday life. There is a gulf of difference between the outcomes expected when examining nationalisms as conflicting ideas as to examining nationalism as an everyday practice.
4 Politics

Anglophone Townshippers are conscious about being different from their francophone neighbours, but this in itself is instructive in reference to Canadian and Quebec politics. Whilst maintaining a hostile opposition to Quebec ‘separatists’ and ‘nationalists’ they do not apply these labels to their francophone friends and neighbours, even when these friends and neighbours are supporters of Quebec sovereignty. ‘Blame’ for laws such as Bill 101 is attributed to outsiders to their communities, usually politicians, but very rarely to individuals in their own community. There is the strong notion that francophones in their own community are ‘sound’ and hostility is reserved for unknown ‘others’. In remembering the referendum there was a strong discourse of hostility towards the politicians initiating it, though not towards their neighbours who support the sovereignty agenda.

The irony is that Townshippers are prepared to feel as much an affinity to strangers in British Columbia through the ideology of nationalism, as they feel a non-affinity to their friends and neighbours who they know and in most respects feel they have far more in common with. Canada is as much an idea set up in opposition to the nationalism of the PQ as it is a positive sense of belonging.

There is also a strong notion of comparative politics which pervades Townshipper’s interpretation of Quebec politics. A general underlying assumption of comparative studies appears to be that the comparison is within the remit of the researcher than the respondent. However, residents of Quebec to whom I spoke compared Quebec with a host of other ‘nationalist’ conflict situations ranging from Scotland and Catalonia through to Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia. As researchers have neglected local studies of nationalism they have failed to understand that citizens who are informed about other nationalisms through the media, undertake comparisons themselves. Although their understandings may not necessarily be thorough, comparisons between Quebec and other situations are often made. This comparative analysis is important as it illustrates that the others upon which nationalism are constructed need not be ‘in-situ’ but may be thousands of miles away. Researchers invariably make the mistake of undertaking comparisons that are based upon the examination of state structures and visible non-state actors such as terrorist groups. However an important way in which nationalism is constructed is through the analysis, albeit an often crude analysis of other situations around the world. The otherness upon which nations are formed depends upon neither spatial proximity nor even contact.
5 Township Futures

Kesteman et al (1998, chapter 15) entitle the penultimate chapter of their book on the Eastern Townships, “Une specificité culturelle menacée”. In 1978 L’Office de planification et du développement du Québec concluded that the Townships (Estrie) lacked a collective conscience and a socio-cultural ideal. They describe the Townships as a crossroads (carrefour) between Montreal, Quebec City, Maurice, Les Bois Francs and the New England States (Kesteman et al 1998, 684). I share this view of the Townships to a great extent. However, I believe that the cultural region of the Eastern Townships continues to exist in the consciousness of residents (certainly anglophone residents) and maintained through organisations such as the Townshippers Association as well as through Historical Societies and through publications such as that of Kesteman et al (1998) themselves. The Townships have long been ethnically, religiously and linguistically multicultural. These identities have been redefined over the years. The English, Scottish and Irish becoming English Canadians or anglophones and the French French-Canadians or francophones. Some anglophones married francophones and many francophones have British names and some anglophones French names. Former Quebec premier Daniel Johnson was a Townshipper- a francophone from Richmond. Even if the ‘francisation’ of Townships continues unabated, I do not believe that the English language heritage of the Townships will be destroyed. Place names like Sherbrooke, Richmond, Knowlton, North Hatley and Stanstead will always bear testimony to the English language heritage of the Townships. The oldest written evidence about the Townships will remain written in the English language.

The culture of the Townships and the identities of their residents have changed and will always continue to change. Nevertheless, the Townships will always remain in my imagination as a cultural region of Quebec. I know I still have much to learn about the history and cultures of the Townships. I cannot tell what the future holds for me, yet the Eastern Townships will always hold a special place in my life.

Inevitably, I am often asked if I think that Quebec will/ should remain part of Canada. On balance I believe that Quebec will remain in Canada, but the national question of Quebec will not disappear as everybody becomes ‘enlightened’ to this ‘anachronism’ of separatism. The spaces of nationalism and multiculturalism, both in the realm of ideas and ‘on the ground’ will continue to shift and be redefined. We may see another referendum in the near future; a Quebec government may take the Sortie de Secours (Lisée 2000) but in any case the desire, indeed the necessity to maintain the French language in Quebec will remain. As I demonstrated in the first chapter the whole idea of the ‘nation’, as we understand the term today, is a relatively new one. One respondent, Andy, told me, “There will be changes, but there will always be Canada”. For the foreseeable future I think that he is right, but I cannot tell the future. Canada itself is a young country- just 135 years old since confederation. Nations have shifted their boundaries for as long as time began. Empires and nations have been built and have fallen. Peoples have migrated from one place to another taking their language and culture with them. The historical geography of the nation is characterised not by continuity, but by change.
6 Key findings of thesis

Nationalism is constructed for a macro-historical discourse which is historically and territorially incomplete.
Examining nationalism at a local level demonstrates that outcomes are different to those which may be expected through the use of historical texts.
Regions can be neglected in the construction of a nation’s history.
“Successful” nation-building requires an ideological unification of national identity. By virtue of the of the federal system of Canadian government this may be achieved through the institutions of the Quebec provincial state. This use of the state may include the passing of laws, but may also include the institutions of the church and state education system in producing ‘banal’ forms of nationalism.


Bélanger, M (1994) L’Anse-aux-Moyacs, en Minganie de l’Ouest; Les Paspéïas du bout de la route. PhD thesis, Department of Anthropology, Université de Montréal

Canning, J (2002) From Yankees to québecois: Nation-building and national identity in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bristol, UK

Kesteman, J-P; Southam, P; Saint-Pierre, D (1998) Histoire des Cantons de l’Est, Sainte-Foy, Les presses de l’université Laval

Lefebvre, H (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford, Blackwell.

Lisée, J-F (2000) Sortie de Secours. Comment échapper au déclin du Québec. Montreal, Boréal

Noël, M (1997) The Native Peoples of Québec. Quebec, Les Éditions Sylvain Harvey

Penrose, J (1994a) ‘’Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays’ Full Stop: the concept of nation as a challenge to the nationalist aspirations of the Parti Québécois’. Political Geography 13.2 pp.161-181

Selected historical works on the Eastern Townships

Day, C M (1863) Pioneers of the Eastern Townships: a work containing official and reliable information respecting the formation of settlements, with incidents in their early history, and details of adventures, perils and deliverances. Montreal, John Lovell.

Day, C M (1869) History of the Eastern Townships, Province of Quebec, Dominion of Canada: civil and descriptive. Montreal, John Lovell.

Kesteman, J-P; Southam, P; Saint-Pierre, D (1998) Histoire des Cantons de l’Est, Sainte-Foy, Les presses de l’université Laval

Little, J I (1989) Évolution ethnoculturelle et identité régional des Cantons de l’Est. Ottawa, Societé historique du Canada.

Little, J I (1991) Crofters and Habitants. Settler Society, Economy, and Culture in a Quebec Township 1848-1881. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queens University Press

Little, J I (1997) State and Society in Transition. The Politics of Institutional reform in the Eastern Townships 1838-1852. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queens University Press

Ross, A (1943) The Cultural effects of Population Changes in the Eastern Townships. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 9,4 pp.447-462

Ross, A (1950) Ethnic Relations and Social Structure. A Study of the Invasion of French- Speaking Canadians into an English Canadian District. PhD thesis. Department of Sociology, University of Chicago.

Ross, A (1954) French and English Canadian Contacts and Institutional Change. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 20,3 pp.281-295

Ross, W G (1967) A Century of Change in Selected Eastern Townships Villages: Barnston, Hatley, Huntingville, Massawippi. Centennial Project, Department of Geography, Bishop’s University.

Ross, W G (1996) Three Eastern Townships Mining Villages in Québec 1863-1972. Albert Mines, Capleton, Eustis. Sherbrooke QC, Les Productions GGC Ltée

Roy, J (1992) L’exode des jeunes du milieu rural: En quête d’un emplois ou d’un gendre de vie? Recherches sociographique 33,3 pp.429-444

Thomas, C (1866) Contributions to the History of the Eastern Townships: A work containing an account of the early settlement of St. Armard, Durham, Sutton, Brome, Potton and Bolton. With a history of the Principle events that have transpired in each of these Townships up to the present time. Montreal, John Lovell.


(1) Many stores in downtown Montreal advertise for bilingual staff.

(2) “Where the river narrows.” (Noël 1997, 40).

© John Canning 2002

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