Two invocations of the Canadian Identity: Arthur Lower, Northrop Frye and the invisible French

English Canada has been home to few recognised intellectuals. Two of the most influential in the mid-twentieth century were the historian Arthur Lower, who disguised his theorising by projecting a persona based on robust common-sense, and Northrop Frye, who operated at the other extreme of oracular omniscience. Both engaged in fantastical invocations of the national psyche, Lower distorting the French Canadian identity, Frye ignoring it altogether. This essay briefly documents how the two academics attempted, separately, to theorise Canada without taking account of the identity and orientation of its French populations. It also notes that their definitions of Canada contained undeveloped hints of geographical determinism: the country was defined in some way by its landscape, but how this had impacted upon and shaped Canadians was not explored.


Arthur Lower

To judge from the frequent reissues of his textbook, Colony to Nation, Arthur Lower was one of English Canada's most influential historians throughout the forty years from its first appearance in 1946. Born in 1889, a product of small-town Ontario, Lower got "a thorough grounding in French" at his local high school, Barrie Collegiate Institute, and encountered the language again as a minor subject in the University of Toronto Arts degree. Unfortunately, no opportunity was provided in his education actually to speak French, nor was there any sense that it was taught in order to help English Canadians to communicate with their Francophone fellow citizens. Somehow, in his twenties and thirties, Lower managed to become functionally bilingual. Although he gradually lost his fluency, he retained a reading knowledge of French, and some ability to make a formal speech in the language.[1]

Lower's interest in French Canada was "reawakened" by visits to the province of Quebec in the late 1930s. Until the age of fifty, he had mostly published in economic history, concentrating on the role of forest industries in Canada's development. Throughout the 1930s, he taught at United College, Winnipeg, an institution with a Methodist ethos which probably attracted few Franco-Manitobans. When he moved towards a more ambitious conceptualisation of the Canadian identity, he shoehorned superficial perceptions of Quebec into a cod-Hegelian dialectic. In 1943 he delivered an extravagant address to the Canadian Historical Association, safe in the knowledge that he was unlikely to be challenged in this predominantly English-speaking gathering. Calling his lecture "Two Ways of Life: the primary antithesis of Canadian history", Lower's "exploration of French Canadianism" painted a picture of a terminally backward society, in which, for instance, businessmen were conspicuously absent, a statement that would have puzzled aggressive mid-nineteenth century railway promoters like George-Étienne Cartier and Joseph Cauchon.

Lower's French Canada was programmed by the sixteenth-century Counter Reformation to fail in the modern world. (He once taught the first half of a module on New France, talking exclusively about Gallicanism, Ultramontanism and the seventeenth-century French State. The colleague who took over the class found that "Champlain had just landed at Quebec".) As an interpretation of the past, this was a tendentious oversimplification. Worse still, Lower committed himself to an exercise that wise historians will avoid: he decided to engage in prediction. "May the French not come forward and take their place in running a modern state, finding constructive ideas to contribute, getting a little further away from medievalism, from a philosophy that sacrifices practically everything to survival value?", he asked in his 1943 address. His answer was that Quebec would not change because it could not change. "I see no end to English-Canadian domination of the machinery of production in Quebec except the abandonment by the French of their attitude to life and the acceptance of ours" – unless the Quebec State intervened, creating "a more or less paternalistic socialism, in which the intellectuals at last have all the postes [the French word was sarcastically italicised] they want as public factory managers." Remarkably, the following year, the uncommercial proponents of the "peasant-spiritual" world who ran the Quebec government expropriated a number of power companies to create Hydro-Québec, operating initially in the Montreal area. Twenty years after Lower's address, the venture was massively expanded. Even more astonishing, it managed to function and even to flourish when run, not by intellectuals, but by engineers – in French. In fact, the following quarter century would massively undermine his claims to prescience.[2]

Three years later, Lower again drew upon the alleged "antithesis" in his 1946 history of Canada, Colony to Nation. The French Canadian way of life was "static Catholic-rural, careless of well-being, not over-burdened with social responsibility, prodigal of life, welcoming many children, not grieving too intensely if many die and others live misshapen". As if astonishingly insensitive generalisation was not enough – how could he possibly know how the people of Quebec coped with the deaths of their children? – he added a statistical footnote claiming that the percentages of blind and deaf-mute people were disproportionately high among Francophones and Catholics. This would have been an appallingly tasteless comment at any time, but to publish it at the time of the Nuremberg Trials seems almost beyond belief. By contrast, Lower's English Canada was "dynamic Calvinist-commercial with its devotion to acquisition and its haunting fear of 'robustiousness'." This puzzling final term was footnoted to an article on New England that had appeared in the New Statesman, a left-wing magazine published in Britain: how the word applied to Canada – let alone whether it might have been capable of translation into French – was not made clear.

In forcing Canada into his caricature dichotomy, Lower had to be almost as sweepingly misleading about English Canada as he was about Quebec. He ignored the inconvenient problem that there were Anglo-Protestant areas of the Maritimes that were equally undynamic: for instance, Lower had little comprehension of New Brunswick, and even less sympathy for its problems, probably because it did not fit correctly into his "primary antithesis". More remarkable was the absence of any mention of agriculture in his portrait of the economic interests of the majority community, a strange omission from somebody whose ideas about Canada were shaped while teaching in Manitoba. Of course, prairie farming was far more commercially focused than the agriculture of Quebec, but the difference arose more from soils than from souls.

In a later edition of Colony to Nation, Lower insisted that the historian should be something more than "a man standing on the rear platform of a train, taking moving pictures of the railroad right-of-way as it rolled past". Unfortunately, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in effect, he took a screen shot of Quebec in the early 1940s, and sought to emphasise every element that contrasted with the rest of the country in order to sustain his "two ways of life" theory. Yet while he insisted that his antithesis had permeated every aspect of Canada's history, he added a curious disclaimer. "It is not a simple task to reveal it, as it should be revealed, on every page and in every incident." Something allegedly so fundamental surely ought to have been more obvious?

Confusingly, he managed to blame both sides for the unbridgeable divide. There were obvious gender implications about Quebec's traditional values. Large families urged on by a male priesthood were symbols of masculine hegemony: women were only allowed to vote in provincial elections in 1940. Yet the intellectually mercurial Lower was capable of inverting the imagery. "It is as a very womanly woman that such a feminine people as the French should be treated; such a one could be wooed, but all the English Canadian can do is shout." This condemnation did not prevent him from raising his own voice to criticise the French for refusing to modernise. They were "a difficult people", who had rebuffed "the very real efforts of many of the English to be fair, friendly, and just" (perhaps he had himself in mind). "Parochial, oversensitive, and self-centred, they have been so conscious of their rights within Canada that they have no adequate sense of their duties towards Canada."

The delayed concession of provincial voting rights to women might have provided a clue: Quebec was moving in similar directions, but was around twenty years behind Ontario (as, in many respects, were the Maritimes). From the rear platform of his railway car, Lower might have reflected that French Canada would probably catch the next train. As the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s demonstrated, Quebec's delayed encounter with modernity would result in an even more spectacular explosion of change.

In Lower's proposed synthesis of 1943, the solution that would enable French Canadians to escape the straitjacket of their past had involved finding "a common loyalty to a common country". Three years later, in the conclusion to Colony to Nation, he placed the landscape of that country centre stage. The artistry was splendid, and the timing convenient: emerging from the Second World War, Canada had clearly emancipated itself from colonial status, but needed something inspirational to encapsulate its new national existence. In particular, people who thought of themselves as "British" Canadians faced the problem that they would have to define their British heritage in cultural rather than political terms, given the ebbing of British world power and the retreat of its Empire.

Lower moved the question of identity to a more elevated plane. If the people of Canada wished to find their collective "soul" (the sort of otherworldly priority that he so despised in Quebec), "they must seek for it, not in the English language or the French, but in the little ports of the Atlantic provinces, in the flaming autumn maples of the St. Lawrence valley, in the portages and lakes of the Canadian Shield, in the sunsets and relentless cold of the prairies, in the foothill, mountain, and sea of the west, and in the unconquerable vastnesses of the north."[3]

This flight of fancy echoed D'Arcy McGee's celebrated "Shield of Achilles" oration back in 1860, which had evoked "in the not remote distance, one great nationality", defined by lovingly-named rivers and mountains, and inhabited by a less closely defined "generation of industrious, contented, moral men, free in name and in fact", who conveniently did not speak any specific language.[4] McGee had the defence that he was conjuring a vision of the future. In recycling the same themes after eight decades of Confederation, Lower revealed bankruptcy of imagination.

McGee had at least acknowledged that his rivers flowed past unnamed cities: Lower excised urban Canada altogether, and could not even concede a slice of "soul" to the ancient town of Quebec. Were the Acadian fishing villages of Caraquet and Chéticamp included among the "little ports" of the Atlantic seaboard? In particular, Lower's inclusion of the Fall foliage of central Canadian maple trees was problematic and provocative. It was true that Alexander Muir in 1867 had annexed the feuille d'érable as an English Canadian symbol, explicitly tracing its roots back to the British Isles: "The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine / The Maple Leaf forever!" True, too, was the extensive use of autumn colouring by Tom Thomson and his fellow Ontario-based artists in the Group of Seven. But Lower surely knew that the maple was a national symbol for French Canada: this would be one of the reasons why the proposal to ditch the Red Ensign as Canada's national flag aroused such anger among Anglophones. Few celebrations of Quebec's Fête Nationale would fail to quote Denis-Benjamin Viger's 1836 homage to the maple tree. "Cet arbre qui croît dans nos forêts, sur nos rochers ... s'élance, et devenu grand et robust, brave les orages et triomphe de l'aquilon. L'érable, c'est le roi de nos forêts. C'est l'emblème du Bas-Canada." Lower's decision to include its fiery foliage within his invocation of the silenced Canadian soul would now be called an act of cultural appropriation.[5]

When single-volume histories seek to show how the past has influenced the present, their authors tend to define, or at least assume, that the present is a short block of years around the date of publication. This can cause problems if publishers wish to exploit a continuing market with updated editions: issues which seem dominant within the finite period of original authorship have a habit of vanishing altogether, to be replaced by controversies over challenges that were not even visible at the time of the original publication.[6] For Lower, the demand for new editions involved a particular complication: he was on record as regarding Quebec as not simply influenced but determined by its past, confined to a historical straitjacket from which it could not escape. Simply tacking additional chapters at the end of his narrative was therefore not an option. Lower's solution was to indulge in an extensive Prologue. Thematic in structure, it was chaotic in chronology. For instance, reviewing the St Laurent years in 1956, he concluded that Canada no longer had a national two-party system. One party, the Liberals, dominated, effectively unchallenged by three regionally based opposition groups. Then, strange to say, the Conservatives slipped back into office in 1957, and took a grip on power in 1958. Accepting that the political scene had "changed almost unrecognizably", Lower simply maintained his earlier section, as evidence of "how fallible the judgement of any one man may be". By 1977, that particular section had become a palimpsest of patchwork hindsights, presented less as a monument to human infallibility but rather as a series of variable statements of omniscience.[7]

Applied to Quebec, this approach notably failed to confront its own constraints. By 1964 – four years into the Quiet Revolution – he found it difficult to explain what was going on, the more so as he continued to describe Canada's two founding peoples as "races". It was evident that "the old mould was being broken" in what he called "le vieux province de Québec" (a mangled shred of French evidently not spotted by his Anglophone editors). French Canada, "where nothing ever changed and where ancestral voices were always heeded, was in fact changing very rapidly, losing its isolation and more or less taking its place in the dynamic modern world." To his credit, Lower recognised the importance of the Montreal intellectual magazine Cité Libre as a forum for new ideas. He was also struck by chapters contributed to a 1956 publication, La Grève de l'Amiante, about the 1949 Asbestos Strike, which seemed to indicate a repudiation of the narrow paths of nationalism and clericalism. Their author, he noted, was one P.E. Trudeau. He was also influenced by denunciation of Duplessis by Pierre Laporte, concluding that "Quebec had come close to species of fascist despotism." Yet, even here, Lower resisted the temptation to engage in nuanced interpretation: by 1977, he could baldly write of Duplessis' "fascist dictatorship", a reckless exaggeration. For most outside observers, the rapid and apparently seismic changes in Quebec from 1960 onwards were impossible to foresee and difficult to explain. For a historian who had declared that French Canada was programmed by the Counter Reformation, the Quiet Revolution, and its noisy continuations, were literally beyond explanation.[8] Meanwhile, the text of successive editions of Colony to Nation reproduced unchanged his superficial and outdated strictures. Arthur Lower offered English Canadians an uplifting vision of their country. Unluckily, it was one that found no place for their French compatriots.

Northrop Frye

In 1965, one of English Canada's most notable scholars, Northrop Frye, contributed concluding reflections to a major scholarly project, The Literary History of Canada. It was not until his seventh paragraph of luminous discussion that he confronted a basic problem: his generalisations were based upon English Canadian writing, and might not necessarily apply to work in French. "The advantages of having a national culture based on two languages are in some respects very great, but of course they are for the most part potential. The difficulties, if more superficial, are also more actual and more obvious." A nation needs its intellectuals to contribute insights of such profundity.

Frye had the happy knack of hitting upon a one-liner that seemed to encapsulate what he called "our famous problem of identity". Essentially, Canadians had been pursuing the wrong question: instead of asking "Who am I?", they should explore "some such riddle as 'Where is here?'".[9] This led to the theory of the "garrison mentality", a Canada composed of mutually suspicious groups, each of them beholden to some controlling force from outside. For English Canada, with its loyalties – albeit fast-receding – to Britain, this was an illuminating theory, but it had little resonance for French Canada.[10] Quebec was, no doubt, a garrison, even though by 1965 it was in mutiny against its traditional officer caste, but it stood in defence of its own patch, and defined itself in terms of its own territory – "Laurentie" in the misty vision of a few separatists. The slightest acquaintance with the writings of Quebec nationalists should have left Frye in no doubt that for a French Canadian, "here" meant precisely what it said. As Louis-François Laflèche asserted in 1866, "French Canadians in this country are the real nation" and "the vast expanse of the territory irrigated by the majestic St. Lawrence is their own legitimate homeland." If Dollard des Ormeaux were alive today, proclaimed Henri Bourassa in 1919, "[h]is first action would be to choose his homeland, and he would opt for Canada, his natural country."[11] Since Dollard des Ormeaux had in fact commanded the Montreal garrison from 1658 until his death in battle against Aboriginal people in 1660, he made an inconvenient dent in Frye's generalisations.

Similarly, the Acadians had defied deportation to return to their Maritime homeland: the Acadian identity was defined not so much by le grand dérangement, their deportation in 1755, as by their subsequent determination to reoccupy the territory that they regarded as their own. In 1869, the Shediac-based newspaper Le Moniteur Acadien explained how the concept of homeland permeated all aspects of Acadian identity. "Or la patrie n'est pas seulement le sol que nous foulons, mais aussi et surtout la religion que nous professons, la langue que nous parlons, les lois qui nous régissons, les institutions que nous fréquentons, les usages et coutumes que nous observons comme peuple."[12] There could not be much doubt that "here" for the Francophone population of the Maritime Provinces meant precisely what it said. It is curious that Frye, who grew up in Moncton, was not aware of the interrelationship of identity and attachment to place that underlay the Acadian identity. It was precisely because their "here" was not an extension of Quebec that Acadians politely rebuffed the overtures of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste in 1880 and launched their own Convention movement. Similarly, in western Canada, the Métis identity had been forged by the breeding of voyageurs with Aboriginal people on the Red River. Where Acadian expressed a sense of belonging to territory occupied by others, Métis asserted ownership over the vast region in which their identity had emerged. The 1816 armed clash with settlers at Seven Oaks announced that "the new nation under their leaders are coming forward to clear their native soil of intruders and assassins."[13] Only among Franco-Ontarians might Frye's question faintly resonate, and even for them, the "elsewhere" of origin was within Canada, and most lived in an environment that was an extension of the terrain of Quebec. For three of Canada's four principal Francophone communities, to seek the location of "here" would have been pointless tautology; for the fourth an undramatic exercise in adjacency. Nobody can doubt that Frye conjured a magnificent evocation of Canada, but it was a Canada that excluded one of its two founding peoples.

Lower and Frye may both be credited with imaginative attempts to conceptualise Canada during a phase when Anglophones felt themselves challenged by the naked power of the United States and bereft at the receding influence of Great Britain. That alone can explain, although it cannot justify, their shared amnesia towards the existence of a Canada that was and remained French. Another common theme is their dismissal of urban Canada, silently by Lower, contemptuously by Frye who described Canada's cities as "rather an arrogant abstraction, the conquest of nature by an intelligence that does not love it."[14] Perhaps even more remarkable was that their invocations carried a strong hint of geographical determinism without examining how the Canadian environment might have impacted upon the Canadian people themselves.

Fragment and frontier: Lower and Frye in wider theoretical frameworks

It may be worth glancing at how far the constructs of Lower and Frye relate to two larger hypotheses, Turner's "frontier" and Hartz's "fragment" theories. Although Louis Hartz, an American political scientist, published over seventy years after Turner, it is convenient to look first at his argument that offshoots of European societies planted overseas were shaped, and restricted, by the elements that dominated their origins. Thus Afrikaners in South Africa (and also Ulster Protestants) were trapped in seventeenth-century beliefs of Covenant and Promised Land, while much of Latin America, and also French Canada, inherited the burdens of feudalism. On the other hand, Australia was shaped by the nineteenth-century radical ideologies of British working class immigrants. The United States was fortunate in having been founded by "bourgeois fragments" who brought ideas of liberal individualism that became the seedbed of American freedom and initiative.

Clearly, there were some large generalisations at work here. For instance, some might feel that there was no huge difference in world view between seventeenth-century New Englanders and their Dutch contemporaries in South Africa, except perhaps in the apparent absence of executions for witchcraft at the Cape. Not surprisingly for an American intellectual, Hartz constructed a theory that seemed to explain the United States without showing much interest in the fact that a surprisingly similar society existed north of the border. In the 1964 collection of essays discussing his theory, The Founding of New Societies, the argument was fleshed out by a Canadian political scientist, Kenneth D. McRae, who accommodated the foundational identity of English Canada to the same principles of liberal individualism.[15] The Hartzian approach was also open to the criticism that it was arbitrary in identifying the dynamic fragments that animated various societies. Thus the mid-nineteenth century influx of free settlers was deemed crucial in shaping Australian political discourse, a judgement that tended to overlook the fact that the institutions of government and society had been created during the preceding sixty years as a convict settlement. On the other hand, successive waves of immigration into Canada from Britain and Ireland were dismissed as easily assimilated into an ongoing political culture.

Four years after the emergence of the Hartz thesis, its Canadian thread was taken by the scruff of the neck and imaginatively reshaped by the historian Gad Horowitz. In his Canadian Labour in Politics, Horowitz sought to explain why a democratic socialist party could operate in Canada, whereas left-wing ideologies of all kinds were virtually incapable of articulation, let alone of winning votes, in the United States. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation had emerged from the depression of the 1930s and captured the provincial government of Saskatchewan in 1944. In 1958, it had remodelled itself as the New Democratic Party. Horowitz expected it to remain a third party on Canada's national stage, but nonetheless regarded its very existence as proof that the English Canada had not simply originated as a subset of continental liberal individualism. Much, of course, depended on largely subjective processes of definition: Hartz regarded the Saskatchewan CCF as an outwork of frontier radicalism, Horowitz insisted that the NDP's attempt to establish a broad reformist platform was evidence not of a dilution of its socialism but as proof of its relationship to intellectual changes in social democratic parties beyond North America, "part of a general process of liberalization of socialism which is going on in every country of the West."[16]

Horowitz explained the difference between the two North American neighbours by emphasising that Canada was built upon a distinct founding element of "toryism", most notably derived from the Loyalists who fled the republican United States at the Revolution. This was not to fall for the antique myth that the Loyalists were somehow feudal and class-ridden, but rather to recognise their innate respect for the power and role of the State. Not only was the State a consistently active agent throughout Canadian history, but its major manifestations had been projects of the Conservative party – the Pacific railway, the coast-to-coast broadcasting system, the national airline. It had been the beleaguered Tory prime minister, R.B. Bennett, not his Liberal opponent Mackenzie King, who had attempted to emulate Roosevelt's New Deal north of the border. The decision to rename the party as Progressive Conservative in 1942 was of course a tactical move to broaden its electoral support (and, perhaps characteristically, not very successful). However, it would have been unthinkable for the party of Chamberlain and Churchill to have made the same gesture in Britain. By the 1960s, there was much in common between intellectuals such as the "red tory" George Grant and the socialist Eugene Forsey in their resistance to the pressures of North American uniformity. While both left and right distrusted the dominant King-Pearson Liberal party for its perceived subservience to the United States, Horowitz noted that English Canadian liberalism had been unable to establish a "nationalist cult" of the kind that effectively denied intellectual legitimacy to socialism in the United States by branding it as "un-American".[17] The Horowitz elaboration of Hartz was detailed and sophisticated, but two elements stood out. First, in addition to the overall North American driving forces of liberal individualism, there was also a "tory" founding element in English Canada, a mindset that respected the State, and looked to it for solutions. Second, Canada's tory tradition was dynamic, a fragment composed of phosphorous rather than granite, capable of fizzing in unexpected directions.

It is evident that both Arthur Lower's primary antithesis theory and Northrop Frye's invocation of the garrison mentality may be regarded as proto-Hartzian, especially in their attitudes to French Canada – and, indeed, probably contributed to the American professor's theorising. However, their interpretations relate less easily to Horowitz. In relation to English Canada, Lower obliquely anticipated two of his key revisions. For instance, Lower noted in 1943 that "our continuing connection with Great Britain has provided some shelter for a class structure and a quasi-official church". However, this "'squire and parson' concept of society" was only capable of resisting "commercialism" until around the eighteen-forties – Lower was vague about the time-frame – after which the tory element had presumably ceased to count. He traced the origin of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation to a very different cause: "much of the drive in Canadian socialism comes out of Canadian Methodism and as it does battle with Canadian individualism, it carries forward the Christian ethic of support for the weak and the lowly against the strong and the established."[18] At face value, this was uncontroversial: the leader of the CCF, J.S. Woodsworth, was an ordained minister, driven into politics by the social activism of his faith. However, like so many of Lower's grand generalisations, the large attribution of specific influence to Methodism proved less persuasive when closely examined. Canadian Methodism developed from both American and British (more especially, English) influences: Egerton Ryerson, its dominant nineteenth-century figure, devoted much effort to defending his co-religionists against the charge that they were subversives. Lower's obiter dictum did not explain why there was no similar political spin-off from American Methodism. Although itself a fissiparous and multi-thread phenomenon, Methodism in the United States tended to stress revivalism and personal salvation in a form that probably reinforced liberal individualism. Thus to point to Methodist influences on Canadian socialism was – albeit unwittingly – to return to the question of the tory tradition and its impact.

In relation to French Canada, both Lower and Frye seemed to be forerunners of Hartz, portraying Quebec not just as a fragment, but as a stone tablet poured from immoveable concrete. With Frye, this interpretation is implicit, for he hardly touched upon Canada's French fact at all in his ruminative conclusion to The Bush Garden. Lower's dismissal was more detailed, but it represented more an approximation to Hartz than an anticipation. For Hartz, the constricting element in French Canada was its creation as a feudal fragment. In his primary antithesis address, Lower barely mentioned the colony's economic and legal structure, but concentrated (over several pages) on the debilitating effects of its religious heritage. In Colony to Nation, he painted a remarkably friendly picture of the "feudal, or as it is usually termed, "seigneurial" institutions of New France. Thus, the requirement that the censitaire should grind his corn at the landlord's mill was more than balanced by the obligation on the seigneur to provide and maintain the facility. In short, there was a good deal of semantic smoke-and-mirrors in the applicability of the term "feudal" in the Canadian context. As Lower himself pointed out, "Canadian feudalism stemmed off from the French at a period when the latter was breaking down."[19]  From this insight, it might have been concluded that landlord-led colonisation made sense as means of developing Lower Canadian agriculture until well into the nineteenth century: it endured for two hundred years not because the colony was trapped by the blinkers of its inheritance, but because it worked.

The sequel is, or ought to have been, instructive. By the mid-nineteenth century, critics – both English and French – increasingly condemned the seigneurial system as unfair to farmers and an obstacle to capital investment. In 1854, it was replaced by a system closer to Anglo-Saxon freehold tenure. In a textbook, it is of course impossible to delve into every item on the ever-changing political agenda, but Lower's treatment in Colony to Nation managed to miss a revealing point. In a discussion of the aftermath of the 1854 election, he provided a succinct account of the formation of a centrist Liberal-Conservative coalition. Among the incentives for the deal was the desire of A.-N. Morin, leader of the French Reformers, to "dispose of the outmoded inheritance from New France, seigneurial tenure." Four pages further on, in the next chapter, Lower related how the "economic handicap" was swept away, with publicly funded opportunities for censitaires to commute their annual cash payments, and generous compensation for the landlords themselves. Yet, in that brief interval, Lower had somehow dissociated the reform from its proponents, thereby missing the key point that the drive for abolition had come from within French Canada itself. In other words, the supposedly immoveable fragment had somehow managed to reconstruct one of its own most fundamental formative elements. True, Lower had emphasised the burden of religion, rather than the incubus of law, but this was to overlook the point that Morin was an exceptionally devout Catholic.[20] The Counter-Reformation straitjacket did not inhibit reform after all.

Nor was Morin an isolated moderniser. In constitutional matters, Louis LaFontaine made responsible government a reality, while George-Étienne Cartier firmly sat on John A. Macdonald's centralising fantasies and steered British North America towards quasi-federal political union. In the crucial decade of the eighteen-fifties, when the foundations of Canada's civil service were put in place, Joseph Cauchon shook up Crown Lands, L.-V. Sicotte identified structural weaknesses in the management of Public Works, while the civil servant J.-C. Taché created for the first time an efficient census. The abolition of the seigneurial system was a major factor in the project to codify Lower Canadian civil law, an undertaking achieved in 1866, just in time for it to be entrusted to a locally autonomous French-majority province. Perhaps above all, for all Lower's assertion that the "man of business" simply did not feature in the Francophone world, French Canadian politicians took to railway promotion with an enthusiasm that they might have found difficult to explain to Louis XIV. Abolition of seigneurial tenure was no mere accidental exercise in unprogrammed self-assertion. It could well have been seen as the focal point of Quebec's first Quiet Revolution.[21] Unfortunately, it was not a parallel that was likely to occur to Arthur Lower.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the Hartzian fragment theory was its calm assumption that a European offshoot could sit in the St Lawrence valley for three centuries, struggling with the Laurentian Shield and the Canadian winter, but apparently remain constitutionally and structurally unaffected by its environment in any way.[22] In 1893, the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner had famously argued that the distinctive features of United States culture – democracy and self-reliance – had originated on the frontier. Lower and Frye allowed for no such transmission from landscape to personality. One possible explanation for this deficiency may lie in the differing purposes behind the Turner and the Lower/Frye formulations, or rather the contrasting national cultures that they sought to explain.

To his credit, the young Lower had at least confronted the possibility that a potentially Turnerian approach might be one of the "neglected aspects" of Canadian history: "did government tread so closely upon the heels of the settler that local arrangements were not necessary? If so, what has been the effect on our population of the orderliness of our development? Has it robbed us of some initiative?"[23] Other historians downplayed the question. Canada had only rarely seen phases of large-scale agricultural advance into wilderness. Its frontier culture had been very different, a story that originated with the long-distance tentacles of the fur trade penetrating the continent. Where Turner could portray the agricultural frontier as a moving line between settlement and wilderness – even if an over-simplification – Canada's fur-trading frontier was more a zone of interaction, in which the autonomous role of indigenous people had to be recognised. Moreover, the American frontier was inherently self-sustaining: except in Dust Bowl regions, once farms were established, they changed the environment permanently, making it plausible to argue that their populations evolved institutions and values of their own. But in Canada, the early European frontiers were innately self-destructive: fur-bearing animals were decimated, causing traders to move steadily further into the interior. Paradoxically, this process increased dependence upon metropolitan control, since the precarious nature of supply increased the importance of secure access to markets. As Careless pointed out, the slow development of major British North American cities also removed the possibility if intermediary influences.[24] Perhaps, too, by the twentieth century there was an uneasy awareness in Ontario, which set the Anglophone intellectual agenda, that the frontier provinces of Alberta and British Columbia were indeed dynamic, but unfortunately generating movements and structures alien to central Canadian values.[25]

To note that neither Lower nor Frye seemed to process their ideas through a Turnerian filter, or even to bounce them off a "frontier" hypothesis, is not in itself to condemn their theories. Arguably, Turner's frontier had more to do with national myth than American reality. Hence there was no reason why it should apply to Canada, nor indeed to superficially similar environments in, say, Russia or Australia.[26] It was rather that, for Lower, landscape was the source of national "soul". For Frye, environment was not something that Canadians had embraced, let alone allowed themselves to be shaped by but, rather, a repulsive force that had driven back into the defensive thinking of imported garrison mentalities. His memorable phrase, "the conquest of nature by an intelligence that does not love it", was in fact the inverse of Turner.[27] Lower silently appropriated French Canadian symbols to support an essentially English Canadian construct. Frye largely ignored the existence of Francophone Canada altogether. In short, theorising Canada without the French was a short step to creating nebulous concepts of Canadian-ness that were difficult to relate to any of its people, whatever their background or language.


[1] Arthur R.M. Lower, My First Seventy-Five Years, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1967, 31, 54, 281. Lower's competence in the French language is discussed in "French in the Canadian public sphere, 1763-1969",

[2] A.R.M. Lower, "Two Ways of Life: the primary antithesis within Canadian history" in Carl Berger, intro., Approaches to Canadian History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967, 15-28; Frederick W. Gibson in W.H. Heick and Roger Graham, eds, His Own Man: Essays in Honour of Arthur Reginald Marsden Lower, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1974, 4; Arthur R.M. Lower, My First Seventy-Five Years, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1967, 281.

[3] Arthur R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation: A History of Canada, revised 4th ed., Don Mills. Ont.: Longmans Canada Limited, 1964 (1st ed. 1946), xv, 70-1, 563-4. 471; for New Brunswick, 321, 407.

[4] T. D'Arcy McGee, Speeches and Addresses Chiefly on the Subject of British-American Union, London: Chapman and Hall, 1865, 175-6.

[5] H.-J.-J.-B. Chouinard, Fête nationale des canadiens-français, célébrée à Québec en 1880, Quebec: L'Imprimerie A. Coté et Cie, 1881, 14-15

[6] I recall an entertaining legend in sections of the historical profession about a short history of Ireland, the work of a distinguished scholar, which first appeared in the 1960s. It contained the bald statement: "The problem of Ulster was solved by Partition in 1921." A decade later, the publisher requested a new edition to take account of the Northern Ireland Troubles which had erupted in 1968. Traditional type-setting imposed cost limitations in those days, and the author was urged to be sparing in making changes. He duly obliged by amending the now-outdated sentence to read: "The problem of Ulster was not solved by Partition in 1921."

[7] Arthur R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation: A History of Canada, revised 5th ed., Don Mills. Ont.: Longmans Canada Limited, 1977, xvii-xix.

[8] E.g. Arthur R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation: A History of Canada, revised 4th ed., Don Mills. Ont.: Longmans Canada Limited, 1964, xxxi, xl; Information from Dr Donald A. Wright of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton. For "fascist dictatorship", see the 5th edition, xlii. In seminars, Lower specialised in making challenging, even outrageous, remarks, "with a kind of defiant scowl, and air of 'I said it and I'm glad. What do you want to make of it?'" It can be a useful technique in small-group, face-to-face teaching, but it does not transfer well to the printed page. Lower insisted that his students should "unlearn" most of what they thought they already knew about Canada's history. Unfortunately, where Quebec was concerned, he proved incapable of re-educating himself. Roger Graham in Heick and Graham, eds, His Own Man: Essays in Honour of Arthur Reginald Marsden Lower, viii-ix.

[9] Northrop Frye, "Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada", Carl F. Klinck, ed, Literary History of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965, xiv ff., accessed 30 January 2019 via For notes on the 1975 National Film Board of Canada documentary, Journey Without Arrival, see: "Documentary Film in Canadian Studies" , The film itself appears to be no longer available online.

[10][10] In 1946, W.L. Morton had attributed "a 'garrison' nationality" to Ontario, which he also defined as a "Protestant garrison". Morton, "Clio in Canada", in Carl Berger, intro., Approaches to Canadian History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967, 48.

[11] Ramsay Cook, French-Canadian Nationalism: An Anthology, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1969, 95-6, 191 (translations by Cook).

[12] Le Moniteur Acadien, 17 septembre 1869, in Léon Thériault, "Synthèse historique, 1763-1968" in Jean Daigle, réd., Les Acadiens des Maritimes: études thématiques, Moncton: Centre d'Études Acadiennes, 1980, 75.

[13] G.F.G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960 ed., 11. Métis were both English- and French-speaking.

[14] Northrop Frye, "Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada", Carl F. Klinck, ed, Literary History of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965, xiv ff., accessed 4 June 2019 via

[15] L.Hartz, ed., The Founding of New Societies, New York: Harcourt Trade Publishers,1964. It should be stressed that McRae was a major scholar, a political scientist who later wrote on Switzerland and consociational democracy.

[16] Gad Horowitz, Canadian Labour in Politics, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968, 4-34, esp. 9.

[17] Gad Horowitz, Canadian Labour in Politics, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968, 9.

[18] A.R.M. Lower, "Two Ways of Life: the primary antithesis within Canadian history" in Carl Berger, intro., Approaches to Canadian History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967, 24.

[19] Arthur R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation: A History of Canada, revised 4th ed., Don Mills. Ont.: Longmans Canada Limited, 1964 ed., 40-2. For a brief and balanced discussion of the seigneurial system, B. Young, The Politics of Codification: the Lower Canadian Civil Code of 1866, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994, 54-60.

[20] Arthur R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation: A History of Canada, revised 4th ed., Don Mills. Ont.: Longmans Canada Limited, 1964 ed., 290, 294; B. Young, The Politics of Codification: the Lower Canadian Civil Code of 1866, Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994, 68-77. The repeal legislation was carried through the Assembly by L.T. Drummond, the bilingual Solicitor-General for Lower Canada.

[21] "French Canada's first Quiet Revolution, 1847-67" might make a topic for undergraduate seminars to this day.

[22] Of a settlement in the Upper Saguenay, a government official reported in 1854-5 that "if it has been led into the forests ... by the impulse of courage, it is induced to remain there by the sentiment of hope." Quoted in M.S. Cross, ed., The Frontier Thesis and the Canadas: The Debate on the Impact of the Canadian Environment, Toronto: The Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1970, 54. The hope, of course, was of government support for road building.

[23] Lower's speculations appeared in "Some Neglected Aspects of Canadian History", a 1929 address to the Canadian Historical Association, extracted in M.S. Cross, ed., The Frontier Thesis and the Canadas: The Debate on the Impact of the Canadian Environment, Toronto: The Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1970, 34-5. Carl Berger discussed Lower's engagement with Turner, pointing out that he was ambivalent in his assessments of the influence of the frontier that he knew best, the assault upon the North American forests. Lower even attributed to French Canadians a passing phase of anti-authoritarianism, but doubted whether it could ever have overcome their cultural inheritance to develop into full-scale democracy. Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing Since 1900, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986 ed., 116-21.

[24] J.M.S. Careless, Frontier and Metropolis: Regions, Cities and Identities in Canada before 1914, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989, 38-50. Careless also noted that, by definition, a frontier was likely to involve interaction and possible confrontation with Aboriginal people.

[25] For instance, in 1944, Canada's Social Science Research Council joined with the Rockefeller Foundation to launch a major investigation into the Social credit movement in Alberta. This produced a number of important volumes, published by the arbiter of central Canadian scholarship, the University of Toronto Press. The project was worthwhile, but it carried more than a hint of an assumption that Albertans were a strange species evolved in a strange environment.

[26] H.C. Allen, Bush and Backwoods: A Comparison of the Frontier in Australia and the United States, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1959, is a useful assessment of the applicability of Turner to Australia.

[27] Northrop Frye, "Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada", Carl F. Klinck, ed, Literary History of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965, xiv ff., accessed 4 June 2019 via

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