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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 149-151

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The Metamorphosis of Landscape and Community in Early Quebec

The Metamorphosis of Landscape and Community in Early Quebec. By Colin M. Coates (Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000) 276 pp. $45.00 cloth $22.95 paper

Coates' The Metamorphosis of Landscape and Community in Early Quebec departs from the standard Annales-inspired examinations of individual seigneuries in New France/Lower Canada and moves beyond economic and social structures to include an examination of landscape and community. Based on an examination of Batiscan and Ste.-Anne, Coates' main argument is that the labor of generations of habitants displaced the natives and transformed the wilderness of the St. Lawrence Valley into a Europeanized agrarian landscape. That landscape and society persisted after industrialization, in the guise of an iron foundry, had failed, as had the attempt by a British seigneurial family to recreate an idealized English estate. The "metamorphoses" metaphor to the contrary, the second major transformation would not take place until after the end date of this study, with the arrival of large-scale lumber companies in the 1830s. The last pages of the book state that habitant endurance reinforced the growing [End Page 149] popularity of French-Canadian nationalism, but this point is more asserted than demonstrated.

More convincing would have been an argument for the controversial Ouellet thesis that nationalism in the early nineteenth century was nourished by the worsening economic conditions of the habitants. 1 Coates, too, discovers crop failures and increasing population pressure on the land. Unlike Ouellet, however, he argues that the habitants attempted to be responsive to the market, and that a local entrepreneurial elite emerged in the early 1800s. Only then did the community finally begin to coalesce around an effective leadership, reinforced by the introduction of an elected legislative assembly in 1792. While Greer argues that the habitants were not merely "potatoes in a sack," because they collectively resisted church tithes and seigneurial dues and engaged in charivaris, Coates stresses their individualism by noting that they refused to cooperate in mutually beneficial drainage projects, shirked statute labor on the roads, and so on. 2 But given the lack of a representative town-meeting system, the habitants may have been collectively suspicious about the motivation behind such improvement projects. There would be more enthusiasm for community-based initiatives with the emergence of a petty bourgeoisie and state subsidies in the early nineteenth century.

Although he fails to cite any of Harris' articles on the subject, Coates' findings support the historical geographer's thesis that settler societies underwent a social "simplification" process in which secondary institutions atrophied for a time, and rural society consisted essentially of unstratified, nuclear-oriented families. Only when land became an investment commodity, with the rise of the market and population pressure, would repressive Old World institutions and inequalities re-emerge. 3 Coates' study nevertheless suggests that the seigneurs had a greater coercive influence in the early years (particularly through their courts) than Harris tends to acknowledge, and that this influence waned in the British regime.

From a methodological perspective, Coates makes good use of the rich notarial, census, and parish records. To take an example, he discovered a high degree of intermarriage, causing conflict with church regulations and suggesting that the community was becoming a network of extended, and increasingly localized, families. That kinship groups tended to take the place of a more formal community identity would help to explain the ongoing resistance to public improvement projects. Coates' conclusion that "the families of Batiscan and Sainte-Anne made sense of their world by drawing smaller and smaller boundaries around it," [End Page 150] however, would seem to contradict his thesis that this environment fostered a broader sense of French-Canadian nationalism (76).

Although Coates might have been bolder in interpreting the implications of his material, this book is thoroughly researched, well written, and innovative in its approach.


J. I. Little
Simon Fraser University


1. Fernand Ouellet, Lower Canada 1791-1840: Social Change and Nationalism...


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