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200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo: How it shaped Québec and Canada (#289)

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Battle of Waterloo

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in which Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated (18 June, 1815).

In the years running up to 1815, much of Europe was under the control for Napoleon’s army.  The British Empire faced a major blockade and was heavily hampered by Napoleon’s policies.   Part of his policy was to encircle the British Empire and to cut off its resources.   The influence of Napoleon’s own pan-European French empire grew so large that even neutral countries were restricted with respect to providing the British with resources.

To avoid being suffocated, the British mobilized its entire overseas colonies.   This meant that Canada was also mobilized. Keep in mind that what constitutes present-day Québec was the region which was at the core of the Canadian colonies  (both in terms of size, demographics and industry).

Until the beginning of the 1800s, Canada was a country of local agrarians and fur trappers / traders, of which a large percentage were French-Canadians.  But the British mobilization against Napoleon changed Canada’s economic basis into an “internationalized” economy.   This happened by way of the explosion of the Ottawa valley lumber, and St-Lawrence lowlands wheat exporting industries.  Apart from the later industrial revolution, digital economy, and global economy, this first “internationalization” of Canada’s economy in the early 1800s – by way of the lumber and wheat exporting industries – would be one which would forever change the course of Québec and Canada.

ot vl1

(Above) The Ottawa Valley in which Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, is at its core.

The Ottawa Valley was an enormous region of pine trees.   To save the British Empire from death by economic suffocation at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, the pine trees in the Ottawa Valley were harvested and provided ship-building material to British ocean fleets.

This gave rise to the lumber industry city of Ottawa in the early 1800s.   Had this not occured, the Ottawa may not have been chosen as Canada’s capital city, Eastern Ontario may have remained undeveloped, and who knows what Canada’s capital city would be today.

Merchant marine and other ocean vessels, destined for the British Empire, were fabricated in Québec City with the lumber from the Ottawa valley.  At the time, Québec City’s Anglophone population was much higher than it is now.  At one point in the 1800s, Québec City’s English-speaking population was more than 40%.  Today you can still find many original English-language stone plaques affixed to buildings in the old city.  These plaques belonged to companies which were once owned by Anglophones.

Québec City’s ports became a hub of international ship-building and ship export for countries and colonies across the British Empire.   Had it not been for these industries, much of what comprises Québec’s old city, its city walls, and its old port district would not exist today (the next time you visit Québec City for tourism, thank events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo for much of the heritage you see).

mtl comm blg.1

(Above) Typical former Commercial buildings in Montréal from the economic era spun off from circumstances leading up to and following the Battle of Waterloo.
qc comm bdlg

(Above) Typical former Commercial buildings in Québec City from the economic era spun off from circumstances leading up to and following the Battle of Waterloo.

One of the largest companies to have come of this massive “counter-Napoleon” lumber exporting and ship-building industry was the “Price Lumber Company”.   Today, the company “Résolu” is one of Canada’s oldest regenerative companies.   It was born of the

  • “Price Lumber Company”, which later became
  • “Price Brothers and Company”, which later became
  • “Abitibi-Price”, which later became
  • “Abitibi-Consolidated”, when later became
  • “AbitibiBowater”, and which is now
  • “Résolu Produits forestiers”.

(Confused?  Just go with it).

Résolu is a multi-billion dollar lumber company and one of modern Canada’s pillar companies.  It is headquartered in Montréal, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and has operations across Canada and the United States.

Apart from this massive “internationalization” stemming from Canada’s new ship-building and lumber industry was the emergence an English-Canadian bourgeoisie.  Montréal was Canada’s only major city at the time of Canada’s anti-Napoleon economic efforts.  Québec City was Canada’s second city (perhaps with Halifax as its only true rival), Toronto was not yet on the radar, and the West really did not yet have a form in any substantive manner.

Montréal became the economic hub for the new English-Canadian Bourgeoisie.  Francophones, for the most part, did not live in Montréal, and continued to live in smaller, rural centres.   Thus Montréal very much became an “English” city at the time.  Much of Montréal’s older architecture and character which we see today stemmed from financing which came about from Canada’s new-found international-driven industries.  With lumber came Montréal’s finances, banks, factories, inland trade and transportation routes, the emergence of Montréal’s well known Anglo-Saxon families (whose names are still involved in business today), and the foundation-building for a modern Canada.

This building of this “second economic front”, on Canadian soil, served to support the British Empire against Napoleon.  But more importantly for Canada, it gave rise to another major change soon after the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815:   The rise of “Canadian Britishness”.

Before 1815, Canada was essentially populated by Francophones (coast-to-coast) or American loyalist immigrants (who settled primarily in Québec’s Eastern Townships and around Prince Edward Country along Lake Ontario).   Thus, before 1815, Canada did not have a prima facie “British” feel.

Today in Canada, we do not consider ourselves to be British or to even have a flare of “Britishness”.  Today, most Anglophones in Canada would consider such a notion grossly outdated, inaccurate, foreign, and would relegate the last remnants of it to generations of great-grandparents who perhaps lived in Eastern Canada.

Yet, following the battle of Waterloo, the “Britishification”  of Canada was a very real phenomena — one which was a double edged sword.   With economic advancement came economic migration.  But this British migration gave rise to a counter-movement of French-Canadian nationalism (the repercussions of which we still witness today).

Upon Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, tens of thousands of British soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of British workers were directly or indirectly liberated from anti-Napoleon war efforts.  The British war navy was transformed into a civil British merchant marine.

Thus, after 1815, Canada received a massive influx of British colonialists (from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland) who were no longer engaged in the British war efforts.  A 125 year era of “Canadian Britishness” was born.   During the 125 years following the Battle of Waterloo, English Canada identified more with Great Britain than with a home-grown identity.   This “British” identity would last well into the first half of the 20th century (it was not until after the First World War that an independant Canadian identity would concretely begin to emerge).

When you hear of today’s events marking the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, give some thought as to how this had a tremendous effect on Canada, both before and after the battle of Waterloo.

Canada’s and Québec’s industry, internationalization, social fabric, cultural and ethnic fabric, and nationalist history (on both sides of the linguistic divide) have all been greatly affected by the Napoleonic war era.

Suffice to say, the battle of Waterloo was an event which forever marked Québec and Canada, just as it did Europe.

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