The first explorers and settlers of New France were Protestants. This is not something I learned in school; I don’t think it’s being taught even today, the Catholic church having almost succeeded in expunging all mention of Protestants from the collective memory of the Québecois people.
The Reformed Church in France seems to have begun when remnants of the Waldenses and Albigenses converted to Calvinism. John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) was himself a Frenchman who became the leader of the Reform in Geneva. Adherents of this faith were known as Huguenots, a name whose origin is still uncertain. At one point, Huguenots accounted for 15 to 20% of the population of France. There ensued almost two centuries of conflict, massacres and wars, as the Catholic church tried to eliminate Protestantism in France and the Huguenots fought back.
French Huguenots fleeing persecution dispersed throughout the world. Breton fishermen had fished on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland for generations and some Huguenots began dreaming of a new homeland across the ocean.
In 1534, Jacques Cartier of St. Malo began the exploration of New France. It is claimed that Cartier was Catholic, though he came from a Huguenot family and his expedition was financed by Philippe de Chabot, a Huguenot. The first Huguenot colony was established in 1540 at Cap-Rouge, near present day Québec City, by Jean-François de la Roque, Sieur de Roberval, a Huguenot. This settlement was abandoned in 1543.
Another short-lived colony was begun on Sable Island in 1598 and another at Tadoussac in 1600. The first permanent colony was at Port Royal, Nova Scotia in 1604, led by Samuel de Champlain. His religious affiliation is uncertain, but he later married Hélène Boulé, a Huguenot, his expedition was financed by Pierre de Gua, Sieur des Monts, a Huguenot, and the only clergy on this expedition were Huguenots.
In 1610, Champlain established a second settlement at Québec, again financed by le Sieur des Monts. One of the settlers, Marc Lescarbot, a Huguenot, is called the first farmer in Canada. Brothers Guillaume and Émery de Caën, Huguenots in France, held a monopoly on the fur trade in New France until 1627.
The Catholic forces of repression in France eventually had their effect in New France. The fur trade monopoly was transferred to the Company of a Hundred Associates, all Catholics. Further Huguenot emigration from France was forbidden, Jesuits were sent to New France and life became increasingly difficult for Huguenots in New France.
Some men began to seek the freedom of the woods and rivers, pushing exploration and the fur trade into new frontiers. They were called coureurs-du-bois and voyageurs. Many of their names are unknown to us, but two are named in every Canadian history book: Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart de Groseillières. Their travels took them into what is now Western Canada and they discovered that a huge area of what is now Canada drains into Hudson Bay.
They returned to France to try to claim this area for France and establish a fur trade monopoly over the whole area. They met with refusal in France, quite possibly because they were Huguenots and then turned to England. In 1670 the Hudson Bay Company was formed and given ownership of all the land draining into Hudson Bay.
It appears that some remnant of Protestantism remained right up to the English conquest in 1759. In 1741 the Catholic clergy complained three times that the local authorities were still allowing Huguenot refugees to enter the colony.
After the conquest, the Catholic church continued to tighten its control over the French-speaking population. The church ran all the schools, so when a family converted to Protestantism, their children could no longer attend school. If the father was a labourer, he would probably lose his job. If he was a businessman, he would lose his clientele. Thus, most who did convert to Protestantism were forced to leave the province or assimilate to an English-speaking community in the province. This allowed the Catholic church to claim that it was the sole defender of French language and culture.
Protestant mission work in Québec by missionaries from France and Switzerland began in the 1830’s. It was a slow and difficult work, but they established a number of new Francophone congregations. The Quiet Revolution of 1960 opened the door for a rapid growth of Francophone churches.