Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Lost, Forgotten and Suppressed History – The Huguenot origins of Québec

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.

8 responses to “Lost, Forgotten and Suppressed History – The Huguenot origins of Québec

  1. Gregory Barr May 7, 2016 at 10:33

    Now that is real history! Thanks for the info as both my wife and I are descendants of huegenots. She is French from Quebec and I English from Ontario.

  2. duncan campbell December 31, 2016 at 03:24

    When I was 5 (1964) I was staying in Bedford PQ with my Grandfather. To his English he was Millard Carter, and to his French friends he was Medard Cartier. Some PQists were crossing the bridge by his house with flags, drums and bugles. So my Grandad heads on out and tells them something in French, at which they all turn around and head the other way. Sometime afterwards I came out with something or other vile and racist about “@#$ French Separatists…” (I’m from Alberta), to which my Grandfather took some offence. He sat me down and explained that we were in large part French Huguenots and that we’d been chased back and forth across the border of Vermont a _number_ of times since arriving in 1610 or 12.

    Somehow related to this is that both Jesuits and Oblates used to regularly show up at his door where they’d all wave their arms and argue in French.

  3. Bob Goodnough December 31, 2016 at 12:05

    Thank you for that interesting bit of history.

  4. Shawn Newton December 10, 2017 at 07:08

    One of my ancestors was Isaac Paquit dit Lavallee from France who was a soldier sent to what is now Quebec. Does anyone know if he was a Huguenot? I try to find out if any of my French Canadian side were Huguenots but all I got when I asked a Huguenot Society club is they have to be on their list or related to someone on their list. It seems like nobody that was a Huguenot back then would have had it on their records if they were or weren’t Huguenot. I also had a Marie Madeleine Coulon on my ancestory and saw the name Marie Coulon on a list of Huguenots in England but not sure if it was her since my ancestors was in Canada.

    • Heidi Radcliffe October 11, 2018 at 17:41

      My family has the surname Lavis which is Huguenot and spelled several ways even within the family. Dit is from the military. Lavalee, lavers, levis, Lavis, Lavor are a few of the spellings I have encountered. There is an obit in Capetown, South Africa 1925 for Emily Lavis, Father George, and a deacon S. Lavis which states they are an old Huguenot family.

  5. Bob Goodnough October 11, 2018 at 20:38

    Thank you, Heidi, for adding another piece to the puzzle.

  6. Leslie Price January 27, 2019 at 09:37

    Very interesting indeed. It explains why Champlain never received any big honours from France for the several fine pieces of work he produced. At least some of my Huguenot ancestors were the family Strang. They emigrated to England and eventually New York state where they remained loyal to Britain through the American Revolution. Although there were several descending Daniel Strangs,, one senior Daniel appears to have been a recruiter and courier for the British and worked with Col Robert Rogers and his Rangers, purportedly the first to use very strategic tactics in warfare. This Daniel was captured by the revolutionaries, was found to have a list of potential recruits for the British side, and after a very quick trial (now available on the net) was hung from an oak tree (in more recent years destroyed by lightening and replaced with a plaque) in Peekskills, NY. His son Daniel and his wife were stripped of belongings and with other ‘Loyalists’ were shipped out to Shelbourne NS from New York in Dec 1789. From there they settled in PEI and next generations arrived in New Brunswick. Anyone interested in the Huguenot history should check out the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre, the Edict of Fontainbleu and other Edicts over a multiple decade period in France. Most all of us have persecutions in our ancestry.

  7. Judy Cartier November 5, 2019 at 15:21

    I believe my LeNuef ancestors were Huguenots

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