French Canada and the Monarchy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


French Canada and the Monarchy

French Canadian attitudes toward monarchical government and members of the French and, later, British royal families have changed over time. King Louis XIV of France made New France a crown colony and supported its expansion and economic development. King George III of Great Britain granted royal assent to the Quebec Act in 1774, which guaranteed freedom of worship and French Canadian property rights. Early royal tours of Quebec were well received by the public. There was republican sentiment expressed during the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837, however, and support for the monarchy in Quebec declined sharply following the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Today, polling data indicates that a majority of people in Quebec support the abolition of the monarchy in Canada.

King Louis XIV

The French Monarchy and New France

The structure of monarchical government in Canada, including the concept of a governor general representing the sovereign, dates from Samuel de Champlain’s tenure as a representative of the crown, from 1627 to 1635. King Louis XIV, the longest reigning monarch in European and Canadian history (1643-1715), made New France a crown colony, creating a new administrative hierarchy and encouraging expansion, immigration and economic development. In contrast, Louis XIV’s great-grandson and successor, Louis XV, viewed the defence of New France as a burden and ceded the territory to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris, at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Numerous places in what is now Quebec and the Maritime provinces are named after these two French kings, including Place Royale in Quebec City and the Fortress of Louisbourg in what is now Nova Scotia.

The British Monarchy and the Quebec Act

In April 1774, King George III, the British monarch, gave royal assent to the Quebec Act, which upheld French Canadian freedom of religion, property rights and civil law at a time when Roman Catholics were disenfranchised elsewhere in the British Empire, including Ireland. The Quebec Act associated the Crown with the protection of French Canadian law, property and religion, and French Canada did not support the Thirteen Colonies in the American Revolution.

Members of the royal family emphasized the equality of English and French Canadians during their tours and periods of residence in British North America from the late 18th century onward. King George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (the father of Queen Victoria), who resided in Quebec City and Halifax during the 1790s, stated in a 1792 speech intended to quell political unrest in Lower Canada, “Let me hear no more of the odious distinctions of French and English. You are all his Britannic Majesty’s Canadian subjects.” (See Royals Who Lived in Canada.)

The Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837 and the Province of Canada

Republican sentiment informed demands for responsible government during the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion. Louis-Joseph Papineau, one of the leaders of the rebellion favoured the establishment of a republic, modelled on the government of the United States. However, he was willing to accept what he described as “a local, responsible, and national government for each part of the Empire, as regards settlement of its local interests, with supervisory authority held by the imperial government, to decide on peace and war and commercial relations with foreign countries.” There was widespread republican sentiment among the rebels in Lower Canada, including the expression of personal hostility toward the young Queen Victoria, who succeeded to the throne in 1837. Queen Victoria, however, granted amnesties to participants in the Upper and Lower Canada rebellions as part of her 1838 coronation honours and on subsequent occasions during the 1840s. The Province of Canada declared her birthday an official public holiday in 1845. Victoria Day, the sovereign’s official birthday in Canada, was officially renamed Journée nationale des patriotes (National Patriots’ Day) by the Quebec provincial government in 2002.

The Emergence of the Canadian Crown

Prominent French Canadian political figures supported Canada’s confederation as a self-governing constitutional monarchy in 1867, and the later emergence of an independent Canadian Crown through the 1931 Statute of Westminster. George-Étienne Cartier, one of the most politically influential Fathers of Confederation, believed that British institutions, such as the constitutional monarchy, provided a balance between democracy and mob rule by permitting responsible government and an appointed upper chamber. He named one of his daughters Reine-Victoria after Queen Victoria.

In 1929, William Lyon Mackenzie King’s minister of Justice and Quebec deputy, Ernest Lapointe, chaired the Canadian delegation in the discussions that led to the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The statute had widespread support among Quebec’s political elite because it gave Canada control over its own foreign policy and established an independent Canadian Crown distinct from the British Empire.

French Canadian Responses to Early Royal Tours

In 1901, the future King George V and Queen Mary (then Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York) were received in Quebec with what the Times’ foreign correspondent Donald Mackenzie Wallace described as a lack of “vigorous cheering.” However, the tour was not criticized in the French Canadian press and nationalist organizations such as the Saint-Jean-Baptiste society presented addresses of welcome to the royal couple. (See 1901 Royal Tour.) The future King George V returned in 1908 for the 300th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City.

During the 1939 royal tour by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, French language newspapers in Quebec differentiated between loyalty to the Crown and support for the British Empire, objecting to the presence of British flags to honour the royal visit. La Presse stated, “Why don’t we, French Canadians, profit from the occasion to manifest our loyalty and attachment to our sovereigns, certainly, but also to our language, our nationality, our rights, our ethnic character. If we must have inscriptions, let them be worded in French, if we cheer, cheer in French….” (See Francophone Nationalism in Quebec and French Canadian Nationalism.)

Queen Elizabeth and Camillien Houde

Quiet Revolution

The distinction between the Canadian Crown and British imperialism was obscured by rising Quebec nationalism in the 1960s. The Crown came to be viewed as a British institution and attracted scrutiny for its role in Canadian federalism. Queen Elizabeth II expressed her support for Canadian federalism in speeches delivered in Canada, including an appeal for national unity at the time of her Silver Jubilee in 1977.

Changing attitudes toward the monarchy during the Quiet Revolution prompted open displays of hostility toward royal tours in Quebec. In 1964, Queen Elizabeth II faced protesters during a visit to Quebec City to mark the 100th anniversary of the Quebec (and Charlottetown) conferences that precipitated Confederation. While the Montreal Gazette emphasized that the protestors were in the minority compared to the 50,000 people who gave her “a tumultuous welcome,” foreign coverage of the tour emphasized both the presence of student protestors and the overzealous reaction of the police. The New York Times stated, “The demonstrators usually consisted of 50 to 100 youths who chanted, ‘Quebec for the Quebecois,’ or sang ‘Alouette,’ a song associated with French Canada, as the Queen's car passed… There was some taunting of police officials. During demonstrations the police charged the youths, swinging their nightsticks.”

Although support for the monarchy declined precipitously in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution, there remained examples of French Canadian support for Queen Elizabeth II as monarch because of her fluency in French and support for national self-determination within the Commonwealth. L’Action magazine stated, “Long before Ottawa was seized, as it is now, of the bilingual and bicultural ferment, the Crown was establishing the fact, in all its interventions in Canada, of equality of the two languages beyond the letter of the Constitution.”

Patriation of the Constitution

French Canadian Responses to Recent Royal Tours

Royal visitors to Quebec continued to face protests and calls to refrain from attending key events commemorating the province’s history and culture during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Queen Elizabeth II received advice from Quebec premier René Lévesque to refrain from opening the Montreal Olympics in 1976, but she accepted the invitation from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to do so. The Queen signed the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982 with Prime Minister Trudeau in that year.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not invite Queen Elizabeth II to attend the celebrations commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City in 2008. The future King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla (then the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall) faced around 100 protestors in Montreal during their first visit to Canada as a married couple in 2009, delaying one of Charles’s public engagements.

There has not been a high-profile royal tour that includes public engagements in Quebec beyond the National Capital Region since William and Catherine, Prince and Princess of Wales, (then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) visited Montreal and Quebec City during their first overseas tour as a married couple in 2011. In 2012, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois pronounced the monarchy and the office of lieutenant-governor of Quebec to be a waste of money, stating, "It doesn't bother me at all to attack royalty," during Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee year.

Current French Canadian Attitudes Toward the Monarchy

Recent polling data indicates that support for Canada remaining a constitutional monarchy is low in Quebec compared to other provinces. An August 2022 poll conducted by Leger and the IRAI (Institut de recherche sur l'autodétermination des peuples et les indépendances nationales) revealed that 40 per cent of respondents thought that abolishing the monarchy was “a very good idea” and 20 per cent of respondents thought abolishing the monarchy was “a mostly good idea.” The date of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, 19 September 2022, was a federal holiday in Canada, but it was not observed by the province of Quebec.

French Canadian support for the monarchy is unlikely to increase in future reigns. In December 2022, the Quebec legislature adopted a law making the oath to the monarch optional for elected members, prompting debate concerning whether this law was unconstitutional.

Queen Elizabeth II was fluent in French, as is King Charles III. Prince William speaks French, though with less ease.

Further Reading

Queen Elizabeth visiting the National War Memorial in Ottawa, ca. 1943-1965.
Royal Family