Québec Rural Society | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Québec Rural Society

Québec has often been identified with rural life, an identification based more on myth than fact. In 1890 Québec, like Ontario, was 90% rural, but by 1931 the majority of Québec's population was urban and by 1956 less than half the rural population worked in agriculture. In 1962 barely 4.

Rural Society, Québec

Québec has often been identified with rural life, an identification based more on myth than fact. In 1890 Québec, like Ontario, was 90% rural, but by 1931 the majority of Québec's population was urban and by 1956 less than half the rural population worked in agriculture. In 1962 barely 4.2% of the province's work force was employed in agriculture, the smallest percentage of any Canadian province.

The view of Québec as a backward, rural society originated primarily with Québecois themselves rather than with others outside the society. After the mid-19th century, a form of NATIONALISM developed in Québec which insisted that the best way to preserve the heritage of language and faith was to develop a strong, well-integrated rural society.

Control of Economic and Cultural Future

Since the city was viewed as the stronghold of the English and of Protestants, the French Canadian who went there risked the loss of both language and faith. In the countryside, according to this ideology, Québecois could control their economic and cultural future and, above all, their existence as a people.

This analysis by Abbé GROULX and others led to the conviction that the future of Québec was both agricultural and rural. The ruralist ideology persisted until the end of the 1950s and until the mid-1960s in the case of the agricultural associations (eg, the Union catholique des cultivateurs and agricultural CO-OPERATIVES). It disappeared only when the proportion of the work force engaged in agriculture dropped below 10% and more than 75% of the total population was urban.

The QUIET REVOLUTION and then the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS gave rise to a new nationalism which defined Québec as an urban, industrial society (which might even become the first postindustrial society).

Early Twentieth-Century Change

Whatever the definition provided by outsiders and by its own leaders, rural Québec (agricultural and nonagricultural) has changed a great deal since the early 20th century. Until the end of the 1930s, Québec agriculture was overwhelmingly subsistence farming. Production was diversified so that farmers could feed their own families. Production techniques were rudimentary and were passed on from generation to generation.

After 1910 Québec agriculture discovered the DAIRY INDUSTRY and almost every farm had its herd, the milk being sold to butter and cheese factories and the whey being used in the production of pork. However, dairy and pork production were not considered specializations but rather sidelines which brought in cash, used to buy goods which could not be produced on the farm. There were certain exceptions to this situation (notably in the Montréal plain area), but generally speaking, subsistence farming prevailed until WWII (see AGRICULTURE HISTORY).

During the war, the demand for pork and eggs was so great that the normal rules of supply and demand practically ceased to operate: farmers could sell everything they produced at excellent prices. For the first time, they became specialists who earned substantial incomes. But the situation was short-lived and normal market forces prevailed again after the war. Those farmers who had used their wartime earnings to modernize were able to face postwar competition and thrive. Most, however, had purchased consumer goods and had no capital to compete successfully in increasingly mechanized agricultural production.

Abandonment of Farms

To maintain the standard of living to which they had become accustomed, farmers abandoned agriculture, either moving into the city or working in the forests, where demand for labour was high. Thus, in less than 15 years, more than three-quarters of all farms were abandoned, the farmhouse itself often being moved into a village.

At the same time, agricultural production rose dramatically. Those who continued farming did so more effectively than ever and transformed their farms into modern agricultural enterprises. In 1991 Québec's agricultural production was being carried out on about 38 076 farms.

Farming Organizations

Farming organizations underwent a similar transformation. The UCC, which had been primarily an educational organization, became the Union des producteurs agricoles, bringing together farmers in specialized unions and setting up production offices. Small milk co-operatives united to produce giant co-operatives (Granby being the largest) which entered international markets. The federated co-operative developed control of successive stages of production, distribution and marketing (ie, vertical integration), especially in the area of animal production. Active integration also occurred among private companies.

The nonagricultural rural world has also been transformed. Traditionally, it consisted of craftsmen or day labourers who were few in number (10% of the rural population) and had very little influence. Since 1956 the proliferation of professional forestry workers and the increase in transportation activities and small factories has caused the nonagricultural proportion of the rural population to skyrocket to 90%.

Rural Social Hierarchy Today

Formerly homogenous and virtually egalitarian (only day workers formed a kind of proletariat), Québec's rural social hierarchy is much more complex today. At the top are civil servants and those in the quasi-public sector (eg, teachers, social workers, inspectors) with steady, high incomes. These are followed by farmers and small businessmen, then by labourers with fairly stable employment and, finally, by people on welfare, many of whom are former farmers or lumberjacks.

Labourers and those on welfare constitute by far the largest group and live in relative POVERTY. This endemic poverty has contradictory effects on the school population: while it results in a high number of dropouts after primary or during secondary school, those who do not drop out work harder at the CEGEP (COLLEGE D'ENSEIGNEMENT GÉNÉRAL ET PROFESSIONNEL; ie, senior matriculation) level than their urban counterparts. The dropout's future is limited to work in the forest or the rural day-labour force, and rural poverty is thereby perpetuated.

The most profound rural transformation has been rural urbanization. Most of the functions previously carried out locally have been transferred to small cities which have become regional capitals. Some primary and all secondary schools, major stores, credit institutions, recreational facilities and medical and social services are now located in urban centres. The youngest members of the rural population are in daily contact with the city; the oldest visit at least once a week, more often 2 or 3 times.

Ruralist Lifestyles

This physical contact is reinforced by the daily intrusion of the city through the mass media, especially television. In sociological terms, the lifestyle of rural people closely resembles that of city dwellers. The only significant difference is that the ruralist lives in a less densely populated region, where rural culture is barely a memory, if not folklore.