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Serge Courville, Dean of historical geography from Quebec, has provided English-speaking readers with a fine introduction to the evolution of Quebec over the past 12,000 years. With his deep understanding and extensive reading of Quebec’s historical geography, only he possessed the credentials to weave this vast tapestry with such brio.
The author begins with a brief chapter on the evolution of Quebec, from the introduction of French colonial law to the twentieth century. The next eight chapters are arranged in three parts: Prehistoric Ranges, Frontier Farmers and Growth and Colonization. The information in each chapter follows the usual chronological sequence. For example, we learn how Archaic and Paleo-Indian groups infiltrated the post-glacial landscape and occupied various sites up to the Woodland Phase. The latest archeological research is brought to bear on the extent of human occupation as and colonization routes. The final chapter plots the territorial distribution of the indigenous peoples prior to contact with Europeans. Courville next describes the early attempts by the Europeans to make contact and Cartier’s efforts to establish a French colony, eventually brought to fruition by Champlain in 1608. In 1663, after a shaky beginning and the implementation of the seigneurial system, the number of settlements grew, heralding the start of a century of expansion. Courville draws upon a wide body of French literature on this subject not readily available to an English-speaking readership. Not much changed in the immediate aftermath of the Conquest, he notes. Yet the long-term consequences were to be enormous. The years following the War of 1812 saw far-reaching changes: trade increased, immigration progressed, while agriculture struggled. Courville counteracts the overly negative views of English-speaking scholars with regard to French agriculture during this period. The 1840s witnessed an increase in settlement activity in the Highlands, from the Canadian Shield in the north and the Appalachian Mountains in the south. A new township survey system introduced a land-scape and settlement pattern different from the seigneuries of the St. Lawrence Lowlands. The author then turns his attention to the culture of mid-nineteenth-century French Canadians, their self-image in an idyllic setting, and the contribution of the “back-to-the-land” movement to the settlement of the Highlands region.
Courville is a past master at integrating research from different fields, such as the contemporary novel and colonization literature, while demonstrating a graphic sense of French Canadian culture of the period.
In the final two chapters of the book, he accounts for changes in twentieth-century Quebec from a thematic, rather than the usual chronological, angle. The range of subjects – the importance of transportation, the role of the Church, and social and political change, for example – is extraordinarily wide-ranging, too. It is a sweep on a grand scale, every topic replete with fascinating details and fresh insights into the developments tied to Quebec’s recent past.
In short, this volume provides an excellent analysis and description of the historical geography of Quebec. The student and the general reader will find it highly readable and abundantly illustrated by maps and supporting tables of data. Notwithstanding, some comments on emigration would have been welcome in order to balance the overt emphasis on immigration. The post-1860 French and English emigration to New England is particularly significant in this respect. Figure 9.3 shows the effect of this exodus on overall population growth, where an in-depth analysis would have been more appropriate. The bibliography is generally excellent, though the omission of some important research by English-speaking scholars is to be regretted. However, these are minor reservations. Courville has produced an outstanding study that affords English readers unprecedented access to two generations of French scholarship. It is a major work destined to be an authority for years to come.