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British colonial era to Confederation

In 1763, the British parliament passed the Quebec Act for its new colonies in North America; it had the unique feature of tolerating the Roman Catholic Church in these colonies some sixty or more years before a similar toleration was extended to Roman Catholics in the mother country. The toleration was for strategic reasons, an attempt to keep the new colony, consisting mostly of French-speaking Catholics, loyal to the crown at a time when the 13 colonies to the south were going in the opposite direction. The act did not, however, allow further French settlement or especially the immigration of more Roman Catholic clergy. The new colony was in that regard dependent on its own resources, which it developed significantly over the next century.

1791 saw the passage of the Constitution Act which, although it established the Church of England in British Colonies after the American Revolution, also granted representative political institutions to the British colonies, including in Lower Canada (today Quebec) with its dominantly Roman Catholic and French-speaking population. The legal framework was set for the French Canadians to develop in the subsequent decades a distinct French-speaking, Roman Catholic nation with an increasingly strong national identity in this direction, especially after the 1837 Lower Canadian rebellion, and the ensuing Simcoe Report of 1840 that ineffectually recommended the assimilation of French speakers into the English-speaking population. From that point forward the Roman Catholic Church in Canada East and then mostly Quebec gradually became the strongest institution among the French Canadians, a situation that lasted until the 1960s.

In the other British North American colonies, especially Upper Canada (today Ontario), but also the Maritime colonies, the period from the late 18th century onward was witness to substantial and steady immigration. Initially, this was heavily from the recently independent USA; these immigrants brought new religious diversity to the territory, consisting as it did mostly of Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists and other -from the Church of England perspective- dissenters. After the War of 1812 between the British and the new Americans, colonial policy changed to encourage the dominant source of immigration to switch to the British Isles, including especially Ireland, and (northwestern) Europe. Irish immigration was particularly heavy -and largely Roman Catholic- in the wake of the potato famines of the late 1840s. The constantly increasing proportion of the Canadian population that was Catholic came to be less and less concentrated among the French-speaking population.

At the same time, in the English-speaking parts of British North America, the growing numbers and influence of Protestants who were not of the established church led by 1850-55 to the disestablishment of the Church of England (and the Church of Scotland). If a kind of shadow establishment remained, nonetheless, it consisted more and more of very few Protestant churches, the Anglican (as it eventually was called), the Presbyterian, and the Methodist churches especially.

D 20 June 2017    APeter Beyer

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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