Along a River

Herizons - - Arts & Culture -

The First French-Cana­dian Women

Jan Noel

Univer­sity of Toronto Press Re­view by Penni Mitchell If you ever thought that Canada’s colo­nial his­tory was ex­clu­sively the purview of male fur traders, mis­sion­ar­ies, Aboriginal sup­pli­ers, war­riors and aris­to­crats, you are sure to find Jan Noel’s Along a River: The First French-Cana­dian Women to be an il­lu­mi­nat­ing counter-story.

Noel writes into his­tory women who were colony ad­min­is­tra­tors, hospi­tal founders, suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs and in­flu­en­tial aris­to­crats, as well as women who were il­licit trade op­er­a­tors, tav­ern keep­ers and cour­te­sans. I’d al­ready heard about the 17th cen­tury Agathe Saint-Père, who es­tab­lished the first Cana­dian tex­tile mill in her home.But what shocked me was that Saint-Père’s fam­ily had a long-stand­ing tra­di­tion of women in suc­cess­ful com­mer­cial en­ter­prises.In fact, loads of colo­nial women shipped goods over­seas, were play­ers in the fur trade and were in­volved in mat­ters of state.

Ac­cord­ing to Noel, women in 17th-cen­tury New France ac­tu­ally had greater free­doms than they did fol­low­ing the Con­quest by Bri­tain in 1760.Fol­low­ing the Cus­tom of Paris, wives took over fam­ily busi­nesses when their mil­i­tary hus­bands died—as so many did. Thus, it wasn’t un­usual to find women of the aris­to­cratic class trav­el­ling as trade emis­saries or, in the case of Madame de Vau­dreuil, ad­vis­ing the French court di­rectly on colo­nial pol­icy. Many lower-caste women also worked in­de­pen­dently in small-scale trade with Aboriginal and Métis women. Mis­sion­ary J.F. Lafi­tau ob­served that Iro­quois women pos­sessed “all real author­ity” in their com­mu­ni­ties.

Noel’s hu­mour puts a re­fresh­ing fem­i­nist spin on nuns who re­sisted the “in­tran­si­gent wills” of bish­ops as well as fe­male cour­te­sans. “This group re­ceived sala­cious press from the bour­geois males who top­pled the an­cien régime,” she writes. “But his­to­ri­ans of women have dis­cov­ered a num­ber of ladies who, what­ever their bed­time sto­ries, had an im­pact on pol­icy in a pe­riod that pre­dated a pro­fes­sion­ally trained civil ser­vice.”

Un­til firmer pa­tri­ar­chal laws were stuffed into the re­formed Civil Code of 1866 in Lower Canada, hun­dreds of French-Cana­dian women voted along­side men. Noel’s de­tailed ac­count el­e­vates fe­male his­tory to its right­ful honour and leaves the mas­culin­ist myth of Canada’s be­gin­nings in the dust.

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