Along a River
The First French-Canadian Women
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.