Canada: Reminder To Real Estate Owners And Tenants In Quebec: 2020 Property Assessment Appeals Deadline April 30, 2020. 24 April 2020. by Adina-Cristina

What fact sounds completely made up but is actually real?

Seigniorialism (often improperly called “feudalism” by non-historians) only disappeared in Québec (in North America) in 1970

Perhaps you know the medieval concepts of fiefdom, hommage, corvée, cens, ban.

Since the Middle Ages in France it was normal to pay your taxes to you lord every 11th of November, day of the Winter Saint Martin celebration by going to the house of the lord (the manor) and paying in either money or crops (or capons). The lord had his granaries to store the seigneurial rents…

The church also enforced its tax, the tithe (dîme), and also had granaries for that.

(This is a « grange à dîme » (“tithe barn”) in the village of Sainte-Flavie in Québec.)

Well, in Québec, paying the seigniorial rent to the house of your lord was done until the 11th of November 1940, five months after the capitulation of France to Nazi Germany during World War 2.

How is that possible ?

  1. It’s not as unique to the French as it sounds

The English had both contempt and admiration for that land tenure, that by the way was not at all forgotten in English colonies in North America. They would have admiration in the sense they would find the orderly society created by New France much more convenient to govern than the southern unruly colonies that were accustomed to disobey. Many anglophones became lords in Québec by either buying or inheriting lordships, such as the Campbell dynasty that were lords of Le Bic and still go there every summer nowadays.

English colonies called seigniorialism in the Common Law by a different name : ut de corona by knight service.

Many English colonies began as fiefdoms : Maryland, South Carolina and Newfoundland were conceded as fiefdoms and not in “free and common soccage”.

Even a late colony like the Saint John Island (later Prince Edward Island) had the same thing under the name “leasehold tenure”. In fact when you know the vocabulary equivalences, it’s basically the same thing:

French / English :

  • foi et hommage / quitrent
  • seigneur / landlord
  • seigneurie / estate (sometimes lot)
  • réunion au domaine / escheat
  • censitaire / tenant
  • acte de concession / lease
  • roture / farm lot
  • rente / rent

Sources for English seigniorialism in America :

  • Allan Greer, Le système seigneurial? Quel système seigneurial? from his book Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America.
  • Ken MacMillan, Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World
  • Matthew Hatvany, « Form, Function, and Intent – A Geo-Historical Approach to the Seigniorial and Proprietary Systems of Colonial Canada » in Alain Laberge & Benoît Grenier, Le régime seigneurial au Québec 150 ans après

As for the Hispanic colonies, the hacienda was also an institution that directly came from seignieurial Spain, that descended from the old Roman latifundium. I don’t know well however how it compared to French seigniorialism.

Contrary to what people may assume, France did not implement seigniorialism in all its 17th-18th century colonies. None of the colonies that depended on slavery had it and the lands were not fiefs but alleu lands (so no lords, no hommage, no rents). It was true all over the Carribeans and even in Louisiana, despite it was also in the viceroyalty of New France like Acadia and Canada.

Once France even tried to implement seigniorialism to the island of Guadeloupe but it did not pass.

The Dutch of New Netherland also had a similar land tenure, the patroon tenure. It was not abolished by the English when they conquered New Netherland, so the New York province also inherited it, much like the English inherited the French seigniorial system.

Therefore both French and English colonies were a mix of seigniorial and “free and common soccage” tenures (alleu in French, or allod in English). Perhaps the medieval heritage of the American colonies is simply greater than what most people are aware of.

2. 19th century partial abolitions

Quite early the English wanted to cause an extinction of the Quebecer seigniorial regime.

  • Between 1788 and 1822, there were three plans by the English to cause the commutation of censives, so lands that tenants got from their lords and whom which they paid the rend, into “free and common soccage” tenure. The law that passed was the Canada Commerce Act passed by the UK Parliament on 5 August 1822. However none of these attempts change anything. (They are described by André Larose in detail in his thesis).
  • The Canada Tenure Act (6 George IV, ch. 59) on 22 June 1825 allowed the tenants to commute their lands only if their lords himself did it with the lordship by buying the abolition of his feudal link with the Crown. Only 2 or 3 lords bought the end of their feudal relationship with the Crown.
  • There are some early examples of commutations by English lords. In 1833, the lord Edward Ellice of Beauharnois obtained the commutation of the part of his lordship that was not conceded (in old Roman and medieval wording, the saltus). The lord John Hale did a similar thing for his lordship of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade. One of the things the English found annoying with the seigniorial system is that you can’t speculate on the land with it. Once the rent was fixed, it was eternally the same, and so the lord could not legally change what he was paid in rents once it was established. Some English lords, that did not know the Custom of Paris well or that perhaps feigned to ignore, sometimes did abuses by not observing that custom. When francophones witnessed what happened in the newly created Eastern Townships with the land speculation of the British American Land Company, they were afraid and so wanted to carefully control the abolition process to prevent that from happening.
  • In the case of the island of Montréal, the seigniorial regime was quite an annoyance for English bourgeois because the lords of Montréal, the Order of Saint-Sulpice (Sulpicians), had the monopoly on the mills and could perceive a tax, the lods et ventes, on every mutation of property. This is why the English merchants lobbyed the famous lord Durham that came to do an inquiry on the failed revolution of 1837. After that failed revolution, for a few years, the Special Council of Lower Canada ruled trough dictature and it was them that ordered a decree to abolish the seignorial regime on the three lordships owned by the Sulpicians in 1840 (Montréal, Saint-Sulpice, Deux-Montagnes). This is why Montréal had a abolition process different from all the rest of Québec and as a result may still have ongoing seigniorial rights that would not exist elsewhere due to the different abolition process.
  • In 1841, an inquiry by the new parliament of the Province of Canada revealed that it was really the anglophones that wanted that abolition. The francophones did like the idea of getting rid of the taxes to their lords but they did not want the real estate laws in general to change (as they wanted cheap access to the land for their children). The francophone population declared they were willing to be freed from the seigniorial taxes as long as it did not cost them much because they were too poor to buy the abolition of the rights of the lords over them. The inquiry also determined the lords would have to be compensated for their loss. It was also determined that a commutation of the lands paid by the Province of Canada would bankrupt it. This report was shown to the Parliament of the Province of Canada in 1843.
  • In 1848, the francophones start the Association pour la réforme des droits seigneuriaux (notice : réforme, not abolition). The main spokepersons of this organization were the MP Jean-Baptiste Mongenais, Pierre Davignon and Thomas Boutillier. They wanted to make illegal rents that were higher than 2 sous per arpent. There is a popular mobilization in the regions of Montréal and Trois-Rivières, but not Québec City. The organization is later renamed Convention anti-seigneuriale de Montréal.
  • A 1851 bill wanted to extinguish the seigniorial regime in 5 years but since the co-prime minister Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine opposed it, he dissolved the Parliament before the bill could pass. Interestingly, it was this that ended La Fontaine’s career.
  • A 1852 bill declared that rents that will be higher than 4 sous per arpent will be illegal. It declared that if 2/3 of the censitaires (tenants) in a lordship petitioned to commute the lands, it would be done. The Upper House (Legislative Council) rejects the bill after 30 minutes of debates.
  • The 1854 election of the Province of Canada will in Lower Canada only be about the seigniorial question. The Ministérialiste party (former Patriotes) advocating for a reform of the tenure to limit the abuses of the lords won in Lower Canada and defeated the Rouge opposition (liberals or reformist francophones) that wanted an outright immediate abolition. The Ministérialistes also opposed a forced commutation of the lands and wanted this to be on a voluntary basis.

In 1854, finally, a bill about the abolition managed to pass, the « Acte » pour l’abolition des droits et devoirs féodaux dans le Bas-Canada (8 Victoria ch. 3, amendment in 1855).

Originally, the initial bill wanted :

  • To restrict the size of the demesne of the lord.
  • All the unoccupied lands in the lordships would be transferred to the demesne of the Crown.
  • The lords would lose their rights on the rivers.
  • The banalités such as the mouture tax on the banal mills would be abolished.
  • The rents would be limited to 2 sous per arpent of area.
  • Anything to be paid with crops or trough corvées would be convertible in money.
  • It was forbidden for the lords to ask for more than 5 years of arrérages (being late on payment) on the payment of the rents.
  • The lods et ventes taxes to the lords during each mutation of property would be abolished.
  • The law would declare that any land that was under the French seigniorial regime and that was commuted would belong to the French legal category of franc alleu roturier and not the English category free and common soccage.
  • The law would also create a special court, sometimes called “Seigniorial Court” for short, that would hear the pleas of the lords, receive the report of the losses they would have due to the abolition.

The Upper House (Legislative Council) changed everything to that bill. They decided to make the commutation mandatory and not a choice. It rejects the limitation on the size of the demesne of the lords and to substract the non-granted lands from the demesne and transfer it to the Crown. It’s all the more surprising considering that only two lords were in the Council. The Lower House was not pleased by these amendments but accepted it so the law would pass.

A 1855 law amended the 1854 one to stop making the commutation mandatory.

(The special court created after the 1854 act)

Sources :

  • André Larose, « Objectif : commutation de tenure – Edward Ellice et le régime seigneurial (1820-1840) »
  • Georges Baillargeon, « La tenure seigneuriale a-t-elle été abolie par suite des plaintes des censitaires ? »
  • For the non-respect of the Custom of Paris… I can’t remember for now but it was a book in English about 19th century Lower Canada that discussed mostly the Patriotes. I read parts of it in the Collection nationale of the BAnQ.

3. Replacing seigniorial rents by a rentcharge (rente constituée)

After the 1854 law, commissioners traveled all over Lower Canada to evaluate the old seigniorial rents that were paid and add to it the value of the other taxes that were being abolished. It created a new rent, the rentcharge (rente constituée) that included the taxes that were abolished.

At the same time, each lordship got a cadastre abrégé (abridged survey) using normalized numbers for each censive held by tenants. From now on a new survey for each parish would be used, with different numbers for the post-seigniorial lands, but those would also include the old seigniorial numbers as well.

The people had to pay roughly 17 years of rents to be freed from their link to their lord. This was done passing a commutation deed in front of a notary. It was necessary to also pay the arrérages if their were any (so the debts if the rents were not paid for some years). The notary also had to be paid.

I am currently working on that and this is how these deeds look:

(BAnQ Vieux Montréal, microfilm X-2.6, 10 novembre 1870)

Most people in fact did NOT abolish their rents and so kept paying it every 11th of November, day of the Saint Martin, to the house of the former lord. They were “débiteurs des rentes” and the former lords were “créanciers des rentes” but basically, it kept being the same as it always was.

4. An Ancien Régime in the 20th century

In 1909, the liberal MP of Québec Gabriel Marchand spoke of abolishing the seigniorial rents once and for all, but nothing happened.

In 1926, the liberal MP Télesphore-Damien Bouchard, famous for his anticlericalism, did a famous speech in which he deplored that the rents still existed. He said that most people did not do the commutation of the lands due to the notary fees and also the quittance fees that were often worth more than the rents to abolish. He wanted to have an abolition process inspired by the one that happened in the Duchy of Savoy in 1770. This is why he pushed for the creation of a National Syndicate for the Redemption of Rentcharges (Syndicat national de rachat des rentes seigneuriales).

The process of abolition was started in 1928 by the liberal government of Louis-Alexandre Taschereay : Loi concernant les droits seigneuriaux dans cette province (18 George V, ch. 77). It made the descendants of the lords send to the state a summary of the rents that were still paid. About 60 000 families still paid some.

In 1935, the Loi abolissant les rentes seigneuriales (25-26 George V, ch. 77) created the National Syndicate for the Redemption of Rentcharges. The state borrowed money from 4 banks to buy all the lands from the descendants of the lords (the thing the former Province of Canada did not want to do for fear of being bankrupted).

In 1936, the government of Duplessis, famous for its populism and conservatism, was elected and for some time they considered to undo that liberal 1935 like many other liberal laws, but in the end Duplessis also participated to the process with his own 1938 act, the Loi pourvoyant à des mesures efficaces concernant l’abolition des rentes seigneuriale (2 George VI, ch. 86).

In May 1940, the last details were set in the Loi modifiant la Loi abolissant les rentes seigneuriales (4 George VI, ch. 25).

On 11 November 1940, it would be the last day that people would pay their seigniorial rents at the house of their lord (or the créancier des rentes).

For fun, this is how the house of the lord would look like at the time of New France :

(Manoir seigneurial de l’île-aux-Grues)

In the 19th century, newer manors would rather look like this :

(Manoir seigneurial des Taschereau à Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce)

In the lordship I am studying, the Masson dynasty (the lords of Terrebonne) lived in this residence at the end of the 19th century:

(Manoir Masson, now part of the Collège Saint-Sacrement, Terrebonne)

In 1926 they sold their rights on the rents to the notary Ernest Séraphin Mathieu, who lived in this house, so it was possibly there that in 1940 the last censitaires would pay their rents:

(Maison Ernest-Séraphin-Mathieu, Terrebonne)

The media discussed it back then the end of the direct payments to the lords in 1940:

This is for exemple the data about the rents from 1854 to 1940 from the database I started for my master degree. You can notice that before the 1935 law was passed, most people in that rang did not commute the lands. You can also notice one person still paid a rent in 1940. I notice that all the people of the lordship I am studying in 1940 had arrérages, and so sometimes they did not pay their rents ever since 1924 ! I guess it’s one of the reasons that could explain why it was still not over in 1940.

From now on, the people would pay back the government of Québec for the acquisition of the lands trough a special municipal tax.

Everything that was due to the descendants of the lords for the acquisition of the lands was paid in 1943 by the government.

As for the people, the descendants of the censitaires, it took until 1970 for their debt to the state to be paid. Therefore it was only in 1970 that the seigniorial rents completely disappeared in Québec.

Sources for XXth century abolition : anything written by the professor Benoît Grenier of the Université de Sherbrooke

5. Remnants of the Ancien Régime today

The professor Benoît Grenier interviewed descendants of lords and censitaires. He found that some people currently alive still remember that their parents paid seigniorial rents. Both groups remembered that in some places, well into the XXth century, people would still informally call the descendents of the lords “lords” (seigneurs).

There are still several traces of this culture nowadays.

  • In 2013, the dynasty of Vaudreuil, the Harwood-Lotbinière family, had one of their members buried under the church of Vaudreuil-Dorion.
  • In 2016, Armand Poupart, descendant of the dynasty of Saint-Ours, was buried under the church of Saint-Ours.
  • There are still manorial families that live in their ancestral manorial house.
  • While the majority of the Masson dynasty of Terrebonne is gone from Québec, Amélie Masson-Labonté still lives in the region of Montréal. She’s the last representative of her family in Québec.
  • The Sulpicians (Order of Saint-Sulpice) are still in a way lords of Montréal, because Montréal had a distinct abolition process, and so there remains some lands near the Old Montréal in which something is due to the Sulpicians when there is a change of owner. There are still notaries and lawyers alive that did go to meet the Sulpicians to give them the old lods et ventes, and the Sulpicians would still open their Great Book (Grand Livre Terrier) to record the transaction.
  • The Wendat indigenous of Wendake are still de jure lords of Sillery, and so there was negociations with the City of Québec about their rights over this lordship. It did the headlines a few years ago.
  • At some point the Kanien’kehá:ka nation became the lords of Sault-Saint-Louis, and this is reflected in the modern Kahnawá:ke, that has almost the same borders.
  • The Dessaules manorial family still is present in the region of Saint-Hyacinthe, their former lordship.
  • The Campbell family is still present in the region of the Bic, their former lordship.
  • The Collège Saint-Sacrement in Terrebonne is actually the last manorial house of the Masson family.
  • The last manorial house of Beauharnois, the one of the Ellice family, still has an intact half left in Beauharnois. Jane Ellice was also imprisoned by the revolutionaries in 1838 there and this was when she painted some of her famous paintings.
  • The last manorial house of the Pangman family of the lordship of Lachenaie is currently being repaired in Mascouche. It was abandoned for several years.
  • The “new mill” in the île des Moulins of Terrebonne is the last remaining banal mill of the place. It was used to card wool.

Marie-Josée Raymond, a descendant of the Dessaules family of Saint-Hyacinthe that were the lords of the place:

Interview of Peter, Robert, Liane, Elizabeth Harwood-Chartier de Lotbinière, Olivia Pontecorvo, Poème Carvalho, all representatives of the Harwood-Chartier dynasty of Vaudreuil, and also the priest Normand Bergeron :

Interview of the priest Jacques Roberge of the Séminaire de Québec, who still are collectively lords of Beaupré, and also Jacques Laliberté (manager of the forests) :

Département d’histoire

Québec still has plenty and plenty of sites that remind of the reality of the Ancien Régime in America. It’s a shame it’s not more stressed in the tourism and not more sought after. It would make among the most interesting touristic circuits in America.

Manorial houses (sometimes called “manoirs” in French, but this a calque from English. It’s the house of the lord, where people had to pay their taxes every 11th of November)

(The manorial house of l’île aux Grues.)

Banal watermills (ban is an old Frank concept that means the authority of the lord, like in the word banlieue. Lords had the exclusivity of mills, thus industrial development, and for this reason the mills they used to perceive taxes are said to be “banal”)

(Banal watermill of Les Éboulements)

Banal windmills

(Pointe Claire’s banal windmill)

Manorial bench (the family of the lord was due its own bench in the church. The lords also had the privilege to be buried under the bench, in the “crypt”.)

(Manorial bench in the Saint-Michel de Lotbinière church in Vaudreuil-Dorion)

The planting of the mai (every May, people would plant a leafless tree in front of the manorial house and shoot on it with their rifles. In 19th century Québec, this custom was extended to the militia captain.)

(Mai planting in Montmagny)

Crypts/Underground cemeteries (since the manorial family was entitled to be buried under the church, some manorial families had their own cemetery under the parochial church.)

(The underground cemetery of the Masson family, the last dynasty of Terrebonne.)

Incidentally, two prime ministers of Québec were descendants of lords and also nobles :

In the XXth century, the liberal prime minister Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, whose family was noble and lord of Sainte-Marie de Beauce.

In the XXIst century, the liberal prime minister Philippe Couillard, noble and whose family ruled on the lordships of la Rivière-du-Sud, Beaumont, and l’Islet-St-Jean, not to mention many marriages with many important families.

Evidence of Philippe Couillard’s nobility : the lettre de noblesse of his ancestor Louis Couillard de L’Espinay.

Oh and by the way, the old French arpents, perches and pieds-de-roi still are valid measurements for very official land measurements.

The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources of Québec still proposes converters for the old French units as they are still used in surveys when a piece of land still has the first dimensions it came up with.

Conversion des unités de mesure de longueur et de superficie

So this memory is still pretty alive when you know where to look.