Land tenure, ethnicity, and the condition of agricultural income and productivity in mid-nineteenth-century Quebec

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A crucial finding of this article is that French Canadian farmers typically earned a lower agricultural income than did their non-French Canadian counterparts. They were also characterized by a much poorer productivity performance for all key outputs, especially for dairy products, and they typically operated on a much smaller scale than the non-French Canadian farmers. In addition, under both the seigniorial and freehold systems of land tenure, French Canadian farmers typically realized a lower agricultural income than non-French Canadian farmers-land tenure does not appear to have affected the relative standing of French Canadian farmers. We also find that farms operated under the seigniorial system of land tenure earned a much higher agricultural income than those operated under the freehold system. This casts some doubt on the hypothesis that problems in Quebec agriculture can be attributed largely to the seigniorial system of land tenure. But French Canadian farming and agriculture was by no means homogeneous across the province. Indeed, in the Montreal area, French Canadian farmers earned a higher agricultural income than did non-French Canadian farmers in spite of their being less productive and smaller. The French Canadian farmers more than compensated for their lower productivity by placing a much larger percentage of their smaller acreage under cultivation, ultimately earning a relatively large income from wheat production, the traditional mainstay of French Canadian agriculture. The estimates presented here, therefore, suggest that in Lower Canada differences in agricultural income per farm are most closely associated with ethnicity, for which language is a proxy, as opposed to a particular system of land tenure. Why, exactly, this is the case is a critical question, the detailed response to which is beyond the scope of this study. On the other hand, some support is provided to the argument presented by scholars such as Fernand Ouellet that, on average, French Canadian farmers did not fare as well as their non-French counterparts. Nevertheless, since a large minority of French Canadian farms actually outperformed the non-French Canadian farms, one cannot easily attribute to ethnicity and ethnicity alone all of the successes or failings of Lower Canadian agriculture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)708-762
Number of pages55
JournalAgricultural History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1998


  • Canada
  • History
  • Nineteenth century

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


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