The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 13.

The House of Commons — Canadian gallantry — The constitution — Mr. Hincks — The ex-rebel — Parties and leaders — A street-row — Repeated disappointments — The “habitans” — Their houses and their virtues — A stationary people — Progress and its effects — Montmorenci — The natural staircase — The Indian summer — Lorette — The old people — Beauties of Quebec — The John Munn — Fear and its consequences — A gloomy journey.

One of the sights of Quebec — to me decidedly the most interesting one — was the House of Assembly. The Legislature were burned out of their house at Montreal, and more recently out of a very handsome one at Quebec — it is to be hoped this august body will be more fortunate at Toronto, the present place of meeting. The temporary place of sitting at Quebec seemed to me perfectly adapted for the purposes of hearing, seeing, and speaking.

It is a spacious apartment, with deep galleries, which hold about five hundred, round it, which were to Quebec what the Opera and the club-houses are to London. In fact, these galleries were crowded every night; and certainly, when I was there, fully one half of their occupants were ladies, who could see and be seen. The presence of ladies may have an effect in preventing the use of very intemperate language; and though it is maliciously said that some of the younger members speak more for the galleries than the house, and though some gallant individual may occasionally step up stairs to restore a truant handkerchief or boa to the fair owner, the distractions caused by their presence are very inconsiderable, and the arrangements for their comfort are a great reflection upon the miserable latticed hole to which lady listeners are condemned in the English House of Commons. I must remark, also, that the house was well warmed and ventilated, without the aid of alternating siroccos and north winds. The Speaker’s chair, on a dais and covered with a canopy, was facing us, in which reclined the Speaker in his robes. In front of him was a table, at which sat two black-robed clerks, and on which a huge mace reposed; and behind him was the reporters’ gallery, where the gentlemen of the press seemed to be most comfortably accommodated. There was a large open space in front of this table, extending to the bar, at which were seated the messengers of the house, and the Sergeant-at-arms with his sword. On either side of this open space were four rows of handsome desks, and morocco seats, to accommodate two members each, who sat as most amiable Gemini. The floor was richly carpeted, and the desks covered with crimson cloth, and, with the well-managed flood of light, the room was very complete.

The Canadian Constitution is as nearly a transcript of our own as anything colonial can be. The Governor can do no wrong — he must have a responsible cabinet taken from the members of the Legislature — his administration must have a working majority, as in England — and he must bow to public opinion by changing his advisers, when the representatives of the people lose confidence in the Government. The Legislative Council represents our House of Peers, and the Legislative Assembly, or Provincial Parliament, our House of Commons. The Upper House is appointed by the Crown, under the advice of the ministry of the day; but as a clamour has been raised against it as yielding too readily to the demands of the Lower House, a measure has been brought in for making its members elective for a term of years. If this change were carried, coupled with others on which it would not interest the English reader to dwell, it would bring about an approximation of the Canadian Constitution to that of the United States.

On one night on which I had the pleasure of attending the House, the subject under discussion was the Romish holidays, as connected with certain mercantile transactions. It sounds dry enough, but, as the debate was turned into an extremely interesting religious discussion, it was well worth hearing, and the crowded galleries remained in a state of quiescence.

Mr. Hincks, the late Premier, was speaking when we went in. He is by no means eloquent, but very pointed in his observations, and there is an amount of logical sequence in his speaking which is worthy of imitation elsewhere. He is a remarkable man, and will probably play a prominent part in the future political history of Canada.* He is the son of a Presbyterian minister at Cork, and emigrated to Toronto in 1832. During Lord Durham’s administration he became editor of the Examiner newspaper, and entered the Parliament of the United Provinces in 1841. He afterwards filled the important position of Inspector–General of Finances, and finally became Prime Minister. His administration was, however, overturned early in 1854, and sundry grave charges were brought against him. He spoke in favour of the abolition of the privileges conceded to Romish holidays, and was followed by several French Canadians, two of them of the Rouge party, who spoke against the measure, one of them so eloquently as to remind me of the historical days of the Girondists.

* [This prognostication is not likely to be realised, as the late Sir W. Molesworth has appointed Mr. Hincks to the governorship of Barbadoes. If the new governor possesses principle as well as talent, this acknowledgement of colonial merit is a step in the right direction.]

Mr. Lyon Mackenzie, who led the rebellion which was so happily checked at Toronto, and narrowly escaped condign punishment, followed, and diverged from the question of promissory notes to the Russian war and other subjects; and when loud cries of “Question, question, order, order!” arose, he tore up his notes, and sat down abruptly in a most theatrical manner, amid bursts of laughter from both floor and galleries; for he appears to be the privileged buffoon of the House.

The appearance of the House is rather imposing; the members behave with extraordinary decorum; and to people accustomed to the noises and unseemly interruptions which characterise the British House of Commons, the silence and order of the Canadian House are very agreeable.* The members seemed to give full attention to the debate; very few were writing, and none were reading anything except Parliamentary papers, and no speaker was interrupted except on one occasion. There was extremely little walking about; but I observed one gentleman, a notorious exquisite, cross the floor several times, apparently with no other object than that of displaying his fine person in bowing profoundly to the Speaker. The gentlemanly appearance of the members, taken altogether, did not escape my notice.

* [In justice to the Canadian Parliament, I must insert the following extract from the ‘Toronto Globe,’ from which it will appear that there are very disgraceful exceptions to this ordinarily decorous conduct:—

“Mr. Mackenzie attempted to speak, and held the floor for two or three minutes, although his voice was inaudible from the kicking of desks, caterwaulings, and snatches of songs from various parts of the house.”]

Sir Allan M’Nab, the present Premier, is the head of a coalition ministry; fortunately, it is not necessary to offer any remarks upon its policy; and Canada, following the example of the mother-country, submits quietly to a coalition. The opposition, which is formed of the Liberal party, is seated opposite the Government, fronted by Mr. Lyon Mackenzie, who gives a wavering adherence to every party in succession, and is often indignantly disavowed by all. The Liberals of Upper Canada are ably led by Mr. George Brown, who excels in a highly lucid, powerful, and perspicuous course of reasoning, which cannot fail to produce an effect.

Then there is the Rouge party, led by the member for Montreal, which is principally composed of very versatile and enthusiastic Frenchmen of rather indefinite opinions and aims, professing a creed which appears a curious compound of Republicanism and Rationalism. The word Latitudinarianism defines it best. There are 130 members, divided into numerous “ists” and “ites.” Most of the members for Lower Canada are French, and, consequently, the Romish party is a very powerful one in the House. Taken as a whole, the members are loyal, and have proved their attachment to England by a vote of 20,000l. for the Patriotic Fund.

I think that all who are in the habit of reading the debates will allow that the speaking in the House will bear comparison with that in our House of Commons; and if some of the younger members in attempting the sublime occasionally attain the ridiculous, and mistake extravagance of expression for greatness of thought, these are faults which time and criticism will remedy. Canada is a great and prosperous country, and its Legislative Assembly is very creditable to so young a community. Bribery, corruption, and place-hunting are alleged against this body; but as these vices are largely developed in England, it would be bad taste to remark upon them, particularly as the most ardent correctors of abuses now reluctantly allow that they are inseparable from popular assemblies. It is needless to speak of the Upper House, which, as has been sarcastically remarked of our House of Peers, is merely a “High Court of Registry” — it remains to be seen whether an elective chamber would possess greater vitality and independence.

The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly is a Frenchman, and French and English are used indiscriminately in debate. Parliamentary notices and papers are also printed in both languages.

It was a cold, gloomy October morning, a cold east wind rustled the russet leaves, and a heavy, dry fog enveloped Point Diamond, when I left the bustle of Quebec for a quiet drive to Montmorenci in a light waggon with a very spirited little horse, a young lady acting as charioteer. The little animal was very impetuous, and rattled down the steep, crowded streets of Quebec at a pace which threatened to entangle our wheels with those of numerous carts driven by apathetic habitans, who were perfectly indifferent to the admonitions “Prenez garde” and “Place aux dames,” delivered in beseeching tones. We passed down a steep street, and through Palace-gate, into the district of St. Roch, teeming with Irish and dirt, for I fear it is a fact that, wherever you have the first, you invariably have the last. Beyond this there was a space covered with mud and sawdust, where two habitans were furiously quarrelling. One sprang upon the other like a hyena, knocked him down, and then attempted to bite and strangle him, amid the applause of numerous spectators.

Leaving Quebec behind, we drove for seven miles along a road in sight of the lesser branch of the St. Lawrence, which has on the other side the green and fertile island of Orleans. The houses along this road are so numerous as to present the appearance of a village the whole way. Frenchmen who arrive here in summer can scarcely believe that they are not in their own sunny land; the external characteristics of the country are so exactly similar. These dwellings are large, whitewashed, and many-windowed, and are always surrounded with balconies. The doors are reached by flights of steps, in order that they may be above the level of the snow in winter. The rooms are clean, but large and desolate-looking, and are generally ornamented with caricatures of the Virgin and uncouth representations of miracles. The women dress in the French style, and wear large straw hats out of doors, which were the source of constant disappointments to me, for I always expected to see a young, if not a pretty, face under a broad brim, and these females were remarkably ill-favoured; their complexions hardened, wrinkled, and bronzed, from the effects of hard toil, and the extremes of heat and cold. I heard the hum of spinning-wheels from many of the houses, for these industrious women spin their household linen, and the gray homespun in which the men are clothed. The furniture is antique, and made of oak, and looks as if it had been handed down from generation to generation. The men, largely assisted by the females, cultivate small plots of ground, and totally disregard all modern improvements. These French towns and villages improve but little. Popery, that great antidote to social progress, is the creed universally professed, and generally the only building of any pretensions is a large Romish church with two lofty spires of polished tin. Education is not much prized; the desires of the simple habitans are limited to the attainment of a competence for life, and this their rudely-tilled farms supply them with. Few emigrants make this part of Canada even a temporary resting-place; the severity of the climate, the language, the religion, and the laws, are all against them; hence, though a professor of a purer faith may well blush to confess it, the vices which emigrants bring with them are unknown. These peasants are among the most harmless people under the sun; they are moral, sober, and contented, and zealous in the observances of their erroneous creed. Their children divide the land, and, as each prefers a piece of soil adjoining the road or river, strips of soil may occasionally be seen only a few yards in width. They strive after happiness rather than advancement, and who shall say that they are unsuccessful in their aim? As their fathers lived, so they live; each generation has the simplicity and superstition of the preceding one. In the autumn they gather in their scanty harvest, and in the long winter they spin and dance round their stove-sides. On Sundays and saints’ days they assemble in crowds in their churches, dressed in the style of a hundred years since. Their wants and wishes are few, their manners are courteous and unsuspicious, they hold their faith with a blind and implicit credulity, and on summer evenings sing the songs of France as their fathers sang them in bygone days on the smiling banks of the rushing Rhone.

The road along which the dwellings of these small farmers lie is macadamised, and occasionally a cross stands by the roadside, at which devotees may be seen to prostrate themselves. There is a quiet, lethargic, old-world air about the country, contrasting strangely with the bustling, hurrying, restless progress of Upper Canada. Though the condition of the habitans is extremely unprofitable to themselves, it affords a short rest to the thinking and observing faculties of the stranger, overstrained as they are with taking in and contemplating the railroad progress of things in the New World.

While we admire and wonder at the vast material progress of Western Canada and the North-western States of the Union, considerations fraught with alarm will force themselves upon us. We think that great progress is being made in England, but, without having travelled in America, it is scarcely possible to believe what the Anglo–Saxon race is performing upon a new soil. In America we do not meet with factory operatives, seamstresses, or clerks overworked and underpaid, toiling their lives away in order to keep body and soul together; but we have people of all classes who could obtain competence and often affluence by moderate exertions, working harder than slaves — sacrificing home enjoyments, pleasure, and health itself to the one desire of the acquisition of wealth. Daring speculations fail; the struggle in unnatural competition with men of large capital, or dishonourable dealings, wears out at last the overtasked frame — life is spent in a whirl — death summons them, and finds them unprepared. Everybody who has any settled business is overworked. Voices of men crying for relaxation are heard from every quarter, yet none dare to pause in this race which they so madly run, in which happiness and mental and bodily health are among the least of their considerations. All are spurred on by the real or imaginary necessities of their position, driven along their headlong course by avarice, ambition, or eager competition.

The Falls of Montmorenci, which we reached after a drive of eight miles, are beautiful in the extreme, and, as the day was too cold for picnic parties, we had them all to ourselves. There is no great body of water, but the river takes an unbroken leap of 280 feet from a black narrow gorge. The scathed black cliffs descend in one sweep to the St. Lawrence, in fine contrast to the snowy whiteness of the fall. Montmorenci gave me greater sensations of pleasure than Niagara. There are no mills, museums, guides, or curiosity-shops. Whatever there is of beauty bears the fair impress of its Creator’s hand; and if these Falls are beautiful on a late October day, when a chill east wind was howling through leafless trees looming through a cold, grey fog, what must they be in the burst of spring or the glowing luxuriance of summer?

We drove back for some distance, and entered a small cabaret, where some women were diligently engaged in spinning, and some men were superintending with intense interest the preparation of some soupe maigre. Their patois was scarcely intelligible, and a boy whom we took as our guide spoke no English. After encountering some high fences and swampy ground, we came to a narrow rocky pathway in a wood, with bright green, moss-covered trees, stones, and earth. On descending a rocky bank we came to the “natural staircase,” where the rapid Montmorenci forces its way through a bed of limestone, the broken but extremely regular appearance of the layers being very much like wide steps. The scene at this place is wildly beautiful. The river, frequently only a few feet in width, sometimes foams furiously along between precipices covered with trees, and bearing the marks of years of attrition; then buries itself in dark gulfs, or rests quiescent for a moment in still black pools, before it reaches its final leap.

The day before I left Quebec I went to the romantic falls of Lorette, about thirteen miles from the city. It was a beauteous day. I should have called it oppressively warm, but that the air was fanned by a cool west wind. The Indian summer had come at last; “the Sagamores of the tribes had lighted their council-fires” on the western prairies. What would we not give for such a season! It is the rekindling of summer, but without its heat — it is autumn in its glories, but without its gloom. The air is soft like the breath of May; everything is veiled in a soft pure haze, and the sky is of a faint and misty blue.

A mysterious fascination seemed to bind us to St. Roch, for we kept missing our way and getting into “streams as black as Styx.” But at length the city of Quebec, with its green glacis and frowning battlements, was left behind, and we drove through flat country abounding in old stone dwelling-houses, old farms, and large fields of stubble. We neared the blue hills, and put up our horses in the Indian village of Lorette. Beautiful Lorette! I must not describe, for I cannot, how its river escapes from under the romantic bridge in a broad sheet of milk-white foam, and then, contracted between sullen barriers of rock, seeks the deep shade of the pine-clad precipices, and hastens to lose itself there. It is perfection, and beauty, and peace; and the rocky walks upon its forest-covered crags might be in Switzerland.

Being deserted by the gentlemen of the party, my fair young companion and I found our way to Lorette, which is a large village built by government for the Indians; but by intermarrying with the French they have lost nearly all their distinctive characteristics, and the next generation will not even speak the Indian language. Here, as in every village in Lower Canada, there is a large Romish church, ornamented with gaudy paintings. We visited some of the squaws, who wear the Indian dress, and we made a few purchases. We were afterwards beset by Indian boys with bows and arrows of clumsy construction; but they took excellent aim, incited by the reward of coppers which we offered to them. It is grievous to see the remnants of an ancient race in such a degraded state; the more so as I believe that there is no intellectual inferiority as an obstacle to their improvement. I saw some drawings by an Indian youth which evinced considerable talent: one in particular, a likeness of Lord Elgin, was admirably executed.

I have understood that there is scarcely a greater difference between these half-breeds and the warlike tribes of Central America, than between them and the Christian Indians of the Red River settlements. There are about fourteen thousand Indians in Canada, few of them in a state of great poverty, for they possess annuities arising from the sale of their lands. They have no incentives to exertion, and spend their time in shooting, fishing, and drinking spirits in taverns, where they speedily acquire the vices of the white men without their habits of industry and enterprise. They have no idols, and seldom enter into hostile opposition to Christianity, readily exchanging the worship of the Great Spirit for its tenets, as far as convenient. It is very difficult, however, to arouse them to a sense of sin, or to any idea of the importance of the world to come; but at the same time, in no part of the world have missionary labours been more blessed than at the Red River settlements. Great changes have passed before their eyes. Year, as it succeeds year, sees them driven farther west, as their hunting-grounds are absorbed by the insatiate white races. The twang of the Indian bow, and the sharp report of the Indian rifle, are exchanged for the clink of the lumberer’s axe and the “g’lang” of the sturdy settler. The corn waves in luxuriant crops over land once covered with the forest haunts of the moose, and the waters of the lakes over which the red man paddled in his bark canoe are now ploughed by crowded steamers. Where the bark dwellings of his fathers stood, the locomotive darts away on its iron road, and the helpless Indian looks on aghast at the power and resources of the pale-faced invaders of his soil.

The boat by which I was to leave Quebec was to sail on the afternoon of the day on which I visited Lorette, but was detained till the evening by the postmaster-general, when a heavy fog came on, which prevented its departure till the next morning. The small-pox had broken out in the city, and rumours of cholera had reached and alarmed the gay inhabitants of St. Louis. I never saw terror so unrestrainedly developed as among some ladies on hearing of the return of the pestilence. One of them went into hysterics, and became so seriously ill that it was considered necessary for her to leave Quebec the same evening. In consequence of the delay of the boat, it was on a Sunday morning that I bade adieu to Quebec. I had never travelled on a Sunday before, and should not have done so on this occasion had it not been a matter of necessity. I am happy to state that no boats run on the St. Lawrence on the Sabbath, and the enforced sailing of the John Munn caused a great deal of grumbling among the stewards and crew. The streets were thronged with people going to early mass, and to a special service held to avert the heavy judgments which it was feared were impending over the city. The boat was full, and many persons who were flying from the cholera had slept on board.

I took a regretful farewell of my friends, and with them of beautiful Quebec. I had met with much of kindness and hospitality, but still I must confess that the excessive gaiety and bustle of the city exercise a depressing influence. People appear absorbed by the fleeting pleasures of the hour; the attractions of this life seem to overbalance the importance of the life to come; and among the poor there is a large amount of sin and sorrow — too many who enter the world without a blessing, and depart from it without a hope. The bright sun of the Indian summer poured down its flood of light upon the castled steep, and a faint blue mist was diffused over the scene of beauty. Long undulating lines showed where the blue hills rose above the green island of Orleans, and slept in the haze of that gorgeous season. Not a breath of wind stirred the heavy folds of the flag of England on the citadel, or ruffled the sleeping St. Lawrence, or the shadows of the countless ships on its surface; and the chimes of the bells of the Romish churches floated gently over the water. Such a morning I have seldom seen, and Quebec lay basking in beauty. Surely that morning’s sun shone upon no fairer city! The genial rays of that autumn sun were typical of the warm kind hearts I was leaving behind, who had welcomed a stranger to their hospitable homes; and, as the bell rang, and the paddles revolved in the still deep water, a feeling of sorrow came over my heart when I reflected that the friendly voices might never again sound in my ear, and that the sunshine which was then glittering upon the fortress-city might, to my eyes, glitter upon it no more.

The John Munn was a very handsome boat, fitted up with that prodigality which I have elsewhere described as characteristic of the American steamers; but in the course of investigation I came upon the steerage, or that part of the middle floor which is devoted to the poorer class of emigrants, of whom five hundred had landed at Quebec only the day before. The spectacle here was extremely annoying, for men, women, and children were crowded together in an ill-ventilated space, with kettles, saucepans, blankets, bedding, and large blue boxes. There was a bar for the sale of spirits, which, I fear, was very much frequented, for towards night there were sounds of swearing, fighting, and scuffling, proceeding from this objectionable locality.

A day-boat was such a rare occurrence that some of the citizens of Quebec took the journey merely to make acquaintance with the beauties of their own river. We passed the Heights of Abraham, and Wolfe’s Cove, famous in history; wooded slopes and beautiful villas; the Chaudière river, and its pine-hung banks; but I was so ill that even the beauty of the St. Lawrence could not detain me in the saloon, and I went down into the ladies’ cabin, where I spent the rest of the day on a sofa wrapped in blankets. A good many of the ladies came down stairs to avoid some quadrilles which a French Canadian lady was playing, and a friend of mine, Colonel P—— having told some one that I had had the cholera, there was a good deal of mysterious buzzing in consequence, of which I only heard a few observations, such as — “How very imprudent!” “How very wrong to come into a public conveyance!” “Just as we were trying to leave it behind too!” But I was too ill to be amused, even when one lady went so far as to remove the blanket to look at my face. There was a very pale and nervous-looking young lady lying on a sofa opposite, staring fixedly at me. Suddenly she got up, and asked me if I were very ill? I replied that I had been so. “She’s had the cholera, poor thing!” the stewardess unfortunately observed. “The cholera!” she said, with an affrighted look; and, hastily putting on her bonnet, vanished from the cabin, and never came down again. She had left Quebec because of the cholera, having previously made inquiries as to whether any one had died of it in the John Munn; and now, being brought, as she fancied, into contact with it, her imagination was so strongly affected that she was soon taken seriously ill, and brandy and laudanum were in requisition. So great was the fear of contagion, that, though the boat was so full that many people had to sleep on sofas, no one would share a state-room with me.

We were delayed by fog, and did not reach Montreal till one in the morning. I found Montreal as warm and damp as it had been cold and bracing on my first visit; but the air was not warmer than the welcome which I received. Kind and tempting was the invitation to prolong my stay at the See House; enticing was the prospect offered me of a visit to a seigneurie on the Ottawa; and it was with very great reluctance that, after a sojourn of only one day, I left this abode of refinement and hospitality, and the valued friends who had received me with so much kindness, for a tedious journey to New York. I left the See House at five o’clock on the last day of October, so ill that I could scarcely speak or stand. It was pitch-dark, and the rain was pouring in torrents. The high wind blew out the lamp which was held at the door; an unpropitious commencement of a journey. Something was wrong with the harness; the uncouth vehicle was nearly upset backwards; the steam ferryboat was the height of gloom, heated to a stifling extent, and full of people with oil-skin coats and dripping umbrellas. We crossed the rushing St. Lawrence just as the yellow gas-lights of Montreal were struggling with the pale, murky dawn of an autumn morning, and reached the cars on the other side before it was light enough to see objects distinctly. Here the servant who had been kindly sent with me left me, and the few hours which were to elapse before I should join my friends seemed to present insurmountable difficulties. The people in the cars were French, the names of the stations were French, and “Prenez-garde de la locomotive!” denoted the crossings. How the laissez-faire habits of the habitans must he outraged by the clatter of a steam-engine passing their dwellings at a speed of thirty-five miles an hour! Yet these very habitans were talking in the most unconcerned manner in French about a railway accident in Upper Canada, by which forty-eight persons were killed! After a journey of two hours I reached Rouse’s Point, and, entering a handsome steamer on Lake Champlain, took leave of the British dominions.

Before re-entering the territory of the stars and stripes, I will offer a few concluding remarks on Canada.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31