The importance of wheat to the Canadian economy is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, as far back as the 18th century and earlier, there was a significant agricultural sector. As the political environments differed in Upper and Lower Canada, though, so too did the development of agriculture, in particular, the cultivation of wheat. To understand the importance of this crop, it is necessary to understand the staple approach to Canadian economic history, and the impacts of the wheat staple in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Henry Youle Hind wrote of the importance of wheat to Upper and Lower Canada in his 1863 account of agriculture in Canada;
Among farm products, wheat takes the first rank in the husbandry of Upper
Canada. Formerly it occupied an equally prominent position in Lower Canada, but for many years this cereal has not been successfully cultivated in the eastern part of the province, in consequence of the Hessian-fly, wheat midge, and an exhausting system of culture; it is now, however, slowly regaining its position in Lower Canada." (Hind, 1863, p.52.)
Much of Canadian economic development is related to the emergence of various "staples" that encouraged growth across the Canadian economy. The first historically important staple was cod, quickly followed by fur, lumber and agricultural products, primarily wheat. "Specialization in a succession of industries producing raw materials for export to Britain gave British North America its defining institutional characteristics in the years leading up to Confederation." (Chass, 2004). This staple export to Britain was responsible for driving the economy and dictating settlement.
Agriculture was always an important component of the staple system. Even when the export industry revolved around a different commodity, settlements had to have sufficient agricultural capacity to feed their inhabitants. This need to be self-sufficient fostered the growth of agriculture in areas where other export markets predominated. (Marr, 1980). The wheat staple in particular did not initially generate a significant exportable surplus, although by the mid-1800s, wheat exports were a vital part of the Canadian economy.
When considering the differing impacts of the wheat staple in Upper and Lower Canada, it is important to understand the very different backgrounds and institutions that are involved. The history of wheat cultivation in Lower Canada is greatly influenced by the colonial institutions of New France.
Although Quebec City fell to the British in 1759, and British rule supplanted French in 1763, agriculture was already an important facet of life in New France. Furthermore, many of the methods and institutions that governed wheat production in New France remained in place well after British governance came into effect. These practices differed significantly from Upper Canada, and contributed to the different impacts of the wheat staple in Lower and Upper Canada.
Agriculture was fundamental to the colony of New France since the colony's beginning. Even as other staples dominated the local economy, such as the fur trade, the cultivation of food crops was central to the colony. However, the reliability of this cultivation was never assured. Few advances were made or adopted that would have allowed for an increased wheat production in the colony.
Various characteristics of colonial New France differed from the British colonies and led to a dichotomous agricultural sector in British North America. One such factor was the limited settlement of New France. (Marr, 1980). After the first wave of immigration from France, limited human and property capital arrived in the colony. This put constraints on the growth of the agricultural sector that weren't in place in the British colonies. John Lambert wrote, in his 1813 account, "The farmers assist each other at harvest time, labourers being in some places very scarce, and in others not to be procured." (Lambert, 1813, p132). The smaller population of the colony also meant there was less of an incentive to develop agriculture, as other staple exports proved to be more lucrative.
The land distribution system in New France relied on seigneuries, where land was apportioned by the Crown, or by the Church. Narrow tracts of land were used for cultivation along the St. Lawrence. The expansion of wheat production away from these areas often required clearing land and there was sometimes insufficient incentive for such an undertaking. Around the larger centres of Montreal and Quebec, however, crop production was a more profitable endeavour.
All these factors combined to make the agricultural sector in the French colonies secondary to other trades. Agriculture arose from the need to support local settlements, although, even on this score, they sometimes fell short and had to import food. With such a relatively small population, and more profitable export alternatives, development of the agricultural sector was not a big priority in the colony.
Despite British rule in Lower Canada in the late 18th century, the seigneurial system remained in place for almost another century. "This archaic system was not abolished until 1854." (Marr, 1980, p82). The change of rule for French Canada, and the results of the new government, brought about a prolonged crisis in the agricultural sector of Lower Canada.
The system of seigneurial land distribution that had existed in New France, although still technically in place in Lower Canada, was not used by the new government. Since the small population of the colony had meant that much arable crop land had not been packaged into seigneuries, the new British government brought with it its own system of free-hold property rights. Parcels of land were distributed throughout the colony variously as seigneuries (from the old system) and free-hold tenancies (from the new one). This new system of land rights attracted a variety of new farmers to the region. Most of these new farmers arrived from Upper Canada, although some came from further south in the States, and others immigrated from Britain. This influx of labour and landowners changed the face of wheat cultivation in Lower Canada.
This pattern of landowners moving into Lower Canada created a new demand for agricultural land. In addition to the existing French Canadian settlers who still farmed the seigneurial land, many English settlers either settled as new free-hold tenants, or bought seigneuries. Some French farmers were displaced onto land further north, away from the St. Lawrence where most of the seigneuries bordered. These displaced farmers were forced to attempt to cultivate less fertile land in order to serve the demand for wheat exports to Britain. This "displacement...was caused by the growing population on the established seigneuries...and the apparent unwillingness of French Canadians to leave their native land." (Marr, 1980, p83).
The continued existence of seigneuries as a form of land holding had several effects on the development of wheat cultivation in Lower Canada. Marr (1980) speaks of the inclination of French Canadian farmers to remain on their farms, even in adverse economic conditions. This meant that, upon the death of a father, a seigneurial land holding was often split between children. In this way, formerly large tracts of fertile agricultural land became progressively smaller, and less productive in their management. Accounts of agricultural land patterns in Lower Canada frequently mention the impractically long and narrow tracts that bordered the river. Hind's 1863 account contains this description,
Ancient habits and customs are preserved, and...families cling to the soil on which they were born, and divide and sub-divide their farms until they become narrow strips not much wider than a modern highway, with the house fronting the river." (Hind, 1863, p35).
In the late eighteenth century, the increased settlement of Lower Canada increased the domestic market for wheat. With an increased market size and the profitability that went along with it, the local wheat market grew. Furthermore, the influx of settlers meant a much-needed infusion of human capital into the society of Lower Canada that further increased the capacity of the agricultural sector. Demand for wheat exports grew as the American Revolutionary War ended and the United States offered another market for wheat.
This evolution in the demographics of Lower Canada in the late 1700s fostered the reliance on wheat as a cash crop. This was a departure from the tradition of seigneurial farming, which relied on agriculture more as a means of self-support than for an income. As a result, many historians believe the agricultural methods of the French settlers on seigneurial lands were not as progressive as the methods the new farmers brought with them. "It seems remarkable that wheat could have been regarded as the staple crop of the seigniories, for with its short growing season, the region is better fitted for pasturage." (McGuigan in Easterbrook, 1983, p113)
One particular area where the French agricultural methods are often criticized was their method of crop rotation. When the establishment of the wheat staple in Canada meant that farmers' incomes increased, the tendency was to overcultivate the land. Wheat production in Lower Canada dropped off in the early nineteenth century in part because the land was less able to…