The hard lives led by our Filles ancestors
Never, ever think that our own lives are hard.
Not a single person in all humanity was any more a product of Canada’s founding Québécois than Lazare Côté or Clarice Bergeron. But their children and grandchildren are not sole descendants of the French settlers to whom we are indebted. Obviously there are now people spread across the entire planet whose family trees map back to the same historic grandparents. I may be one of the few who have begun to reflect on them and the sacrifices they made that led to our lives today. I hope many more people will reflect on all of this in years to come.
My fascination with our 17th century ancestors is not with their pedigrees or social standings. Nor is it with their artistry, their intellects, contributions to humanity, or great leadership. Even if they had all of that, little remains of their history to prove it. Like the majority of their countrymen back in France, they were remarkably illiterate, regardless that they might have been explicitly brilliant.
My respect comes from a different reason: their sheer quest to survive, to build a new land, and the courage it must have taken to attempt it all with so little.
In an earlier chapter I discussed the untruthfulness of paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Let’s not forget the 1700s, a hundred years after the end of the Filles’ migration to Canada. Since photography wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries, artists of the day sketched and painted the lives of the New France settlers according to their own lively imaginations. Their works were fairly romantic depictions that easily overstated reality because Québec was already a century old. What these works completely belie is that the land of the first settlers was sheer wilderness. It was neither groomed nor garnished with neat farmhouses, livestock, maple trees, straight, uniform fences, nor any semblance of tidiness and prosperity. These paintings which abound today simply don't tell the true story of the land where the Filles du Roi and other brave habitants had lived and died a hundred years earlier, when a labourer with at least six children, and often 10 or more — and a wife who was usually pregnant — had neither time for such pretty decadence nor the money it would have taken.
Like almost any of Canada’s first settlers, these women and their husbands paid with every cell in their bodies to give us the lives we enjoy today. And their sacrifices were much, much greater than those of immigrants who arrived in later centuries — special emphasis on those arriving now by the millions to claim this land as their own. That our European ancestors built Canada with sweat and pain, and with enormous spirituality, simply cannot be ignored. Everyone needs to understand that.
In Québec the Europeans turned unproductive forests into great tracts of agriculture that began taking the New World to a new level. In fact the ingenuity of Europeans across the continent and their determination to improve everything they touched led to the greatest of innovations — automobiles, telecommunications, medicine, photography, air travel, and practically every infinitesimal object that surrounds us in modern existence.
As I stated earlier, almost all of the 18 Filles in our family spent years under contract as domestic labourers — slaves if you like — clearing land and carrying out the agricultural pursuits of their landlords. The records also show that many or most eventually became habitants themselves when they completed their contracts and were able to purchase their own plots — a privilege that certainly did not make their lives easier.
Imagine: Nothing we have today even existed.
Many accounts written by non-historians about Québec’s habitants reflect a reasonably good life with abundant food and shelter, tools, and furniture from France, and most of life’s necessities. But I must say it again: Most of these were written in the 20th century and refer to a time very long after the Filles du Roi had come and gone. What seems ignored in the history was the quality of life for the original settlers in the 1600s, when only a few ships per year brought supplies.
Essentially when a newlywed couple began their married lives they had — well, nothing. If they weren’t lucky enough to have the use of a small cabin under a work arrangement with a landowner, they would fell trees and construct a home of logs. They fashioned ovens from rocks, a crucial component since besides cooking, it would keep them from freezing to death. Maybe. They devoted many summer months to cutting firewood, all by hand, of course. They constructed crude cookware and tools, and they sewed all their clothing. They built their dwellings close to a water source where they could chop a hole in the ice and haul buckets of water indoors. Since bacteria was only in the throes of discovery and wouldn't be understood for another hundred years, people consumed contaminated food and water on a daily basis. Obviously our forefathers and mothers took camping to unimaginable levels. Little wonder that in our family alone there were about 850* non-surviving children in the two generations that included the Filles du Roi.
* Extrapolated for all 384 ancestors who qualify equally as our grandparents in those two generations.
I have tried to grasp the inconvenience of life and survival for these people. Ultimately I could only consider what they didn’t have. Ignoring all the cliché things stemming from cars, electricity, and computers, here are other critical items that simply did NOT exist when our ancestors carved out an existence in the rugged Québec wilderness. Please note that none of these had been invented except for glass, which was new but not available for window panes anywhere in the world until the late century.
These did not exist
- lanterns, or any type of light bulb
- means of refrigeration
- stretchables (clothing, hair bands, etc.)
- glass windows, glass anything
- pencils or instant writing devices
- cardboard, plywood
- thermometer or any means to know temperature
- shampoo, bleach, peroxide, or detergents
- common bandages, adhesive tape
- ability to tell the time at home
- septic tanks
- knowledge of the existence of bacteria
- screw-on lids or caps of any kind
- left and right shoes
- plastic, rubber, or silicon (thus thousands of items we rely on today)
- table forks
- zippers, snaps, hooks, safety pins
- nylon or any other synthetic product
- toothpaste or toothbrushes (yikes!)
- hard soles on footwear
- padlocks or door locks
- tampons, menstrual pads
- food canning technology
- antibiotics or vaccines
- matches or any other easy way to make fire
- organized schooling for children
- prescription lenses or sunglasses
- metal screws or staples
- running water (not even a crude facsimile)
- toilet paper (nor the Sears catalog)
- non-rusting metal products