The Military Empire

The Zenith Of The French Empire In North America

By the mid-eighteenth century, the North American possessions of the king of France looked like a giant "T," reaching across Canada from Cape Breton Island in the east to the middle of Saskatchewan in the west, and descending from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the enormous distances between forts and settlements, detachments of Navy soldiers were scattered all through this territory. These soldiers stood guard under very different conditions, from Quebec to La Baie to Fort La Reine. They succeeded in dominating hostile Amerindians, like the Foxes, but also in forging alliances and ties with many other nations, which played an important part in the establishment of the French empire. It was as much by the diplomacy of its officers as by force of arms that France ensured its commercial and diplomatic hegemony over these vast expanses. Without denying the slowly emerging British colonies in what is now Canada the credit they deserve, the first half of the eighteenth century was truly the heyday of French power in North America.

All this became possible beginning at the end of the seventeenth century because New France had developed a strong military organization and the Canadians, after living for decades at the mercy of the indigenous peoples, took advantage of what they had learned. A highly effective militia was established and the officers of the regular troops were recruited increasingly among the Canadian gentry, whether by birth or appointment. The government of New France was structured and operated in a thoroughly military fashion, and military influences pervaded civilian, legal and economic affairs. The influence of the military even extended to the church, either through the soldiers who protected the missionaries, or military engineers who were asked to draw up plans for the construction of churches.

The shift from traditional European methods of warfare to original Canadian tactics during the second half of the seventeenth century was also extremely important to the development of New France because it enabled the growing colony to keep the Americans at bay. The soldiers and militiamen of New France were able, with the assistance of their Amerindian allies, to control almost the entire North American heartland, because only they could conduct operations far from their bases and search out and defeat Amerindian enemies in their own homeland, despite some minor setbacks.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the extraordinary success of the military in New France was beginning to encourage a sense of Canadian nationhood. Military institutions dominated society, providing the basic social and governmental organization (in which Canadian officers played a prominent role) and adapting European structures to North American needs and geography. All this reinforced the distinct identity of Canadians. They still considered themselves Frenchmen, but at the same time they identified increasingly with their new country. In the beginning, Canada was only a theoretical entity, but for the soldiers and militiamen who crisscrossed it in all directions whether by canoe, on foot, or on snowshoes in the winter, it gradually took on a real identity. They explored it, fought for it, and discussed it among themselves.

It was from this vision of the country, which grew out of what these men had seen with their own eyes and defended with their lives, that a sense of nationhood was born in their hearts.