Parks Canada Banner
Parks Canada Home

Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23

Gaspé, 1760-1867

by David Lee

Part I: Gaspé and the Government

The Consequences of Neglect

After many years of neglect and unanswered petitions it was felt by some residents of Gaspé that the district might be better off on its own than as part of Lower Canada. By the 19th century the most often heard complaints were that the government was spending less money in Gaspé than it was taking out in the form of import tax revenue and that it was spending proportionally more in other districts of Lower Canada. Examples have already been cited of Gaspé officials being paid considerably less than those of equal rank in other districts and of the paucity of government services in the area. It is difficult to determine the disparity with any exactitude since the British government paid for some services such as defence; however, it seems to be true that the government spent more money per capita in settling Loyalists in Gaspé than it did in settling them elsewhere.

In 1830 Judge James Crawford of New Richmond wrote the British government that Gaspé,

although contributing by its Trade and Fisheries proportionately more than any other County, and certainly more in want of aid towards its internal improvement than any in the Province, has at the last Session been allowed no appropriation whatever for the purpose whereas every other County in this respect has largely and liberally participated by Votes of the Assembly from the Public Treasury.1

This situation can be attributed to the expulsion of Robert Christie from the legislature, but behind it lay the widely held opinion that the district had long been overlooked by the provincial government. The Gaspé land commissioners flatly affirmed this claim in their general report of 1820. "The imports from Europe . . . realize a revenue considerably beyond the public Expenditure for the Civil Government of the District."2 Four years later a Gaspé grand jury suggested that all tax revenue collected in Gaspé should be spent there,3 a form of fiscal self-rule.

By 1832 the assembly was obliged to meet the problem and published an account of net revenue collected in Gaspé since 1791 compared to the amount of money "expended on Internal Improvements" in the district since that time. This account showed £12,400/1/15 collected and £15,451/18/8 spent.4 The assembly published a similar account in 1841 covering the period from 1835 to 1840, showing £8,240 collected and only £7,200 spent.5

These statistics, however, did not tell the whole story for it was pointed out that many European imports first entered the province at Quebec, where duties were paid, and then were transhipped to Gaspé. Charles Robin claimed, back in 1794, that his company alone brought in £1,200 worth of merchandise yearly from Quebec, some of which was imported.6 (Later petitioners claimed that from one-third to one-half of the dutiable goods used in Gaspé were cleared through the Quebec customs house and therefore would not show in the statistics.7) Robin also pointed out that the Gaspé fisheries employed many residents of the Quebec district on a seasonal basis, indicating that the Quebec district was gaining additional revenue from Gaspé commerce. Robin claimed that he paid his Quebec employees a total of £1,000 per year.8 Disparities were evident in other areas too: Robert Christie claimed in 1832 that in recent years the Montreal district had received £242,500 from the government for road construction while Gaspé had received only £1,000.9 As noted earlier, Christie, member of the legislative assembly for Gaspé, was expelled from that body several times. When the assembly continued to refuse Christie his seat after repeated reelections, many people, including Governor Aylmer, felt that the assembly was harming the interests of Gaspé and seriously considered the advisability of Gaspé joining the province of New Brunswick. Eventually the governor's office itself became involved in the controversy for the Christie case was part of a general political and constitutional dispute between the executive and legislative branches of the government.

Annexation to New Brunswick was first considered in 1789 when the British government was reorganizing the Quebec constitution, but the idea was turned down and Gaspé remained part of Quebec (then called Lower Canada) under the Constitutional Act of 1791, "on account of its commercial connection with this province." The lieutenant governor of New Brunswick also agreed that the district should remain under the government at Quebec.10 The Gaspé land commissioners considered the question in 1820, reporting that some people felt that Gaspé was "of no advantage to this Province," but rejected this idea on the grounds that the trade and shipping of Gaspé was important to Lower Canada and could become very valuable in the future. If Gaspé left Lower Canada, the latter would lose the financial benefits of this trade (probably import duties), tariffs would probably be set up between the two, and Lower Canada would lose its command of the gulf.11 In no way did the commissioners indicate whether the existing arrangement was advantageous to Gaspé.

Petitions promoting annexation to New Brunswick began in the 1830s. One lengthy petition of 1832 lists many reasons why the district should be annexed to that province: the poor administration of justice in Gaspé and the distance to superior courts at Quebec; the lack of information in the provincial assembly about Gaspé and its fisheries and the "studied disregard there of them"; the "overbearing party spirit" in that assembly which resulted in the nonrepresentation of Gaspé, and "the anti-commercial and anti-British character of the said Assembly." The petitioners felt that if Gaspé joined New Brunswick there would be more efficient, prompt and cheaper justice; uniformity of fisheries legislation; a more sympathetic assembly which would, they hoped, provide bounties and better protection for the fisheries, and more local improvements. The "constitutional, commercial and British character" of New Brunswick was more attractive as well. Enclosed was a petition from New Brunswickers sympathetic to the idea.12

Further petitions protesting the expulsion of Christie and promoting annexation were in turn soon followed by counterpetitions from inhabitants opposed to joining New Brunswick and questioning the validity of the original requests.13 These later petitioners declared that most of those signing the earlier documents were "ignorant Fishermen" coerced by the large fish merchants who were motivated by "the temptation alone of the premiums offered by the Legislature of the Province of New Brunswick."14

Meanwhile, the colonial secretary asked Governor Aylmer to consider encouraging annexation, not for its merits, but "with the view of alarming the Assembly"; that is, to try to force the assembly to modify its attitude toward Gaspé and Christie. Aylmer, who had toured Gaspé in 1831, replied that if a boundary were now being drawn between New Brunswick and Canada for the first time, he would surely say the district should be in New Brunswick; however, at this time he felt it would be better "to ascertain the wishes of the majority of the people," and acknowledged that this would be difficult because of the great "mixture" of people living there. His own opinion was that a majority favoured annexation.15 A committee of the assembly agreed to investigate the matter and heard much testimony that Gaspésians did not want annexation. Edouard Thibaudeau, member for the new county of Bonaventure, went so far as to say that everyone had "a great deal of repugnance towards the English Laws which prevail in the Province of New Brunswick."16

The assembly held firm against annexation and against Christie's claims as well; thus, he decided not to try for reelection a sixth time and a new man went to Quebec to represent Gaspé County. By this time the District of Gaspé was better represented in the assembly anyhow, possessing a total of four seats. A new opportunity for change arrived in 1841 with the union of Upper and Lower Canada, but a Gaspé grand jury resolved itself opposed to annexation before the idea was revived. The governor general pointed out to the British government that during the 1837-38 rebellions not one inhabitant of Gaspé had even been suspected of disloyalty.17

The government continued to receive petitions complaining that it was not spending enough money in Gaspé,18 but conditions improved during the 1840s. Between 1842 and 1844, for example, the government spent £16,666 on the Chaleur Bay and Kempt roads.19 This was, of course, visible work: the government was seen to be doing something and the matter of annexation to New Brunswick was not heard of again.

The annexation movement may have been inspired by Christie to avenge his treatment by the assembly, but it is more likely that Christie used an already existing movement and exploited it as a weapon against the assembly. Resentment against neglect had simmered for a long time and annexation had been discussed years before Christie came on the political scene. The movement may have been spurred by an inquiry held in the assembly in 1830 when a legislative committee was charged with investigating a lengthy series of grievances detailed in several long petitions signed by hundreds of Gaspé residents. These grievances noted the need for government assistance for agriculture and the fisheries, roads, the postal and judicial systems, electoral practices, land titles, the location of the customs house and many other local problems. The committee heard testimony from a large number of people and it made several recommendations, few of which were translated into legislation. Christie added his personal grievances and became a major spokesman for the movement despite the fact that the signers of one of the major petitions had actually voiced their lack of sympathy with Christie in his dispute with the assembly.20

The movement subsided when Christie gave up his battle, and political stalemate in the legislature and the subsequent rebellions of 1837-38 diverted attention from annexation. In any case, local conditions most likely would have made it difficult to sustain such a movement for any length of time; the very remoteness of Gaspé from the rest of the province made it difficult for indignation to be expressed. Further, people were too busy eking out subsistence on the fisheries to pursue a long-term political goal while the diverse and unintegrated population of Gaspé militated against a cohesive movement of any kind. This short-lived outburst was the only time the people of Gaspé became at all actively indignant at the government's neglect of the district.

previous Next

Last Updated: 2006-09-15 To the top
To the top