By: Jack Jackowetz

This column continues from last month’s regarding the European conquest and settlement of the land in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River Valley.

Quebec 1783

Map of the boundary between the Province of Québec and the United States after the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1783). Source: l’Annuaire du Québec, 1972

When the English formally assumed control of New France in 1763 the Province of Québec did not have an elected legislature. The province was ruled directly by the English governor who received advice from his counsellors. In 1774, a Legislative Council was created as an advisory council to the governor. A legislative assembly was established with the Constitution Act of 1791.

Before 1830, it functioned as a military administration as its primary role was to ensure that the Indigenous community remained loyal to the Crown and to prevent any hostility against settlers and Crown administrators. After 1830, the threat of another American invasion had subsided and with the continued increase in European immigration to Canada, the Crown’s role, according to Duncan Scott writing in The Québec History Encyclopaedia (1914), evolved to “civilise, protect, and educate the Indigenous people.” This mandate proved to have significant and lasting repercussions on the Indigenous population and Canada as a nation.

French and British Policy Regarding Indigenous Peoples

To the French, discovery of this new land meant conquest with respect to the Indigenous population. They had no title to the land and no rights that would make them in any way equal to the French. Any interest or favours shown to them were from the benefit of the King. The Indigenous people were not to be treated cruelly or unjustly but were viewed with curiosity. It must be noted that the French settlers would have perished without the assistance of the Indigenous people helping them survive in this cold and harsh environment.

British policy acknowledged Indigenous title to the land. Lands would only be ceded to the Crown with due consideration, and treaties and agreements would define the Crown’s relationship with the Indigenous peoples. After the British conquest, the lands became vested in the Crown with the Indigenous people holding a precarious title.

Both colonial powers sought to convert the Indigenous people to Christianity.

Seigneurial System

Illustration of land distribution under the seigneurial system in Quebec from 1627 to 1854. Source:, Used under Creative Commons licence.


In 1627, Cardinal Richelieu introduced the seigneurial system, or manor land tenure, in New France. The seigneurial system is a semi-feudal system of land distribution. Large tracts of land were arranged in strips called seigneuries and allocated to seigneurs (landlords); commonly nobles, wealthy merchants, leaders of religious institutions, and military officers. These land holdings were known as manors. The land belonged to the King of France and was maintained by the seigneur. The seigneurs did not work the land, they divided the land into smaller parcels, usually about 100 acres, which were worked on a feudal-like basis by habitants or peasant-farmers who would engage in subsistence farming. These parcels were typically 10 times deeper than wide, i.e. long and narrow, which resulted in the tenants living rather close to each other. The long narrow lots that made up individual farms ensured farms had access to the river or road and shared different land forms equally such as riverfront, valleys, and plateaus. The habitants cleared the land, built houses, and farmed the land. The seigneur was responsible to build a mill and roads for his tenants, create a court for settling disputes, and contribute to the construction of a church. The habitants were free individuals and held a title deed to the lot they lived on. The seigneurs managed a parcel of land. The habitants paid a rent to the seigneur for the improvements the seigneur was obligated to provide. This is a similar relationship that condominium owners have with their condominium corporate. The rent is equivalent to the monthly condominium fees paid to the corporation by the owner.

Detroit 1796

Example of a seigneurial layout along the Detroit River in 1796, where modern Detroit and Windsor now stand. Fort Detroit is on the north side of the river at centre left, and Belle Isle is to the right. Source:, Public Domain

Seigneuries or fiefs, were laid out along the banks of the St. Lawrence River to maximise ease of transport, communication, and commerce. The size of a seigneur typically varied in direct proportion with its distance from the nearest town. Steps were taken to end the seigneurial system as early as 1825 to harmonise land ownership throughout the Province of Quebec with the British practice of land ownership. The Feudal Abolition Act abolished the system in 1854 however remnants of the system remained until 1970.

Upper Canada

New France was originally divided into two districts: the District of Québec, centred in Québec City, and comprising present day southern Québec to Labrador, and the District of Montréal, centred in Montréal, and comprising present day southern Ontario.

The land west of the Ottawa River in the District of Montréal was initially set aside as Indigenous territory, not to be colonised. European settlement was focused along the St. Lawrence River in what is now southern Québec, and the north eastern states. No organised settlement of the land west of Montréal, except for Niagara and Detroit, took place until after the United States gained independence in 1783.

American colonists loyal to the Crown sought refuge in Canada. The migrants wanted to avoid settling with the French settlers because of their different customs and laws. The District of Montréal west of the Ottawa River was largely uninhabited by European settlers and became prime territory to settle the Loyalists who had ties to Britain.

Vaudreuil and Soulange counties (in gold) in the western Québec triangle. Map created with Google Maps.

The Treaty of Paris (1783) recognised American independence. The Great Lakes and their connecting waterways became the boundary between the United States and the British Colony of the Province of Québec. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 settled the disputed area of northern Maine.

Because this part of the District of Montréal, soon to become Upper Canada, was largely uninhabited by European settlers, the survey of the land preceded the settling of the land. This required treaties to be negotiated with the Indigenous groups populating the land. In 1783, General Frederick Haldimand sent survey parties to the Fort Frontenac area, present day Kingston, to begin to survey townships. The first survey post was planted in Kingston on 27-October-1783. Five townships were surveyed and partly divided into lots and concessions. These first five townships were named Kingston, Ernestown, Fredericksburgh, Adolphustown, and Marysburgh. The first Loyalist settlers arrived in January 1784.

Land was divided up and distributed to settlers in 200-acre lots. In rural Ontario, the 200-acre farm lot is still the norm, with some lots divided in half, or merged with other lots. The lots are grouped together, side-by-side, into a long strip called a concession. The long, narrow concessions are grouped together into a township. More on concessions in next month’s column.

Ontario Districts 1788

Upper Canada’s first four districts, 1788. Source: Economic Atlas of Ontario, 1969.

On 24-July-1788, Guy Carleton, Governor General Lord Dorchester proclaimed the Province of Québec to be divided into Lower Canada with a French legal system and continuance of the seigneurial system and Upper Canada with a British legal system and the development of British parliamentary institutions.

The west edge of the western most contiguous manorial estates along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers was used as the boundary between Lower and Upper Canada resulting in a small triangle of land west of the Ottawa River that belongs to Québec rather than Ontario. The few remaining seigneurs elsewhere in Upper Canada were converted to fee simple. Fee simple means absolute ownership to the land, free of any other claims against the title. The owner may do whatever they choose with the land.

Upper Canada was divided into four districts: Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Hesse, and Nassau. The German names of the districts were meant to honour the heritage of King George III and to recognise the large population of German immigrants. The districts were the original upper tier municipalities and the townships were the lower tier municipalities.

The Constitutional Act of 1791 formally divided the Province of Québec into Lower Canada and Upper Canada. The Act gave each province an elected Legislative Assembly (lower house), an appointed Legislative Council (upper house), and an appointed Executive Council. Provisions were made to allot clergy reserves to the Protestant churches. These reserves constituted one-seventh of the land in Upper and Lower Canada. Income from the sale or lease of these lands went originally to the Church of England and then after 1824 split between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

Ontario Districts 1792

Upper Canada’s renamed districts and first 19 counties. The shaded blue areas identify surveyed townships. Source: Economic Atlas of Ontario, 1969.

John Graves Simcoe was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada on 12-September-1791. Simcoe wanted to replicate England in Upper Canada so on 16-July-1792 he proclaimed the original nineteen counties. These counties were electoral ridings, not municipalities. The counties were also used for militia purposes and served as the basis for the surveying and creation of townships, and for land registration. Counties existed within districts. Starting from Northumberland County and going west the county names follow the county names on the east coast of England. On 23-August-1793, the four districts were renamed. Lunenburg became Eastern District, Mecklenburg became Midland District, Nassau became Home District, and Hesse became Western District.

Simcoe began construction of two roads. Construction of Yonge Street, named after the British Minister of War Sir George Yonge, began in August 1793 and reached Holland Landing on Lake Simcoe in 1796. Dundas Street, also known as Governor’s Road, named for Colonial Secretary Henry Dundas, connected York (Toronto) with London. This road is the former highway 5 from Toronto to Paris and Highway 2 from Paris to London.

The population of Upper Canada grew from 6,000 in 1785 to 14,000 in 1790 to 46,000 in 1806. Lower Canada’s population was about 150,000 in 1806.