“[I wish] that this sodomite of a country were burnt, and reduced to ashes, along with everyone in it.”
— words spoken by a man named Pierre Beaudoin dit Cumberland, about New France – words that landed him in court on a charge of blasphemy in 1752
Four hundred years ago, there was no permanent European settlement in what later became Canada. The attitudes of the people the land belonged to were different from nation to nation – some were disapproving, others accepting.
Some – like the Illiniwek and Ojibwe around the Great Lakes – were not merely accepting, but actually had a special place in their societies for homosexuals and bisexuals. Today these people are called in English Two-Spirits, a translation of the Ojibwe words niizh manidoowag.
Among the Illiniwek, European travellers reported, there were male-bodied individuals who dressed as women did, never married women, were honoured with dances, and who were always called to Council, “where nothing may be decided without their advice.” These same people had Ickoue ne Kioussa — the Hunting Women – who took female partners and did men’s tasks. The Two-Spirit son of an Ojibwe chieftain, Ozawwendib, was similarly honoured.
Four centuries, the French planted the city of Quebec at the base of the hill where the St. Lawrence settled, beginning the settlement of what came to be known as Canada. There was every reason to expect that situation in the future Canada to get rapidly much worse for what the French called “sodomites.” These men who were honoured among peoples such as the Ojibwe were burnt at the stake in France for having sex with other men.
(This applied to commoners only, of course. The priesthood and the nobles could – and generally did – get away with homosex without risking the death penalty. Montreal was founded in the name of a king so eager to avoid sex with a woman that he could barely produce heirs.)
A closer look at the colony would’ve given a person even more reason to worry. A secret organization of religious fanatics funded much of the colony’s creation, built Montreal, and appointed New France’s bishop. Meanwhile nuns and priests poured into Native territory in search of spiritual conquests.
Yet within six years, Montreal – which had started as a commune for religious fanatics and a launch point for the religious takeover of Native society – had its first known sodomy case. The Jesuits recorded that in 1648, they stopped Governor de Maisonneuve from handing out the death penalty to a man convicted of sodomy. He was allowed, instead, to become the colony’s first executioner, then disappeared from history entirely in 1653. We don’t know his name, and probably never will.
Much research in the last 40 years has shown that New France was a much more sexually free society than the mother country. The Sovereign Council, which was both government and supreme court to the colony, was stretched to its limit fighting wars with Iroquois and English, hearing the peasants’ lawsuits, and trying to regulate the economics and politics of the place. With little time or energy left to look after morality, the peasants were left to look after themselves in such matters. Sex-related cases often only came to court when there was a victim of some kind.
These sex cases give us glimpses into a colony with a developed sex trade – prostitutes and pimps – and frequent extramarital and premarital sex. There was almost a kind of sexual revolution in New France, pushed forward by libertin ideas imported from France and the more sexually permissive attitudes of the local Native cultures.
The situation was not perfect. It only took one denunciation by a powerful person to land a queer individual in court – and into a court system that considered the accused innocent until proven guilty. This shadow must have always hung over the heads of the “sodomites.” A constant reminder of their status must have been the words “bougre” and “bougresse” – roughly equivalent to the modern “faggot” and “dyke” – which by all accounts were used frequently by the locals.
Still, New France was probably one of the safest places to be in European civilization in the 17th Century. Along with the Scandinavian countries, it was one of the few regions that didn’t enforce its death penalty for sodomy. We have what looks to be complete summaries of criminal trials for the colony’s last 97 of its 142 years – the years when New France was heavily populated – and there is not one death sentence for male-male sex in all that time. There may have been some in the first 45 years that we don’t know about, but by the time the colony was firmly established, there did not seem to have been a single one.
This easygoing atmosphere didn’t sit well with everyone. Many in the church were eager to return to the old-time religion. One of these was the colony’s second bishop, Saint-Vallier. Another was Saint-Vallier’s second in command, Dollier de Casson, who instigated a sodomy investigation in a lord and lieutenant in the colonial regular troops, Nicholas Daussy de Saint-Michel.
Saint-Michel’s is the only trial we have some solid information about, though it isn’t much. Still, it tells us that the church was likely trying to make an example of the lord. If so, it largely failed. Saint-Michel lost the trial, but was given the minimum sentence: he had to give 200 livres to charity and was sent back to France in the next ship. Two men he’d slept with – who tried, and failed, to convince the court they’d been unwilling – were only sentenced to a few extra years in the military.
The record is mostly silent about queer women in New France, except when it came to Native women like the Ickoue ne Kioussa. Another possible exception was Esther Brandeau, who dressed as a man and had lived with nuns in a man’s disguise for a time in France before being discovered in New France. Other than that, the official record says nothing.
We can speculate using examples from France and Europe, and guess that queer women were largely invisible. The most serious problem would have been for homosexual women who did not want to marry, because marriage was a necessity for women in New France. The sole option for those woman would have been the nunnery, and we can suppose that homosexual women found their way there, as they did in Europe
* * * * *
In 1759, near the end of the Seven Year’s War between Britain and France, Quebec City was conquered by the British. In 1760, Montreal passed into English hands as well. Britain’s generals suddenly found themselves in charge of the territory, not knowing if the colony was going to be given back to the French. They didn’t plan to be there long-term, and administered law from what was known as the Military Council.
Finally, during the hostage-trading of colonies called the Peace of Paris, the British gave France the choice of either taking back Canada, or getting back its tropical, sugar-producing islands. France took the tropical islands and the sugar, and left New France in British hands.
Suddenly, the British were in charge of large territory whose ways and customs were alien to them. The new Province of Quebec – which stretched then from what’s now southern Quebec and Ontario and included the American states of what’s now Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and part of Minnesota – was going to be a hybrid land. There, the new province would use both French and English, and tolerate both Catholicism and Protestantism.
Most importantly for us, it also fused the two nations’ legal systems into a hybrid system, which took its laws against homosexuality from the British, not the French side.
In my next instalment, we’re going to take a look at homosexuality in Great Britain.