Daily Life in New France
The Nature of the Militia
Caption: Militiamen raising the May pole in front of their captain’s house
Despite all these duties, which might seem oppressive, there was no animosity toward the institution of the militia in New France. Most people saw membership in this organization as a personal contribution to the military and social affairs of the colony. Furthermore, the militia provided a link with the authorities at a time when government was hierarchical and absolutist. This connection was important because the people of New France, unlike those of the motherland, were armed and excellent marksmen. One French administrator after another noted that the people were very proud, independent, not very inclined to swallow too many orders, and capable of resisting if the authorities went too far. The government needed the militia, and the authorities therefore exercised their "absolute" powers with some discretion.
Despite their "unruliness," Canadian militiamen were loyal to king and country. They were not rebellious, even though they adapted military regulations to suit what they thought was useful for combat. For example, the monthly drills (more frequent in times of war), which were supposed to be spent handling weapons and marching in rows, were more often spent on target practice.
Finally, the militia played an important ceremonial role on certain occasions. According to a description of a Corpus Christi procession in Varennes, all the militiamen, dressed very properly in capots and hats, drew up in a double line from the church to the wayside altar. As the sacrament passed, carried by a representative of the clergy in the company of the seigneur and the officers and sergeants of the militia, they presented arms. After the ceremony, the captains assured one another that "no tavern-keeper could get anyone drunk,"123 for it was well known that Canadians liked to celebrate.
A less solemn and very enjoyable tradition of this era was the May Day ritual celebrating the return of the fine weather. On the first day of the month, militiamen accompanied by their wives reported to their captain, who granted them permission to plant a large fir tree at the top of which a wreath and a weather vane had been placed. The militiamen then fired a salvo in honour of their captain, who responded by firing a salute of his own. The captain was then offered a drink, and he in turn encouraged the militiamen to enter his house where a table loaded with food awaited them. The captain also offered drink, and after each glassful, a few militiamen would go out to shoot at the target on top of the maypole. Sometimes their wives took shots too, and the joyous assembly would end with a dance.
As these vignettes show, the military traditions of the militia mingled in New France with religion and folklore. Despite the petty annoyances of the authorities, there was a friendly, mutual feeling of respect between the leaders and their men. Above all, the militia was an instrument of social cohesion, perfectly adapted to the character of the people.
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