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The Great Intendant

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In the history of every successful nation, company, or team, there is at some point a person who provides groundbreaking leadership, making the difference between success and failure and between ordinary and great. This was truly the case in the history of Canada’s earliest development.

The first permanent colony in what is now Canada was established in 1608 by the early French entrepreneur and explorer Samuel de Champlain at the current site of Quebec City. Known as “the Father of New France,” Champlain served in a position equivalent to that of a governor from 1608 until his death in 1635. During this time, despite the territory’s huge potential, little was accomplished toward the development of a viable and sustainable colony. In 1641, 33 years after the initial settlement, the population of the colony was only 240 (S.A. Cook, Life in New France, p. 17). Meanwhile, the English colonies to the south were home to about 25,000 colonists by 1640.

Prior to Champlain’s death, the French government approved a new company to carry on trade, significantly expand permanent settlement, and develop an agricultural base. “The Company of 100 Associates” directed its energy toward building a profitable fur trade, but little effort or progress was made to develop a self-sustaining entity in the New World.

The Arrival of Jean Talon

Thus, King Louis XIV’s senior minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, revoked the company’s charter in 1663 and the government took direct control of the colony. To help ensure the new crown colony would be operated with integrity, Colbert appointed a senior administrator called an intendant, responsible for justice, public order, and finance. The man selected for this position was an experienced administrator known for impeccable character. His name was Jean Talon. He was to be the king’s eyes in the colony, guard against corruption, see that the army was well-equipped and provisioned, and work to make the colony economically self-sufficient. He arrived in New France on September 15, 1665.

Talon found the still-fledgling colony in a sorry state, neglected and disorganized. The French population in the region was still only about 3,000, at a time when the English colonies to the south had received over 100,000 settlers. The colony was also under constant threat of attack by Iroquois tribesmen, who sought to regain territory they had lost to Huron and Algonquin natives a century earlier. When Champlain arrived in 1608, the Algonquin had driven the Iroquois south, and the French had an alliance with the Huron and Algonquin peoples. Therefore, the French, too, were at war with the Iroquois.

Talon began by ensuring the security of the colony. One of France’s best regiments, the 1,200-strong Carignan-Salières, had also been dispatched to New France in 1665. Talon ensured these men were well-provisioned and well-armed. With strengthened defenses, and well-supplied even at distant outposts, the regiment removed the Iroquois threat by 1667, giving New France the opportunity to develop in peace.

The Intendant now initiated a program of industrial development, which included shipbuilding, mining, the creation of iron foundries, and iron fabrication. Eventually, every farm household was supplied with a loom for the weaving of hemp and wool products. Talon established courts of justice, policing, and imposed order on New France. Court time initially was taken up by lawsuits, so Talon designed incentives for out-of-court settlements. He administered justice in the colony with impartiality for rich or poor, thus earning a reputation for incorruptibility.

Still, the colony needed both settlers and natural population growth. Talon created a scheme to attract settlers from among landless citizens of France. For many young men, the dream of owning their own land in France was unattainable, but Talon provided an arrangement that required an immigrant to the New World to work for three years for another settler, after which he received a land grant and supplies (a plough and equipment to sustain for two years) to give him a start. By 1672, this policy had brought more than 1,500 indentured employees and future settlers to the colony. The colony was self-sufficient in wheat, and was exporting barley, peas, and hops by 1668 (Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “Jean Talon”).

A Frontier in Need of Families

In contrast to England’s policies, Colbert did not want massive emigration from France, so the growth of New France was gradual compared to the rapid growth of the English colonies. This presented another problem for Talon. In New France in 1665, there were six adult men for every adult woman. Such an imbalance did not allow for natural growth, and certainly did not encourage long-term settlement. Talon managed, with Colbert’s approval, to have the French government select, train, and send to New France women of marriageable age, and approximately 900 of these young ladies were sent out between 1665 and 1673.

These ladies were known as les filles du roi, the “daughters of the king,” and were selected on criteria of health, good character, and probable ability to settle on the frontier. Many were orphans who had been raised in charitable institutions, but some were of “high birth” and were intended to marry officers of the Carignan-Salières. Some later writers have incorrectly labelled them as women of ill repute. On the contrary, they were required to be of good reputation. Many were specially trained to be resourceful and skilled enough to make a home on the frontier.

When these courageous women arrived in Quebec, functions were held by the governor to allow them to meet the eligible bachelors. Each lady had the right to refuse proposals until she found a man she felt was suitable. Upon marriage, a substantial dowry of supplies was received from the governor in the name of the king.

To encourage the single men to seek such a marriage, young bachelors were charged a special tax and, if necessary, were forbidden to engage in hunting, fishing, or business. Under these conditions, many reluctant young men made the choice to seek a wife.

Talon then initiated the world’s first paid incentive to have children. He approved an annual grant of 300 livres to every father upon the birth of his tenth child by a legal wife. This was raised to 400 livres annually on the birth of the twelfth child. Such was the success of Talon’s efforts that in 1670 alone, more than 700 babies were born in the colony. In twenty years, from 1665 to 1685, the colony grew by 300 percent, mostly through natural growth.

Talon returned to France in November 1672, where he was eventually made secretary of the king’s cabinet, one of the most powerful positions in the French administration. He never lost his love and concern for New France, and often spoke in support of the colony. He died in 1694 as Count of Orsianville.

Character and Dedication

Talon’s story shows what can be accomplished by a person who displays diligence, integrity, and courage. He placed the good of the people of New France and loyalty to his superiors before his own interests. The foundation Talon laid contributes to the sustainability of French-Canadian culture to this very day.

If a man can be so diligent, so dedicated to his human leaders and to those he serves, how much more should one be dedicated to the service of a King who will soon return to rule this earth—a King who calls us to serve Him in eventually building a world that will eclipse every society mankind has ever produced?

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