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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: July 2017

6 - The Importance of Being English: English Ethnic Culture in Montreal, c.1800–1864


‘The British Bow’ by C. Swain

Hurray! The bow, the British bow

The gallant fine old English bow!

Never flashed sword upon the foe,

Like arrow from the good yew bow!

What knight a solider weapon wields?

Thou victor of a thousand fields;

Are lances, carbines, thy compeers?

No, vouch it, Creedy and Poitiers!

With hearts of oak and bows of yew,

And shafts that like the lightning low,

Old England wore her proudest crown,

Nor bolt nor brand might strike it down!


Published in 1835, this poem presented, for its Montreal readership, both an English identity and a British one, using the two interchangeably. The imagery is clear: the oak, the yew and the battles are all English, iconic signifiers of a sense of Englishness; but they are also British. In this conflation lies the problem that historians of the English face: how do we define English identity as distinct from British identity? In the Canadian context, but particularly in the province of Quebec, English identity is further problematized because English serves not only as an ethnic identity but also as the language of the conqueror. The division of language between French and English was an important one as it differentiated the old population from the new, the conquered from the conqueror, and complicated intergroup communication. English was not, as in the United States, a language of integration but a group identifier, dividing one group from the other. The division between language groups – French and English – has long since marked tensions in Quebec, not least because English ethnic identity began to disappear in a blend of Britannia and language laws.