Governing a Colony
Founded by trading companies, Nouvelle-France became a crown colony in 1663. It was governed directly by the king and his Secrétaire d’état à la Marine, who was generally referred to as “Monsieur le Ministre.”
Relations between France and the local government were recorded in their annual back and forth correspondence. In the spring, the minister formulated instructions to be sent to Québec with the first ships. In the fall, the governor and the intendant wrote a report on the state of the colony, listing the various tasks undertaken and forwarding numerous requests via the last boats to sail down the river before the ice season isolated the colony for six months. Although the king had the decision-making power, correspondence reveals that when confronted with the events of daily life, the administrators of the colony would take certain initiatives that they might later be required to justify overseas at Versailles.
Colonial government was authoritarian, centralized and paternalistic. The governor general was the king’s representative in Nouvelle-France. He governed military issues, relations with the Amerindians as well as relations with the English colonies. The intendant governed locally, and held jurisdiction over the court system, finances and the “police,” maintaining political, social and economic order. The Conseil supérieur was the highest court of justice in the colony, and initially could issue ordinances, although the intendant eventually obtained the monopoly on making the rules that governed colonial life. Colonial government was centred in the city of Québec, but the governor and the intendant made their way to Montréal every summer. Their sojourn in Montréal allowed them to meet with allied Amerindians and to oversee trade and military expeditions to the continent's interior. The cities of Trois-Rivières and Montréal also had their own governor, as well as a general commissary and ordonnateur, who was in charge of local government.
Montréal was both a governed city and a seigneurial city. Since 1663, the island of Montréal had been the property of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The seminary priests were both seigneurs of the island and curates of the Notre-Dame-de-Montréal parish (as well as many other parishes in the vicinity). The presence of crown rule increasingly eroded seigneurial prerogatives. As of 1693, the justice system, which had originally been under seigneurial rule, was officially taken over by the king with the creation of the Juridiction royale of Montréal. As of 1734, the major role the seigneurs had previously played in urban planning, by marking out streets and granting lots, was assumed by the king’s engineer, who launched his career with the construction of the city walls.
The old system continued to function in spite of the overlapping of power, although the king and his minister at times had to remind their officers to avoid confrontation and to work together in His Majesty’s best interests. Instructions by Governor Beauharnois and Intendant Gilles Hocquart on the issue included numerous cautionary measures to avoid the type of conflict that had almost paralysed the administration and led to the recall of Claude Dupuy, Hocquart’s predecessor.