How Did Napoleon Affect Canada?

Note: This is a two-part look at Pre-Confederation Canada and Napoleon Bonaparte. Part 1 will explore how public opinion regarding the French leader changed overtime. Part 2 will look at Napoleon’s impact on British North America.

From The Adventures of Napoléon Bonaparte. [Source] His many wars had a lot of unforeseen consequences.

Last week we explored how English and French colonists living in Pre-Confederation Canada felt about Napoleon Bonaparte during his reign (1799-1815) as well as how opinions shifted overtime, particularly in Quebec. This week we will be looking at how his impact was not restricted to Europe. Aside from keeping international newspaper journalists and cartoonists busy, the actions of the controversial French dictator had far-reaching, unintentional consequences. How did Napoleon affect British North America during and after his time on the world stage? Are these impacts still felt today?

1. The British North American Economy

Scene of the Battle of Trafalgar by Louis-Philippe Crépin (c. 1807)

Aside from colonization, when you think about the British Empire what comes to mind? Its Royal Navy, perhaps? As the backbone of their imperial success, the British Royal Navy was the largest and most advanced of the global navies. What does a country need to maintain naval superiority and face the threat of Napoleon at the same time? Lumber and lots of it! Low in this resource, Britain relied on imports from the European continent.

During the Napoleonic Wars however, British-European trade was halted by the French Emperor. Known as the Continental System, Napoleon sought to destroy his enemy’s economy through a naval blockade that prevented neutral and French allies from trading with the British. As a result, Britain had only one place it could turn to, so it’s a good thing British North America had plenty of trees! The Napoleonic Wars provided a huge boost to the colonial economy. Both Upper and Lower Canada, as well as the Maritimes experienced unprecedented growth in their export economies. The need for lumber led to the development of our forest industry, it became the staple of Canadian trade throughout the 19th century, and ultimately led to the growth and urbanization of Eastern Canada.

2. The Louisiana Purchase

You may recall that France ceded almost all of its North American territory when they lost the Seven Years’ War in 1763. French Louisiana became Spanish Louisiana. So how did they get their hands back on the 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River? Spain actually gave it back to them in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso (1800). Spain flip-flopped with their alliances throughout the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The treaty came during the short period (1796-1805) where they were allies with Napoleonic France. For a brief time, Napoleon wanted to rebuild France’s colonial empire and bring Saint Domingue (Haiti) back under French rule. Americans weren’t too pleased about having Napoleon as a neighbour because it threw a wrench into their expansion plans. They were pleased however when things miraculously worked out for them. Napoleon’s overseas dreams were dashed after only a couple of years thanks to the Haitian Revolution. With his eyes set back on Europe and being low on funds…

Napoleon was $15 million richer and America had doubled in size. They resumed their westward expansion and that is when two problems arose. First, gaining the Louisiana Territory fuelled an idea that would later be called Manifest Destiny; it was God’s will for America to expand across North America. All of it. This brought the old desire of annexing British North America back into the picture. Second, expansion involved taking the land from the Indigenous populations that already lived there. They did not go down without a fight; “Indian raids” began to occur. But who were supplying Indigenous communities with a steady stream of guns? Settlers had only one suspect in mind.

3. Growing Anglo-American Tension

Britain was not happy about the Louisiana Purchase. Viewing it as a threat to their colony, they turned to Indigenous communities living in Louisiana Territory to act as a buffer of sorts. As a result, Britain likely provided arms and supported the raids. (I say likely because there was no formal agreement and some historians claim that British support for the raids are grossly exaggerated). Regardless, Americans wanted to stop the raids once and for all and were convinced that the only way to do so was to kick the British out of North America completely.

Aside from the trouble on land, there were problems at sea too. Remember Napoleon’s Continental System? The British responded with Orders in Council, a blockade of French-controlled Europe. The Royal Navy was to seize any ship that violated the blockade. Not being able to trade with Britain or France was a blow to the US economy and forced them to look to the north for help. British North America reaped in the benefits from over-the-border smuggling. The colony also benefited when Britain searched American ships for goods destined for France and the confiscated items were sent to Halifax.

Finally, there was the issue of impressment, the act of forcing men into a military or naval service. Although it has been going on since the Middle Ages, with the threat of Napoleon looming over their heads Britain needed all the men they could get. They escalated their use of impressment by going after all ships they thought had deserters. Many US sailors were British-born. The US viewed these men as Americans, Britain did not. You can imagine how well arresting citizens and “pressing” them into naval service went down with the US government. You can also probably guess where this is going…

4. Britain vs America 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Also known as the War of 1812.

The French Retreat After the Battle of Leipzig (October 19, 1813) by Jacques François Swebach. Napoleon’s defeat at this battle resulted in him being exiled to the island of Elba.

No, the above image is not from the War of 1812. It was chosen because it shows what Britain’s main priority was during 1812-1815. Had Britain’s military not been busy with the Napoleonic Wars, they would have been able to send the bulk of their troops and resources to North America. It is fair to say that things would have been quite different had Britain steamrolled the US. Some possibilities include reparations, Andrew Jackson (War of 1812 hero) may not have become President, or maybe Britain would have fulfilled their promise to create a neutral zone for Indigenous Peoples below the Great Lakes. On the more extreme side there could have been territory cessions, perhaps the reoccupation of America, or even a third Anglo-American war.

All that being said, Canada (as we know it today) would not exist without the War of 1812. Aside from its obvious importance to Canadian geography, the conflict was crucial because it brought English and French colonists together. Fighting together led to a sense of mutual community and nationalism. This was a huge change from the uneasy, suspicious relationship the English and French had in the decades prior. Had the British army been large enough to step in and say, “Thanks for offering, but we got this,” would the two sides have come together in the way that they eventually did? Yes, we have veered into alternate history here and anything could have happen, but the point is the Napoleonic Wars factored into how the War of 1812 went down, which affected the future of two countries.

5. 1866 Civil Code of Lower Canada

Last but not least is the influence of Napoleon on Canadian legal history. First introduced in 1804, the Napoleonic Code “gave post-revolutionary France its first coherent set of laws concerning property, colonial affairs, the family, and individual rights.” By creating a standard code for all, it put an end to how laws varied across the French provinces. At its core is that all male citizens had equal rights under the law, (women were deprived of individual rights). These laws were applied to all of the territories that fell under Napoleon’s control and many retained them after his reign. As a result, the Napoleonic Code has influenced law both inside and outside Europe, including Louisiana, the Dominican Republic, and Quebec.

The Civil Code of Lower Canada (1866) was a blend of the Napoleonic Code and English law. By the mid-19th century, civil law was quite a mess because it drew from various sources as opposed to a single one. The structure of the Civil Code was inspired by the Napoleonic one as it covers individual rights, ownership,  property rights, and commercial law. It distinguishes itself though in that the values are more aligned with conservative, rural Quebec than post-Revolutionary France. For example with the issue of divorce, Napoleon took religion out of the equation, meanwhile it remained completely unacceptable in Quebec. The 1866 Code lasted until 1994, when the current Civil Code replaced it. To this day, Quebec is the only province with a Civil Code.

Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo by Howard David Johnson. Fun Fact: A couple of Canadians served (under the British) at the decisive battle.

On the surface, Napoleon Bonaparte and Canadian history seem quite separate from one another. However, during his time on the world stage many of the decisions Napoleon made that were geared towards building his French empire had international economic, geographic, political, and legal consequences that only became apparent with hindsight. It is sort of funny that someone who paid very little attention to British North America had such an impact on its future.


Foreman, Amanda, “The British View the War of 1812 Quite Differently Than Americans Do,” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2014. Accessed from: Staff, “1804 Napoleonic Code approved in France,” The History Channel, undated. Accessed from: Staff, “Louisiana Purchase” The History Channel, 2009. Accessed from:

Macdonald, Roderick A., “Civil Code”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2012. Accessed from:

Taylor, R., “The War of 1812: An Introduction,” The War of 1812 Website, The Discriminating General. Accessed from:

Turner, Wes, “Napoleonic Wars,” War of 1812, RCGS/HDI/Parks Canada, 2011. Accessed from:







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