Canada: Hemp helped British colonialism take root
By Susan Mcguire, The Gazette
Photograph by William Eaves, Jr.
Hemp breakfast cereal, hemp clothing, hemp hand cream - all available in perfectly respectable stores. Is this the same hemp that is illegal to grow in Canada? No, not at all.
These products come from what is called industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L), a distant cousin of the marijuana plant. Both are part of a diverse plant species of more than 500 varieties that includes the hops used to make beer.
Farmers have been cultivating industrial hemp for 10,000 years, starting in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and in China's Yellow River Valley. For centuries, people used hemp fibre to make clothes, rope, sails and paper; they stewed, roasted and milled the grain for food; and used the oil for cosmetics, lighting, paints and varnishes.
In the 1660s and 1670s, Jean Talon encouraged the farmers of New France to grow hemp by giving them free seed, which they had to plant immediately and replace with seed from their next year's crop. So important was hemp that he confiscated all the thread in the colony and gave it back only in return for hemp. Women needed thread, and he knew that would put pressure on their husbands to grow the crop. However, production collapsed when Talon went back to France.
Just after the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said that hemp "is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country." A few years later, George Washington said, "Sow it everywhere."
At about the same time, the British government and local governments in Nova Scotia, and Upper and Lower Canada were making serious efforts to promote the growing of hemp. In the Quebec City area, a notice in French from the Quebec Board of the Agricultural Society in Canada in March 1790, asked parish priests to co-operate in encouraging hemp culture.
The following year, circulars advertised that free hemp seed was available in the area to farmers recommended by their parish priest.
However, hemp was not a popular crop among farmers.
In the Hull area about 1801, American émigré Philomen Wright experimented with hemp as a commercial venture. He soon discovered that harvesting and processing it was a nasty business, and that labour costs were too high.
With embargoes on U.S. trade and wars in Europe looming, the huge supplies of hemp needed for sails and rope to supply the British navy were in danger. Optimists thought that the North American colonies could become suppliers of hemp, or at least not be importers.
London decided to send several men to promote hemp farming in Upper and Lower Canada.
One was Charles Frederick Grece, who arrived in Montreal in 1804 with his wife, Susanna Feniah Strong, and a young family, and soon after bought a farm in Longue Pointe. He had an advance of £400 and was promised 150 acres of cleared land. He was to receive £200 and 75 bushels of seed yearly.
Grece seems to have been in continual disputes with the authorities about cleared land, financial compensation and poor-quality seed.
Even so, the London-based Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce awarded him a silver medal in 1809 for his efforts in Canada.
Another American émigré who experimented with hemp was Jesse Pennoyer, a surveyor, farmer, militia officer and father of 12 who lived in Waterville near Sherbrooke. In 1809, the government granted him an annual salary of £200, plus £100 to defray the cost of promoting and growing hemp for five years. The War of 1812 ended his experiment, which had proved ruinous financially.
In 1817, Grece authored a brochure entitled, Essays on Practical Husbandry, which included a section on hemp:
"Some years ago, a trial was made, under the protection of the Government, to introduce hemp as a staple commodity for this and the sister province (Upper Canada). Unfortunately, political events obstructed that effort; the American embargo gave so great a scope to mercantile enterprise, particularly the Lumber Trade, that there was scarcely any bounds to the price given for labour. Soon after, the war ensued (War of 1812), which gave a death blow to agricultural pursuits. The present offers fairer prospects, by the general peace now taken place."
Grece was right. For a period in the late 1800s, Canada produced most of the hemp England needed, and at the time England was the largest hemp consumer in the world.
In the 1930s, nylon was introduced in the U. S., and a concerted effort was made to use wood pulp for paper instead of hemp. Public worries about the use of marijuana as a drug led the U.S. to outlaw the growing of all hemp in 1937. Canada followed suit the following year.
In 1998, it again became legal to grow industrial hemp in Canada with a licence. By 2010, some 26,800 acres of industrial hemp were cultivated in Canada, about 800 acres in Quebec and the rest mainly in Manitoba.
Photo: Charles Frederick Grece came to Montreal to promote hemp farming in 1804 and soon after bought a farm in Longue Pointe.
Susan McGuire is the historian at the Atwater Library. In 1829, Charles Grece was a member of the Montreal Mechanics' Institution, the library's precursor.