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Marriage was a public matter, bringing together friends and families. In Lower Canada (Quebec) especially, the festivities could go on for several days. The required practice of reading the banns (see Reading the Banns) informed the entire community of a forthcoming wedding.
Marriage was also a legal issue. While laws varied slightly between Upper Canada and Lower Canada and over time, it was important to the state to regulate marriage. In mid-18th century Great Britain, the Lord Hardwicke's Act tightly regulated marriage, to prevent runaway matches (often eloping heiresses).
The laws regulating marriage were not as closely observed in Upper Canada (Ontario), largely for practical reasons. The necessities of life sometimes trumped the rules in frontier societies, and so there was less concern about such matters as settlers moved into new areas of Upper Canada (Ward, 35 - 37).
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In Lower Canada, the legal situation was different. Although the restrictions on marriage were generally similar, property rights were encoded in marriage contracts.
The two dominant churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, both required that forthcoming marriages be announced at the main Sunday service for three successive Sundays before the ceremony. This practice was called "reading the banns" or "publishing the banns" of marriage.
The practice allowed the public to inform the church if the proposed marriage should be prohibited -- for example, if one of the parties was already married. The law forbade certain marriages, for example, between first cousins. Widows and widowers could not marry a brother or sister of a deceased spouse.
In the 20th century, the publication of banns was gradually replaced by the marriage licence.
A prospective bridegroom could get a special licence to avoid the three-week wait required for the reading of the banns and keep a marriage somewhat less public. Although the Roman Catholic Church did not allow this practice, licences could be obtained from magistrates or church officials of other churches. The bridegroom had to enter into an agreement, called a marriage bond, with two guarantors who knew him well and who were prepared to swear that there was no legal impediment to the marriage -- rather like the guarantors we must provide to get passports these days.
While no marriage licences survive from before 1867 (and licences after that are in provincial archives), Library and Archives Canada does have a collection of marriage bonds: there are 2,960 for Lower Canada from 1779 to 1858, and 7,899 for Upper Canada from 1803 to 1865, suggesting that marriage by licence was by no means unusual.
Although marriage by licence was only possible in Protestant churches, Roman Catholics could get around the reading of marriage banns -- or marry a non-Catholic or someone too closely related by the church's standards -- by getting a special dispensation from the bishop. Amédée Papineau requested such a dispensation from the Roman Catholic bishop of New York in order to marry his Presbyterian bride, Mary. He was turned down; the marriage took place anyway, and there seems to have been no religious fallout (Noël, 73).
The fact was that religious and sometimes even civil requirements had to deal with reality. In Lower Canada, especially in small communities, people often married their relatives, simply because there was little other choice. When Roman Catholics married Protestants, parish priests often had to turn a blind eye. And a couple could strong-arm the bishop into granting a dispensation simply by setting up housekeeping together (Noël, 61 - 62). Marrying a second cousin was apparently a lesser evil than the sin of living together without being married!
Noël, Françoise. Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780 - 1870: A View from Diaries and Family Correspondence. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.
Ward, W. Peter. Courtship, Love and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century English Canada. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.