The Canadienne

Canadienne Cow: 24×30 collage on panel.

“Endowed with the robust health of the northern breeds, acclimatized by more than three centuries of living in this country and of incomparable frugality, no other bovine breed possesses, by itself, so many qualities, responds better to the care it receives, and is more beneficial to the common farmer.”               Dr. Couture, founder of the Société Générale des Éleveurs of the Province of Québec, Ottawa, February 5, 1908, (Société d’Histoire de la Haute-Yamaska)

Cattle from France arrived in North America as early as 1538, but they were not kept in any significant number until the permanent settlements of New France were established in the early 17th century.

The French cattle that came with the first colonists were a type of dairy cow commonly found in the Northwest of France. We call them a type rather than a breed as breeds in the modern sense did not exist at that time. Samuel de Champlain himself was responsible for the importation of some of these animals, and by 1629 Champlain owned approximately seventy cows of this type at his farm of Cap Tourmente, just north of what is now Quebec City.

Life in New France was difficult for the French colonists and for their animals.  The small colony was beset by famine. In July of 1629, Champlain surrendered the weak and undefended colony to a group of English Huguenot adventurers, the Kirke brothers, who had sailed into the St-Lawrence to claim what they could of the region for the English Crown. Champlain’s farm was sacked, and he was sent to England as a prisoner. What happened to the cows, well, nobody knows for sure. It is unlikely they survived.

The English occupation by the Kirkes was brief. By 1632, New France was back in French control. In the years that followed, colonization began in earnest and the importation of livestock started again. The largest number of cattle arrived with French colonists from the 1660’s onward.  By order of King Louis XIV “good dairy cows from Normandy and Brittany” were sent to New France. By 1667, there were 3 107 bovines in New France.

Importation of additional animals ceased once the colony had a sufficient number of cattle to be self-sustaining. These cattle of New France were bred only among themselves for many years without the introduction of outside blood. Due to the harsh conditions, only the healthiest and most fit animals survived to pass on their genes. In this fashion, the Canadienne breed was developed.

“Until around 1853 Quebec farmers knew almost no other cow except for the descendants of these first cattle.” Frère Isidore, O.C.R.

The tough little Canadienne held its ground until the second half of the 19th century when the importation of larger, foreign breeds was encouraged on Quebec dairy farms. By 1881, it was becoming obvious that the native Quebec breed was in danger of disappearing, leading a group of concerned breeders to begin a campaign in its favour. In 1886, a herd book was established for the breed, along with a breed standard. An association to promote and strengthen the breed was formed in 1895.

Annual picnic of Canadian cattle breeders. (Fonds Société des éleveurs de bovins canadiens, SHHY. Photo : Office provincial de publicité, Québec)


The Canadienne is a small to medium sized dairy breed. It has a ‘primitive’ coat colour of dark brown to black with a fawn coloured topline and muzzle. It is hardy and can thrive on forage without the need for additional expensive feeds. It is also fertile, docile, and long-lived. Although the Canadienne produces a smaller milk volume than a Holstein, the butterfat content is higher and it is considered excellent for cheese production due to its high Kappa-casein B variant protein content.

The original Normande-Bretagne type of French cow has long since gone extinct, but its genetic legacy lives on in the Canadienne and also in that of Jerseys and Guernseys, to whom the Canadienne is related. Some Canadienne cows were recently returned to France in an attempt to re-introduce the breed there.  Unfortunately, overall the Canadienne has suffered significant decline since the 19th century.  Attempts to improve its milk output led to cross-breeding with Brown Swiss cattle in the 1970’s. The result of which has rendered true, pure-bred Canadiennes extremely rare.


Odelie de Cap Rouge, Société d’Histoire de la Haute-Yamaska

It is estimated that there are only 250 pure-bred Canadienne cows left in Quebec and perhaps 1000 or so world-wide.  In 1850, there were 300 000. Rare Breeds Canada lists the Canadienne as vulnerable.

Sources:;; The Canadian Encylopedia; Les Bovins: Manuels D’Oka, Institut Agricole d’Oka, 1950; Société d’Histoire de la Haute-Yamaska.








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