Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
November 2005

Documents of Quebec History / Documents de l'histoire du Québec


La loi du cadenas

The Padlock Law


Quebec On the Road to Fascism



[This text was written by Eugene Forsey. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]

IN THE AUTUMN OF 1837, a group of heroic French-Canadians laid down their lives to estab­lish liberty and democracy in Quebec. In the autumn of 1937, the government of Quebec and the city of Montreal have been celebrating the centenary by trying to destroy liberty and democracy in Quebec.


On October 23, 1936, the City of Montreal illegally prohibited the Spanish delegates' meeting, under threat of riot from students of the University of Montreal. On October 22, 1937, doubtless by way of celebrating this anniversary also in suitable fashion, the Mayor and students staged a repetition of the performance. Montreal Communists had arranged a meeting for Alfred Costes, French trade union leader and Communist member of Parliament, and Tim Buck. At noon on the day of the meeting, three hundred students invaded the City Hall, boldly reminded the Mayor of their success last year, threatened riot if the meeting were held, and demanded that the Mayor prohibit it. The Mayor at first pleaded lack of legal powers; at the mention of riot he sent for the Director of Police, who appeared with suspicious promptness. "You see before you," said the Mayor, "a considerable section of the population of Montreal. I think they are as important as the group that wants to hold the meeting . . . I am afraid there may be rioting if such a meeting is held. I ask you to take steps to prevent disorder." In the subsequent court proceedings, when asked whether he had "arranged" for the students to come to the City Hall, the Mayor became very indignant and confused; and the City Attorney objected to the question, which therefore went unanswered. But if the whole scene had not been pre-arranged, the Police Director's reply to the Mayor's suggestion is certainly very remarkable: "There are two ways of preventing a riot. One is to send a thousand policemen. That seems to be the very worst way. The other is to prevent the meeting. In the interests of public order, I will take the obvious step to prevent rioting and disorder." Legal action to preserve order "the very worst way," illegal action "the obvious step!"


The meeting was accordingly prohibited, and the students departed, to be harangued on the steps of the City Hall by a notorious local Fascist, who offered further incitement to riot, while the head of the police "Red Squad" looked on.


The vice-president of the Civil Liberties Union had been a witness of the whole disgraceful scene, and at once lodged his protest. Howled down, he appealed to the Mayor for a hearing, only to be told that this was the students' delegation and that he had no business there at all. Invited to return with "his own" delegation, he did so, three days later. Five members of the Civil Liberties Union executive appeared to demand that the Mayor produce legal authority for his action. The Mayor's answer was: (1) that the Civil Liberties Union seemed to be interested only in defending Communists; (2) that the Mayor was the servant of the majority and that the majority in Montreal did not want Communism discussed: (3) that in the case of Communist meetings it was necessary to "stretch" the law; (4) that the students had only given him a "legal pretext" for prohibiting the meeting; (5) that Montreal might take what action it pleased on Communism, as other municipalities took what action they pleased on bathing suits: (6) that Communism was obscenity; (7) that the Pope had condemned Communism. To repeated requests for any clause in any law which gave him power to act as he had done, he made no reply whatever. Asked point blank whether he proposed to act in the same way in future, he said yes.


Two days later, true to his word, the Mayor abruptly announced that he had prohibited a meeting of the Friends of the Soviet Union to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. On October 27, the F.S.U. secured a temporary injunction against the City. On October 28, Judge Curran heard argument on an interlocutory injunction. In vain counsel for the F.S.U. pointed out the the F.S.U. numbered among its members the Duchess of Atholl, Lords Hastings, Listowel and Marley, Sir Norman Angell (contributor to the Financial Post), M. Cot (French Air Minister) and others of the same sort. The Mayor insisted that it was a Communist organization. The head of the police "Red Squad" testified that the President of the F.S.U. was an unfrocked Oblate priest, now head of a Protestant mission, and that the secretary had once "disdainfully" dropped cigarette ashes on a policeman's uniform. He admitted that there were about sixty "Communist" meetings a month in Montreal, that in five years all but three or four had been absolutely peaceful, and that the exceptions had been attended by only trifling disturbances. The judge ruled that: (1) it had not been proved that the meeting would have been Communist, or that anyone at it was going to speak about Communism or preach it, or that General Yakhontoff, the chief speaker, was a Communist; (2) it was not the duty of the court to interfere in the administration of the City by its officials in such a case; (3) there was no irreparable injury to the F.S.U. He therefore refused the injunction.


Characteristically, the police allowed a protest meeting later the same evening, under the chairman-ship of the provincial president of the Communist Party and with a former Communist candidate for Parliament as one of the other two chief speakers; and allowed it on the ground that neither General Yakhontoff nor the secretary of the F.S.U. was to be present!


These proceedings evoked the protest of the Civil Liberties Union and a scathing rebuke to the Mayor from the French weekly "Le Jour". Unfor­tunately they also called forth responses of a quite different kind. Le Soleil, organ of the Liberal (?) party in Quebec City, burst into huzzas [sic] for the students: "Bravo! . . . The whole province applauds this fine act." L'Action Catholique, organ of the hierarchy, deplored the "fact" that "the sower of subversive ideas . . . is free to perorate at his ease," adding "at every moment we hear noisy denunciations of Fascism and of different systems which use popular force to bring order and progress to society. We admit . . . to being passably indifferent between democracy and Fascism, provided that our society takes hold of itself and sees the peril which menaces our civilization." The St. Jean Baptiste Society officially approved "the gallant gesture" of the students and congratulated the Mayor. The Comité des Oeuvres Catholiques followed suit. The Association Canadienne de la Jeunesse Catholique wrote the Mayor that his "gesture deserved the approval of all right-thinking persons and did great honour to our first magistrate," congratulated and thanked him for his "courage," and with unconscious irony assured him of support "in the struggle you have undertaken against those who incite to disorder." The students themselves, three hundred strong, marched to the City Hall with banners flying, to present their congratulations. The Mayor replied modestly: "I have only done my duty. I do not deserve congratulations." The Chief Magistrate of Canada's largest city, publicly congratulated on having broken the law, answers that he has only done his duty! Not even Hitler could improve on that.


On Sunday, October 31, the City suddenly cancelled permission for a meeting of the Federation of the Unemployed in a city-owned hall. The speakers were to have been Colonel R. L. Calder, K.C., former Crown prosecutor, Hubert Desaulniers, French provincial secretary of the C.C.F. and a member of the C.C.F. National Council, Miss Madeline Sheridan, well known Montreal Catholic and a member of the C.C.F. National Council, C. Perry, member of the C.C.F. provincial council, A. Nadeau and the leader of the Ontario Federation of the Unemployed. The Mayor, questioned by a second delegation from the Civil Liberties Union, explained that he understood there was to be a Communist speaker, and that made the meeting a Communist meeting.


The same day, in Quebec City, the Cardinal delivered a notable speech, at the feast of Christ the King. Last year the affair was graced by Mr. Duplessis, who seized the opportunity to congratulate the students for stopping the Spanish meeting. This year the understudy made way for the principal. Denouncing both Nazism and Bolshevism, the Cardinal reserved his sharpest attacks for the supporters of free speech. He lamented the "disorders of the heart and the deviations of conscience which cause people to lend an ear to equivocal novelties and libertarian systems." "Freedom of speech, yes, but not freedom to insult our social conceptions, our traditions, our morals and our religion. Freedom of speech, I am for it, . but let it be among decent people, not among imbeciles and brigands . . . Would you let sufferers from contagious diseases poison the air you breathe? . . . That is why I approve the resistance which has just been made in the metropolis to Communist meetings. Together with His Excellency the Archbishop-Coadjutor of Montreal. I praise the youth which aligns itself to protect social order." (Unusual way of describing incitement to riot.) "I congratulate the municipal authorities who support the opposition to Communist elements. I encourage all public men who in this respect do their duty. And I invite you, if need be, to do likewise. If it is argued that this is contrary to law, I reply that before law there is the Law of Nature . . . Well, to defend ourselves against subversive doctrines, against spiritual poisoning, against the overthrow of the foundations of civilization, against the dynamite which would blow up our religious, family and social traditions, if that is not the law, let that law be made; if not, we shall exercise the law and right of nature. 'The safety of the people is the supreme law'. . . Under pretext of respecting a morbid democracy, people wave at us the spectre of an illusory Fascism, and meanwhile the enemies gain a foothold and make a mockery of our juridical scruples." His Eminence then hinted that those who preached free speech were wolves in sheep's clothing, comparable with the magicians and seducers and sorcerers of Scripture: "Must we not conclude that Satan, prince of darkness and father of lies might act in the same fashion?"

Thus the Cardinal constitutes himself an accessory after the fact in the law breaking of the students and the Mayor. Seated upon his throne at the opening of the next session of the legislature (for he now has a throne there, beside that of the Lieutenant-Governor), he will doubtless be in a position to make sure that a law conforming to his ideas of what law ought to be is "made".


Meanwhile the provincial government is doing the best it can for him under the existing law. On November 4, the Board of Censors prohibited the showing of a film of the life of Zola, widely acclaimed as the best film of the year, and approved by the Catholic-sponsored Legion of Decency in the United States. No explanation is forthcoming, but the newspapers give us to understand that it is because Zola is on the Index. On 'November 9 the provincial police padlocked the weekly Clarté and the shop which printed it. On November 10 also, they raided the Modern Bookshop and the home of M. Jean Péron and carried off all books, pamphlets, periodicals, papers and letters they could lay their hands on. On November 11, they raided the headquarters of the Friends of the Soviet Union and took away everything except a copy of L'Illustration and International Detective Stories.


After the first padlocking, M. Duplessis said proudly that he was "just beginning". In the same interview, referring to an earlier statement he had made that the C.C.F. was a "movement of Communist inspiration" and to the denials promptly sent him by the National Secretary of the C.C.F. and the past and present presidents of the Quebec section, he said: "But you should see what Archbishop Gauthier says about the C.C.F." He accused the international unions of harbouring Communists, and Commanded them to "purge" their ranks. He repeated previous declarations against the C.I.O. It seems likely, therefore that we are indeed only at the beginning of a reign of terror in which everyone who happens to incur the displeasure of M. Duplessis or his august Superior may expect to have his home or office ransacked and perhaps padlocked in the approved Nazi manner. Sinclair Lewis had better come to Quebec and write a new version of "It Can't Happen Here".


Through all this, what has been the attitude of the two great Montreal English language daily newspapers, the Star and the Gazette (self-styled "Canada's greatest" and "best" respectively) ? Brave as lions about Mr. Aberhart's press bill, what have they said about this invasion of civil liberties nearer home? Not one syllable.


That is Quebec, 1937. Law is swept into the discard if it interferes with what the Cardinal and his henchmen consider to be the "will of the majority" or "the Law of Nature". It has apparently not occurred to these worthies that this is rather a dangerous doctrine for French-Canadians in a country predominantly Protestant and English-speaking. They will not be altogether pleased if Ontario Orangemen start suppressing the legally guaranteed liberties of French-Canadian Catholics in that province. But they will have only themselves to thank if the Orangemen reply, in the manner of the Mayor of Montreal, "the majority of our people do not want the French language or the Catholic Church," or, in the manner of the Cardinal, "well, to defend ourselves against spiritual poisoning against the dynamite which would blow up our religious, family (see the recent decisions of Quebec courts in mixed marriage cases) and social traditions, we shall exercise the right of nature. 'The safety of the people is the supreme law'."


Meanwhile, where is the Dominion Government? Like the Montreal newspapers, it is very valiant in defending the civil liberties of bankers in Alberta. Where is it now, when the civil liberties of ordinary citizens are being swiftly banished from Canada's second largest province? Every one of the reasons given for disallowing the Alberta Acts applies a fortiori to the Padlock Act. It took only a few days for the Dominion to decide that the Alberta Acts must be disallowed. It is now more than six months since the passing of the Padlock Act. When may we expect action?

Source: Eugene FORSEY, "Quebec On the Road to Fascism", in Canadian Forum, Vol. XVII, No 203 (December 1937): 298-300. Several typographical errors were corrected in the text.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College