Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
February 2007

Studies in Quebec History


Notes on Anti-Semitism Among Quebec Nationalists, 1920-1970: Methodological Failings, Distorted Conclusions

Xavier Gélinas


[The following is the text of a conference given by Xavier Gélinas, Ph.D., Curator, Canadian Political History, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, Quebec. The conference was given on October 8, 1998, as part of the Seminar Series of the Department of History of Queen's University.]


Ladies and gentlemen,

Before addressing the topic, I need to proceed with an expression of gratitude and one of apology. Professor Tulchinsky much honored me in proposing that I take part in your Seminar Series; he deserves my warmest thanks. And Mr. James Murton proved an invaluable organizer and cicerone.

As for my apology - and this may be the only moment when I am apologetic tonight - it relates to the awkward English I am imposing on you. It won't offend me in the least if, either during the conference or afterwards, I am asked to repeat one word or the other; it will be a well-deserved lesson in humility.

* * *

I would like to start with a truism with which, I think, everyone will agree. One does not need to master the great works of historians and social scientists, in fact, one needs only common sense, to acknowledge that when trying to assess a delicate issue occurring before our time, the result will be flawed if certain precautions are unobserved. These precautions, for historians, are laws that govern and guide our work. There are methods to follow and there are personal impulses and prejudices, however respectable when guiding one's own life, that need to be muffled. Otherwise, the results of these inquiries will depict a picture far different from what the contemporaries could witness. And any qualities of literary sparkle or wit will be of no avail.

It is such failings of which I intend to talk. (1)

Anyone remotely familiar with the intellectual and political scene of the past ten years orso, knows that French Canadian nationalism of the early and middle decades of this century has a bad reputation. (2) It is alleged that its thoughts and actions exuded a rabid anti-Semitism derived from, and comparable to, the most intolerant thinkers and the most reprehensible political movements and regimes in Europe. This summary is not a caricature, as this excerpt from Mordecai Richler can attest:

From the beginning, French Canadian nationalism has been badly tainted by racism. The patron saint of the indépendantistes, the Abbé Lionel Groulx, was not only a virulent anti-Semite but also a nascent fascist, an unabashed admirer in the thirties of Mussolini, Dollfuss, and Salazar. (3)

The target of these attacks is then Lionel Groulx, the historian and nationalist writer, as well as a cohort of writers, newspapers, reviews and movements that gravitated around Groulx and spread his ideas; from François-Albert Angers to André Laurendeau and Esdras Minville, from L'Action nationale to Le Devoir, from the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste to the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, to name but a few.

This thesis may be traced back to the 1930s. (4) It acquired a wider currency with the almost simultaneous books by Esther Delisle, Le traître et le juif (The Traitor and the Jew), and Mordecai Richler, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country. Delisle and Richler were not the only ones leading the charge, however. The names of Michael Behiels, the rebornCité libre review, Ramsay Cook, William Johnson, or Nadia Khouri could be said to belong to this school of thought, assuming, of course, tonal differences (from detached to polemic) and varying degrees of research (from learned arguments to hearsay). (5) Nuances aside, all share the view that French Canadian nationalism was disconnected from reality and built on racial prejudice - because all varieties of nationalism, anywhere, are deemed to be exclusivist, supremacist in essence. And this whole debate is not confined to the precincts of French Canada. Limitations of time and knowledge forbid me from reaching out further, but it is across the Western world that a school of thought holds as self-evident the intrinsically exclusivist nature of nationalism. (6)

* * *

I hasten to add that this demonization of traditional Quebec nationalism happens to originate mostly from non-francophone, non-Catholic authors, but the debate does not oppose cultural groups in a black and white manner: Esther Delisle is a pure laine Quebec author, to use a familiar expression. And a great deal of anglophone authors repudiate this thesis.

In my view, many francophone authors haven't dealt appropriately with the challenge extended to them by Delisle, Richler and their group. Those uneasy responses help account why the "demonizers" have the upper hand today, if not in the intelligentsia, then certainly in the broader public of English Canada. Today's Quebec writers, when having to grapple with this hot potato of the alleged anti-Semitism of their nationalism of old, tend to react in three different fashions, each of them prejudicial, I argue, to a real understanding of the issue. The problem is that - a definite majority of the intellectual class in francophone Quebec being committed to political sovereignty - they are sensitive to any accusation which might result in harming or soiling their contemporary objective. Therefore, to the disquieting writings by the "demonizers," three reactions occur: silence, suppression, or repudiation.

"Silence" refers to numerous articles, textbooks, government documents, etc., purporting to survey Quebec history, including the charged decade of the 1930s and the unavoidable subject of Lionel Groulx, that manage to avoid the issue of anti-Semitism altogether. No answer is the best answer, they seem to argue implicitly - as if the problem would then vanish into thin air.

By "suppression," I point to frequent attempts to prevent the expression of the anti-nationalist school of thought. Esther Delisle, for instance, had to face countless hurdles to get her Ph.D. thesis accepted by Laval University. I do not conceal that I am opposed to just about everything Delisle writes, but as long as a dissertation respects pre-established guidelines, I cannot agree with such barriers. You will also remember that the Bloc québécois vainly attempted to have Richler's book, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, forbidden by the House of Commons. And no publisher in Quebec was willing to translate and launch into French controversial books dealing with Quebec, one by Diane Francis, the other by Lawrence Martin. (7) These reactions are an open door to accusations that there is something to hide, that truth hurts too much...

As for "repudiation," I refer to well-known Quebec nationalists and university professors, such as Gérard Bouchard, who, perhaps to gain respect and approval among the "demonizers," repeatedly assert that their own, modern, democratic, pluralistic, secular nationalism has nothing in common with that of the recent past. They concur, implicitly and usually explicitly, with the dark interpretation of Groulx and his entourage. (8) In certain respects, they are right in claiming that their nationalism is of a different breed: starting in the 1960s, the socio-economic activism of the Quebec government, the decline of the Catholic Church, both locally and worldwide, the reliance on language and territory instead of the old anchors of ethnicity and religion, have indeed transformed Quebec. But these protests of the new breed nationalists aren't totally accepted by their opponents - deservedly, in my opinion. For I am dubious, and apparently I am not alone in saying so, that contemporary Quebec nationalism was born ex nihilo in 1960, with the advent of the Quiet Revolution, or in 1968, with the creation of the Parti québécois. I cannot believe that it owes nothing to the spokesmen and doctrines of the pre-1960 era. This pretension smacks as much of ungratefulness as it does of amnesia.

I would humbly retort to this segment of contemporary Quebec nationalists that the theses of Delisle, Richler and others deserve to be answered otherwise than by silence, suppression or repudiation. I would entreat the "modern" sovereignists to take a second look at what has been covered, inadequately, by their opponents. Open the windows on your own past; study it more closely; quietly ponder its strong and weak aspects; retain and reject what you wish for today's purposes, but assume your history.

* * *

Disregard for the document


Among the criticisms which I think should be directed at many authors, though fortunately not all, dealing with anti-Semitism in Quebec, there is a frequent disregard for the document. I do not refer here to an adequate understanding of the documents that are read; this I try to cover throughout this talk. I am alluding to the basic need of looking at the text. To claim to any meaningful research, a scholar has to examine original documents and not simply rely on the works of colleagues who studied the same topics previously. Such is the beauty of documents, that they enable judgment to be based on solid matters, instead of relying on the distortions of bush telegraph. What is seldom practical in aboriginal or social history, for instance, is not only practical, but absolutely essential when claiming to study intellectual or political history. We should all repeat to ourselves as a mantra, what the famous nineteenth-century French historian, Fustel de Coulanges, replied whenever a colleague entreated him about a historical issue: "Avez-vous un texte?" ("Do you have a document?").

This comment of mine seems so basic that I wish I wouldn't need to suggest it. Yet this piece of advice is often forgotten in the studies of relations between Jews and French-speaking Catholics in Quebec. An example of this failing springs to my mind.

The example doesn't concern the time period I am speaking of tonight, but it belongs to the same subject matter. In Richler's book, one can read, matter-of-factly and with no reference, that, "one of the stated aims of the Patriotes' rebellion of 1837-38 was that all Jews in Upper and Lower Canada be strangled and their goods confiscated." The non-specialist reader - that is to say, the vast majority of Richler's readers, in Canada and worldwide, who haven't studied mid-nineteenth century Canada in depth - will no doubt find that, indeed, Groulx and his followers have sinister and blood-thirsty ancestors. But in fact, there is no foundation for this assertion by Richler. Scholars puzzled by it, traced it back to a classic survey entitled The French Canadians, by Mason Wade, published in 1955. In turn, Mason Wade's only supporting source is a conference delivered before the Royal Society in Canada in 1926 by Ivanhoé Caron. And in turn, Caron's only foundation is a police deposition made by one - and only one - paid informer who told authorities, in November 1838, that one - and only one - unknown Patriote by the name of Frederick Glackmeyer - hardly an old-stock French Canadian, by the way - told him of this plan, two weeks before. It is worth observing that among the other informers who made depositions regarding this Frederick Glackmeyer, none reported anything concerning Jews. And this is the rock-solid proof supporting Richler's claim that the Patriotes of 1837 and 1838 intended to strangle all Jews and confiscate their goods... (9)

* * *



On the need to refer to the documents themselves and not to hearsay evidence, I presume few would disagree. I now have to address another failing which is more delicate to express: that of hypersensitivity.

In a sense, this comment is directed at authors who are Jewish themselves, but in a wider sense it concerns all writers, of whatever religious or cultural affiliation, who are - rightly, need I add - horrified at what the Jews suffered throughout the years, and particularly horrified about the Holocaust. I believe that this normal, noble feeling sometimes is so pronounced, however, that it blinds the eyes and minds of authors whenever they see a possible hint of anti-Semitism. So desirous of avoiding forever the recurrence of the darkest passages of Jewish history, they pounce on the possible criminal, forgetting all nuances, all context, as if its alleged doings or writings led to the slaughter of Jews, in a deterministic manner.

In so doing, these excessively sensitive authors certainly prove where their hearts reside, but their use of the magnifying glass, when a simple 20/20 vision would be required, doesn't enable them to judge past and present adequately. In a recent documentary film by Ina Fichman, Towards the Promised Land, a survivor of the Holocaust explains that her nightmares have been haunting her and will haunt her, even in the happiest moments, until she dies; and that because of this, she and many other Jews, fear anything resembling nationalism. It would take a heart of stone not to understand the feeling expressed by this woman. Nevertheless, I believe the mission of the scholar is to strive to preside fairly over a trial. I am not saying that scholars should write as if they were heartless robots, or creatures from an outer planet superbly detached from, and totally uninvolved in, what is described. And I certainly acknowledge that, if you will, talk is cheap; that it is very easy for me, as a non-Jew, who has never met a Holocaust survivor, and as a relatively young man, who lives in a quiet period, to argue this. But I repeat that too much passion is the enemy of reason.

* * *

Lack of detachment from contemporary concerns


The lack of detachment from contemporary concerns is another failing of certain authors when commenting on the extent and nature of anti-Semitism in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution. It cannot be denied that the likes of Diane Francis and William Johnson are using the past, their own blackened picture of the past, in support of their arguments against Quebec sovereignists of the 1990s. I would suggest to anti-separatists and anti-nationalists in Canada today, that they use whatever contemporary argument they see fit to fight their contemporary battles; but that they leave history alone if they intend to select from it, and then distort, only those elements accommodating them. Of course, in all fairness, this advice - naive and illusory, I admit - should also be extended to Quebec sovereignists. And I would urge historians and scholars: please don't play those games, try not to hear the pundits and politicians, and just do your work.


* * *

Presentism and anachronism


It might seem impertinent for a junior historian to be compelled to remind scholars or essayists who weren't born yesterday of some truisms - but sometimes basic lessons get buried and forgotten under a pile of knowledge. One such truism is that it is both unfair and misleading to judge the actions and thoughts of yesterday according to the standards of today, and according to our knowledge of what happened after those actions were committed and those thoughts were expressed. Presentism and anachronism are two sins which are frequently committed in the studies of anti-Semitism.

If we were to summarize the core of the prevailing ideology among intellectuals, today, I think four words would emerge: individualism, internationalism, secularism and ecumenism.

Society is no longer conceived in terms of nations and peoples, but rather of individuals who are free to espouse and shape the culture, the religion, the country of their choice. When nations and peoples are considered, it is to insist on their fluidity, on their interdependence, and on the absolute impossibility of ranking them according to any scale of merit, for the good reason that any collective characterization pretending to depict a nation or a culture is deemed sheer prejudice. It is no longer fashionable to establish one's view of the world according to one's religious faith; faith is allowed, provided it doesn't interfere with civil society. It is considered intolerant and obscurantist to claim that one's faith is superior to the other, or to attempt any conversion.

This summary - admittedly, a very sketchy summary - of what appears to be the dominant contemporary paradigm among intellectuals, is reflected by Esther Delisle's own statement:

What is a nation? It is an abstract idea. For me, there are groups of humans, changing, constantly in transformation, but whose characteristics nationalists wish to congeal. (10)

At least Delisle has the honesty of disclosing where she stands, ideologically speaking, that is to say, from which viewpoint she examines her topic. Of course, it is inevitable to assess the past according to what we are, to where we come from, to what we believe in; this explains why the same events come to be explained very differently by historians. But while recognizing this, shouldn't we, as scholars, keep in mind that the people we are studying didn't necessary have the same outlook? Shouldn't we attempt to put ourselves inside the bodies and the minds of the people we are studying, so as to see better the choices that they faced?

This seems especially important for the period preceding 1945, and even the 1960s. It can be argued that across the West, apart from Communist and socialist movements, only a minority of intellectuals shared the outlook which is prevalent today. The world "multiculturalism" didn't even exist. It was widely assumed that nations and peoples were relatively fixed entities and that they could be ranked and compared as collectivities. It wasn't politically incorrect to think and write that Germans were hard-working and brutal; that Italians were charming and lazy; that French were gracious and prone to self-aggrandizement, etc. Most people judged as self-evident the idea that western civilization, or the white race, or Christianity, were superior to the civilizations and peoples of Africa and elsewhere. Among Christians, differences between denominations were deemed to be meaningful. Catholics routinely believed that Protestants were cold-hearted and spiritually arrogant. Protestants believed that Catholics valued ignorance and were sheepishly obedient to the Pope instead of the Gospel.

It is with this in mind that our topic has to be examined. I think scholars should start their research with this question: taking into consideration the fact that the prevailing view, in the earlier part of the century, was non-individualist, non-internationalist, non-secularist and non-ecumenical - did Quebec nationalism distinguish itself negatively regarding the Jewish question? Why reproach Quebec nationalists for a view of the world which was then prevalent, not only among them, but among the majority of intellectuals in English Canada and elsewhere? Why reproach them for their Catholic pride and sense of exclusiveness, at a time when no other religious group behaved otherwise, Jews and Protestants included? Why reproach them for their concept that nations were certainly not "abstract ideas", but the very foundation of society? This is not to say that historians are not free to comment, positively or negatively, on their findings; indeed they must do so, to make the past intelligible to the contemporary generation. But in their comments, they have to remind their readers that the era they studied did not function according to our own standards... and they would be wise to tell them, as well, that what pass for authoritative canons in our time may well be disregarded a century or two hence.

Anachronism is as damaging a failing as presentism can be. A single example of anachronism will suffice: the Holocaust. Of course, we now know what happened during the Second World War. But the traditional nationalists writing in 1920, in 1930, even in 1939 did not know it, could not know it - nobody in the West knew it. Yet, to read Delisle, Richler and other critics of Groulx and his followers, it would sometimes appear that somehow those authors could foresee the Holocaust; that their writings or speeches led directly to that dreadful conclusion. The unwritten equation would be: "Groulx and his entourage were anti-Semitic in the 1930s; therefore they agreed with the extermination of Jews by the Nazis." Their past, and their present, were what nationalists of 1920, 1930 and 1939 could see when they wrote. Knowledge of the future is given to astrologists, perhaps, but not to ordinary people. The time machine has yet to be invented.

* * *


Double standards


And what about double standards? What is valid in politics has to be valid in history too. You are aware that contemporary federalists, in Canada, are prone to complain of Quebec sovereignists, who claim that Canada is divisible but insist that Quebec is not. I will not venture to comment any further on the present debate; but I would add that many opponents of today's Quebec sovereignists are the same people who impugn Quebec nationalism of yesteryear for being distinctively hostile to Jews. And those opponents commit the very same fault of double standards.

It is appropriate to record whatever occurrences of anti-Semitism did take place, and many took place, in the writings by Quebec nationalists. But authors should beware of pointing at the mote in the neighbour's eye, while conveniently forgetting to mention the similar or bigger mote in another person's eye. Otherwise, the intentional or unintentional result would be to stigmatize Groulx and his followers alone, and let the uninformed reader assume that the rest of Quebec's and Canada's society was peopled exclusively with tolerant, non-bigoted individuals.

It is wrong to let the uninformed reader be unaware that an icon of English Canadian culture such as Stephen Leacock wasn't precisely a philo-Semite; that McGill University had strict quotas regarding the admission of Jews; that the Christie Pits riot of 1933, in Toronto, had no equivalent in French Canada; that for decades banks, department stores, insurance companies and the like, across English Canada, were barred to Jews for career opportunities; or that Canada has a shameful record in its policy towards the admission of Jewish refugees during the Nazi period, largely because of the anti-Semitic instincts of prime minister Mackenzie King. I prefer not to elaborate on this sad list. The conclusion which seems to stem from it, and from researched works by Irving Abella and Martin Robin, is that in the grading of anti-Semitism in the middle decades of this century, English Canada and French Canada fared about equal, although the arguments, the rationales and the tone were different. (11)


* * *

Linguistic ignorance


Linguistic ignorance is another trap into which many writers of the Delisle-Richler school have fallen. Of all people, scholars should show respect for the proper senses and nuances of words. In French as well as in English, words used fifty years ago didn't necessarily have the same meaning as they do now. A good example of this evolution concerns the word race. As well, one admits that every specialized area has its own vocabulary; it is the case in psychoanalysis, or sociology, for instance, where words don't always mean what they do in ordinary discourse.


To understand such specialized areas which aren't one's own field, an author has to be aware of their special lexicons. Otherwise all distortions are allowed. And when confusion can arise because of the use of specific words which have various meaning according to the context they were used in, that context has to be provided. Highly selective quotations can be accurate in the sense that these precise words were actually used, but I don't need to remind an audience of scholars of the danger of tinkering with quotations to make them say the opposite of what they intended originally.

A case in point is the word "supermen" ("surhommes") used by Esther Delisle, who asserts that Lionel Groulx had a utopian social project inspired by Nazi and fascist regimes, aiming to create a totally pure society where only "supermen and Gods" would be allowed. "Supermen and Gods" are words at the end of a sentence quoted from Groulx; the preceding sentence is not given. The assumption here is that Groulx used the word "supermen", like Nietzsche, a philosopher hijacked by the Nazis, who claimed that Aryans were naturally superior human beings whose mission was to conquer the world.

If we look at what Groulx did write, what do we find? Here is the sentence quoted by Delisle:

Those young men and girls who have been smitten with an absolute ideal, eagerly pushing their personality development to the limit, will realize that their birth into the Catholic faith and a Catholic country accords them the immense privilege of possessing Christ's infinite perfection as a spiritual ideal. During the course of their spiritual development this ideal can transform them, if they so desire, into supermen and Gods. (12)

Groulx was a Catholic priest, addressing a Catholic audience on the virtues of Catholicism. Can't it be presumed that he used the word "supermen" in a Catholic sense, then, and not in a Nietzschean sense which was unknown to all but a handful of French Canadians of his time? Not only can it be presumed, it can be ascertained by reading the sentence - conveniently ignored by Delisle - immediately preceding the one just quoted: "Lastly, and more specially, would come the religious contribution to the national milieu. And then, what a vast perspective would the supernatural greatness of Catholicism offer to the mind of childhood and youth!" (13)

As for the word race, it had two different, although related, senses in the first part of the twentieth century. After the Second World War, writers banished the second sense because it had been tarnished by the first sense. The first meaning, which we could call of the German school, is purely genetic or physical; the second sense means people, nation or civilization. Hundreds of examples could be provided of Western thinkers or political leaders in 1900 or 1930 who used the word according to this second meaning. Let us remember that Lionel Groulx was born in 1878; it is understandable that he uses a vocabulary learned during his formative years, that is, before 1900.

It is mostly in this second sense that Lionel Groulx and his followers used it over and over, for instance in Groulx's political novel L'appel de la race. (14) After 1945, traditional nationalists almost ceased using the word race altogether, since by that time it was common usage that the word should apply strictly in the physical or biological sense - and this sense was not what mattered to traditional nationalists. Thus, it is a-historical to deduct from Groulx's frequent use of the term that he was ipso facto racist in the modern sense of the word.

I admit that the use of the word race in this second sense didn't entirely evacuate elements of ethnicity or physical heredity; it figured as one of the components, although a minor one. Groulx himself explained in his posthumous memoirs, written in the early 1960s, what he meant by the word race. I don't need to remind you that caution is often advised when reading memoirs, which are a good opportunity for their writers to put their past life in the most flattering light. But in this case I think that Groulx reflects exactly what he was:

I confess having overused the vocabulary or terminology of my time. The expressions race, nation, people, didn't have the precise sense that they do today [..]. Never, however, did it come to my mind to speak of a race based only on blood, in an animal or biological manner. Although in the concept of race, for me, there was room for heredity and undeniably the influence of the geographical, economic and social milieu, I defined it more particularly as a substance of culture or civilization, that is to say, as the essential elements which constitute a nation. (15)

The ethnic component of race in this second sense deserves to be explored - but the distinction between the two senses of the word has to be acknowledged. Scholars would be well inspired, if they study authors writing, say, in 1930, to look at the dictionaries published then.

Another confusion comes with the word racism, which was seldom used then, but is common today. Linguistic impropriety here doesn't involve a misunderstanding of ancient usage, but a confusion between two contemporary meanings, related but distinct. In everyday discourse, the two senses of racism are used interchangeably; but scholars should strive for more precision if their description is to be faithful to reality. The word means either the affirmation of the supremacy of one group over another - which is the strict and, to me, the best definition; or the affirmation of differences between ethnic and cultural groups - what, I think, should be called racialism to avoid ambiguity. Traditional nationalists were undoubtedly racialists. But supremacism, or racism in the strict sense, was not their lot.

Here, it is best to again refer to Groulx . He writes this in 1933: "Antisemitism is not only an un-Christian solution; it is a negative and stupid solution." (16)

And, considering all "races" other than the French Canadian one, Groulx again has Jules de Lantagnac, one of the characters of his supposedly racist novel, L'Appel de la race, say this:

What is this talk of superior race and inferior race? I believe in the superiority of yours; I also believe in the superiority of mine; but I believe them to be different, that is all. (17)


This being said, to realize that the concept of race, for traditional nationalists, had very little to do with biological determinism, and that for them, no race is superior to an other, doesn't imply that Groulx and his followers were proponents of open borders between individuals and peoples. You may have noticed that in a quote from Groulx, the Canon refers to anti-Semitism as "an un-Christian solution." A solution only exists to correct a problem, therefore there existed, for traditional nationalists, a Jewish problem. Indeed, nationalists were preoccupied with the unity, the homogeneity of the French Canadian people. In this regard, intermarriage was discouraged, as well as the adoption of various customs and doctrines that were foreign to, and could threaten the essence of Catholic French Canada as they saw it.

* * *

Different versions of anti-Semitism


This discussion around the word race leads me to the need to establish categories or varieties of anti-Semitism. Someone is not just for or against Jews, period; if he is opposed to Jews for reason "A," his anti-Semitism is different than if he is opposed for reason "B." I do not suggest here that there is a scale of merit or demerit about anti-Semitism; I am saying that any social phenomenon or ideology is better understood when clearly delineated instead of being treated as a shapeless entity. These distinctions are often overlooked by critics of Groulx and of traditional nationalists. I suggest that the following categories of anti-Semitism exist: racial, political, religious and cultural. These are not watertight compartments however, because in many instances these varieties may intersect. Traditional Quebec nationalism may be rapidly examined according to these four categories.

Racial anti-Semitism needs little explanation; it confronts Jews for being Jews; not primarily for what they do or think. Jews are deemed to be deserving attack or inferior treatment because of their very birth. I said earlier that I didn't suggest here a scale of merit or demerit, but I would make an exception for racial anti-Semitism; I am sure you would agree it is the most absolute and damaging variety of all, because no Jew can escape from it; whereas in the other varieties, Jews can at least avoid some of the wrath of anti-Semites by changing their behaviour.

There were racial anti-Semites in French Quebec; but as I attempted to show, they are not to be found among Lionel Groulx and his school of thought. They are to be found in movements led by the unabashedly fascist Adrien Arcand in the 1930s, who edited newspapers such as Le Goglu and headed a party called the National Social Christian Party. Arcand and his disciples had no relations, personal or intellectual, with the Groulx school. Contrary to what Richler writes, it was Le Goglu, and not Le Devoir, which resembled Der Stürmer. The only thing Arcand and Groulx had in common was Catholicism and its teachings, although the two schools of thought interpreted it quite differently. For Arcand, religion was a factor in his racial anti-Semitism, despite what the popes of the Twentieth Century could say. What divided Arcand and Groulx, apart from racism, was Arcand's lack of nationalism. Arcand was a Canadian patriot, aiming to coalesce Canadians of French and British pure stock against the Jews. Arcand's following, in the 1930s, was significant; the man and his movement still haven't received a thorough and serene scholarly treatment; but they are not to be confused with the mainstream of traditional nationalists.

As for political anti-Semitism, quite common in Europe, particularly in Latin countries, it argues that Jews are to be criticized not for their heredity, but for the undue place they are alleged to take in government and generally in the ruling of society. Charles Maurras called it anti-Semitism "of State," instead of anti-Semitism "of skin." This category was almost absent here, for the good reason that it is not until the 1950s and the 1960s that Canadian Jews could acquire any enviable social status in government, justice, finance, the university, etc., contrary to what happened in France, for instance, during the Third Republic.

Political anti-Semitism was thus absent from the scene, but religious anti-Semitism definitely was not. I think it could be called more accurately anti-Judaism since it was concerned with the Jewish faith. Twenty centuries of official thought by the Church, which was modified only in the early 1960s by the Vatican, held that Jews were infidels, the descendants of those who hadn't followed Christ. It was a full fifteen years after the Second World War that Rome removed the reference to "perfidious Jews" in the Holy Friday prayer. As devout Roman Catholics, Groulx and his followers reflected this official Catholic thought. Since we are talking about inter-faith dialog - or lack of dialog - an accurate understanding of this anti-Judaism will only emerge when more research is done on the attitudes of Jewish religious leaders towards Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, earlier in our century. If my memory doesn't fail me, it is Catholic authorities in Quebec who took the initiative, in the late 1940s, to establish communications with Jewish religious authorities; and the latter took about a decade to accept this extended hand, suspicious as they were that Catholics really aimed at the conversion of Jews, not really a dialog.

Cultural anti-Semitism, lastly, was also present among Quebec nationalists. I mean by "cultural" that Jews are criticized not for their race, not for their political usurpation, not for their religion, but for principles and customs that they are deemed, rightly or wrongly, to believe in and to practice. Such principles and customs being opposed to the traditional nationalist vision of Quebec, they were opposed at the same time as their alleged carriers. (I may add in fairness to traditional nationalists that their collective characterization of Jews by associating them with wrong principles, is a two-sided coin; Groulx and others also make positive generalizations of Jews: that they are hard-working, have a sense of tradition and solidarity, etc. Nationalists wish Catholic French Canadians would emulate those qualities).

In this vein, and in the context of the nationalists' opposition to doctrinal liberalism as well as to Marxism, Jews are criticized for adhering to materialism, free masonry, lack of morals, socialism and the class struggle, cosmopolitanism, contempt for the rural life and so on.

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the real target of the attack: principle so and so or the Jews who are supposed to favour it? Only a patient and objective study can reveal that. I think such a study would establish that some of these criticisms were just pretexts for blaming Jews, although most were genuinely aimed at the principle, regardless of who favours it. As for the veracity of linking Jews with all those principles deemed false, I admit that this another question altogether. For my part, I have read a great deal of denunciations of socialism, free masonry, immorality, etc., which do not contain a single allusion to Jews.

* * *

Lack of gradation


Apart from the frequent absence of categorization, one aspect that I deem deplorable in many works by the Delisle-Richler school is the absence of nuances, in the sense of the non-existence of gradation, of measurement. Whenever anti-Semitism is detected, it is instantly judged as being extreme and total. Perhaps this is attributable to the hypersensitivity I mentioned previously.

It is true that anti-Semitic violence usually follows anti-Semitic policy or writings; and that anti-Semitic writings and policy usually follow anti-Semitic prejudices expressed privately; and that anti-Semitism usually is derived from nationalism. But it is to commit the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (it happened after this, therefore it happened because of this) to argue that private prejudices automatically lead to an organized doctrine of total anti-Semitism, sanctioned or not by government authorities; and it is equally false to argue that anti-Semitic ideology or policy automatically leads to physical violence; or to argue that nationalism necessarily leads to anti-Semitism. I don't think the domino theory or the oil-spill effect are of much use to explain anti-Semitism. It is tantamount to say that what the NDP really has in mind is a Khmer Rouge type of regime; it is demagoguery; perhaps efficient politics; but bad history.

Yet this absurd amalgam is often found in discussions of anti-Semitism in Quebec. Writers fail to see that isolated private utterances are less important to notice than constant public denunciations of Jews; that speeches and articles against Jews are less damaging than discriminatory laws against Jews; that articles and laws directed against Jews are less threatening to them than deportation and massacre. Here there must be a scale, not of merit, but of offensiveness.

The same disregard for measurement and gradation is found when authors select a writer such as Lionel Groulx; they elaborate on the ten or so passages when he treats the Jewish question - yet they never seem to consider worth mentioning that to Groulx and his entourage, the anti-Semitism that did sometimes exist was absolutely peripheral to nationalist doctrine. That is to say that all references to Jews could be suppressed without eroding the general doctrine in the least; the same could not be said of a theorist such as Alfred Rosenberg, author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century, or, closer to home, it couldn't be said of Adrien Arcand, for whom the Jewish question was central among nearly every article and conference he made in forty years. Lionel Groulx died at age 89 in 1967; he wrote hundreds of books and articles, yet there isn't one out of a hundred which deals with the Jewish question. He hardly deserves the title of "anti-Semitic leader" that was granted him.

* * *

Lack of contextualization


The last, and possibly the most damaging, methodological failing to which I would like to draw your attention tonight is the frequent absence of any contextualization in the studies of anti-Semitism among traditional nationalists.

Critics could say, and have said, that to attempt to put anti-Semitism into its context, is equal to rearranging the past conveniently in order to make it more palatable. I prefer to think that to contextualize is as important to a historian as to a judge. The more complex the trial, the more questions a judge will ask about the circumstances in which the crime, or the alleged crime, was committed, to ensure that all that surrounds it is known, so that true justice emerges. Explanation doesn't mean approbation; it means understanding.

To understand our topic, one needs not just to look at Groulx and his friends' writings in isolation; one needs to understand Catholic French Quebeckers and Jewish Quebeckers in Montreal, in Quebec and in Canada during the early and middle decades of this century; politically, economically, demographically and culturally.

A short and accurate description of the context is given by Morton Weinfeld:

The Jews are a small minority within Quebec; but the Québécois are an equally small minority within a predominantly English-speaking continent. To understand the situation of Jews in Quebec, it is thus important to recognize that we have here not a classic minority-majority relationship, but rather one between two groups, each of which is deeply marked by minority traits. [...] Both groups share parallel histories of minority struggle and perceived victimization, including a common exclusion by a dominant Anglo-Saxon group from key economic and social sectors in Quebec. (18)

This defensiveness explains largely the achat chez nous movement, which urged French Canadians to boycott Jewish stores, not for the sake of punishing Jews but with the goal of giving back to French Canadians the only sector of the economy over which they had some control: small business. That campaign, in the 1930s, was certainly accompanied by anti-Semitism; and it did prompt zealous militants to act foolishly; but this wasn't, however, its ultimate goal.

Therefore, the defensive anti-Semitism of the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s in Quebec should in no way be compared with anti-Semitic feelings, instincts or writings coming from "normal" countries such as Germany - to give an extreme example - or even the United States, English Canada, France or Britain.

It is a sad but universal rule, described by Albert Memmi, among others, that minorities or colonized peoples tend to be discriminatory or racist towards other ethnic groups. They are nervous about their status and survival. They don't have the strength or the courage, sometimes, to rebel against the real oppressor - in this case the anglophone establishment. So they find scapegoats. Anti-Semitism coming from a minority or colonized people doesn't necessarily makes it more lenient. But it is more easily explainable than anti-Semitism exerted by a group which is sure of its strength and whose survival is not threatened.

You will recall that during the last referendum campaign Lucien Bouchard promised - and those are almost his exact words - that sovereignty will be like a magic wand, that it would automatically solve all of Quebec's problems. I don't know whether this is true. But what I strongly suspect to be true, is that the economic and political advancement of francophones in Quebec, starting somewhere in the early 1950s, has almost magically eradicated what real anti-Semitism that did exist among nationalists. For me there is a definite correlation: the more French Quebeckers have lost their real or perceived inferior economic status in Quebec, and political status in Canada, the more self-confident, or normal, if you wish, they felt, and the less they were prone to criticize Jews. As I tried to explain earlier, other factors accounted for anti-Semitism in Quebec; but the inferior or "colonial" status of French-speaking Catholics is a major part of the explanation.

* * *

Have I gone too far in attempting to redress the balance? In other words, have I, in my criticism of the methods used - or not used - by the "demonizers," minimized excessively the anti-Semitism that did exist among French Canadian nationalists, earlier in this century? It is possible; and I will be willing to look objectively at any rebuttals, provided they don't disobey the methods which I modestly saw in my duty to discuss with you tonight. I am intimately convinced that this reasoned approach, scholarly speaking, will be effective in conveying the closest approximation of the truth on this topic, and that, humanly speaking, it will be beneficial to transparent and fruitful relations between contemporary Jews and nationalists in Quebec.


I am deeply indebted to scholarly and opinionated works, whose arguments I use liberally. A selection of these works would include: Gary Caldwell, "The Sins of the Abbé Groulx", The Literary Review of Canada III, 7 (July-August 1994), pp. 17-23; Jean-Claude Dupuis, "Le retour de Cité libre", L'Action nationale LXXXI, 8 (October 1991), pp. 1043-1052; Jean Éthier-Blais, Le siècle de l'abbé Groulx (Montréal: Leméac, 1993, 260 p.); Jacques Langlais and David Rome, Juifs et Québécois français: 200 ans d'histoire commune (Montréal: Fides, 1986, 286 p.) (translation: Jews and French Quebecers: Two Hundred Years of Shared History [Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1991, xxii-187 p.]); Roberto Perin, "Is Quebec Racist?", The Toronto Star, December 17th, 1991; numerous articles by Pierre Trépanier, particularly "Notes sur l'histoire des droites intellectuelles canadiennes-françaises à travers leurs principaux représentants", Les Cahiers des Dix 48 (1993), pp. 119-164, and "Entrevue avec Pierre Trépanier", in Gilles Gougeon, ed., Histoire du nationalisme québécois. Entrevues avec sept spécialistes (Montréal: VLB Éditeur / Société Radio-Canada, 1993), pp. 89-104; and the special issue of Les Cahiers d'histoire du Québec au XXe siècle, 8 (Autumn 1997) devoted to "Lionel Groulx: actualité et relecture", particularly the "Présentation" by Benoît Lacroix and Stéphane Stapinsky, pp. 5-12.

Return to Document

The years 1920 and 1970 are here used as mileposts. French Canadian nationalism - in its dominant trend - transformed itself around 1920, abandoning the pan-Canadian perspective of Henri Bourassa to espouse the thought of Lionel Groulx, stressing territoriality and the use of the Quebec state, while retaining Bourassa's Catholicism. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the following decades were, to quote Jean Éthier-Blais, "le siècle de l'abbé Groulx", among nationalist intellectuals at least. The advent of the Quiet Revolution, in 1960, is usually marked as the passage to a new, a-religious and ethnically pluralistic, variety of nationalism. This categorization is broadly adequate; but Groulx himself remained a prolific writer until his death in 1967, and the intra-nationalist debates of the 1960s reveal that Groulxism was still an important ideology, if decreasing in prominence.

Return to Document

Mordecai Richler, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country (Toronto: Penguin, 1992), p. 81.

Return to Document

Cf. Roberto Perin, "Answering the Québec Question: Two Centuries of Equivocation", in Daniel Drache and Roberto Perin (eds.), Negotiating with a Sovereign Quebec (Toronto: Lorimer, 1992), pp. 37-40.

Return to Document

Esther Delisle, Le traître et le juif. Lionel Groulx, Le Devoir et le délire du nationalisme d'extrême droite dans la province de Québec 1929-1939 (Outremont: L'Étincelle, 1992, 284 p.) (translation: The Traitor and the Jew: Anti-Semitism and Extremist Right-Wing Nationalism in Quebec from 1929 to 1939 [Outremont: Robert Davies Publishing, 1993, 216 p.]); and Mythes, mémoire et mensonges. L'intelligentsia du Québec devant la tentation fasciste, 1939-1960 (Montréal: Éd. multimédia Robert Davies, 1998, 190 p.) (translation: Myths, Memory and Lies: Quebec's Intelligentsia and the Fascist Temptation, 1939-1960 [Westmount: Robert Davies Multimedia, 1998, 271 p.]). Mordecai Richler, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country (Toronto: Penguin, 1992, 277 p.). Michael D. Behiels, "The Problems of Living Together in Quebec", The Literary Review of Canada I, 6 (June 1992), pp. 13-16; Ramsay Cook, "The Remembrance of All Things Past", preface to E. Delisle, The Traitor and the Jew, pp. 11-14; William Johnson, Anglophobie: Made in Québec (Montréal: Stanké, 1991, 477 p.); Nadia Khouri, Qui a peur de Mordecai Richler? (Montréal: Balzac, 1995, 159 p.).

Return to Document

See, v.g., Élie Kedourie, Nationalism (New York: Praeger, 1960, 151 p.); Eric John Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 2nd. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, viii-191 p.); Phyllis M. Senese, "Seduced by the Dark Side: Racism and Antisemitism in the Slipstream of Nationalism", paper read at "A Rare Bird on the Earth: A Conference to Recognize Ramsay Cook", University of Ottawa, October 5th, 1997.

Return to Document

Diane Francis, Fighting for Canada (Toronto: Key Porter, 1996, 190 p.); Lawrence Martin, The Antagonist: Lucien Bouchard and the Politics of Delusion (Toronto: Viking, 1997, viii-356 p.).

Return to Document

See, v.g., Gérard Bouchard, "Ouvrir le cercle de la nation. Activer la cohésion sociale. Réflexion sur le Québec et la diversité", L'Action nationale LXXXVII, 4 (April 1997), pp. 107-137; Claude Bariteau, "Pour une conception civique du Québec", L'Action nationale LXXXVI, 7 (September 1996), pp. 105-168.

Return to Document

See G. Caldwell, "The Sins of the Abbé Groulx", pp. 18 and 23 (note 2)

Return to Document

E. Delisle, The Traitor and the Jew, p. 11.

Return to Document

Cf. Irving Abella, A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1990, 248 p.); I. Abella and Harold Troper, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Lester Publishing, 1991, xxvi-340 p.); "Entrevue avec Robert Comeau", in G. Gougeon (ed.), Histoire du nationalisme québécois, pp. 105-110; Martin Robin, Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada, 1920-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, viii-372 p.).

Return to Document

Lionel Groulx, Orientations (Montréal: Éd. du Zodiaque, 1935), p. 113; quoted and translated by E. Delisle, The Traitor and the Jew, p. 197.

Return to Document

L. Groulx, Orientations, p. 113. My translation.

Return to Document

Translation: L. Groulx, The Iron Wedge (edited and introduced by Michel Gaulin; Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1986, xxxv-177 p.). See Pierre Hébert, Lionel Groulx et L'appel de la race (Montréal: Fides, 1996, 204 p.); Jean-Pierre Gaboury, Le nationalisme de Lionel Groulx. Aspects idéologiques (Ottawa: Éd. de l'Université d'Ottawa, 1975), pp. 27-39.

Return to Document

L. Groulx, Mes mémoires, Tome III (Montréal: Fides, 1972), p. 52; quoted by P. Hébert, Lionel Groulx et L'appel de la race, p. 145. My translation.

Return to Document

Jacques Brassier [L. Groulx], "Pour qu'on vive", L'Action nationale I, 4 (April 1933), p. 243; quoted and translated by G. Caldwell, "The Sins of the Abbé Groulx", pp. 17 and 21.

Return to Document

L. Groulx, L'appel de la race (Montréal: Fides, 1980 [© 1922]), p. 70; quoted by P. Hébert, Lionel Groulx et L'appel de la race, p. 144. My translation.

Return to Document

Morton Weinfeld, "The Jews of Quebec: An Overview", in Robert J. Brym, William Shaffir and M. Weinfeld (eds.), The Jews in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 171; quoted by G. Caldwell, "The Sins of the Abbé Groulx", p. 21.

Return to Document


© 2007 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College