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Last revised:
23 August 2000

Siegfried: the Race Question

André Siegfried, The Race Question in Canada, London, Eveleigh Nash, 1907, 343p.





[Note from the editor: There are some differences between this translated text and the original version in French published in 1906, even from the French edition of 1907. One change was that the English edition dropped all footnotes; some parts were also altered, in the English edition, which contained quotations, sometimes in Latin. The translator, in England, was also not always familiar with the proper terminology used in Canada. Thus, you will find many incongruities, areas where the translator did not convey properly the true meaning of Siegfried. As an example, compare the following translation with the beginning of the first paragraph of page four of the text :

" Indeed, the conception of a lay society does not seem to have penetrated into New France. Upon visiting it, one sees rapidly that it has not gone through its 1789. The civil state, or record-keeping, is still in the hands of the clergy and public opinion finds that only natural. It is the same with education: …" And the end of the paragraph should read: "While it conceives well enough of mutual toleration between the diverse confessions, it will not admit that allowance should be made for those without religion".

Often, Siegfried was not well served by the English translator, as fact missed by Frank H. Underhill in the 1966 edition by Carleton Library. Therefore, we recommend that on sensitive points, the French edition also be consulted.]

OF the 5,371,000 inhabitants of Canada, 2,229,000 are Catholics, and of these 1,429,000 belong to the single province of Quebec. The Church of Rome has its stronghold, therefore, upon French soil, and if we except the Irish element, which is somewhat numerous, it may be said that, speaking generally, the French of Canada are Catholic and the British Protestant. This fact contains the key to the entire political situation of the Dominion. There need be little fear of our exaggerating the part played by religion; both with Protestants and Catholics it is immense. In the case of the French Canadians the ascendency of the Church is so great that it may be regarded as the principal factor in their evolution.

It has been too much insisted upon that Separation between Church and State has become the rule in the New World. That is true as regards the Protestants, but it is not quite accurate as regards the Church of Rome, at least in Quebec, where it is in enjoyment of a privileged system of government.

Let us make haste to acknowledge that upon the banks of the St. Lawrence the Catholic Church has achieved a place apart, that it has always proved a loyal and powerful protection to its disciples, and that our race and tongue owe to it perhaps their survival in America. This unique position has enabled it, ever since the British conquest of Canada, to wrest special privileges from the victors. In many respects the Old World rights which it still maintains are a recognition of services rendered to our nationality. Little wonder, then, if the Church is doubly dear to the French of Canada, who see in it not merely the exponent of their faith but also the accredited defender of their race.

Guarantees in regard to religious points figured largely in the treaties which handed over our old colony to England. The capitulations of Quebec in 1759 and of Montreal in 1760 began by protecting the vanquished from all danger of that religious persecution of which they stood most in dread. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 confirmed these preliminary stipulations, and formally recognised the right of the French Catholics to keep up the practices of the Church of Rome within the limits of English law. Finally the Quebec Act, passed in 1774 by the Imperial Parliament, established definitively the civil, political, and religious rights of the French in Canada.

The status of the Catholic Church in Canada may be regarded, therefore, as due to a species of Concordat. The Quebec Act is really a treaty almost as much as a law. This was almost inevitable in a bilingual country in which two races live side by side without mingling.

The privileges of the Catholic Church in Canada are as follows: To begin with, it is accorded a kind of official recognition. The Quebec Act, regardful of the old French traditions, and confirmed in this by the Code Civile of 1877, cedes to the Catholic clergy the right to gather in and retain and disburse the time-honoured revenues due to them, provided that these revenues are to be exacted only from those who profess the religion of the Church of Rome.

The Protestants are entirely immune, therefore, from such rates. But it is otherwise with those who do not make an explicit declaration either that they have been converted to Protestantism or that they have ceased to belong to any faith. Any Catholics there may be of an emancipated kind, any free-thinkers with a bias towards Catholicism, are subjected to a certain mild form of intimidation, inasmuch as the law forces them either to obey the behests of the clergy or else nerve themselves to a kind of small apostasy, severely regarded by public opinion, and in any case an ungrateful proceeding.

Unless they make this public profession, the Catholics are subjected to the payment of a tithe, or rather of a twenty-sixth peck of corn from their crop, for these dues are only acknowledged officially in the country districts. Here they have all the appearance of a regular tax, the clergy being empowered to enforce their payment by legal processes. In the towns their place is taken by a poll-tax not usually recognised by the law; from time to time, however, the Courts have admitted its obligatory character, and as its levy is seldom or never challenged, it may be bracketed with the tithe. It will be seen, therefore, that in regard to this matter the separation between Church and State does not exist.

There are other cases also in which the clergy are able to have recourse to the arm of the law for the recovery of their dues. When, for instance, there is question of erecting a new church, the bishop, assisted by a building committee, levies a special tax upon the members of the parish concerned, and he can secure a Bill from Parliament for its enforcement.

No Protestant, I repeat, is liable to be thus taxed, but it is difficult for a Catholic, however unorthodox, to escape. Willy nilly, all must pay, and prosecutions, though rare, are by no means unheard of. No one protests. The French Canadians are devoted to their Church, free-thinkers are few, priest-baiters almost unknown. Therefore there is no talk of suppressing this ancient practice surviving from the France of yore.

It might be supposed that these important privileges would be balanced by a certain restriction of the liberties of the Church. That is not so. Its hierarchy and entire organisation are absolutely free from control, or even supervision, at the hands of the State. We shall be able to take stock of all its essential features without so much as mentioning the name of the civil power.

The Canadian parish, the unit of the ecclesiastical State, is formed more or less upon the basis of the French parish. It is administered by a curé and a vestry board, composed of acting and honorary churchwardens; these boards are renewed by process of cooption, but it is the bishop through the curé who has the chief say as to their constitution. And though they are autonomous bodies to a certain extent, it must not be ignored that they are largely controlled - and to an ever increasing extent - by the bishop.

The allotting of ecclesiastical appointments also is carried out in complete freedom. The appointing of the curés lies with the bishops; that of new bishops with the Pope, who makes his selection from a list of three names (dignus, dignior, dignissimus) which is presented by the bishops already on the bench. No intervention from outside takes place, though the presence of an apostolic envoy involves the possibility of semi-official negotiations. But the Church is sufficiently strong in Canada to discountenance interference, and its pride would be hurt by certain kinds of suggestions. One does not easily forget the tone of ironical contempt with which Canadian ecclesiastics are wont to speak of the " Concordat," under which a M. Dumay, a freemason, had the appointing of the bishops in France.

The creation and delimitation of new dioceses is equally free from interference by the State. These are matters for Rome. Ottawa has nothing to say to them. It is not even necessary to notify them to the Canadian Government. Thus the Church really achieves that perfect condition of complete independence of which its high functionaries love to talk. It lives outside the jurisdiction of the civil power, above it, the ecclesiastics sometimes maintain and always feel. No one ventures to assert in Canada, as in France, the supremacy of the State.

The very conception of a civil State does not seem indeed to have ever taken root in Canadian France. One has no difficulty in seeing that it never went through its 1789. The reins of government are still in the hands of the clergy, and this seems to the public quite natural. It is the same with education : there are Catholic schools and Protestant schools, but there are no secular schools in our sense of the word. The dead are buried in denominational cemeteries : a Catholic who has died without receiving the last Sacraments is not allowed to be buried in a Catholic cemetery; his family have to solicit a grave for him in a Protestant or Jewish cemetery. Such cases have occurred more than once. But in this respect also, though there have been protests enough, there has been no genuine effort at reform. This gives some idea of the mutual sentiment of toleration existing between the Churches. The condition of having no religion is simply not taken into account.

Most of the understandings come to in other countries with the Holy See have tended to check the intervention of the clergy in politics. In Canada the freedom of the priest in this respect is absolute. There is no law to prevent him from holding forth from the pulpit on the most burning questions of the day. As to the bishops, they are free to throw all the weight of their authority into the balance either by means of pastoral letters or of collective manifestoes [Note from the editor: the French text wrote "mandement". This translates as pastoral letter but carries further the sense that there is a command therein, one that demands of Catholics to comport themselves in a certain way, that an obligation must be carried out]. They have intervened in this way from time to time, and the Government has had no power to cope with them effectively. The utmost that could be done has been to annul certain elections in which clerical interference has gone beyond all reasonable limits and has taken the form of refusing the Sacraments to influence votes. But these cases have been very rare, and even the leaders of the Liberal party, though opposed by the Church, recognised the priest's right to take part in the electoral contests.

The clergy may congratulate themselves, therefore, on their position in face of the law. The law not merely places no obstacles in their way, but on the contrary it supports them. Only in their household, so to speak, have they rivals to contend with - namely, the members of the religious orders.

At the time of the cession of Canada it was stipulated that the sisterhoods should not be disturbed. There was no such provision as regards the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Sulpicians, but the new rulers treated them in the most tolerant fashion. The Jesuit community, however, ceased to exist towards the end of the eighteenth century, and by an existing law their property passed into the hands of the State. The other orders developed, unfettered in any way, and the Sulpicians, in particular, throve remarkably.

In the course of the last twenty years the multiplication of religious confraternities [should read: congregations] in Canada has taken on considerable proportions; the Jesuits have returned, and have even been endowed to the extent of 2,000,000 francs by the Quebec Parliament as indemnity for the former confiscation of their goods. In addition, the fame of Canada as a Catholic country, the liberal tendency of its ecclesiastical rule [read: the liberalism of the rules governing the Church] - to say nothing of the anti-clerical laws promulgated in France - has had the effect of attracting thousands of monks and nuns to the Dominion. They have to go through some formalities, it is true, before becoming established, but these are formalities and nothing more; they must obtain a Bill from the provincial Parliament, but this is rarely refused them; and they must submit to the jurisdiction of the bishopric. This done, they are free to receive offerings and legacies, without trammels of any kind upon their activities.

Their activities are very diverse in form. For the most part they win the goodwill and approval of the public. Some orders give up their lives to prayer and meditation, amply supported by alms. Others devote themselves to education : the Sulpicians, for instance, have most of the seminaries under their sway; the Jesuits play an important rôle in secondary education ; the Christian Brothers find their occupation in the management of primary schools; while there are many who, availing themselves of the exemption from taxation which they enjoy, earn their livelihood just like laymen by setting up printing works or kitchen gardens, taking in washing, etc. They find a large field for their energies also in hospital work and charitable duties of all kinds in a country in which the province of the secular administration is not yet very clearly marked out. Finally, these orders sometimes are moved to build chapels, and it is in this connection that they come into direct conflict with the secular clergy.

Chapels are apt to be formidable rivals to parish churches. This has been discovered in Canada as elsewhere. The monks are well equipped for making way. They have all their time at their disposal, and are able to win adherents among rich and poor alike by their visits and good offices. The poor have recourse to them as their special protectors, as regards both body and soul. The rich are attracted by a stamp of elegance which distinguishes certain confraternities.

These are not the remarks merely of a foreign visitor. They come from the bishops and curés themselves. The bishops, especially, look with alarm at a competition which in some cases seems fraught with danger to them. They have even gone so far as to appropriate for their congregations certain chapels which seemed in too great demand; and, in order to avert the evil, they have sought to discourage the immigration of the members of religious orders in too great numbers. Not openly, but by means of hints, they convey a friendly warning to new arrivals and to intending comers that Canada, though a big place, has but a small population, and that for its still somewhat restricted flocks there is not scope for an unlimited supply of shepherds. If you must come, they say, at least go farther West and open out the prairie!

You may even hear people in close touch with the Church, but enjoying a greater freedom of speech than its dignitaries, complain openly of this troublesome invasion, and talk of the possibility of introducing a law dealing with the whole question of religious confraternities - a law which would meet with no very determined opposition from the bishops and curés. But these are wild words, the outcome of jealousy and ill-humour. Against the common enemies, Protestantism and Free Thought, all the forces of Catholicism are united and as one man. There may be diverse currents, but they are turned by the Vatican in the one direction.

The Catholic Church in Canada is in truth in a condition of deep submission to the Holy See. It bent the knee, not perhaps without reluctance but to the full, to that new order of things by which, thirty or forty years ago, the Church became an absolute centralised monarchy. We shall note many evidences of this in the course of the chapters that follow.





ALL the old beliefs have been preserved as it were in ice among the French of Canada, and it would seem that the great stream of modern thought has as yet failed, with them, to shake the rock of Catholic belief. It is rare to find a body of the faithful so submissive in their attitude ; and it is not merely the country folk who are to be found rallying round their priests, but also the townsfolk and the industrial population generally. Indifference is to be met with, of course, here as everywhere, but it hardly ever takes on the form of disrespect. We are far indeed from modern France.

In a bilingual country peopled by two races it is natural that the limits of religious jurisdiction should be very clearly drawn ; this is the normal result of historical conditions, no less than of a very consistent and resolute line of policy followed by the Roman clergy since the first days of the conquest - the policy of isolation.

Dispersion and absorption are the two dangers which menace unceasingly the unity of our race in Canada. Therefore it was that the Church, profoundly convinced that to keep the race French was to keep it Catholic, came to look upon isolation as the chief safeguard for a racial individuality threatened on all sides by the advances of the New World. Therefore it is that it has put out all its efforts to segregate its flock from the rest of America. Instead of attempting the difficult and ungrateful task of making converts in the enemy's camp, it has devoted all its energies to retaining its hold over the souls belonging to it from the far past. In this work the two influences it has most to fear are those of Protestantism and Free Thought. To keep its members out of the reach of these two powerful tendencies is the programme which it continues to have constantly before it.

The first of these two dangers is the more threatening, for the solid body of French Catholics is beaten upon at all points by the on-coming waves of the Anglo-American ocean. English and Protestant have become almost synonymous terms in a country in which there are doubtless many English Catholics but in which French Protestants are practically non-existent. And it were vain to ignore the fact that conversion to Protestantism involves generally the passing of the convert into the ranks of the English body: the two things go together. In order to prevent these defections, the Catholic Church has done everything in its power to lessen the contact of the two races. The development of the Canadians may have suffered from this division, but to it is due in great degree the astonishing persistence of their distinctive individuality.

Natural circumstances facilitate the accomplishment of this programme. Victors and vanquished, English and French, might well be expected to avoid rather than seek out occasions of intercourse: everything, or almost everything, tends to keep them apart.

The fact of their speaking different languages in particular constitutes a real barrier between them, which the clergy naturally do nothing to break down : the state of things produced by it is all in their favour.

This, however, does not apply to the bourgeoisie ; for business, like the learned professions, demands a thorough knowledge of English. The colleges for secondary education managed by the Church have had to recognise this necessity, with the result that almost all Canadians of the upper or even the middle classes are now able to speak both languages quite well ; they are in consequence more exposed to the influences of the neighbouring form of civilisation.

But the great mass of French Canadians are unacquainted with any foreign tongue. They will probably remain so, and the Church can be at rest in regard to them as long as they do, for they are proof against the influence of the English-speaking races. Monseigneur Laflèche, Bishop of Trois-Rivières, has expressed his view upon the whole subject in a phrase that has become famous: " My children, be well up in French, but not too well up in English! "

Language constitutes the outworks protecting Catholicism in Canada. When these have been overcome, the stronghold of the Church is open to new attacks in the shape of the social intercourse that ensues between the two races, and above all in mixed marriages.

It is impossible to prevent all intercourse between two races living together in the same cities. The Church has realised this, and has reserved all her strength for the prevention as far as practicable of marriages between Catholics and Protestants. To this end she imposes severe conditions : the ceremony must take place only in the Catholic Church, and an undertaking must be given that the children shall be brought up in the Catholic faith. This attitude is easy to understand, and its effects are clear. The Church wishes to keep its boundaries intact and well defined. She would prefer to lose a single individual member altogether rather than sanction the admission of a Protestant upon any other terms into a Catholic family. Otherwise the result might be the formation of dubious groups, half Catholic, half Protestant, likely to tend later towards Free Thought and to be lost entirely to Rome.

The success of this policy has been well-nigh complete. Mixed marriages are few, and in all cases the question of religion is settled one way or the other. It is not the clergy alone that are responsible for this solution. The whole Canadian community, Protestant as well as Catholic, supports them in the matter. Both races seem to feel that it is necessary to be either French or English, Protestant or Catholic - that it is not possible to be both at once, or to maintain a state of equilibrium between the two. Both armies have made prisoners in the strife, but each has in the long run held good its position.

The situation of the French Protestants between these opposing forces is a very difficult one. The French Protestant is something of a paradox in Canada. There is no place for him. The moment comes for him sooner or later when he must choose between his race and his religion. It is not easy for him to keep to his religion: no French Canadian girl will be allowed to marry him unless he be prepared to hand over his children to the Church of Rome. If he wishes to remain a Protestant he is almost bound to marry an Englishwoman, and the result is that even if he himself resists British influences and remains French, his children will be barely able to speak his language, and will develop almost certainly into Anglo-Saxons.

It is true that there are some small French communities in Canada belonging to the Reformed Church - small colonies perhaps it would be more correct to designate them, for they have nothing Canadian about them. Their moral elevation of character and their cohesion are worthy of all praise, but their position is a precarious one owing to the state of things I have described.

It would be quite a mistake to suppose that the Canadian Catholic clergy are animated by any anti-English feeling in their policy of isolation. What they are guarding against is Protestantism and advanced views. That is why they look askance at the Americans also, even the American Catholics who are suspected of too great independence in their attitude towards the Holy See. Therefore it is that the neighbouring peoples are kept apart almost as by water-tight partitions. The Canadian Catholic spirit follows its own course, and knows no other guidance than that of Rome. In these circumstances it is not surprising that Protestant Jewish and Theistic America should be an object of even greater alarm than England, as being more alive and less conservative. The policy of annexation has no more resolute opponents than the clergy of Quebec, for they realise on the day the province should be merged in America there would be an end to its old isolation, and it would be overwhelmed by the torrent of new ideas. It would mean the end of Catholic supremacy in this corner of the world, perhaps the deathblow to the French race in Canada.

Such, then, in its main outlines, is the policy of isolation so effectively pursued by the Canadian Catholic Church. It is becoming a more and more difficult one in the face of the unceasing advance of methods of communication and the progress of education and the growth of the power of the press. However, the clergy are not relaxing their efforts, and they maintain their desperate struggle for the upper hand in the matter of the schools. And if they do not win over many Protestants they still retain their authority over their own flocks.

Up to the present their defences have not suffered much at the hands of their English opponents. Let us see now how they have fared face to face with the revolutionary France of 1789. Their resistance in this direction we shall find is not less persistent or less energetic.


Source: André Siegfried, The Race Question in Canada, London, Eveleigh Nash, 1907, 343p., pp. 11-25.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College