Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Ross GORDON, The Historiographical Debate on the Charges of Anti-Semitism Made Against Lionel Groulx, M.A. Thesis (History), University of Ottawa, 1996, 141p.




It is very rare that a doctoral thesis on any subject attracts more than a glancing attention outside of the academic community within which it was presented.  It is still more unusual for a thesis to create a storm of controversy before it has even been defended.  Indeed, that its very defence becomes a ‘cause’ in and of itself.  Such were the curious circumstances of Esther Delisle’s doctoral thesis work.(1)  Her problems with the Laval University committee that was charged with reviewing her thesis became newsworthy, being picked up by Actualité (2) after she spoke to a journalist from that magazine.(3) When it became apparent that a very controversial article by Mordecai Richler on Quebec nationalism and anti-Semitism, published in the New Yorker, was based partly upon her research, she was caught in a firestorm of editorial page anger.  Yet, she responded to every charge and fought, for two years, to have her thesis be evaluated by a jury. The fight was so bitter that she tried to have one member of the jury, Pierre Anctil, removed.(4) Anctil, an academic with extensive experience in French and Jewish-Canadian relations, remained to vote against her work.  The thesis was eventually accepted by a 3-2 vote.


By the time that the thesis was edited and published in a revised book form, first in French then in an English edition, it had become one of the most eagerly awaited academic studies in many years. Soon after publication the book became a best seller in both languages, a rare feat once again. The reaction to it from both French and English critics took on a life of its own. There was controversy, and then there was controversy about the controversy. Very different perspectives emerged on the subject of Lionel Groulx.  Moreover there emerged criticism, for and against Esther Delisle herself and her motives as a political scientist in researching and writing such a study.


This study will begin with a very brief summary of the history of the Jewish population of Quebec up to the early 20th century when Lionel Groulx's influence was beginning to be felt, in order to set the stage. Then it will review and discuss the works of several authors who have written on the subject of anti-Semitism in Lionel Groulx's work. In a chronological fashion, beginning in 1944 with an article by Maclean's Magazine editor Blair Fraser, it will follow through the decades up to and including Esther Delisle's thesis and book in 1991. Only those works that specifically discuss the anti-Semitic aspect of Lionel Groulx's work, and in some cases his life, will be part of this study.  From a sparse beginning in the 1940's to the flood of work on Groulx that poured forth in the late 1980's one finds that as the study of his great body of work diminished over time, the interest in the debate over his racial views grew. One also finds that historical study in Quebec, mirroring Quebec society, grew increasingly secular and branched into new areas of interest from the 1950's onward.  The field of debate over Groulx's legacy has been for the most part filled by non-historians.  Political scientists, archivists, journalists and even anthropologists have stepped into the fray at one time or another to furnish their opinions upon Lionel Groulx's anti-Semitic side.


Historians, both within and outside of Quebec, have been good at distancing themselves from the subject of his anti-Semitism, finding it to be only a small part of his overall life story. It is ignored by them with noticeable exceptions such as Susan Mann Trofimenkoff. The rising tide of Social Scientists that have taken their places in academe since the coming of the Quiet Revolution have seen in Groulx an opportunity.  He can be used as focal point for an examination of the dark underbelly of Quebec society.  He can be revealed as the face of the racial policies of a nationalist movement. Or, on the other hand, he can be useful  portraying Quebec's victim status, in demonstrating how even Quebec's greatest thinkers are tarnished by her enemies, made into targets for those who would attack the nationalist movement.


I have read and reviewed every book, article and review on the subject of Groulx's anti-Semitism that I could locate, and many works on Lionel Groulx himself.  After reading so much it became apparent that there are writers; historians, political scientists, and journalists et al, who firmly believe that he was an anti-Semite and present this as his defining feature. There are others, however, who downplay the controversy over his anti-Semitic writings in their own works, in some cases leaving out any mention of them.


This study will endeavor to demonstrate how Lionel Groulx has been, over several decades, shown on the one hand to have been an aggressive anti-Semite, and on the other hand shown to have been largely misunderstood.  Then it will look at the controversial work by Esther Delisle.(5) Both her thesis and her book and have been used for this Memoire, though the focus is mainly on the book. One reason is that it is the book that has influenced public opinion much more than the thesis.  As a two-language bestseller, (the thesis is available in a French microfiche copy only) and controversial object of interest it will lead many to their first encounter with the Abbé and will leave a lasting impression upon future students of Quebec Nationalism and history.  Secondly, and of equal importance, the book contains all of the allegations against Groulx and quotes from his own pen that are in the thesis.  But it also contains new material not found in the thesis, including quotes and accusations against Lionel Groulx that are astonishing and incriminating in a way that no other writer has been able to produce.  Unfortunately, they are also entirely unproven, perhaps even unproveable which makes her book more controversial even than her thesis. (6)  This is the material written by one Lambert Closse, that in anti-Semitic virulence is in another league from the works usually attributed to Groulx.  Her thesis does not include this material and over time other names have been given 'credit' for Closse's work. (7)  


What this study will explore is the following: how does her controversial work stand in comparison to those who covered the same subject of Groulx's anti-Semitic nature in the decades preceding her publication? After reviewing the evolving opinions on Lionel Groulx's anti-Semitic nature as shown in his recorded works, from those who believe him to have been a malevolent influence on Quebec society and from those who felt that he was unfairly characterised as such, I will review her book in comparison. Then I will ask the question: Has she come up with anything new to add to the story of Lionel Groulx?  Has she taken the argument that he was an anti-Semite and solidified it with new material?  Has she answered those critics who have said for decades that the critics of Groulx have been motivated by a dislike or misunderstanding of Québecois society and not by a real concern for his position vis the Jews of Québec?  Has she proven once and for all that his anti-Semitism was a major motivating factor in his work, one that deserves condemnation?  If she has answered these questions then that would explain the controversy surrounding her work, she would be tarnishing not just the name of Groulx once and for all, but a lot of academics and politicians who had defended his name and his life's work.


There was, she has stated, a subtext to the anger engendered by her work, an accusation that she was 'betraying' her own people. (8) She was accused of writing on a subject that she had no business being interested in. It is an interesting aspect of Quebec academia, and Quebec is certainly not alone in this respect, that an allegiance to a school of historical interpretation is at times as important to one's present work as the facts or interpretations presented in any given paper. Those who wrote on Groulx previous to Esther Delisle often had specific agendas that drove their interpretations.  Those who attacked and those who defended her work also had more than just facts and arguments to sustain them. Therefore as this study unfolds, those authors discussed will be placed into the context of their times. It will clarify their positions if their underlying assumptions are illuminated and this in turn should explain why a controversy erupted over Dr. Delisle's work in the first place.


(1) Le Traître et le Juif: Lionel Groulx, Le Devoir, et le délire du nationalisme d'extrême droite dans la province de Québec 1929-1939. Université Laval: 1991.

(2) "Qui a peur d'Esther Delisle?  Une universitaire qui pourfend l'antisémitisme du chanoine Groulx et des nationalistes québécois des années 30 fait face a un véritable blocus institutionnel." L'Actualité, 15 décembre 1991.  p9.

(3) Foran. "That Book of Esther's". Saturday Night.  p32.

(4) Ibid.

(5) She made sure that all of the relevant quotes and materials were included in the book. 

(6) I am referring to the quotes by one Lambert Closse that she attributes to Groulx while admitting herself that the author could have been anyone.

(7) I at first thought that she had been forced to leave the Closse material out of the thesis at the request of the jury at Laval.  During our interview, jury member Pierre Anctil stated that the material by Closse was never introduced by Delisle.

(8) "You must be a Jew!...Or and enemy of Quebec!"  The Traitor and the Jew.  p17.


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Source: Ross GORDON, The Historiographical Debate on the Charges of Anti-Semitism Made Against Lionel Groulx, M.A. thesis (History), University of Ottawa, 1996, 141p., pp. 3-5

© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College