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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

"The Three Pillars of Survival"

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

In 1806, there started to appear, in Quebec City, a newspaper that was called Le Canadien. The paper was established by Pierre Bédard to promote the interests of the Parti Canadien and to combat the propaganda of the Quebec Mercury, a sheet published by supporters of the governor general, Sir James Craig. Craig was not particularly known for his open minded attitude to reform and to the Canadiens. Le Canadien was to be a thorn on his side and he made attempts to suppress it. Le Canadien was of significance, at the time, because it was the first paper published in Canada entirely in French, and hence dedicated solely to the concerns of the francophone population, the cause of the reformers, and the survival of the Canadiens, i.e. of French Canadians.

Underneath the title, the newspaper outlined its motto or slogan: Notre foi, notre langue, nos institutions [our faith, our language, our institutions]. These three elements constituted essentially the three pillars of survival of French Canadians. They defined the distinctiveness of Quebec in the North American context and served as rallying points for the community. As long as French Canadians would stay faithful to these three pillars, they would continue to exist as a separate entity, as a people.

The first pillar was that of faith. What distinguished the faith of the Canadiens from the others on the continent is that they were Roman Catholics, whereas the others were Protestants. In the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries, religion was a prime element in defining the people and an essential cultural value in their life. Several people's sense of belonging, of defining themselves, hinged virtually solely on religion. This was the case among the Irish; it was also to be so in Canada among the French. While in the early XIXth century the Catholic faith did not as yet have the significance that it would have later in Quebec history, it nevertheless served to separate sharply the Canadiens from the rest of the continent. In the ultramontane perception that soon came to dominate in Quebec, the Roman Catholic faith was the first pillar. Everything else was subservient to that fact. For example, a nationalist like abbé Groulx, if asked to describe or define what the people of Quebec were essentially would simply reply that they were a catholic people. Catholique d'abord! [first and foremost Catholic!] defined their vision of the world. The people of Quebec were seen as the children of the Church left on this continent to do the Church's apostolic work. If the people of Quebec were not to remain Catholic, if they were not to be the instruments to spread the faith, then they had no real reason to continue to exist. This mission, messianism as Michel Brunet called it, was not to be seriously questioned until after the Second World War.

If the faith was the first, and overriding pillar, it had to impregnate all aspects of French Canada. Whenever institutions were created, however remote from the faith they might have appeared at a glance, they had to be organised around Catholicism. Thus, a large variety of Catholic organisations were created; schools were organised around the faith; hospitals and charitable organisations were set up on the confessional model; Catholic trade unions were formed and only Catholics could join the Caisses populaires. These are but a few of a myriad of examples.

In many respects the people of Quebec showed that they took the pillar of faith seriously. In all villages of the province, no matter how small, remote or poor, magnificent churches were erected, a tribute to the magnitude of the faith of the people but, at the same time, a clear affirmation of their existence as a separate people. Wherever there was a Church one would find clustered French Canadians, and la survivance could be organised around it. This was even the case in the New England area where so many French Canadians emigrated in the XIXth century. The people also showed their faith in joining the religious orders in large numbers. Even by the 1950's, the clergy represented one out of every 60 Quebecois; nearly 50% of the graduates from the classical colleges of the province joined the priesthood. Lionel Groulx was to argue in Le Canada français missionnaire that French Canada provided, on a per capita basis, more missionaries than any other people on earth. The pillar of faith was indeed a serious matter in Quebec. Time and again, the community rose to protect the Church and its institutions. Sometimes, they suffered discrimination for it, and no matter what else might be considered, it was subservient to the faith.

Language was the second pillar of survival. This is rather surprising when outwardly, especially as we look at it today when language debates are so frequent and acrimonious, the distinctive nature of the language seems more evident than the faith. However, focus on language was not as great in earlier times as it has become today. Many countries existed, or empires, where the great multiplicity of languages was not an impediment to national union especially if there was a single religion. Great Britain was a good case in point: there were Scots, English, Welsh, Irish, Manx, Jerseyans, etc. They spoke a variety of languages but that did not detract them from being British; that was because they largely shared belief in British institutions and ways, including religion.

The language of the Canadiens was French. They sought to preserve it, especially as attacks on their language eventually multiplied, or as their language was increasingly discounted politically, socially and economically. Yet, for a long time, it was evident that maintenance of the language was not as essential to the survival of the people as maintenance of the faith was. In fact, if the French language was to be maintained, and nobody seriously questioned that, it was frequently because the language by insulating the people from the rest of the continent, would serve to preserve the faith. The French were Catholic and as long as they remained French they would remain Catholic. English was the language of Protestantism. To absorb English, worse to abandon French to replace it by English, was seen as the first step in abandoning the faith. Thus the importance of the French language was that "la langue est la gardienne de la foi" [language is the guardian of the faith]. No contradiction was ever seen between the two, and none in fact existed.

If the French language was important, it was essential to nurture it. It was taught in the schools; indeed, English was not introduced early in the education of the children for fear that it would interfere with the proper mastery of French. Literary societies, whose main purpose was to create and use works of art produced in French, flourished. When for a variety of reasons the French language spoken by the people deteriorated, great efforts were made to improve the situation and many conferences and sermons were made on the necessity of proper use of the language. A major nationalist association was eventually formed as La Société du bon parler français [Society for good spoken French]. An Académie canadienne-française, the equivalent of the famous French Academy, was also established. In 1912, and again in 1937, large "Congrès de la langue française" were organised to bring together all of the francophones of the diaspora. Reading the reports produced on these occasions is very instructive of the place that the French language held in Quebec. From the 1970's on, various bodies were created by the Government of Quebec, to help develop the French language and adapt it better to the realities of the economic and technological world.

The third pillar to ensure the survival of the people and to serve to distinguish them from others was that of the institutions.. A variety of institutions characterised the Canadiens throughout their history. Chief among these was the French Civil law system. Law is inevitably the reflection of the culture of a people; it mirrors its values and its way of life. The various attempts of the British government, or of its officials, to abolish or alter the French civil law system to replace it with the British common law system served to rally the Canadiens and to display group solidarity. The latter is essential to the survival of a nation. At the time of Confederation much was done to protect the French civil law system as a characteristic of Quebec [see ss. 92-13, 94, 98]. Issuing the new civil code in 1866 was an essential component of that. Guarantees were also extended when the Supreme Court of Canada was created in 1875.

In the early XIXth century, the seigneurial system was another characteristic institution of Quebec. The Canadiens lived in the increasingly narrow confines of the system while the British preferred living in the Free and common socage system in the form of townships. The separateness likely suited both groups but was resented by the largely English capitalists who would have preferred a system more amenable to quick land transactions and with less incumbrances of all sorts. They sought to abolish the system. For the Canadiens to resist was to affirm their separateness. This lasted until the system was willingly abolished in 1854.

In fact, a whole range of familial, social and economic institutions characterised the people of Quebec and served to set them apart from the rest of the continent; among these was the strength of the co-operative institutions, especially the Caisses populaires.

Given the passage of time, and the inevitable evolution that attends it, as well as the spread of the American way of life and the syncretism that American culture provoked everywhere, some of the pillars of survival were whittled away. By 1960, many of the institutions that had characterised Quebec had been abolished or had adapted to the North American environment and culture. Even more startling, in a few short years, the Quiet Revolution was to empty the Churches of the province and discard completely the pillar of faith. A thoroughly secular society emerged from it. In this respect, Quebec also became more similar to the rest of the continent.

However, if the distinctiveness and the survival of Quebec had required three strong pillars, the religious one being by far the largest one, and if two of these pillars virtually disappeared in a short period of time during the Quiet Revolution, then the entire survival of Quebec as a separate culture and people was threatened by the collapse of these two pillars. Yet, that did not take place. This is because, starting from the 1960's, the pillar of language rose to prominence and was greatly strengthened and expanded. Today, the distinctiveness of Quebec rests primarily on the French language, and on the culture that attends it. That is why such great focus is placed on its protection, preservation and development. That is why comprehensive language bills have been issued while none of any significance had been enacted before the 1960's. This last remaining pillar faces increasing challenges from the English language which is in the process of becoming the lingua franca in the world.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College