Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
February 2005

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


History of the Liberal Party of Quebec

in the XIXth Century


[This text was published in 1900. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]


AFTER Canada 's cession to Great Britain   by the Paris Treaty of 1763, the country remained under a military regime until 1774, when she obtained a Civil Government composed of a Governor appointed by the Crown, and a Legislative Council ap­pointed by the Governor. Under this new system, the French, who composed nearly the whole permanent population of the country, were scarcely given any share in the Government. The manner in which they were treated was not calculated to make them very fond of British connection. Still, with very few exceptions, they stood by the British Crown at the time of the American invasion in 1775, and it was mainly by French-Canadian militiamen that the assault on Quebec by General Montgomery, on the 31st of December, 1775, was repulsed.


When the great French Revolution broke out, it was feared by the British authorities that the disturbance might have its echo in Canada unless something was done to allay the discontent of the French population. Hence the passage of the Act of 1791. That such was the cause of the passage of that Act is proved by what took place in the debate which ensued in the Commons. One who reads that debate might think that it was France which the Bill promoters had in view, as the discussion almost completely turned on the events of the French Revolution. It will be remembered that it was the debate then taking place which brought about the final rupture between Burke and Fox, the latter siding with the French Revolution, whereas the former denounced it with the greatest vehemence.


The Act of 1791 had divided Canada into two Provinces, and had given to each a Parliament composed of a Legislative Council appointed by the Crown, and a Legislative Assembly elected by the people. The inhabitants of Lower Canada had hoped that under the new régime they would have responsible Government, but they were doomed to a sad disappointment. The Governor, instead of taking advisers possessing the confidence of the majority of the elective branch of the Legislature, took Counsellors of his own liking. He appointed to public offices his own followers without taking into account the feelings of the people, and he spent the public moneys at his own discretion. In short, instead of governing according to the well-understood wishes of the people and their local interests, he governed according to the wishes of the Colonial Office authorities, and in the interest of the Mother Country. There then commenced a long struggle between the Crown and the Legislative Assembly, which culminated in the Rebellion of 1837, and ended in the granting of Responsible Government. (1)


After the Rebellion was quelled, the Act of 1791 was repealed, and the Legislative authority was temporarily vested in a Special Council named by the Crown. That system remained in force until the passage of the Act of 1840, which united the two Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada into one Province, and created a Parliament composed of a Legislative Council appointed by the Crown and a Legislative Assembly elected by the people. This union of Upper and Lower Canada had been effected to carry out the recommendations contained in the celebrated Report by Lord Durham, who had been sent out to investigate the causes of the Rebellion and to suggest the remedies necessary to prevent the recurrence of troubles. Lord Durham having suggested as the most effective remedy the granting to Canada of Responsible Government, it was naturally expected that his recommendations would be carried out. But such a system of government was not fully put into effect until Lord Elgin became Governor-General.


It is during the period that elapsed between 1840 and 1850 that Canada commenced to have a Liberal and a Conservative party. The Conservatives were those desirous of maintaining the system of governing by the prerogative of the Crown. Although admitting that the Crown was bound to consult the wishes of the people, they contended that it was not bound to conform to them. The Liberals, on the other hand, maintained that the Crown was bound to govern :according to the wishes of the people, as expressed by their representatives in Parliament. Up to that time there had been practically no difference between the Liberal party of Upper Canada and that of Lower Canada, and almost the whole French population of Lower Canada , clergy and laity, was Liberal. The Conservative party in Lower Canada was then composed mainly of office-holders, and was, for that reason, called by its opponents the Bureaucracy [ Les bureaucrates ].


After the Rebellion of 1837-8, the Hon. L. J. Papineau, the French-Canadian leader, who had :been at the head of the agitation in favour of Responsible Government, was obliged to leave the country and a large reward was offered for his capture. He therefore went to Paris, where he lived for several years. There he made the acquaintance of Ledru-Rollin, Louis Blanc and some other advanced French Liberals, who were fighting the monarchy of King Louis-Philippe, and whose political opinions were really republican, and he almost completely adopted their religious and political views. When, after the granting of a full amnesty to all those who had been mixed up with the troubles of 1837-8, he came back to this country, in 1845, embittered against Great Britain by his long struggles for Responsible Government and by his persecution and exile, he declared himself against accepting the new order of things and urged the repeal of the union between Upper and Lower Canada.


The Hon. Louis-Hypolite Lafontaine (later on Sir L. Lafontaine), the then recognized leader of the Liberal party of Lower Canada, although not approving entirely the terms of that Union, was of the opinion that it should be accepted, and that all the efforts of the French-Canadians should be turned to the improving of the new régime, not to its overthrow. The result was that, although generally siding with M. Lafontaine, M. Papineau was completely opposed to him on this point. The great prestige of the old-time leader, his eloquence, the memory of his struggles and his sacrifices, gave him a strong hold on the people, and he soon became the nucleus of a new Liberal party. The younger generation of Liberals gathered around him, and M. Lafontaine soon found that he could not rely on their support. He, therefore, finally withdrew from politics altogether, and retired into private life in October, 1851.


M. Lafontaine was a Liberal of the English school. M. Papineau and his young followers were Liberals of the French school. The most prominent among the young men who were following M. Papineau were Télesphore Fournier, M. A. Plamondon, P. G. Huot and J. G. Blanchet, in Quebec . In Montreal , they were the three Dorions (Antoine-Aimé, Wilfrid and Eric) Charles Laberge, Joseph Doutre, Louis-Antoine Desaulles, Joseph Papin, Rodolphe Laflamme and Charles Daoust. It must be confessed that seldom has a party in this country been able to boast of such a galaxy of men of talent. A good many were first-rate writers, a certain number were distinguished orators, and all were prominent for their political ability. There was then in existence in the city of Montreal an institution called L'Institut Canadien, possessing a library and a reading-room, and in which lectures on various literary, philosophical, political and religious questions were given to large audiences, brought there by the great talents of the lecturers. These young men soon completely took hold of it and turned it into a focus of advanced political and religious ideas.


They also started a paper called L'Avenir, which was of a very Radical character. Our Province has perhaps never seen a French paper edited by a combination of so many men of talent. In political matters, it favoured the annexation of Canada to the United States , and advocated annual elections for Parliament and an elective judiciary. In religious matters it urged a complete separation of Church and State, the abolition of tithes and the entire secularisation of all the institutions of the country. In a general way, it was hostile to the Roman Catholic clergy. The state of affairs just described had, as will be seen, a most important influence upon the fate of the Liberal party in the Province of Quebec. The course pursued by L'Avenir has been the main cause of the persistent hostility of the Roman Catholic clergy to that party, and it is mostly that hostility which so long kept Liberalism in an almost hopeless minority in the Province.


M. Lafontaine's retirement from public life cannot be too deeply deplored. Had he remained at the head of his party, his unimpeachable character, his disinterestedness, his good judgment and his great ability, as well as his prestige would, undoubtedly, soon have removed the differences which then threatened the Liberal party with complete disruption. But, after his retirement, there was no one amongst his lieutenants with sufficient influence to carry the party with him. The Hon. A. N. Morin, who succeeded him, was intellectually perhaps his equal, and possessed an admirable character. But he completely lacked that backbone, that self-confidence and that knowledge of the ways of men, which are absolutely necessary in a political leader. Under the Hincks-Morin Administration, which succeeded the Lafontaine-Baldwin Government, the breach between the two wings of the Liberal party widened gradually. The moderate Liberals of the Lafontaine school gradually drifted into the Conservative party. The more advanced section became more and more radical. Eventually, the whole of the moderate section, headed by M. Cartier (later on Sir George-Etienne Cartier), went over to the Conservative party, and the Hon. A. A. Dorion became the recognised Leader of the Liberal party.


The Roman Catholic clergy which had, up to that time, sided with the latter, followed M. Cartier into the Tory ranks. The result was to put the Liberal party in the extraordinary position which it occupied until not long ago, in which there were pitted against it, at the same time, the Orangemen and all the ultra-Protestants, for being thought opposed to British connection, and the Roman Catholic clergy, for being opposed: to the Church of Rome. A large portion of the Eastern Townships was inhabited by descendants of the United Empire Loyalists who had left the United States after the American Revolution, and who were bitterly hostile to anything savouring of annexation. to the United States . The Roman Catholic clergy had then more influence on the French-Canadian population of the Province of Quebec than any clergy perhaps ever wielded over its flock. The result of this general condition of affairs was that Lower Canada soon became the most intensely Conservative part of Canada .


The hostility of the Roman Catholic clergy towards the Liberal party at that time was certainly natural and legitimate. In opposing it they were fighting for their own Church. But a long time did not elapse before new elements came into Liberalism which did not share the religious views held, when they were young men, by some of the leaders of that party. And even those who had belonged to the advanced wing of the party, like the Hon. A. A. Dorion and M. Fournier, soon sobered up, and came to have moderate views which made them simply Liberals of the English school. Still, as the name remained, the hostility of the clergy for a long time did not relent, and at every election a great many pulpits were converted into political hustings from which the most fiery denunciations of the Liberal candidates were launched. Quite curiously, the most Liberal section of the Province of Quebec at the present time, the Quebec section, was then as intensely Conservative as the present Three Rivers section. In 1859, the late D'Arcy McGee, who was then an advanced Liberal, in a speech delivered in the Legislative Assembly which was sitting at Quebec, complained against Quebec as the seat of Government, on the ground that its too strongly pronounced Conservative proclivities affected the Assembly itself.


In 1863, in all the region extending from Three Rivers down the St. Lawrence, only two constituencies, Lotbinière and Témiscouata, elected Liberal candidates. On the other hand, the advanced Liberal party of Upper Canada had been steadily acquiring strength, on account of the then great personal influence of The Globe of Toronto. The principal plank of that party, representation by population, was most unpopular in Lower Canada, where it was feared that, when carried out, it would swamp the French-Canadian population with the English Protestant vote. This again was another cause of weakness for the Liberal party of Lower Canada . Although opposed to representation by population, as it was allied to the party which favoured it, the result upon its popularity was the same. The Government of the country after 1841 was carried on under great difficulties. The Conservative majority supporting the Government was composed mainly of the representatives of Lower Canada . A large majority of the members from Upper Canada were opposed to it. Now, among the Upper Canada supporters of the Administration, a good many were in favour of a dual majority, viz., a majority from each Province. These difficulties culminated in a deadlock, which greatly helped, in 1867, the confederation of Upper Canada, Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.


The Liberals of Lower Canada were then the victims of the ingratitude of their allies of Upper Canada. They had stood by them without flinching, notwithstanding the great injury they had suffered from the alliance. Mr. Brown formed a coalition with Sir John A. Macdonald to carry out Confederation, became a colleague of M. Cartier, and left his former allies in the lurch. This ingratitude has always rankled in the minds of the Liberals of Lower Canada, and explains why Mr. Brown, notwithstanding his great ability, never was popular with them and never had much influence in Quebec. It might have been thought that the alliance between M. Cartier and Mr. Brown - the latter of whom had been the bugbear of the Roman Catholic clergy on account of his violent denunciation of their political influence - would have opened their eyes and cooled their zeal for the Conservatives. But such hope was doomed to disappointment. A short time before the general elections (August, September, 1867), which were to take place as a consequence of the coming into force of our present constitution, the Rev. Charles Larocque was consecrated Bishop of St. Hyacinthe, at St. Johns, of which place he was then curé. As usual in such circumstances, all the Roman Catholic Bishops of the Province of Quebec attended the ceremony. M. Cartier and some other leaders of the Conservative party were also in attendance, and were at the state dinner which was given by the new Bishop. There were rumours that an arrangement had been arrived at between the Bishops and M. Cartier, and that the former would support Confederation with all their influence.


Whatever amount of truth there may have been in those rumours, one fact is certain. It is that on the eve of the elections all the Roman Catholic Bishops published mandements strongly recommending to popular support the candidates favourable to the new Government, and almost raising the new constitution to the dignity of a dogma of the Church which was not to be discussed during the elections. The result was disastrous to the Liberals, who did not elect more than a corporal's guard to the new House of Commons. As the Provincial elections were held on the same day, they had the same result. About a dozen Liberals only were elected, and out of that number, three or four, seeing the hopeless position of their party, gradually drifted into the Conservative camp, and at the close of the first Legislature of Quebec, in 1871, M. Joly de Lotbinière was leading a mere handful of supporters.


Another event which took place at that time increased the hostility of the Roman Catholic clergy to the Liberal party. As explained before, the more radical section of the party had obtained complete control of L'Institut Canadien. Bishop Bourget forbade all Catholics to remain members of it. One Guibord, who had continued to belong to the institution, having died, the ecclesiastical authorities would not allow of his being buried in a lot which he owned in the Roman Catholic cemetery. Guibord's wife took out a writ of mandamus to compel then to do so. That mandamus was finally maintained by the Imperial Privy Council, and the Church authorities were compelled to bury Guibord in his lot. The proceedings on the mandamus had been promoted by M. Joseph Doutre, a most distinguished Liberal lawyer, with the financial assistance of some prominent members of the Liberal party. Notwithstanding the fact therefore that the Church authorities had been defended by M. Jetté, one of the leaders of the Liberal party in Montreal , that party was charged with having taken these proceedings and suffered enormously for it at subsequent elections. Still, the Liberals did not lose heart, and a gleam of hope soon rewarded their perseverance.


The Conservative party had obtained .the support of the clergy by representing the Liberals as enemies of the Church, and by giving itself out as disposed to do in everything the bidding of that Church. Bishop Bourget took these representations in earnest and insisted on their being carried out to the letter. From the establishment of New France the temporal affairs of the Roman Catholic Church in each parish had, according to the old French system, been in the hands of the churchwardens elected by the people, the curé being ex-officio Chairman of their Board. Bishop Bourget claimed that that system was an usurpation of the rights of the Church, that the curé alone should have the management of the temporalities of the Church, and that the churchwardens were only his advisers, whose advice he was at liberty to disregard. In this contention he had the support of a large section of the Conservative party headed by the Hon. F. X. A. Trudel. That section had started a paper called Le Nouveau-Monde, edited with great talent by the Père Lamarche, Bishop Bourget's right hand man. The contentions of Bishop Bourget were opposed by the section of the Conservative party led by M. Cartier.


These religious difficulties came to a head on the occasion of the division of the Parish of Montreal. Up to 1865, the whole City of Montreal formed only one parish. About that time, Bishop Bourget decided to carve out several parishes from this immense one. The followers of Sir G. E. Cartier claimed that he had no right to do so without the consent of the majority of the parishioners, and that if he divided the parish without that consent, the new parishes would have no legal existence. A most bitter controversy followed. The new parishes were created by Bishop Bourget at his own discretion, and without taking the opinion of the parishioners. When the curés presented to the Prothonotary of the Superior Court, M. Beaudry, the registers for registering births, marriages and deaths in order to have them duly authenticated, M. Beaudry declined to do so, on the ground that there was only one Parish of Montreal and that the newly created parishes had no legal existence.


The conflict raged with a great deal of violence and eventually brought about a split in the Conservative party. The result was that at the general elections of 1872, Sir G. E. Cartier was defeated by the present Lieut.-Governor of Quebec, the Hon. L. A. Jetté, in Montreal East, by an immense majority. At these same elections of 1872, the Liberal party in the region of which Quebec City is the political centre succeeded in capturing about a dozen constituencies held before by the Conservative party. In that section of the Province the Conservative party did not suffer from the same split as in Montreal. Archbishop Taschereau, who had come to the episcopal See of Quebec in 1871, was satisfied with the system of administration of the temporalities of the Church which had always been in existence. But, on the other hand, it did not get the active support of the clergy on which it had always relied. Archbishop Taschereau, although a Conservative, did not like the active interference of the clergy in elections. Besides, M. Cauchon, who had always been foremost in denouncing the Liberal party as an enemy of the Church, was at loggerheads with his former friends and did not like to fight the Liberal party as strongly as usual. This combination of circumstances had the effect of preventing a great many priests from interfering in the elections.


Another circumstance contributed to the same result. A good many members of the clergy had come to the conclusion that, in a purely religious point of view, the two political parties were now about as good, one as the other. As stated before, a great many accessions to the Liberal party had come composed of men sincerely disposed to accord to the Roman Catholic Church all its rights, although wishing to preserve their own freedom in political matters. A political event also contributed a good deal to encourage this state of feeling in a portion of the clergy. The Legislature of New Brunswick having passed a law to abolish the separate schools which the Roman Catholics had been in possession of there for a long time, the Government of Sir John A. Macdonald was asked to disallow that law, but refused to do so, although supported principally by the Catholic Conservatives of Quebec. This refusal, which did not deter French-Canadian Conservatives from supporting the Government, opened the eyes of a good many of the clergy, and created doubts in their minds as to the real devotion of Conservatives to the Church.


In November, 1873, the Conservative party lost power in the Dominion, owing to the Pacific Scandal. At the general elections which took place in January, 1874, the Liberals swept the country. For the first time they obtained a very large majority in the Province of Quebec , and especially in the section of Quebec City , where they carried almost every seat. But the Conservatives still held the Provincial Government. They came very near losing it in the summer of 1874 on account of what has been called the Tanneries Scandal. The Ouimet Administration was compelled to resign. It was composed mostly of members of the Cartier wing of the Conservative party. A new Government was formed composed principally of Ultramontanes, as the followers of M. Trudel were then called, with M. de Boucherville as Premier. The new local Administration, it is needless to say, could rely on the support of all that section of the Roman Catholic clergy which still took an active part in elections. The general elections of 1875 were carried on the religious cry, and in many cases a regular crusade was waged against the Liberals. No better illustration of the way these elections were carried on can be given than in the fact that, in the County of Lotbinière, M. Joly, the Liberal leader for the Province, was opposed by M. Amyot, who had not the ghost of a chance of success except by the support of the clergy. In order to obtain it he went through his campaign saying that the electors had not to choose between him and M. Joly, but between M. Joly and the Pope. In many places, the priests denounced the Liberal candidates as emissaries of hell, and threatened with the direst consequences all those who would vote for them.


The result was almost a clean sweep for the Government. Scarcely a dozen Liberals were elected. In September of the same year, all the Roman Catholic Bishops of the Province published a joint pastoral letter condemning the Liberal party, which it assimilated to the Liberal party of continental Europe and even connected with Free-Masonry. At the following session of the Legislature of Quebec, a law was passed which practically put the whole educational system of Quebec in the hands of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy. Another one was adopted for the purpose of preventing the recurrence of another dispute such as the Guibord case. This could but increase the good disposition of the Roman Catholic clergy towards the Conservative party and its hostility to the Liberal party. The local election in Bonaventure having been contested on the ground of undue clerical influence, and having been set aside by the Court of Review sitting at Quebec, Bishop Langevin excommunicated judges Casault and Maguire, who had concurred in the judgment of the Court.


But the hostility of the Roman Catholic clergy to the Liberal party reached its climax at the Dominion by-election which took place for the County of Charlevoix in January, 1876. Mr. P. A. Tremblay, the Liberal candidate, was a man of unblemished character and a very good Catholic. The only thing against him was his being the standard-bearer of the Mackenzie Administration. Mr. H. L. Langevin, who, at the elections of 1874 had not cared to be a candidate on account of his connection with the Pacific Railway, and who had, apparently, left politics altogether, was asked to run as the Conservative candidate. Before accepting the candidature, he sent down one Gauthier, a prominent elector of the County, to see the priests, in order to ascertain whether he would obtain their unanimous and active support. Satisfied with the assurances he had received he came forward. The contest was one of the warmest ever seen in this Province. The political questions were scarcely discussed at all. Nearly all the speeches of the Conservative speakers consisted in denouncing the Liberal party as bent on the destruction of the Roman Catholic religion. Every Sunday, all the pulpits in the County were converted into political hustings, from which the most violent sermons were preached against Liberalism. The result was that M. Tremblay, who, in 1874 had defeated by some 250 majority M. Chauveau, a much stronger candidate personally than M. Langevin, was defeated by the latter by about the same majority.


The Liberals determined to put an end, if possible, to this system of religious intimidation which, if persisted in, was sure to soon annihilate their party. They, therefore, contested the election on the ground of undue clerical influence and intimidation. The trial took place at Murray Bay in the summer of 1876 before Mr. Justice Routhier, and lasted nearly three months. The most violent defender of the system of religious interference was M. J. Israel Tarte, who was then Chief Editor of Le Canadien. He went down to Murray Bay to conduct the defence and commenced by denouncing the witnesses for the petitioners for speaking of the alleged intimidation practised upon them. M. Langelier, who was conducting the case for the petitioners, had to take proceedings for contempt on three occasions in order to stop this intimidation of his witnesses. M. Langevin's defence was that the Courts had no right to take cognizance of anything said by the Catholic clergy from the pulpit. That contention was maintained by Mr. Justice Routhier, and the petition was dismissed by him. But on appeal to the Supreme Court, the election was set aside, the Court holding that the Roman Catholic clergy were subject to the laws of this country as were all other citizens, and that a priest had no more right to invade the freedom of the electors by intimidation than had any other citizen.


A futile agitation was immediately commenced in Quebec for the abolition of the Supreme Court, which had dared to give such an interpretation of the law, and the Roman Catholic Hierarchy determined to try to have the law amended in such a way as to prevent the recurrence of such a decision and to allow the clergy to preach as they might choose. They did not apply to the Mackenzie Administration for this purpose, knowing that they would have no chance of success, but they addressed themselves to the De Boucherville Administration at Quebec. If public rumour is correct, a majority of the Cabinet was favourable to this demand of the Hierarchy, but as the Protestant members of the Government could not consent to it the question remained in abeyance.


About this time there were differences of opinion and difficulties amongst members of the Hierarchy, principally on account of Laval University. That institution, founded and supported by the Seminary of Quebec, although a Roman Catholic University, had always shown very liberal views. Its Directors thought that in a country like this a great deal of allowance must be made for the differences of creeds. Therefore, it had at the time several Protestant professors, and some Catholic professors who belonged to the Liberal party. It had frequently been most violently and unfairly attacked for this reason by M. Tarte in Le Canadien, and by the Journal des Trois-Rivières whose editorials on the subject were known to be inspired, if not written, by Bishop Laflèche. The institution had even been denounced frequently at Rome , but without success. At last, the Holy See determined to send out to Canada a Delegate to investigate all the facts connected with the politico-ecclesiastical affairs of the Province and Bishop Conroy, a most distinguished Irish prelate, arrived in 1877.


Bishop Conroy proceeded quietly to work, but it soon became evident that he disapproved the active interference of the clergy in elections and to the use of the powers of the Church in favour of one political party or another. In the autumn of 1877, a joint Pastoral was published by all the Bishops of the Province, forbidding the active interference of the priests in election contests, except on the order of their Bishops. Public opinion was not slow to attribute to Bishop Conroy the publication of a pastoral letter which agreed so little with that of 1875. The action of Bishop Conroy did not come one moment too soon. The great bulk of the Liberal party, who were good Catholics and only wanted to preserve their rights as citizens of a free country, were commencing to get demoralised in thus having to fight the clergy at all the elections, and finding themselves unable to discuss political questions as they were discussed in other Provinces of the Dominion, on their own merits. They were disposed to withdraw from politics altogether, leaving the field to those who pretended that it was useless to try to remain on friendly terms with the clergy and attempt to be free citizens. The latter were prepared to wage war to the knife against the Roman Catholic clergy, and the result of that war would have been most deplorable.


From this moment the Liberal party in Quebec had a little breathing time and was able to discuss the public affairs of the country instead of, as formerly, being confined to personal defence against the fulminations of the clergy. Some priests still continued to denounce the Liberal party, but, as it was known that they were acting in violation of the instructions coming from the head of the Church, their sermons had little effect. The Liberal party, for the first time during some thirty years, was now able to discuss the political questions of the day against its adversaries, instead of confining its efforts to defending itself against the unjust attacks to which it had been subjected on religious questions, and commenced to make some headway. Its progress was greatly favoured, no doubt, by the North-West troubles of 1885. A paper called L'Étendard was then published in Montreal by the late Senator Trudel, who, as we have already seen, was the recognised leader of the Ultramontane wing of the Conservative party. That section never felt much love for M. Chapleau, the leader of the other division. In 1882, it had published a most violent pamphlet against him, entitled Le Parti, le Pays et le Grand Homme. L'Étendard espoused the cause of the rebels in the West and waged a very active and energetic war against the Government of Sir John A. Macdonald, contending that the troubles were due to the bad administration of the affairs of the North-West, and that the "tyranny" practised against the French half-breeds was due to the prevalence of Orange influence in the Government.


For the first time in nearly forty years war was declared between the Ultramontane party in Quebec and the Orange Order in Ontario. M. Mercier, then leader of the Liberal party in the Local Legislature, and one of the ablest men whom the Province of Quebec has ever produced, was not slow to avail himself of this split in the Conservative party, and he made an alliance with the Ultramontanes. As the latter were in fear that the name of Liberal might frighten some of their clerical friends M. Mercier called the new organ­isation the "National" party. This alliance of the Liberal party with the Ultramontanes gave it a temporary advantage, but was eventually one of the causes of defeat. In M. Mercier's mind, the name given to the new party did not imply any exclusively French-Canadian policy. He simply claimed to want justice for his countrymen and not to obtain any special privileges for them. But the adversaries of the Liberal party availed themselves of the misconception produced in the minds of a great many English-speaking people by the name of the new party, to make them believe that M. Mercier wanted to establish in the Province of Quebec a kind of French-Catholic kingdom or republic. That turned against him a good many English Protestants who had always supported the Liberal party. At the Provincial elections which took place in October, 1886, M. Mercier defeated the Conservative Ross Administration, but almost all the English Protestant constituencies elected members opposed to him. In February, 1887, he was called upon to form a Government. To carry out his promises to the Conservatives who had helped him to carry the elections, he took three of them into his Cabinet.


The elections for the Dominion took place in the same month, and the Liberal party carried a good many seats held by the Conservatives, but still did not take a majority of the Provincial seats at Ottawa . However, any man who could read the signs of the times could easily see that the back-bone of the Conservative party had been broken, and that it might be defeated in the Province at another Dominion election as it had already been in the Local contest. During the autumn of 1887, M. Mercier called a Conference of all the Provincial Cabinets of the Dominion, with the exception of those of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, to take into consideration the relations of the Provinces with the Dominion, In order to prepare that Conference, and to direct it, he overworked himself so much that, during the winter, he fell seriously ill and had to go to Europe for a rest. He availed him­self of the opportunity to go to Rome and try to settle the question of the Jesuits' Estates.


Here is the origin of that question. The Jesuits had, during the French regime, obtained large grants of land from the Kings of France. When their Order was abolished by Pope Clement XIV., in 1773, all their properties were taken possession of by the British Government. Under the rules of the Roman Catholic Church, all religious properties belong to the Church at large, and each religious community which is in possession of any holds it as a kind of trustee for the Church. The Pope, as head of that Church, has therefore the disposal of it. The Roman Catholic Hierarchy in Quebec had always contended that the Government had no right to claim the Jesuit properties as an escheat of the Crown, because, by the abolition of the Order, they had simply reverted to the Church. On several occasions, successive Governments of Canada and of the Province of Quebec had thought of disposing of these Estates, but they had always been stopped by the protests of the Hierarchy. M. Mercier made an agreement with the Pope, subject to the approval of the Legislature, by which the Provincial Government was to be considered as the absolute owner of the properties of the Jesuits, the Church receiving a cash compensation of $400,000. The Legislature sanctioned this agreement, granting, at the same time, $ 60,000 to the Protestants of the Province as a compensation for the grant to the Roman Catholic Church. From that moment the hostility of the clergy toward the Liberal party almost completely ceased. Some members of the Hierarchy did not like M. Mercier, because they considered he had too much influence at Rome, where the settlement of the Jesuits' Estates question had given him a very high position and where he was made a Grand Cross of the Order of Gregory the Great and a Roman Count ; but they evinced no hostility towards his party.


At the general elections for the Local Legislature in 1890, the Liberal party swept the Province, and, at the elections for the Dominion Parliament, in March, 1891, with the help of M. Mercier, the Liberal party also obtained a substantial majority in the Provincial representation at Ottawa. The disclosures made at the next session of the Parliament of Canada, of the frauds connected with the construction of the harbour works at Quebec would, probably, before long, have given a large majority to the Liberal party in the Province, in Dominion as well as in Provincial affairs. But, during that very same session, there happened an event which completely changed the existing state of affairs. On the occasion of the passage of a Bill at Ottawa to amend the charter of the Baie des Chaleurs Railway Company, it was proved before the Railway Committee of the Senate that M. Ernest Pacaud, Treasurer of the Liberal party in the Province, and a strong personal friend of M. Mercier, had received from Mr. Armstrong a sum of $100,000 taken out of a subsidy granted to the Company. M. Angers, then Lieutenant-Governor of the Province, ordered an investigation of the matter by a Royal Commission composed of judges Jetté, Baby and Davidson. The investigation took place in October, 1891, and, at its conclusion, M. Mercier was dismissed from office by the Lieut.-Governor, who called upon his adversaries to form an Administration. The new Government dissolved the Legislature and at the elections which took place in March, 1892, the Liberal party elected only about 20 members out of a total of 73.


The events which had taken place in the Province of Quebec had, naturally, some effect in Dominion matters. But the hopes of the Liberal party were revived by the Manitoba School question. The course followed by the Conservative leaders on that issue had created dissatisfaction in the ranks of their party. As already explained its leaders had always represented themselves in Quebec as the only true friends of the Church disposed to do in everything the bidding of the Hierarchy. Now, it was known that, although the Roman Catholic Bishops had asked for the disallowance of the Manitoba School Act, it had been left to take its course. The portion of the clergy which had believed in these old-time representations was bitterly disappointed at the course followed by the Conservative Government, and were no longer disposed to give the Conservative party the support so lavishly accorded in the past. As a matter of course, the Liberals availed themselves of the difficulties with which the Government had to contend, and helped the agitation which had already commenced on the question.


At the first session of 1896, the Government of Sir Charles Tupper presented its so-called Remedial Bill. It was well known that the Roman Catholic clergy of the Province of Quebec were taking a great interest in the Manitoba School question and were very anxious that the Separate Schools which the Roman Catholic minority of Manitoba had been enjoying since 1871 should be restored to it. Archbishop Langevin, of St. Boniface, had made it known to some members of the House of Commons that he was desirous of seeing the Government Bill passed. It was expected that the Roman Catholic Bishops of the Province would publish a mandement making it a duty of conscience for all Catholic members under their jurisdiction to support that Bill. But none was issued. The result was that the Roman Catholic members from the Province of Quebec became convinced that the Bishops did not care much for the measure. When the second reading of the Bill came up, it was expected by many that M. Laurier would move in amendment the appointment of a Commission of investigation on the working of the Separate School laws prior to 1890; but, instead of that he moved the six months hoist. His Roman Catholic supporters, with very few exceptions, followed him. The second reading was carried, but with a small majority, and it caused a split in the ranks of the Conservative party. Eventually, the Government had to drop its Bill, as it could not be passed on account of the session being close to its end.


The general elections took place immediately. The Roman Catholic Bishops of the Province of Quebec published a collective pastoral letter in which, without pronouncing on the Remedial Bill, they made it a duty for the electors not to give their votes to any candidate who would not pledge himself to vote for a Remedial measure. The publication of this pastoral letter made the Conservatives jubilant. They thought that with this document in their hands they would sweep the Province. As stated subsequently by Sir Charles Tupper, M. Angers promised him a majority of at least 20 in that Province. As the practice had been formerly, the Conservatives denounced the Liberals as enemies of the Roman Catholic Church. In several Dioceses, especially those of Quebec, Rimouski , Chicoutimi and Three Rivers, a great number of priests also denounced from their pulpits the Liberal candidates. In the Diocese of Quebec, Grand Vicar Marois, who was administering it in the absence of Archbishop Bégin, wrote to some priests in the County of Portneuf, who had consulted him, that it was a grave fault and a mortal sin to vote for Sir Henri Joly de Lotbinière, the Liberal candidate.


Under these circumstances, the Liberals were unable to discuss any of the political questions on which they had to pronounce at the election then going on. All that they could do was to defend themselves against the denunciations of the Conservative candidates and of a large section of the Roman Catholic clergy. Although confident of success, the Liberals were not without some apprehension as to the result of the religious war waged against them. They were, therefore, agreeably surprised when, after the closing of the polls on the 23d of June, they found that they had simply swept the Province of Quebec and obtained the largest majority ever given a party since 1867. Out of 65 constituencies, only 16 in Quebec had elected Conservatives. It was thought by some that the result obtained did not represent faithfully the political opinions of the Province, and that a great many electors had been influenced to vote as they had done by the great personal prestige of M. Laurier, the Liberal leader, and by the desire to see a French-Canadian raised to the position of Prime Minister for the Dominion.


There is no doubt that a certain number of electors were influenced by this sentiment, but the great bulk voted as they did simply because they shared the views of the Liberal party in political affairs. The best proof of that fact lies in the result of the Local Elections, which took place on the 11th May following. The Conservatives had predicted that the electors would avail themselves of the first opportunity to reverse the verdict of the 23d June, 1896. In order to give them a chance to do so, they discussed almost exclusively Dominion questions, especially the settlement of the Manitoba School question effected by M. Laurier. He was denounced as a traitor to his religion and his race and the electors were asked to condemn him by voting against the Liberal candidates. Still, the result was practically the same on the 11th of May, 1897, as it had been on the 23d of June, 1896.


Not only has the Liberal party now a large majority both in the House of Commons and in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec, but it has still a larger majority in the electorate of the Province. In many constituencies, the Liberal majorities, both at the election of 1896 and at that of 1897, were enormous. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Quebec is now the banner Liberal Province of the Dominion. But I do not want this to be construed as an assertion that that Province will always elect a Liberal majority. Quebec is the only Province in the Dominion where sentiment can carry an election. The French-Canadian electors can be swayed one way or the other, like other electors, by unworthy means, but it is only when they are not influenced by their feelings. Make them believe that their racial or religious interests are at stake in an election, and no amount of money will prevent them from voting to uphold those interests. Why then, it may be asked, did they vote as they did at the elections of 1896, though they were told by so many priests and even ecclesiastical dignitaries to do otherwise? Is it because they had lost the respect they have hitherto shown for the teachings of their Church? Not in the slightest degree. They are as attached to the religion of their fathers as they ever were, and, if they thought that their religious or national interests were in danger, would vote as one man against the party which threatened them. They voted as they did because they were convinced that the question at stake was only a political one, and, in political matters, they are jealous of their independence, and will brook no interference with their liberty.


What are the aims and hopes of the Liberal party of Quebec ? In political matters it. is in perfect accord with the Liberals of the other Provinces. In religious matters, the French section of the party is as anxious as the other party to see the Roman Catholic religion thrive and increase its influence, and the Roman Catholic clergy respected and obeyed in their proper sphere. Contrary to what has been so frequently stated by its adversaries in order to gain the support of the clergy, the French-Liberal party of Quebec does not want to lock the priests in their churches at election times and prevent them from mixing in politics as ordinary citizens; or to divorce religion from politics. It may deem it unwise for a clergyman to interfere actively in elections, but it has no objection to his doing so if he deems it proper. What the Liberal party objects to is that the priests should use their position to coerce the Roman Catholic electors into a particular political course by threats of spiritual pains and penalties. There may be a small fraction of the Liberal party holding more advanced views, and who share the opinion of the continental Liberals that the clergy are enemies to be opposed and fought at all times. But that fraction could not elect even a road surveyor in the whole Province of Quebec.


(1) Note of Castell Hopkins: It is only fair to remind the reader that this whole struggle was largely one for racial supremacy and that neither party actually understood or advocated the principles of Ministerial responsibility as practised to-day.


Source : François C. S. LANGELIER, "Historic Liberalism in the Province of Quebec ", in J. Castell HOPKINS, ed., Canada. An Encyclopaedia of the Country , Vol. VI, Toronto, The Linscott Publihing Company, 1900, 557p., pp. 196-206.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College