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Last revised:
23 August 2000

Siegfried: the Race Question

A Review of the Book Le Canada : les deux races.

Par André Siegfried. Paris Armand Colin, 1906. Pp. 415.

By W. L. Grant

This book surpasses even the high expectations formed by those who had read M. Siegfried's studies on " Edward Gibbon Wakefield " and on " La Nouvelle Zélande." It is as bright as Mr. Foster Fraser's " Canada as it is," with French esprit and good taste in place of flippancy and cheap smartness ; as thorough as Mr. Bradley's " Canada in the Twentieth Century," with sounder judgment and deeper insight. Perhaps for the first time Canada has been treated scientifically. There is something almost inhuman in M. Siegfried's detachment; his analysis approaches the calm and the neutrality of a vivisectionist. Himself a Frenchman, a Protestant, and an anti-clerical, little in the book identifies him with any race, religion or political creed. Yet while dispassionate, he is not colourless ; he is merciless, but not unsympathetic ; he has abstained from excessive simplification, and not endeavoured to confine Canada's national life within a limited number of pigeon-holes. The work, we are glad to know, is to be translated into English, and merits a wide circulation.

Almost every aspect of Canada's national life, political, social, economic, religious, is treated with sympathy. Thus full knowledge of the wide-spread and deep-rooted political corruption in Canada leads him not to indulge in sermon or in epigram, but to show how at moments of crisis, corruption has either little influence or recoils upon its votaries, and to say :

" The difficulty and variety of the problems presented have, I think, produced in the Dominion public men of a type certainly superior to those of Australia or New Zealand. Macdonald and Laurier are really striking personalities, whose names will figure in the history of the world. Their country is justified in its pride, not only in having produced them, but in having known how to appreciate them. With such leaders, giving their whole time to the affairs of their party or of their country, the political struggle in Canada has more than once taken, in spite of the inevitable vulgarity of the ward politician, a width and a dignity which must be fully acknowledged. After all possible reservations have been made, the fact remains that Confederation has been of vast advantage to the political life of the country."

The great problems are of course the relation between French and English-speaking Canadians, and the conflict, at once political, social, and economic, between British and American influences and ideals. To these M. Siegfried devotes the greater part of his book.

To the moderation and kindness with which from the first Britain treated her new subjects he does splendid justice ; and also to the tenacity with which, beneath the shelter of British liberty, the French have clung to the triple strand of " notre langue, notre religion, nos lois." He makes clear the reasons for the apparent paradox that the Catholic clergy have been loyal subjects to Britain, steadying their flocks in 1812 and in 1837, at Confederation and in every crisis of Canadian history, and have yet been the strongest influence in holding them true to French ideals. Their influence over the lives of their flocks cannot, he thinks, be over-estimated. After a description of the effect produced by a visit to Laval University at Quebec, he says : " Il faut surtout avoir conversé, dans l'intimité charmante et digne de petites chambres presque cellulaires, avec les maîtres ecclésiastiques, si français de langage, si canadiens, si catholiques, et avec tout cela si lointains et si différents de notre France européenne et moderne : on devine alors, comme dans une révélation imposée par la composition du lieu, toute la forte tradition romaine qui a pétri ce pays et ce peuple, à tel point qu'il se sentirait orphelin, si le protecteur séculaire de son histoire venait à lui manquer.' * [I have left this and one other extract in the original, as examples of M. Siegfried's style.] Between Ontario and Quebec, there is, he says, an entente cordiale : there is no fusion ; the two races remain absolutely apart. But he points out that this does not imply any love for modern France. In case of war between that country and Great Britain, French Canada would if possible remain neutral ; if compelled by the visit of a French fleet to join in, her soldiers and sailors would be found beneath the blended crosses not under the flag of the revolution. The present policy of the French Republic, and its expulsion of the teaching orders has of course strengthened this feeling. Throughout Quebec the priesthood dissuade the young men from studying in France. Paris has perhaps the foremost school of medical science in Europe, but the opposition of the clergy and of a subservient press stifled a scheme for founding a series of bursaries to send thither the most brilliant graduates of Laval. Musset, Renan, Zola, Dumas (père et fils) and almost all modern French author's are on the Index, and, by constant clerical control of the press and the bookseller, are almost excluded from the province. Even the French Catholic is viewed with suspicion, as too much infected with the modern spirit ; the coldness of his reception at Quebec has disappointed many an exiled Jesuit or Assumptionist.

Catholicism is in Quebec a political as well as a religious creed. To be false to the Church is to be false to the race ; the indifferent or the mutinous are accused not so much of heresy as of Anglomania. Thus, while indifference or hostility to the Church's teaching is not uncommon, patriotism makes the intellectual or moral sceptic politically a clerical. How long this triple strand will hold against the continual fraying of that materialism of which the locomotive is at once the precursor and the symbol, M. Siegfried does not say, but he is clear that the danger to the stability of French and Catholic institutions in Quebec comes not from Ontario, still less from Britain, but from the colossus to the south.

" Either the French-Canadians will retain their strict Catholicism, in which case their somewhat archaic isolation will render it difficult for them to keep up with the rapid evolution of the new world ; or they will gradually allow to slacken the bonds linking them to the Church ; in this last case, deprived of the marvellous cohesion which she gives, more exposed to outside influences, they may chance to see deep cleavages appear in the unbroken unity which has endured so long. Such is the disquieting dilemma for the French-Canadian of to-day " (p. 68).

On the problem of national unity, he is equally suggestive. Four solutions present themselves : (I) independence ; (2) closer union with Britain ; (3) closer union with the United States ; (4) indefinite continuance of the present situation. To the craving of Canadians for a full and complete national life, their dislike of tutelage, their often unreasonable distrust of the mother country, he does full justice, and he sees clearly the logical outcome of the utterances of enthusiasts. " The day when Ottawa has its separate diplomatic corps, good-bye to the colonial tie " (p. 328) ; " The treaty-making power implies independence " (p. 330). These are two apophthegms which may well be pondered by those who brood over a series of sacrifices, culminating in the Alaska boundary decision. Even with the British fleet in the background, Canada gets the worst of it in her dealings with the United States. How much better would she fare, asks M. Siegfried, if the background were painted out ? Mexico and Spain supply the answer.

Are Canadians blind to such patent facts ? By no means. Even at the height of Canadian anger at the Foreign Office and its mouthpiece, Lord Alverstone, there was no real wish to sever the connection :

" Les coloniaux, qui sont tous un peu marseillais, ne s'attendent pas à ce qu'on prenne à la lettre tout ce qu'ils disent. Dans cette circonstance spéciale, les Canadiens, en criant: Indépendance ! Indépendance ! n'avaient sans doute pas la moindre intention de se séparer de l'Angleterre, et ils n'eussent même pas voulu que celle-ci le crût. Ils usaient simplement une fois de plus tout en donnant cours à une légitime indignation, d'un procédé commode et parfois efficace, qui, d'une façon très vulgaire, peut s'exprimer ainsi ; ' Si l'on continue à me traiter de la sorte, je m'en vais ! ' L'affaire de l'Alaska n'eut donc pas de lendemain. Elle eut cependant une repercussion. Depuis lors, le sentiment impérialiste canadien n'est plus ce qu'il a été autrefois. Si personne, absolument personne, ne veut rompre les liens qui unissent la Colonie à la Métropole, bien peu nombreux sont ceux qui songent sérieusement à les resserrer" (p. 363).

Closer union with Britain is thus unlikely, in spite of the flame of enthusiasm kindled by the South African war. Closer political union with the United States is still more improbable, partly for historical reasons, partly owing to the strong growth of Canadian national sentiment. But he fears the Americanization, which he considers equivalent to the vulgarization, of social and economic life. Already in Toronto, and still more in Winnipeg, one might, save for the flag, think oneself in an American city.

" The danger of annexation still lives, but as Î have already shown, not under the form of military conquest or political union. The American nation does not threaten the Canadian nation ; but American civilization threatens to supplant in Canada British civilization" (p. 411).

Politically, therefore, he inclines to the fourth alternative, that of the indefinite continuance of present relations, which he considers possible on account of the remarkable practical sagacity with which both sides bow to the exigencies created by such an illogical modus vivendi. Perhaps he hardly does justice to the ideal of a full national life within the British Empire. It would be an excellent thing if we could get rid of much of our present nomenclature. " Colony," with its Roman associations of subjection to the metropolis, is especially galling, though, taken in its Greek sense, its connotation is perfect. " Empire," also with its Roman associations of a strong centralized government, though flattering our lust of power, is really still more misleading, unless here again we can get back from Rome to Greece, and revive our memories of the Delian League. A new nomenclature for a new political conception is badly needed. But even to those of us with this ideal, M. Siegfried's admirable study gives matter for thought, if not for hesitation.

Source: W. L. GRANT, in Review of Historical Publications Relating to Canada, 1906, pp. 144-148.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College