Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Documents in Quebec History


Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Canada - Chapter One : A Nation in the Making*
By Alexander Brady

[Note from the editor: earlier in the chapter, after a very brief historical sweep of the period before Confederation, the author discussed briefly the nature of nationhood and asserted that the three other original provinces were homogeneous, a by-product of the American Revolution]

Very different was the province of Quebec. French Canada in 1867 was a cultural unit by itself, divorced from the British communities by the barriers of race, language and religion. Its life ran in a different mould. Stirred by a Catholic faith mediaeval in its intensity, it viewed with scant sympathy the mingled Puritanism and other-worldliness of a Protestantism largely Calvinistic. The religious faiths of the two peoples were indeed poles apart. In social, if not always in religious outlook, English Protestantism tended towards democracy, realism and modernism; the Catholicism of the French leaned to paternalism, idealism and a reverence for the past. While the Anglo-Saxon sought salvation in the achievements of his energy and organization - considering material prosperity almost as an evidence of godliness - the French Canadian travelled along the quiet pathway of faith, clinging fondly to the soil and finding deep satisfaction in the simple domestic pleasures. Mammon worship he spurned, and the principal height of his ambition was the rearing of a large family and the dedication of at least one child to the religious orders. For him the world still contained its miracles, for were not the lame and crippled regularly healed at the shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré? British traditions, a potent bond between the people of the other provinces, did not stir his blood. They were the traditions of a conqueror, and his own memory was rich in the things that give pride to a people.

What French Canada was in 1867 it remains substantially to-day. It still cherishes beliefs, customs, and institutions which have little hold on the English provinces. It has distinctive thoughts and enthusiasms, and its own important values. Its attitude, for example, on marriage and divorce is in conflict with the dominant view, not merely of the rest of Canada, but of the remainder of Anglo-Saxon North America. True to its genuine Catholicism, it views marriage as an inviolable sacrament, and divorce finds no recognition among the faithful. Out of 748 divorces granted for the whole of Canada in 1927, less than two per cent were obtained by the inhabitants of Quebec, although the population of the province is about 26 per cent of that of Canada. One cannot claim that Quebec has wholly withstood the march of modern industrialism. This resistless force has begun to move from Ontario and the United States across its boundaries and to effect changes in its social structure. Yet on the whole French Canada is very much what it was sixty years ago - a tranquil community with no startling gradations between wealth and poverty, a contented rural peasantry more prosperous than the general peasantry of Europe, a powerful and traditionalist Church, and a keen literary circle who receive external stimulus, not from anything in the United States nor from Great Britain, but from the logic and lucidity of French thought. The descendants of those who three centuries ago founded New France remain a cohesive and extraordinary homogeneous group, virtually a distinct nation within the modern Canada. "They are a people," says Sulte, "who seem to have only one heart and one mind " - a people with a common soul. Not least of their traits is the tenaciousness with which they preserve their identity, resisting the dominant forces of the continent.

The infrequency of intercourse between the two peoples is illustrated in Canada's largest city, Montreal. About 63 per cent of the population is French and 24 per cent British. Here, if anywhere, is ample scope for association, but in fact they remain apart and distinct except where business and politics force them together. They have their own residential sections; their own shopping centres, and if either is more notable for racial reserve, it is the English. With no exaggeration a French Canadian public man has observed that "confined in their opulent and closed quarters, proud of their shops, their factories, their banks, their Stock Exchange and their Board of Trade, strongly inclined to self-esteem and self-admiration, the English-speaking residents of Montreal, as a whole, have made no effort to know their French-speaking fellow citizens, to learn their language, to understand their traditions and their aspirations, to observe with a keen eye and a sympathetic mind their qualities and their defects ". The separation of the two peoples is encouraged by the barrier of language. There is a wealth of significance in the fact revealed by the census of 1921 ; viz, that about 50 per cent of the Canadians of French origin were unable to speak English and 95 per cent of those of British origin were unable to speak French. Even in Montreal, 70 per cent of the British could not speak French and 34 per cent of the French could not speak English. The absence of a common language maintains a chasm between the two nationalities and prevents fusion.

The significance of Confederation is that it provided an instrument of government which enabled the French, while retaining their distinct national life, to become happy partners with the British and attain a Canadian super-nationality, embracing a loyalty extending beyond their own group to that of the Dominion as a whole. Such a supernationality has a famous precedent in the British nationality of Scotchmen and Englishmen after the union of the two kingdoms, although in this latter case a far deeper blending of cultures resulted than is evident in the briefer history of Canada. It is a truism that the federation was a compromise, and the cardinal fact of the nation which it helped to create is compromise. In character it is necessarily different from the nationality of a unitary State, involving a less absorbing loyalty from its members, and grounded in a weaker community consciousness. It is unwise, therefore, to weigh Canadian national feeling in the same scales as those by which the intense and distinctive nationalities of Europe are judged. It is the product of different political and social conditions, a tender child of federalism, and in its nature a blending of loyalties.

While the federal system successfully opened the path for a wider nationality in Canada, the co-operation which it sponsored has at times been subjected to severe strain by the violent clash of opinions between the French and the British. The supernationality has indeed often been reduced to a shadow. Confederation itself aroused the deep suspicion and unveiled opposition of the younger and more advanced nationalists of Quebec. The youthful Laurier, then a shining light in the Rouge party, prophesied that federal union would be the tomb of the French race and the ruin of Lower Canada. How bitter antagonism between the two peoples could become was revealed on the outbreak of the Red River rebellion, three years after Confederation. The bulk of the French Canadians, linked to the Métis by the ties of blood, speech and religion, felt strongly that the half-breeds were driven to rebellion by an ungenerous Government moved by Anglo-Saxon prejudices. This sympathy was viewed in certain parts of English-speaking Canada as a partnership in rebellion, and placards on the streets of Toronto, " Shall French rebels rule our Dominion ? " were a reflection of existing antipathies.

On the occasions of the North-West Rebellion in 1885, the Jesuits' Estates Act of 1888 and the South African War, sharp cleavages of opinion and feeling were again revealed. In the last instance, newspapers in the English speaking provinces whipped up imperial sentiment in favour of assisting the Motherland against the Transvaal Boers, while the nationalist Press of French Canada encouraged their population in indifference to an imperial war. The cry of " Help the Motherland " merely served to illustrate that Quebec's Motherland was not that of British Canada. The different pasts of the two peoples determined their conflicting attitudes on the issue of imperial loyalty. Fortunately Laurier, son and idol of the French, was premier, and his astuteness and the sway of his personality prevented the imperial issue from splitting the country into two irreconcilable camps.

A similar issue was raised in a more ugly manner by the Great War, and those who hitherto had been confident of the solidarity of Canada received a rude shock. At the outset of the struggle a powerful sentiment in favour of participation with Great Britain emerged in the English provinces. Enrolment of men and contribution of resources were spontaneous. But while French Canada recruited a magnificent battalion, she did not respond readily, for to her the logic of action on account of imperial connection was less evident. Attached more to the soil of the New World and the valley of the St. Lawrence than their fellow countrymen of British extraction, the French Canadians were in feeling remote from the battlefields of Europe. They were scarcely affected by the mass of influences that led Anglo-Saxon Canadians to expend strenuous effort in the imperial struggle - the ties of sentiment that bound those born in the British Islands or whose parents had been born there, the cultural and social intercourse between England and the provinces in Canada where the English tongue was spoken. France was their European homeland, but only among poets and artists was it deeply cherished. The majority of the people in Quebec felt little more than a platonic attachment to the country from which their ancestors had come three centuries before. The Church had not encouraged love of France. Naturally it could have little sympathy with a State that in the name of Liberalism had driven from their sanctuaries devout monks and nuns. La Croix, a paper that circulates widely among clericals, reflected the popular sentiment in its claim that the Great War was brought upon France as punishment for sins against the Church.

The factors tending to stimulate imperial sentiment in the English speaking provinces were absent from Quebec ; the forces of parochial patriotism were powerful. Throughout the province, from the cities to the distant rural villages, the consciousness of a nation embracing both the French and the English, spontaneously moved by one sentiment, shrank to the background; and the majority of the Quebequois felt unreconciled to the remainder of Canada. The views of Bourassa, the brilliant and fiery director of Le Devoir, now wielded influence, and in his extreme moments he was emphatic that "the peril which threatens all French culture on this continent is not German militarism; it is Anglo-Saxon commercialism. The insidious influence which undermines in America Catholic thought and action is not the philosophy of Nietzsche, but Anglo-Protestant agnosticism ".

The war election of 1917 sharply revealed the national cleavage. The determination of the Union Government, under Sir Robert Borden, to enforce conscription throughout Canada seemed to the majority in Quebec an attempt to push them forcibly into an imperial war, and in heated opposition they flocked to the support of the venerable Laurier, who in his long public life had striven sincerely to reconcile the two nationalities but who now, with the weight of years, fought his last campaign as the unchallenged leader of his own people. The result of the conscription election was to create an Opposition at Ottawa of an almost solid French bloc. Of the eighty-two members who followed Laurier, sixty-two came from Quebec, and the remainder from isolated constituencies throughout the other provinces. Never in the annals of the country were the two peoples so clearly divided on a political issue. Too much significance may possibly be attributed to the affairs of 1917, for in a time of war human passion runs high, and the wisdom of compromise is neglected. But that passion revealed in its nakedness the fragile nature of the super-nationality of Canada.

Notwithstanding these incidents of antagonism, there is evident, since Confederation, a growing co-operation and mutual understanding that augur well for the future of an all-inclusive nationality. On matters of imperial obligation, different points of view are often sharpened to a dangerous degree, but in the everyday round of intercourse the two peoples attain a genuine harmony. There is an increasing pride of each in the achievements of Canadians of both races, and partnership in pride is evidence of a nascent national spirit. Associations common to the French and the British provide greater scope for intercourse, the nursing-mother of common sentiment. Chief among these are the political parties, in which representatives of the two races meet on an equal footing to discuss principles of action. Nothing in Canada has been of happier omen than the fact that the French have not organized as an exclusive national party. The Tempter has often been present without avail. In the early 'seventies of the last century the younger politicians of Quebec toyed with the idea, but found insufficient encouragement. In the 'eighties Mercier, Prime Minister of Quebec, lent his brilliance to the advancement of such an organization, but the unsavoury close of his career cast a shadow on his project. In our own time Bourassa, a strange mixture of parochial patriotism and broad-minded nationalism, has been the spokesman of such a group since he broke with Laurier in 1899. His few followers however have been little more than an appendage to one or other of the large parties.

Astuteness has saved the French from the formation of an exclusive provincial party. They well know that a French party would result in an English party, and that they would probably be reduced in the Federal Parliament to a minority with considerably less power than they now wield. The Dominion has reaped the benefit of their wisdom. The organization of groups on lines of nationality and religion might readily smash federation, and would certainly halt the development of an all-embracing national spirit. The existing political grouping liquidates to a great extent differences between the English and the French by emphasizing policies beneficial to Canada as a whole; and, by providing for the close intercourse of men from the two races, it must in the long run lay deep the foundations of understanding and sympathy.

Other associations play a role somewhat similar to that of political parties. The Royal Society of Canada, founded in 1881 by the Marquis of Lorne, brings into one organization brilliant minds of both peoples, and promotes a happy co-operation between them on matters of common intellectual interest. Of like significance is the sister organization, the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Equal in importance in its own field is the Canadian Bar Association, which has on its council distinguished French judges and lawyers, who, although trained in the civil law of Quebec, take a genuine interest in the development of the common law throughout the rest of Canada, an interest attested by able and learned articles in the Bar Review. Economics supplements the work of art and science. The Canadian Manufacturers' Association, the Canadian Bankers' Association, the Canadian Council of Agriculture are representative of the French and the British, and assist in drawing together the two nationalities in the task of building the structure of Canadian business and industry.

The industrialization of Quebec, which progresses steadily thanks to magnificent water-powers, is tending to create a greater similarity of outlook and motive between that province and Ontario. Old and exclusive modes of thought are crumbling as Quebec in economic development emulates her neighbour, and, while much of her charm may vanish, the scope for mutual understanding between the two Canadas will be enlarged. Characteristically, many leaders on both sides of the bonne entente movement, which had its rise in 1916, are business magnates whose narrow localism of sentiment has been broken down by the necessities of economic life. The movement sometimes adopts the typically North American method of creating sentiment by demonstrative conviviality. Grand excursions of representatives of the political, business, professional, and educational life of the one province visit the capital of the other, where banquetings, intercourse, and speeches hold sway. The bonne entente league is a symptom of the growing desire, under the pressure of political and economic needs, for a larger measure of co-operation and good-will between the two peoples. Yet the entente rests on the recognition of differences. The spokesmen of those who seek a better understanding make it evident that the French and the British must not look towards fusion, but to the maintenance of a unity in diversity. A super-nationality is all that Canada has, and all that it can hope for.

*Source: Alexander Brady, Canada, London, Ernest Benn Limited, 1932, 374p., pp. 6-15,

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College