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Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Canada - Chapter Three : Parties and Policies
By Alexander Brady

[Note from the editor: earlier in the chapter, there was a long discussion of the two major political parties in Canada. In the text that follows, some glaring errors of facts (editing?) were corrected]

Canada is a country of two nations, and the manner in which the nations divide their political loyalties illustrates the paradox of Canadian parties. During the last thirty-five years Quebec has given predominant support to the Liberals, while in the previous quarter of a century, the era of Macdonald, it revealed devotion no less consistent to the Conservatives. The following table presents the situation in the early period. In only one general election, that of 1874, after the Pacific Scandal, did the Liberals gain a bare majority.

Election of 18672045
Election of 18722738
Election of 18743332
Election of 18782045
Election of 18821748
Election of 18872936

The shift of French Canada's allegiance from the Conservative to the Liberal camp occurred in 1891, and the subsequent distribution of the 65 members among the parties was as follows:

Election of 18913530  
Election of 18964916  
Election of 19005672
Election of 19045411  
Election of 190853111
Election of 191137271
Election of 1917623  
Election of 1921650  
Election of 19256041
Election of 19266041
Election of 193040241

In the era of Macdonald two major reasons explain French Canada's fairly consistent support of the Conservatives. First, Macdonald had in his colleague, Georges Etienne Cartier, a magnetic leader of the French race, and the people of Quebec even more than the English are hero worshippers. They follow with deep devotion a man who touches their imagination and personifies characteristics that they cherish. Brilliant and practised, Cartier had every resource for attaining an ascendancy and for rallying his people in support of the Conservative party. As a youth he had demonstrated his national feeling by following Papineau down the slippery path of rebellion. He had even eaten the scanty bread of exile. Later he revealed such impressive legal and business talent that the English directors of the Grand Trunk Railway were glad to make him solicitor of the company; henceforth he was backed by Montreal finance, no mean political advantage. As a parliamentarian he had distinguished gifts, and his countrymen could remark with pride the coalitions he formed and the Cabinets he broke. Although his personal influence in Quebec declined after Confederation, his work was already done. He had won the major part of the province to Conservatism, and Macdonald could be trusted to retain the heritage.

Perhaps a more potent reason for the supremacy of the Conservative party in Quebec is the fact that Liberalism in this period was assailed by the Church, which dominated French Canadian life. The Parti Rouge, the exponent of Liberalism in the province, was identified by the rulers of the Church with the anticlerical Liberals of nineteenth century France, and repudiated as such. The leader of the ultramontanes, Bishop Bourget of Montreal, dictated to the electors of his diocese, denouncing in the strongest terms Liberal candidates. " Our Holy Father, the Pope," he declared on one occasion, "and after him the archbishop and bishops of this province, have declared that Catholic Liberalism is a thing to be regarded with the abhorrence with which one contemplates a pestilence; no Catholic is allowed to proclaim himself a moderate Liberal." The Conservatives were only too ready to exploit ultramontane hostility to Liberal candidates, and hence to reap the advantages of associating their party with the interests of the Church. This alliance of Church and Conservatism proved invincible for at least two decades after Confederation; it sapped the strength of Liberalism in both federal and provincial spheres.

The change in Quebec's political allegiance after 1891 was primarily caused by the accession of Laurier, most richly endowed of French Canadian public men, to the leadership of the Liberal party. Commanding ability and a magic personality were potent influences in inducing his countrymen to support the party that he led. At the time there was no French Conservative to rival even remotely his personal prestige, for Cartier, long vanished from the scene, had left no worthy successor. Political events also aided Laurier. Such notably was the execution of Riel by the Macdonald Government. French Canada, shocked and irritated by the event, lost much of its enthusiasm for the Conservative leader. What however most assisted Laurier was his brand of Liberalism, a Liberalism that could in no real sense antagonise good Roman Catholics. He championed, not the destructive and anti-Catholic radicalism of mid-nineteenth century France, but the sober constitutional principles of Great Britain, represented by the distinguished reformers from Fox to Gladstone. The Liberalism of his heart and mind was that of civil and religious freedom, guaranteeing the right of the individual to enjoy his Church without interference from the State and to exercise the privileges of a citizen without restraint from the Church. He met the challenge of the ultramontanes by showing how Roman Catholicism was compatible with the exercise of liberty in its highest acceptation. After a bitter battle against ecclesiastical influence, his success was ultimately attested by the electoral triumph of 1896. In face of clerical opposition, he won the support of the majority of his countrymen.

The ascendancy of Laurier once established in Quebec was never seriously challenged, except perhaps in 1911, when Bourassa stirred a nationalist revolt that resulted in more substantial support for the Conservatives than they had received since 1891. The last election of Laurier's career, that of 1917, bound closer the allegiance of the Quebecois to his political banner than any event in the past, for the issue was the hated conscription interwoven with much racial antagonism. The ghost of that election continued to haunt political campaigns for ten years. The conscription issue although dead influenced French Canadians in the casting of ballots. They wished to reward the party that attempted its defeat and to injure the party which they most associated with its establishment. Notably was this the case in the contest of 1921 when the Liberals captured every Quebec seat; the one dominant motive of the electors being to destroy Mr. Arthur Meighen, the Conservative leader, whom they viewed as the architect of the conscription act. Political memories die in time, and the memory of conscription was no exception. The federal election of 1930 indicated that the old memory had virtually vanished, notwithstanding the attempt of at least one newspaper to revive it.

Quebec's support of the nominal Liberals is one of the anomalies, perhaps one of the misfortunes of Canadian politics. The anomaly lies in the fact that the deep forces of French Canadian life are not genuinely Liberal but Conservative, and a party standing for Conservative principles would more properly represent them. A traditional Church exercising profound influence on its members throws its weight against radical reform. A racial group conscious of being a minority naturally clings to the landmarks of the past to save itself from being engulfed in the aggressive Anglo-Saxon life that surrounds it. Constitutional change it will invariably oppose, fearing that such change may disturb the happy arrangement of forces and the legal guarantees that preserve things dearly cherished. French Canadians are no less hostile to economic policies with the flavour of socialism. Both Conservatives and Liberals of Quebec have hitherto been no more inclined to follow Ontario's example in public ownership of hydro power than to accept the programmes of Lenin. The attempt to harness a racial group so Conservative in character within a party that claims to be Liberal must necessarily hinder a truly progressive policy. However advanced may be the view of individual ministers, they realize that back in Quebec their constituents will repudiate action tainted by radicalism. The consequence is that progressive ideas must seek a home elsewhere, either in a third group or anomalously in the Conservative camp. Names and programmes are thus strangely confused, and the nomenclature of parties becomes meaningless.

The support rendered by the French has weakened the Liberal party elsewhere in Canada, particularly in Ontario where otherwise it might find many recruits. Unfortunately racial and sectarian passions are powerful undercurrents in Canadian politics and often determine election results. Among voters in the old and more purely Anglo-Saxon provinces such as Ontario, there is distrust of the French, as in the back parishes of Quebec there is equal distrust of the English. Sectarian feeling reinforces racial prejudice. Among good Presbyterians or United Churchmen of the old counties of Ontario, the Pope can still be a bogey, as likewise among a goodly number of devout French Catholics modern Protestants and atheists are bracketed together as sons of evil. These persistent prejudices when exploited by unscrupulous men influence political action, and there is little doubt that the modern Liberal party has paid a penalty for its large French corps.

However faulty in composition, the two Canadian parties have one distinguished virtue-they help to bridge differences that might otherwise make the administration of the country impossible. By representing different races and regions and providing them with a common party loyalty, they restrain centrifugal forces that would often imperil the Dominion. They keep within safe bounds sectarian and racial passions which may slumber but never die; hence they assist the forces of national cohesion. In a country of shallow traditions and extensive area, it is easier to develop loyalty for a party than for the State, and the more composite the party the more unifying its influence. Moreover, the large party has acted as a central clearing house, sifting the demands of varied interests throughout the Dominion and eliminating those injurious to national unity. It is better that such work should be performed within a caucus than on the floor of Parliament. The alternative to the existing system would be groups representing the chief divisions of the country, the Maritime Provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia, with Quebec peculiarly separated from other regions by its French nationality. The groups indeed might be more numerous, providing representation for industrial and racial cleavages within the regions, cleavages in some cases sharp. A Parliament at Ottawa composed of these manifold groupings would be a chaotic battleground, throwing up smoke and dust, with little genuine achievement.

Source: Alexander Brady, Canada, London, Ernest Benn Limited, 1932, 374p., pp. 97-103.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College