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Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Canada - Chapter Four : Associations and the Press
[The Churches in Quebec and in the Rest of Canada]
By Alexander Brady

IN Canada as in the United States the composite parties are little more than the agents of innumerable other associations that are the real creators of public opinion. The springs of the democracy are found in the Churches and in the numerous economic associations, which are ever active in moulding and expressing the opinions and championing the interests of their members. These associations have an existence apart from the State. They rise or fall without its action. They stand for different ends, and satisfy different needs. But upon the State they have a profound influence. Political leaders are amenable to their control, and moved to action by their demands. Within their counsels the major impulses of the community have their origin. To ignore them in a study of modern Canada would be to neglect a vital part of the nation's life.

The Church next to the State stands foremost as a fashioning influence on the Canadian community. It was so from the beginning. Throughout the history of New France the Church was scarcely less important than the State. Canada was originally a colony of Old France; no less was it a colony of the Roman Catholic Church, an experiment not yet complete in what Rome could achieve in determining the character of a people. Andre Siegfried has remarked without exaggeration that, " In the case of the French Canadians the ascendancy of the Church is so great that it may be regarded as the principal factor in their evolution". Previous to the British conquest, the government of the colony was partly a theocracy. The bishop sat in the sovereign council, and often exercised a powerful influence, while at all times the pressure of the ecclesiastical authority was evident. Specially important was the parish system, with the parish priest as the natural leader of the French colonists. He was close to their daily lives, shared with them the simple pleasures and primitive privations of the forest, assisted them in the grim struggle with Nature, spiritually ministered to them from birth to death, and exercised over them a dominant influence. Through him they had the only contact with a world beyond the forest clearings - the world of Catholicism with its dogmas and mysteries. Notwithstanding vast external changes in society, the parish as an institution has remained substantially what it was two centuries ago. Louis Hémon, in Marie Chapdelaine, has described with simple beauty the life of the pioneer in the back settlements of contemporary Quebec, where the priest is, next to the forest, the ruling force on the lives of the habitants. No less in the older settlements that cling to the St. Lawrence, the curé has remained to his parishioners the supreme counsellor, whose verdict either on matters of personal conduct or on questions of public concern receives singular attention.

The British conquest strengthened rather than weakened ecclesiastical power. Deprived of their military and civil officials, the people rendered greater homage to the leaders of the Church, while out of political expediency the British Government readily made concessions to an institution of such wide prestige. Thus the ecclesiastical hegemony was established on foundations of granite. The trust in clerical leadership was not misplaced, for throughout the past 150 years this leadership has been the potent means of preserving intact French Canadian nationality. With his accustomed force Henri Bourassa has remarked that, "Our survival as a people, with our families, our traditions, our language, our memories and our hopes, we owe neither to France nor to England but to the Church ". The Church has consistently championed those policies necessary to insure the community's separate identity. It has provided caution and restraint, illustrated in the Rebellion of 1837, as well as initiative and action. There was no certainty that it would succeed in keeping French Canada intact. In the early nineteenth century many observers prophesied that the descendants of those who founded New France were doomed to absorption in the rising tide of Anglo-Saxon life. Tocqueville, on visiting America in the early 'thirties, described them as "the wreck of an old people lost in the flood of a new nation". But no longer can such an opinion be held, and the confident assertion of a French Canadian publicist is justified: "The danger of assimilation has disappeared; we are masters of our destiny."

The Church's persistence and energy, with its innate capacity for working and waiting, told in the course of time. It never lacked practical policies to attain cherished aims. It specially emphasized segregation from the English, strongly discouraging mixed marriages and even social intercourse. It frowned upon the acquirement of the English tongue, for it well knew that a distinct language was the title deed of preservation. In a practical spirit it sought to keep the habitants rooted to the soil of Quebec. It feared and endeavoured to prevent the seepage to the United States or to the English provinces, realizing that emigrants might be drawn irretrievably into the maelstrom of American life and lost to the Canadian race. (Note from the original text: The French speak of themselves only as Canadiens ; they designate others by their origin as English, Scotch or Irish.) Hence Churchmen became champions of improved agriculture, and leaders in the colonization of new land remote from the original settlements. The saying of Cardinal Bégin, " If you do not make priests out of your sons, try to make them farmers", has been the Church's consistent message throughout the past century, and it rested on farseeing policy. Many are the clerical names intimately associated with colonization. The Abbés Boucher, Bergeron, Tremblay and Beaudry played distinguished roles in directing the settlement of the northern region about Lake St. John, as no less energetically the Abbé Belcourt directed the planting of colonists in the valley of the Matapedia. But he who towers above all others was Father Labelle (1834-1891). From 1868, when he received a parish north of Montreal in a district which now bears his name, he devoted vast energy and unflagging zeal to the colonization of the region, and his methods and success throw vivid light on the deep influence of a strong cleric over his countrymen. That he understood the devotion of the habitants to the Church is reflected in his formula for the settlement of a locality: "Construct a chapel, instal a priest, and settlement takes place as if by magic ". A chapel was the centre of the people's life; it alone was sufficient to attract them, while the ministering priest provided a satisfying leadership. With equal vision, Father Labelle realized that the destiny of the French was on the north bank of the St. Lawrence, where they had for expansion a vast hinterland. On the south bank there was little more than a ribbon of territory separating them from the United States and the corrupting industrialism of American life. The northward expansion which Father Labelle sponsored has proceeded to the present day; and is still directed by distinguished priests, notably in recent years the Abbé Caron of the Abitibi. The promotion of colonization was linked with the encouragement of methods designed to satisfy the tillers of the soil and to create a virile rural community; such as, co-operation, scientific cultivation of fruits, breeding of horses, and modern dairying. For this work there was formed, in 1894, the organization of Agricultural Missionaries, clerics who expounded to the habitants the latest and most effective methods of agriculture.

In politics the Church in Quebec has played a prominent role. Thanks to direct contact with the Vatican and devotion to the Pope, it has always been ultramontane, and became aggressively so in the latter half of the nineteenth century, clashing with Liberal tendencies in thought and action. It has already been pointed out how it cramped the development of a Liberal party. Indeed the Church in that period usurped the functions of a party, and descended to the levels of political strife. It supported certain candidates, condemned others, intimidated voters by spiritual censures, and stressed its claim to authority over the State. A joint pastoral of the episcopate of Quebec declared in 1875: " The Church is not only independent of civil society but is superior to it by her comprehensiveness and by her end . . . . The priest and the bishop may and ought to speak not only to the electors and candidates but even to the constituted authorities". Twenty years later, on the occasion of the election that brought Laurier to power, bishops and priests were more vigorous than ever in attempts at political persuasion. Laurier's stand on the issue of separate schools in Manitoba specially aroused their hostility. In a famous statement, in 1896, the Bishops of Quebec, Montreal, and Ottawa declared: " If the bishops, whose authority issues from God Himself, are the natural judges of all questions which touch upon the Christian faith and morals, if they are the acknowledged heads of a perfect condition of society, sovereign in itself and standing above that of the State, it follows that it is in their province, when circumstances render it desirable, not merely to express generally their views and sides in regard to religious matters, but also to indicate to the faithful the best means of attaining the spiritual ends in view". So extravagantly did they carry their claims that in 1897 they were censured by Rome for excessive and unwise interference in politics.

Since the beginning of the present century, the hierarchy has been more modest in pronouncements on public questions, and has refrained from revealing partiality for any one party. Even in the trying years of the Great War, when passion ran high in Quebec, the bishops were commendably moderate. Cardinal Bégin publicly denounced conscription, and it was rumoured had personally endeavoured to influence Catholic ministers and members at Ottawa. But his actions and those of other bishops constituted less interference in politics than the actions of many Protestant ministers. In such a crisis it was difficult for the Church to be neutral. "The Church," said Archbishop Bruchesi, " is above parties. But we cannot close our eyes to events in the country. We have reached an exceedingly grave position. Divisions between the provinces and between nationalities have been accentuated. We are nearing racial and religious war." Episcopal utterances were in the nature of admonitions, free from the dictatorial tone of Bishop Bourget and others fifty years earlier. Editors of Catholic papers, such as La Croix and L'Idéal Catholique, [sic; should read l'Action Catholique] were much less restrained than the bishops, and the curés in many cases led the revolt against the submission to the Conscription Law. But on the whole the Church of French Canada played no excessive part in the political crisis of the time.

Likewise in social life and thought the Church now exercises more restrained control. Thirty years ago it was hostile to the retention in public libraries of the representative books of modern France. Some of the great French authors known throughout the world of letters were on the Index, particularly De Musset, Renan, and Zola. The clergy forbade Catholic booksellers to display the works of these men on the plea that the faithful must be protected from the taint of French cynicism and worldliness. Needless to say the Church would brook nothing in the nature of anti-clerical criticism; it summarily silenced newspapers which attempted the critical attitude towards the Church so common in France. A classic instance of its power was the suppression of three papers between 1899 and 1904, Les Débats, Le Combat and L'Action. These publications were successively managed and edited by Edouard Charlier, a native Frenchman, who discovered to his cost that the Church in Quebec was a different institution from the Church of his own country. He drew its enmity by praising and quoting modern authors whose works were on the Index, mocking the Syllabus, and attacking the ideas and influence of Bishop Bourget. For such views Les Débats was condemned, and its circulation immediately dwindled. Le Combat was established and met a like fate. L'Action died with the first issue [31 January, 1904]. The censorship of the Church was dominant. Books, newspapers, theatres, all came under its vigilant eye, and its frown was sufficient to bring failure. An exception was Le Pays, which was interdicted in 1913, but survived for ten years [Note from the editor: the newspaper survived a little over eight years].

The power of the Church is still great, and it tolerates little criticism, but it takes care to avoid the appearance of arbitrariness. It depends more on counsel and exhortation than on coercion. M. Georges Vattier, a French observer, points out in his Essai Sur La Mentalité Canadienne that the libraries of the province now contain many books formerly prohibited. Whereas in earlier times it discouraged students from studying in France for fear of infection with modern thought, the Church now provides scholarships for residence in the Motherland. It still condemns plays and books that seem out of tone with the Catholic spirit, but it first takes pains to insure that the condemnation has real justification. It reveals to-day the opportunism and elasticity that the Roman Catholic Church in a long history seldom lacked. Realizing that French Canadian society must inevitably be touched with modernism, it is careful not to antagonize followers or arouse criticism among enemies by opposing too bluntly the forces of change. Moreover, since its power in essentials continues as great as ever, it has nothing to fear in this newer age. Education of the young remains under clerical direction, Quebec being the only province where this is the case; registration of births and deaths is still the task of Church officials; marriage is solely an ecclesiastical rite, and finally through the confessional the priest still exercises a profound influence on individual conduct. Supported by its undying traditions and uncompromising beliefs, it can afford to be reserved and calm.

In English-speaking Canada the Protestant Church plays a role scarcely less important, although in character it differs from the Catholic Church of Quebec. To speak of the Protestant Church may seem to suggest a unified organization, as yet unachieved; but it is intended merely to refer to that large community of heritage and attitude which subsists with diversity of organization. Less is it the Church of a great past, powerful in traditions, relatively changeless in dogma and policy,' and seeking the source of direction from across the seas. On the contrary it is much more the plastic creation of the community, readily adapting itself even in the tone of its teaching to the conditions of North American life. In general philosophy it may be called Calvinistic. It inherits something of Calvin's emphasis on rigid rules, institutional forms, and strict moral discipline. No less does it reveal those elements of democracy which had their origin in Geneva. Indeed the religious life of Protestant Canada is largely that of the Puritan Church of the Reformation brought up to date; in other words purged of much grim puritanism. The dominant organization is the United Church of Canada, established in 1925 by an organic union of the Methodists, the larger part of the Presbyterian communion, and the Congregationalists. In membership and general strength it overshadows the other two leading Protestant communions, the Anglican and the Baptist. The United Church was partly constructed out of national idealism, the desire to achieve a distinctly Canadian Church capable of meeting better the peculiar needs of the country. Not merely was it partly the product of national emotion, but its establishment must tend to strengthen Canadian nationality. It is one other agency of union, supplementing within the confines of Canada the work of the State and the innumerable other associations which play a part in sewing together the scattered portions of the country. This achievement in Church union, virtually the first of its kind on such a scale, illustrates a characteristic of the Anglo-Canadian mind evident in the religious no less than in other aspects of associational life; namely, it is not bound by hard traditions. Impatient of the past, if the past handicaps the present, it has the ready boldness for fresh experiment characteristic of young societies. The union consummated in 1925 was the climax of a succession of minor unions. In 1875 the various sections of Presbyterianism, created by the ecclesiastical controversies of Scotland, were welded into the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Nine years later the divided portions of Methodism united to form the Methodist Church of Canada. Thus under the impact of necessities in the Dominion Church divisions of the old land crumbled, and even the structure of theological principles underwentchange, for each consolidation including that of 1925 implied at least a shifting of doctrinal emphasis.

The way was prepared for a union of the religious bodies by their common emphasis upon, and ready co-operation in social work. Canadian Protestantism particularly as represented by the United Church, is even more than the Protestantism of the United States concerned with a sociological as distinct from a religious effort for betterment. Theological doctrine is less important than social effort. What is popularly known as "uplift" is the driving impulse of the Church of English Canada, and "uplift" can best be promoted by strong organizations. The spiritual is served by attention to the material; nor is it always the redress of misery that is sought. A dominant point of view was stated by a Presbyterian leader in addressing young candidates for the ministry. Dealing with the function of the Church, he remarked that it was not necessary for it to teach men how to grow better cabbages, but it should teach men everywhere and always that it is their duty to grow better cabbages. The spiritual is consciously made a handmaid to material achievement; and such religion may be expected in a community where the march of material life engages the major energies of men, and where idealism seldom gets further than the immediately practical. The Church is viewed even more than the State as a general distributor of social relief. It has a specialized staff to study social problems. It operates orphanages, rescue homes, settlements, downtown missions; nor has it wholly resigned to the State the task of educating the young, for under its auspices groups of boys and girls are organized for educational purposes. In varied ways it gives force to the hackneyed slogan of service. The average large Protestant Church in a Canadian city is a beehive of activities, which ceaselessly go on from Sunday throughout the week, study groups, women's meetings, gymnasium classes, musicales - thus the gamut of social interest is run. The Church, in brief, undertakes to be a centre of education, recreation, and moral culture. It is the outstanding agency of sociability, whether in the country, the small town or the large city, and as such it plays a subtle and important part in the formation of public opinion and the creation of community consciousness. Too often in its many utilitarian activities and in its desire to win popular approval, it fails to cultivate a deep spiritual and mystical religion. Such a religion indeed can grow only with difficulty on North American soil. But the Church succeeds at least in providing some antidotes to the grosser materialism of a prosperous country, and in that achievement its leaders feel content.

The Protestant Churches of Canada do not rely merely on their own educational and moral efforts for attaining social improvement. They enlist the services of the State, with the result that they are often to be found shoulder to shoulder with the economic associations, either lobbying in the chambers of legislatures, or applying their pressure directly through the constituencies. Since the beginning of the present century they have placed great reliance in the power of secular legislation. With much of the old Puritan passion, they seek to translate moral sentiments into statutes and to effect regeneration in conduct by the coercion of State law. Especially prominent has been the part played by the Methodists and Presbyterians in sabbatical legislation; censorship of moving pictures, and liquor, prohibition. Throughout Canada strict observance of Sunday as a day of rest is enforceable by a federal statute, enacted largely by the efforts of an organization of Protestant ministers and laymen known as the Lord's Day Alliance.

In attaining prohibition the Churches not merely made a personal appeal to voters from the pulpit, but gave substantial support to organizations that carried on incessant propaganda; such, as, the Canadian Prohibition Bureau, the Dominion Alliance, the Prohibition Federation of Canada, the Ontario Prohibition Union. When the free sale of liquor was a political issue, the Protestant Churches rang with pleas for the prohibition cause. Other matters were largely lost sight of, and it almost seemed that the one road to salvation was via the prohibited sale of alcohol. Even less defensible restrictions on conduct in the name of morality have been frequently advocated, and need no description. But the Protestant Churches do not spend all their energy in attaining prohibitive measures. At various times they have zealously championed humanitarian legislation of great value. The social service branch of the Methodist Church exposed the sweating of girls in the factories and shops of Ontario, helping thereby to prepare public opinion for the enactment of a provincial minimum wage law.

While on ordinary political issues the Churches take no stand, on a matter that they consider "moral" or "religious" they exercise profound influence. A Cabinet Minister recently remarked that " there never has been and never will be a Government in Canada strong enough to refuse anything which the Churches unite to demand ". Complete union in effort however is not always evident among the Protestant communions. In the past the Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists, representing in the census of 1921 about 34 per cent of the total population, generally exercised a united influence, and since the union of the first three bodies their influence is increased. But the Anglicans, who represented in the census of 1921 about 16 per cent of the total population, often in part at least take a different position, from the more evangelical bodies. (Of the total population about 57 per cent is Protestant and over 38 percent Roman Catholic) Such notably was the case in the prohibition controversies. Some of the frankest and strongest opponents of prohibition were Anglican clergymen, who considered that it did not promote the higher end of temperance. In their general attitude to prohibitive legislation, the Anglicans in Canada are more in agreement with the Roman Catholics; less prone on the whole to put trust in State regulations unless public sentiment is strongly in favour. Indeed of all denominations the Anglican is least assimilable to the Protestantism of North America. An apostolic ministry, ancient creeds and sacraments and emphasis on ceremonial, set it apart from other Protestant communions. Its relationship to the Mother Church of England has profound influence on its character. It drinks deep in the wells of Anglican tradition, and through regular association of its leaders with the divines of Great Britain preserves the values of an ancient Church. Little more than twenty-five years ago it was the practice, as it still is in other Dominions, to bring men directly from Great Britain to bishoprics in Canada. This custom has passed into discard, but men ordained in the old land still come to parishes in various parts of the Dominion, and the faculties of the theological colleges are mainly recruited from graduates of Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin.

The attitude of the Protestant Churches in Canada towards thought is Liberal. There is little of that obscurantist opposition to modern science so evident in the " Bible Belt " of the United States, and, although the Churches have influenced the State to enact prohibitive legislation in certain matters of conduct, they make no threat upon the cherished possession of free speculation and liberal teaching. The Scopes trial and the legislation that led up to it would be impossible in a province of the Dominion. The leading Protestant Churches would probably be the first to defend intellectual freedom. This fact does not imply the absence of fundamentalism. Observers from Great Britain often note the relative inertia of Canadian thought on religious matters. On the day of writing a Toronto paper reports the remark of a distinguished English clergyman who has been preaching in the city that, "Toronto is thirty years behind the times theologically speaking. I am surprised to find Christians calling each other names and fighting over evolution. In England all this is settled". The Baptist Church has suffered most in fact it is the only Church which has recently suffered in any real degree from a battle between modernism and fundamentalism, and McMaster University, the Baptist institution in Hamilton, has been violently assailed by the defenders of an old theology on the ground that it promotes the evil tendencies of modernism.

Like much that is feeble in Canadian culture, conservatism in religious thinking is attributable to the pioneer character of a society, absorbed in material development to the exclusion of speculative thought. The pioneering spirit and the primitive mind walk in unison. This absence of boldness in doctrinal speculation in the Churches is in sharp contrast with the decided audacity in institutional organization of the United Church. In the institutional rather than in the speculative realm Canadian churchmen and their flocks are pioneers, a fact thoroughly in keeping with the practical bent of the community. Without detracting from the idealism of the Church union movement, one may describe it as the triumph of business ideas, the attainment of a mechanism to perform the common social work of the Churches in a more economical and efficient way. Such a triumph made possible by a previous emphasis on common things may however leave untouched the realm of thought on the relation of religion to modern science.

Source: Alexander Brady, Canada, London, Ernest Benn Limited, 1932, 374p., pp. 120-135.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College