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Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Quebec Now - Chapter 13 : The Minorities
By Miriam Chapin

FRENCH CANADIAN friend of mine remarks, "Les Anglais, they do the damnedest things. Who but an English Canadian would think of naming the new Quebec school for naval cadets after d'Iberville, and then dedicating it on Trafalgar Day? After all, even if d'Iberville was born in Montreal, he was a commander in the French navy, and that's the day it suffered its worst defeat in all history."

Whereat [sic] the English Canadian with me snaps, "Well, you French do pick the damnedest things to get sore at." And we part in mutual irritation.

It is out of such incidents that some of the illfeeling between English and French arises. The French Canadians live in history, drilled to remember all that has made them what they are; and alas, every grievance. The English Canadians live in the present and fail to comprehend how much of the present is tied up with the past. Yet it must be said that since the clashes. of wartime, when perhaps. both sides were appalled at the chasm that was opening in the nation, English Canadians have put forth a far greater effort than ever before to understand. Some of it is condescending, some of it blunders, but a lot of it adds up to a realization on both sides that the effort is necessary and should reach its goal.

About a fifth of Quebec is English-speaking. It holds the economic power. Les Anglais who speak French fluently are exceptional; those who speak it perfectly are so rare as to be notable. (Among them must be noted the Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey, Governor-General of Canada.) In Montreal, English Canadians live in their own towns, encysted within the great French city, diving into it each morning to earn their bread and Scotch, returning at night to the lawns and pure-bred dogs, the tree-lined streets and bridge-tables of Suburbia. French and English, or rather Scots, have lived side by side for 300 years without knowing each other, and have now arrived at a reasonably comfortable co-existence by remaining as ignorant as possible of each other's thoughts. Every aspect of life in Montreal is dual, religion, art (to a lesser extent than most), literature, business, pleasure, sport, sex. It is surprising that enough unity is obtained to carry on the city's business. Outside Montreal the English are settled in the Eastern Townships, and in little groups in a few industrial towns.

When I first came to Montreal to live, I thought the French Canadians were absurd when they said with emotion, "We are a conquered people." Then I heard an English Canadian business man who employed a hundred French workmen say, "Oh sure, they're all right if you know how to handle 'em. And we do-after all, we conquered 'em, didn't we?"

So, slowly, slowly, with rude and angry words from French Canadians who thought that because I speak English I must be intriguing to take advantage of them in some way, with contemptuous words from English Canadians and Americans who said disdainfully that they "didn't like" French Canadians and weren't interested in their politics or their outlook, I began to realize that les Anglais are strangers in the land, strangers who own the industry, who hold the best jobs, who control the government, who think they are being democratic if they bestow an occasional pat on a French artist, or take a wealthy French Canadian on some committee or board of directors.

Westmount is a city inside Montreal like a kangaroo's baby. It has its own postal service, police force, regulations, street-cleaning. A woman can live her whole life there and never speak a word of French, come in contact with no French Canadian except janitor, tram conductor, store clerk. She can say, as I overheard one, "Poor Sally, she can't find an apartment. She heard of one down in St. Louis Square, but of course only French people live there." So might a Princess Radziwill have spoken of the ghetto. She can dine at the Ritz, at the height of the conscription crisis, and as the French waiter's steady hand sets her soup before her, say as I heard one woman in 1944, "They ought to come down here from Ontario and just clean out the French, the lot of them. They're all yellow."

Les dames de Westmount, as their charwomen call them, lead busy lives. Their charity boards relieve any itch of discomfort they may feel over the contrast between their circumstances and that of their neighbours in St. Henri, so near below the tracks. They say, "But those people know how to get along on their wages." The Red Cross, the I.O.D.E., the Grenfell Mission, the hairdresser, dinner for the boss and his wife, or for Cousin Jim and that friend of Andy's-all these obligations leave little time to think. The husbands are the bank managers, the engineers, the brokers, down through the hierarchy. They have their clubs, the St. James, Mt. Stephen and the rest, the Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club, and then for the lower echelons, Rotary, Kiwanis and the like. Summer homes are in the mountains; for the very rich, there is Nassau. The older families, those who have not surrendered and moved to apartments, live on the short streets running up Mont Royal from Sherbrooke St., though most of the towered monstrosities built by railway millionaires have lapsed into use as schools or even rooming-houses.

Life in the middle-class English community of Montreal goes on much like that of Toronto, or a medium-sized American city, except for a certain sense of beleaguerment. It is the same feeling, in minor degree, that besets Atlanta and Singapore, the feeling of being invisibly hemmed in by an alien and unfriendly kind. There is more emphasis on church attendance than in an American city, more army life, more formal social occasions. The great balls of St. Andrew's and the rest are horrendous bores, mitigated only by the gathering of previously alerted cliques in upstairs rooms where the liquor can flow freely, and by the thought of the Dior gowns to be described in next morning's Gazette.

But among the young the routine is breaking down. The skiing week-end elbows aside the family dinner, the big houses are demolished to save taxes. The boys' schools with their "forms" and their Greek, have to prepare for Americanized colleges. Cricket is almost unknown; Canadian football (twelve on a side) draws the crowds. More and more girls go to college as a matter of course, not contenting themselves with the finishing school, though more of them will make a formal debut than in any American city. Most English Montreal girls are good looking, in tweeds and sweaters, with shining hair. They lack, however, that touch of vividness that once in a while makes a French jeune fille a thing of exquisite loveliness. Boys and girls grow up hardly knowing they are in a French city, unless they come up against some regulation which surprises them, like, the ten-year-old who swam in the Lachine Canal with only trunks, and emerged to find his companions had run away, while a policeman pointed a revolver at his skinny little chest, bawling him out for exposing his lascivious form.

The Molsons and the Dawes (beer), the Gordons (textile), the Muirs and Gardners (banks), the Morgans and the Birks ("in trade"), the Allans, the Drummonds and all their kin make up the leadership of English Montreal. They run the hospitals (and beware lest any socialized medicine raise its head); they run McGill, the turret on the bastion of their fortress; they run the Welfare Council; they run the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal's art gallery. Sometimes there is rebellion. In 1952 the trustees fired the director of the gallery, over loud protests. There was schism in the ranks. He had, in five years, opened up the place for one evening a week with no admission charge, rejected pictures by their favourite portraitist, even put up as "picture of the week", a sketch by that Communist, Picasso. But he stayed fired. The Museum needs more money; it gets only a pittance from either City or Province, and isn't likely to get more until it gives some share in control to French Canadians.

Sidney Dawes, who ran the Canadian Olympic Committee from his Montreal office, with some seemingly arbitrary selections, also met with base ingratitude. Canada did poorly, whereupon Jack Kent Cooke's New Liberty Magazine took potshots at undemocratic methods, and nastily bit the noble Dawes hand. The old guard squint at Cooke with the same wariness that an earlier generation of Montreal millionaires turned toward Max Aitken, when he invaded their stronghold, before he departed carrying with him their scalps and their pants, to become Beaverbrook.

The most powerful individual in Montreal has long been John W. McConnell, handsome whitehaired philanthropist, who before his recent retirement owned, and bossed in detail, the Montreal Star, the tabloid Herald, and Weekend Magazine, with a million syndicated circulation across Canada. His wealth came not only from them, but from sugar refineries, flour mills, and a hundred other interests. He is also reputed to be the shrewdest stockmarket operator in Canada. A Liberal who had close access to Mackenzie King, his papers never seriously oppose Duplessis.

As for the Montreal Gazette, it is thoroughly dependable: straight Tory. It can be relied upon to champion Churchill, Eisenhower, George Drew and Duplessis, to be dignified, informative, always know what is good for the children, and be doubtful about any change whatever.

Every little while some dignitary takes it upon himself to expound in public the fairness with which the English minority in Quebec is treated. French Canadians stress the point when they are demanding concessions for French minorities in other provinces, English ones when they want to pay a gracious compliment. The phenomenon is invariably ascribed to the tolerance and justice of the French Canadian. Never does the spokesman make mention of the unlikelihood that a minority which wields almost complete financial power will be seriously oppressed.

The Jews, of whom there are few in Quebec outside Montreal, are a minority within a minority. Among the French discrimination is political, fomented for political advantage, with religious overtones; among the English it is largely social. With the establishment of Israel, Jewish standing has improved; the Jews have more pride, others have more respect for them. One small but significant development is a Jewish Cercle français, which invites talks from distinguished French Canadians, and studies the French language and culture.

Never again, one hopes, will Adrien Arcand's bully boys march down St. Lawrence Main, smashing windows and yelling A bas les Juifs, as they used to do when Hitler was powerful. And yet ten years later, after spending the war years in internment camp, Arcand was telling his followers in Quebec City to pinpoint their attacks on a certain Jewish merchant, "until the people are ready for direct action." And that same year, Laurent Barré, who is still Minister of Agriculture in the Duplessis Cabinet, told the Legislative Assembly that his son, on entering the army, had been subjected to the indignity of a medical examination by a Jewish doctor, and had been ill in consequence. "Our children were thrown into the hands of infamous Jewish examiners who regaled themselves on naked Canadian flesh." L'Abbé Gravel of Boischatel, near Quebec City, explained the fall of France to his parishioners by telling them that France was dechristianizing itself. "If it lost the war, it was because in years preceding it had that dirty Jew Blum at its head."

There are curious hangovers of mediaeval beliefs among the French Canadians. A Jewish friend of mine went to a French Canadian home to hire the sixteen-year-old daughter of the house as a nursemaid. The girl kept staring at her hair. Finally my friend put up her hand uneasily, and asked if it were untidy. The girl giggled and said, "Oh no. I was just wondering about your horns. The sisters told us all Jews had little horns on their foreheads that they hid under their hair. But yours is so smooth, and I can't see anyl" Still, the girl was entirely amiable about the matter, and came to work next day.

In spite of the indoctrination, there is often great friendliness to Jewish people among French Canadians. A Jewish salesman told me he prefers to sell in Quebec rather than in Ontario. (He speaks good French.) In the English places, he said, the storekeeper greets him with a cold, polite "Nothing today." In rural Quebec his counterpart grins and says, "Maudit Juif, what are you going to cheat me on this time?" And gives a good order. The few Jewish merchants who do settle in Quebec villages usually stay and become part of the community. One such, after he refused to betray some fugitives in the conscription crisis of 1917, found the community could not do enough for him and his family-the cure offered to set up a special English school for his children! Many people do fight against the prevailing attitude, like the business man I know, who rebuked a relative at his table for abusing Roosevelt as a Jew. "You and I, my dear, were brought up with these prejudices, and can probably never escape them. But I do not wish the children to acquire them."

The psychiatrist, Dominican Father Bernard Mailhot; works hard on interracial relations. He gets small groups together, to talk things out. He concludes that: "Each feels threatened. French Canadians are weak on the economic level. English Canadians think their dominant position is undermined by the Jews. The Jews know that when things go badly, they are the scapegoats." There are committees in the labour federations, church committees, and others to consider the problem. Quebec has not heard the last of it, and will not in our day.

The bulk of Jewish population, amounting to about 75,000, lives along St. Lawrence Main in the very middle of Montreal, the centre of the garment, shoe and fur trades. As its members make money, they spill over into Outremont and other residential sections. The best-known leaders of the community are the Bronfmans, one of them head of the Canadian Jewish Congress. They own the big liquor firm of Seagram's. Justice Harry Batshaw is the first of his religion to become a judge in Quebec. An able and cultured man, he stands with the reformists who want to adapt Judaism to changing times; he has been an ardent supporter of Israel, and has visited it several times.

In the English community, discrimination is unofficial. It comes out in the refusal to rent a house, in the removal of a child from her part in a school play where she was to be the Virgin Mary, in the "personal interview" required for entrance to medical school, in the denial of promotion in business, the slow acceptance of professional work. Yet Jewish citizens have contributed much to the arts, and as always are in the forefront of charitable work.

The Cross of Maisonneuve stands high on Mont Royal, a symbol of belief and pain. To the city lying along the slopes below, is it ever a reminder that Jesus of Nazareth was a rebel and a Jew, who was put to death for subversive activities?

Negroes from the West Indies and the American South are often pleased to find how little colour prejudice there is in Montreal, among either French or English. The Montreal Star quoted Warren Gardner, student of racial questions, as saying that Montreal has special advantages for the Negro. Coloured families can live in white areas. Job barriers are beginning to crack, though Negroes still are in second-rate jobs as servants and porters when qualified for better. But hospitals have begun to accept Negro student nurses, there are Negro college teachers and Negro postal employees. Montreal enjoys the reputation among Negroes of a democratic city. They study at McGill, mingle with other students, interne at the Royal Victoria. A southern girl who objected to the presence of a West Indian girl in the dormitory where she roomed was promptly told by the Warden, "If there is any preference here, it will be given to the British subject, which you, Miss Blank, are not." A very pretty West Indian girl was queen of the McGill winter carnival in 1949, and everybody was delighted with her appearance in the role.

The partly American Negro colony along St. Antoine Street does suffer from discrimination, especially in housing. They harbour some jealousy of the West Indians, who are more or less expected to go back to the islands whence they came, after they get their education. Among French Canadians, there has been little colour prejudice since the days of the coureurs des bois. When a Hindu woman who was a member of the Indian Congress Committee and later an envoy to Geneva Conferences was refused shelter at two of Montreal's big hotels, she was enthusiastically entertained in French circles. There was sharp criticism in French papers when the Chateau Frontenac (CPR hotel in Quebec City) closed its dining-room to persons of colour, in deference to United States tourists. The presence of the International Labour Office during the war, and that of ICAO and IATA since, with their delegates from many lands, have educated Montrealers to ignore superficial distinctions.

Indeed, Montreal has become a cosmopolitan city. The disapproving attitude of French Canadians to immigration has been altered by a realization that it is inevitable. Now, while Toronto Orangemen wail that the Catholic Church controls Canadian immigration and puts up bars against non-Catholics, French Canadian politicians shriek just as loudly that French Canada must maintain its cadres by seeing to it that more immigrants who can be assimilated into French culture are sought out and admitted, that French is being drowned out in the flood of English (or about to learn English) immigrants coming in. Meanwhile Montreal coffeeshops are towers of Babel, music and art are stimulated by European ideas. Hungarians, Poles, Baltic Germans, Rumanians, Italians, every sort and kind of people hive in Montreal. Naturally they tend to cluster around their own churches and restaurants. Poles, Bavarians and other Catholic groups are apt to associate with French-speaking groups. Others enter the English community. They all find they need English to earn a living; most speak several languages already. In the years since the war, they have added new skills to the Canadian scene, strong arms to its mines and factories.

One minority in Quebec is voiceless. The Indians and Eskimos are in Quebec but not of it. They have no legal relation to the Provincial Government, no faintest representation in it, yet they are daily affected by the fact that it is French and Catholic. They travel on its roads, they are sentenced by its judges, taxed by its laws, but they are not its citizens-nor for that matter, are they citizens of Canada. Fewer than two hundred Indians enlisted in Quebecenlistment bestows the federal franchise, even on those who remain on the reservation. They were held liable for home service, and judge Monet of Montreal ruled that a Caughnawaga Indian who refused to serve was a draft-dodger. Ontario has given its Indians the provincial franchise, but there is no question of that in Quebec. Whether they use it is another question; at present the older men deny any wish to vote. The 15,000 Indians within Quebec are, like all in Canada, under the Indian Branch of the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, -now in the charge of Honourable John W. Pickersgill. The 2,000 Eskimos, for some reason lost in the mists of time and bureaucracy, are administered by the Land Bureau of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, whose head is Honourable Jean Lesage. Federal departments of Health, Education, and justice also have fingers in the Indian and Eskimo pies. In Quebec Indian agents are usually French Canadian. Except at Caughnawaga near Montreal and along Hudson Bay, the Indians are French-speaking, when they know a non-Indian tongue.

Indian education in Quebec is of course in the hands of church authorities. The Federal Government has been accustomed to make grants to the mission schools and forget about them. About half the Indian children in Quebec never get to school, or go for so few days out of a year that they count for nothing. Along the Bay the missions are Anglican; to the east of Lake Mistassini they are Oblate.

Indians in Quebec are of three cultures, and were at three stages of progress when the French arrived. There are the agricultural tribes of the great valley, the deer-hunting tribes of the forests, and the caribouhunting ones of the barrens. The Iroquois, now at Caughnawaga, were a corn and squash raising people, with a highly organized government. Women held high posts among them. Nowadays their men are mostly structural steel workers, going freely across the border to the United States under the Jay Treaty, to work on bridges and skyscrapers. Women work in the Lachine canning factories .across the river from their reserve, where they come under provincial labour laws, or make little curios to sell to tourists. The provincial road, heavy with traffic, is the main street of their village. Buyers at the little stores pay provincial sales tax. The Jesuit mission came originally from Rhode Island, bringing English with it, but now some of the priests are French Canadian. A few learn Iroquois well enough to preach in it. Two-thirds of the people still use the soft, complicated speech in their homes. The United Church of Canada has a school also, and about eighty Indians remain "pagans," holding their festivals four times a year in their Long House. Caughnawaga is not a happy place; the RCMP maintain a post there, to quell the drunken fights that break out-though Indians are forbidden to buy liquor. The men who have gone away come back to summer celebrations, in big cars, to visit their people. When they are old or crippled in their dangerous trade, they may come back for good. The Iroquois still own a tract of land in the Laurentians for a hunting reserve, but they seldom go there. One feels they do not know which way to turn, how to preserve their own way of life, or how to become Canadians like their neighbours.

The Hurons at Loretteville, near Quebec, recently produced a remarkable leader, Jules Sioui, who wanted to organize an Indian nation. He went to jail for two years, in 1949, on a charge of inciting the Indians to rebellion. He had recalled to them their loss of treaty rights, the white encroachment on their lands, and he roused enough excitement to worry the authorities. Maybe his way was not a good way, but he voiced a lot of grievances.

The woods Indians are of Algonquin stock, Crees around James Bay and up the coast, Montagnais east to Labrador, in some thirty bands. They are dependent on their Hudson's Bay Co. post, the local agent, and the RCMP patrol. They must trade their furs at the company store, getting an advance in fall for the winter's work, and they are eternally in debt. In 1947 Dr. Percy Vivian, of McGill's Public Health Department, made a study of the Indians at Rupert's House, one of the oldest posts on the Bay, where an Anglican mission has been established over a hundred years. He found the Indians living in patched tents or one-room log buts, often two families in a hut, surrounded by filth, refuse and excreta. The only furniture was boxes to store food. The dirt floors were covered with spruce boughs for sleeping on. Cooking utensils were lard pails and frying-pans. During seven months they travel inland; in summer at the post the children go to school. He found the people moved slowly and were apathetic, the children unnaturally docile. The tuberculosis rate was forty-six times Ontario's.

For the inland bands the story is much the same, with less schooling. Measles and flu take heavy toll. The change from the skin tent to the crowded log cabin promotes the spread of disease. Diet of tea and flour is no help. Few Indians get training as doctors or nurses; those who do and come back to their tribes too often relapse defeated. The new hospital at Moosonee (Ontario) is helping some tuberculosis patients from the Quebec shore; the distribution of vitamin tablets does some good. But what the Indians need is jobs and wages, food and housing, education and citizenship. Mr. Lesage travelled around the Northwest and came back with a programme for technical training for the Indians. Being himself Quebecois, perhaps he can apply it to Quebec as well.

Yet in spite of everything, these woods Crees have amazing vitality. In the spring the young men put their love notes in a forked stick along the path the maidens will take to the lake. The old songs and dances are not wholly forgotten. The sweathouse of the medicine man is set up not a hundred yards from the missionary's cabin, and he will never know.

Far to the northeast, in the scanty woods and on the barrens, dwell the most wretched and primitive people of all, the Nascopi. They know nothing of agriculture; both men and women hunt. They make canoes with bone or wooden tools, and dogsleds like the Eskimos. During the winter they scatter through the vast interior; in summer they came to sea or river to dance and visit. with other bands, to pick berries and.,. fish. Their religion is merely magic for. success in hunting; they shake rattles and pound. drums to make strong the caribou man who lives with the caribou or to propitiate the master of the salmon. Like the Eskimo (whether learned from them or from Mongolian ancestors), they amuse themselves with complicated string games, esoteric cat's cradles. From them comes the legend of the Windigo, the cannibal monster feared all along the Côte Nord. Their tag-ends of Catholicism amount. to a liking for the display of the mass, and for the shiny medals. F. G. Speck, who lived with them and wrote a book about them, says, "For the white metal crosses the women wear around their necks, they pay the missionary priests $2.50."

But even to the Nascopi change has come, as it has to. the Montagnais. Up through their country drives the railroad to the iron of Ungava. It was an Indian chief who first brought a bit of rock to a geologist and led him to the great discovery. They work on the roadbed, on the dozens of plane-strips, they act as guides; new opportunities open. The Quebec Department of Mines, collaborating with the Indian Bureau, has given courses in prospecting to twenty or more Indians at Sept Isles. All through the north country, because of the need for conservation of furs and the development of fur-farming, Indians begin to trap under supervision, or to work for money wages. The mines, the pulpmills push the frontier farther north each year. At Bersimis, the great powerplant which is to supply Gaspé by cables under the St. Lawrence is only a few miles. north from the Indian reserve. Indians found work at day labour-some of them discovered that bootlegging brought windfall profits.

The question whether Indians can or should join unions comes up in an appeal to the Quebec Superior Court, in the case of an Abitibi sawmill company. Ninety-two of the 291 employees were Indians, but the A.F. of L. local which was certified by the Labour Relations Board said they ought to be excluded because they don't pay unemployment insurance, because they come to work and go back to the reserve as they please. It seemed they voted against having a union; without them the local had a majority of the employees. So Indians must either be educated in the value of unions or kept out of them entirely!

Eskimos too are drawn into the money economy. Since they live on seal and whale meat, animals even the white man's guns have not been able to exterminate, they fare better than the Indians whose caribou grow scarce. They continue to flourish in one of the harshest environments known to man, from Great Whale Bay on Hudson Bay, around the Straits and halfway down the Labrador shore. They learn fast to use and repair the white man's machines; they even learn to drive a hard bargain with him. Up at Fort Chimo, they worked on the plane strips asday labourers. Their wonderful language with its long words made up of a dozen particles, each shading the meaning of the others, has little dialectal variation in Quebec. Their sculpture finds a ready market in Canadian cities. The anthropological research centre at the University of Ottawa has started, with Oblate collaboration, a great project for the study and recording of Indian and Eskimo languages.

French Canadians never had any quarrel with the native peoples, except as a function of the quarrels between English and French. They wanted their trade, not their land. Even the great Count Frontenac liked to dance by the Indian campfires. They have long worked side by side on the edges of the bush, suffered the same hardships, often intermarried. French Canadians can be of excellent service in bringing Indians and Eskimo into a greater participation in Canadian life, in training them to share in the development of the North. They have much to contribute to that development, in knowledge and skill.

Source: Miriam CHAPIN, Quebec Now, Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1955, pp. 155-172.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College