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Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Canada. Nation and Neighbour - Chapter 8 : French Canada and National Policy
By Arthur R. M. Lower

CANADA, the bi-cultural country, rises out of the American Revolution. For a century and a quarter after that date, the only realities beyond their doors for English Canadians were the world from which they had come, the English-speaking world, whether Great Britain or the United States. For French Canada, these were great realities, too, especially as the ancient motherland sank below the horizon, but they were more terrible realities than for English Canadians, threatening realities. Counterpoise was needed for them. This the artificial revival of French memories at the period of the Crimean war, with its introduction of the tricolour and subsequent visits of French warships, hardly achieved: France, except as cultural centre, continued shadowy.

The renewed vigour of papalism after the death of the Roman Republic of 1848 was another matter. Pio Nono had become the martyr of republicanism and modernism. Sixteen years later he secured for himself a marty's retribution with his issue of The Syllabus of Errors, roundly condemning the liberalism of the day. Nowhere in Catholicism was the spirit of the Syllabus more heartily echoed than on the distant shores of the St. Lawrence. A reviving papal power satisfied the zeal of the French Canadian bishops and the piety of their flocks. It gave to both a metropolitan centre of power which served as psychological makeweight to that shrine of Empire which English Canadians found in London. Thenceforth for English Canada, the external world continued, as before, to be the English-speaking world, but for French Canada, more and more as the years passed, it became the Papacy.

French Canada came to self-consciousness long before English Canada, and out of its self-consciousness arose the national attitudes which to this day show little sign of change and which are a puzzle to English Canadians. Yet they are not intrinsically puzzling: they are simply those of the sleeper who wakes and finds himself surrounded with what seem hostile shapes. French Canada, as self-consciousness deepened, came to feel uncomfortably alone, separated forever from its own world, alone in a hostile Protestant world, a Protestant world that could wound by a short, quick blow from near at hand, or by a longer, more calculated injury from across the ocean. Naturally it turned first to protect itself from the foe near at hand.

French Canada's self-consciousness begins at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At that time, the newspaper Le Canadien proudly proclaimed its struggle for nos institutions, notre foi et nos lois, and found a convenient tyrant in Governor Sir James Craig. He obligingly suppressed it, trying similar tactics with some of its editors, to say nothing of the Provincial assembly. The result was that to his period in office there clings the nickname of "the reign of terror." Thanks to Craig, French Canadian nationalism got a good start. Thanks to his secretary Hermann Ryland, it could associate with it peril to the faith, for Ryland stands as one of the first Catholic baiters in Canadian history. French Canadian nationalism rose and throve on "persecutions" by English and Protestants.

The mighty Papineau gave it a furious shove forward, opposing the official class at every turn and, eventually, after nearly twenty years of opposition passing into agitation, found himself a rebel. He fled, and the rebellion was easily crushed. It had been poorly supported by the French themselves. But if many condemned rebellion on the score of expediency, few indeed were not in general sympathy with the stroke the rebels had made for self-government. The rebellion of 1837 set the coping stone to French Canadian nationalism. Henceforth les enfants du sol, "nous autres," were sure of their identity: they were Canadians, others just English. From their ranks came the occasional poet to voice their aspirations and the great historian, Garneau, who justified their existence for them and hallowed it.

If the rebellion marked the birth of a new community, it also was the occasion of that community's divisions. For eleven years after the rebellion, French Canada had much to put up with: there was little doubt that a section of the English were aiming at the proscription of the French tongue and the weakening, perhaps extinction, of the French community. It was also evident that another wing of the English were ready for compromise. So were all but the extremists among the French. Compromise, thanks to the moderate elements on both sides, was the path taken, through the solution termed "responsible government." But compromise in itself did not bring reconciliation. When Papineau returned from exile and again entered the legislature, he once more exposed his doctrines in a long and fiery speech. He was strong in his condemnation of England in her dealings with Lower Canada, wanted a dissolution of the union with Upper Canada and the introduction of American (or French) democracy. He got his answer from Lafontaine, who rang the changes on Papineau's position as being "l'opposition à outrance." Papineau was for no surrender, Lafontaine for compromise.

Most French Canadians followed Lafontaine, and after him, Cartier. The route they took led through co-operation to Confederation and thence into the wider life of a continental state. Many French Canadians are following that route still: all those who hold cabinet office, most members of parliament, thousands of people of goodwill everywhere, who ask nothing more than equal treatment for themselves from the majority. From being French Canadian, this large body of French opinion, whatever its formal politics, is passing over into being Canadian. It has had distinguished exponents, among them Laurier, Lapointe and St. Laurent.

After Confederation most of French Canada would have followed this route of compromise had it not been for the impingement upon it of the outside world, both English Canadian and foreign. The Red River "Rebellion" and Riel's murder of Scott occurred just about the same time as the Pope was proclaiming his new doctrine of papal infallibility.

Just before the dogma of infallibility had come the Italian march on Rome and the futile papal gesture of defence. French Canadians as "Papal Zouaves" had marched to the defence of the Pope: they had gone with all the ardour of crusaders, the words of their clergy ringing in their ears and the consciousness of the "errors" of the modern world strong in their minds. They had failed.

French Canadians of a much humbler type than those who set out for Rome were at the same time standing off the English Canadian descent on Manitoba. Their claims were not unjust and they would have been satisfied but for the tragic death of Scott, the Ontario Orangeman upon whom Riel, the "rebel" leader, had passed a sentence that the law - and every Protestant - could but regard as murder.

The two locales, so far apart, Italy and Manitoba, were tied, together by an inner logic: the one represented the marshalling of a strengthened and assertive Catholicism against everything that English Protestants called progress and the other represented the resistance of the humble-the French half-breeds of Manitoba-against the great. Both roused national feelings, feelings of pride and hate; both pitted Canadians of the two races against each other. Both averted for many years the time when the hatchet would be buried. There followed a succession of incidents that kept the flames of hate alive the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 and the subsequent execution of Riel, the destruction of the French and Catholic schools of Manitoba by the legislation of the Protestant pioneers of that Province. By 1896, in which year a crisis was reached, Canada seemed almost ready to go up in the flames of religious and racial civil war.

Yet despite the hatred which the extremists on either side displayed for each other, there was little talk of a revolutionary nature: no French Canadian spoke about independence, about a French republic on the banks of the St. Lawrence, none talked about leaving the Confederation. The worst acerbities of the struggle were softened by the large group on either side which wanted something like national unity.

Pre-eminent among French-speaking Canadians who wanted national unity was Wilfrid Laurier. Luckily for the country, at one of the tensest moments of its existence, by as strange a political fluke as has ever occurred, he found himself in power, the Prime Minister of Canada. Laurier used to be fond of dwelling upon the old fable of the north wind and the sun; to no man was it more applicable than he; by charm and skill and human decency, he got Canada quieted down.

Scarcely had he done so than a whole new order of perils threatened, the perils that arise out of foreign war. Nothing could have been more calculated to divide still further an angry, suspicious country than the decision which, with the outbreak of the Boer war, had to be taken: should Canada participate? To the English, it was the plain duty of a son to go to the aid of his mother in distress. To the French, there was no mother, and if anyone were in distress, it was the Boers, not the British; anyway, South Africa was many thousand miles away.

The Boer war was but the first occasion on which the great decision had to be made: it had to be made in 1914, again in 1939 and once again in 1950. Foreign policy, the participation in overseas wars, became that which divided Canada the most. In 1899, still more in 1914, war opened up every imaginable historic fissure between the two races. In 1939, some of these did not open quite so widely. In 1950, over participation in Korea, many of them hardly opened at all. The variations supply a measure for the changes which a crowded half century had worked in both peoples.

The Boer war gave rise in French Canada to a new kind of nationalism. Under the guidance of men like Henri Bourassa, many French Canadians began to ask themselves whether it was worth while trying to maintain good relations with the English, whether, indeed, it might not be better to try for a separate state. Bourassa himself is not known ever to have expressed this view: he took a stand, like his grandfather, Papineau, before him, of complete independence for Canada, with no British interference, with the hardly veiled view that English Canadians should assume to Great Britain the same coldly neutral attitude as characterized so many French, an attitude whose impossibility very little acquaintance with English Canada is needed to show. It was from some of his sons in the spirit that the further "realism" of a severance of relations began to be heard.

During the First Great War, a war in which French Canada's sympathies were only slightly engaged, talk began to be heard of a separate French state, a "Laurentie :" it did not amount to much and when in 1918, after the conscription riots of that year, a member of the provincial assembly introduced a resolution to the effect that Quebec would be willing, if the other Provinces so desired, to withdraw from Confederation, the resolution, after an excellent debate, was withdrawn without a vote. Quebec might not be for "daughterly" participation in British wars, but she was evidently not for breaking up Confederation, either.

The Second Great War was almost an exact replica of the first, insofar as Canada's domestic situation was concerned, with the exception that tension never became as great, no civil disturbances occurred and French Canada's share in the war effort was much larger. In the interval, the extreme nationalist group, finding voice in Le Devoir, of Montreal (founded 1910), in the writing of Abbé Lionel Groulx or in periodicals like L'Action Nationale of Montreal and La Nation (editor, Paul Bouchard) of Quebec, came close to the old Papineau position of "l'opposition à l'outrance" and among other ideas, continued to toy with that of an independent French and Catholic state. Before the second war was over, however, leaders of this group such as André Laurendeau, and François Angers, had extended their idea to a republic for all of Canada, thus enlarging the concept of nationalism into its old Bourassa version.

In summary, the course of French Canadian national development had been marked by the growth of self-consciousness, at least a century before a corresponding development occurred in English Canada - and by the fission of the movement into two major wings. The more conservative of these has always seen the necessity for compromise with he English in a single bi-racial community. The more extreme has found the notion of compromise difficult and has either resorted to guerilla warfare or advocated ending what to it has been a hated yoke. Each of the wings could be still further divided up. Thus among high-powered nationalists, there have been not only Papineaus and Paul Bouchards who have refused all compromise, but Paul Gouins, who have stood mainly for cultural autonomy, or even Henri Bourassas, who have contended for little more than complete racial equality. And among the compromisers there have been men like the present Prime Minister, Mr. St. Laurent, who would reserve only the absolutes of faith and language, and also men like M. Duplessis, the present premier of Quebec, who take up a good fighting position on constitutional heights and are interested mainly, not in idealistic absolutes, but the practical aspects of their own power, which they easily conclude, must rest on things as they are.

In general, it may be accurate to say that French Canadian nationalism is tending to come to rest in the centre, ready for compromise with English Canada on a practical basis, with its own vision of Canada transcending its vision of French Canada, looking to constitutional right, firm in safeguarding the fundamentals of race and faith, but slowly learning to accept the harsh realities of the outer world and come to grips with them as best it may. If this position has been reached, one thing that may have aided, will have been the very slowly dawning realization in French Canada that in English Canada, too, it is possible for people to act according to their ideas of the country's own best interests and not always in the interests of some other country. At the time of writing it begins to look as if Canadians, French and English, may be finding themselves at the beginning of a genuine national policy.

Source: Arthur R. M. Lower, Canada. Nation and Neighbour, Toronto, Ryerson press, 1952, pp. 97-104.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College