Today - Chapter V : The
Nationalist Movement in French Canada
THE French Canadians in Canada now number about 3,300,000. They form the most homogeneous and united group in the country, for they are not divided by religion or racial origin, and their upper governing class is not in control of great wealth and hence far removed from the mass of the people. Moreover, their sense of being ringed round by an alien civilization makes them subordinate their inner differences to the single racial purpose of self-preservation. Their home is the province of Quebec, where 78 per cent. of those in Canada live; but the spread into other provinces is proceeding steadily. In 1871 only 14 per cent. of the French Canadians lived outside Quebec; in 1931, 22 per cent. Their percentage of the provincial populations in 1931 was Quebec, 79; New Brunswick, 33.5; Prince Edward Island, 14.7 ; Nova Scotia, 11; Ontario, 8.7 ; Manitoba, 6.7 ; Saskatchewan, 5.5 ; Alberta, 5.2 ; British Columbia and territories, 2.2. These figures show the strong eastern concentration of the race. Similarly in the United States most of the 1Y2 to 3 million French Canadians live in the New England states adjacent to Quebec and New Brunswick.
BASIS OF FRENCH-CANADIAN NATIONALISM
The French Canadian in a real sense is the truest Canadian. He has lived close to the soil for three hundred years, and the family ties with another world have long been broken. To Canada alone does he feel attached, for England conquered him and France first deserted him and then travelled [sic] a political and spiritual road his clergy have taught him to abhor. He sees no help coming from without; he knows he must build upon his own resources. And when he thinks of "Canada", he seldom, like the English Canadian, pictures a "dominion stretching from sea to sea"; rather he looks to the province of Quebec and the valley of the St. Lawrence, the part of North America to which the word "Canada" was first applied. To the English Canadian this is mere provincialism; to him, it is nationalism and true patriotism. [1. A leader of the more moderate nationalists, Mr. L. M. Gouin, K.C., has said "we Quebecers . . do not put Ottawa above Quebec. . . If we have to choose between the Confederation and our own nationality, we refuse to sacrifice the soul of our race either to the Dominion or to the Empire". Anderson, Violet (ed.), World Currents and Canada's Course (Toronto, 1937), p. 124.] He builds outward from his securely held position and does not attempt to embrace the rest of a continent where now there are only a few outposts of his race.
Because of this basis to his politics, the French Canadian looks upon both the Commonwealth connection and confederation in much the same way; they are both political ties with the English which are part of his historic destiny. He cannot avoid them; he does not, at the moment, wish to break them; but they do not command his warm allegiance. Both represent a mariage de convenance. The British connection is valuable to him in helping to fend off Americanization, and the monarchic tradition is naturally dear to a priesthood fearful of democracy. Confederation was the best bargain that he could make at the time with a Protestant majority; to him the B. N. A. Act is as much a "treaty between races" as a political constitution. [2. See Brossard, R., "The Working of Confederation", Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1937, p. 335.] In the historic evolution of his relationship with English Canada, which he views as a continuous development, the confederation arrangement is neither evocative of particular loyalty nor suggestive of great permanence. [3. See Siegfried, Canada, pp. 258, 263; Hudon, Théophile, Est-ce la Fin de la Confédération? (Montreal, 1936), pp. 18 ff.] His political status has already been changed five times - by the cession of 1763, the Quebec Act of 1774, the Constitutional Act of 1791, the Act of Union of 1840 and the B. N. A. Act of 1867. Whenever the next change comes, he is determined that it will result in no loss of privileges or autonomy for himself.
Such is the general character of French-Canadian nationalism, and it will be recognized as the natural aspiration of a people who believe in themselves and who are determined to survive with their language, their traditions and their religion. From time to time, however, and more particularly of recent years, there has arisen an extremer form of nationalist fervour, which resembles closely the movements which have swept over Ireland and other European countries where there is a racial group struggling for freedom. This spirit manifests itself in economic as well as political forms; it seeks immediate steps toward independence for the race, and it is intolerant of alien groups and alien rights. In Quebec such a movement is now evident. [4. See "Nationalism in French Canada", Round Table, December, 1936; Lower, A. R. M., "External Policy and Internal Problems" University of Toronto Quarterly, April, 1937, p. 3; Bovey, Wilfrid, French Canada and the Problem of Quebec", Nineteenth Century, January, 1938, p. 731; Angus, H. F. (ed.), Canada and Her Great Neighbor (Toronto and New Haven, 1938), passim.] It has been stimulated by the world depression, which caused great unemployment amongst French Canadians; by the growing awareness of the extent to which Quebec is dominated by English-Canadian and American "trusts" and financiers; by the fear of another imperialist war, and by the decadence of the old Liberal party machine which had governed the province without a break from 1896 to 1936. To some degree also it was fostered by certain of the clerical authorities, who saw in a revival of nationalism a means of fending off social unrest which might easily turn radical and anticlerical. The extreme wing of this movement has openly advocated separation from Canada and the setting up of a French Catholic state on the banks of the St. Lawrence . [5. The name "Laurentia" has been chosen for the new state, which it is hoped would include a portion of New England.]
Politically the nationalist movement has taken the form of the creation of a new provincial party, the Union Nationale, which has been in power since 1936, and which is pledged to give to the French Canadian the place in Confederation which he feels has been denied him. Its leader is Maurice Duplessis, formerly leader of the provincial Conservative party, who was politically astute enough to ride to power on the new wave of feeling which has swept the province in the past few years. His activities since taking office have been varied but always colourful. He and his fellow premiers, Mr. Hepburn of Ontario and Mr. Aberhart of Alberta, provide the only vigorous-if erratic-leadership to be found in Canadian politics today.
Out of the Union Nationale has come some needed reform in the social legislation of the province. Collective labour agreements are favoured, co-operative institutions are being promoted, and collaboration with Ontario on minimum wage rates has been sought. The nationalist feeling has found expression in the attempts that have been made to give preeminence to the French language in the interpretation of laws, [6. By a statute adopted in 1937 the French version of statutes and codes was made to prevail whenever it differed from the English. The law was repealed in 1938 because of its unsettling effect on the established interpretation of the law and because of its doubtful constitutionality in view of section 133 of the B.N.A. Act.] to frighten workers away from the international unions, and to obstruct all efforts to amend the British North America Act. Behind the attack on international unionism, however, many people see something quite different from nationalism; a deeper motive seems to be the desire to prevent "communistic" ideas from entering the province and disturbing the religious and political views of the population. The Padlock Act and the growing censorship of films and literature are other weapons in the same offensive.
In achieving its economic objectives French-Canadian nationalism is meeting great difficulties. It is only in recent years that the economic aspect of their position has engaged the attention of the nationalist leaders; the older generation, men like Bourassa and Lavergne, were concerned chiefly with political and religious affairs. The world depression shifted the emphasis to the economic. In Quebec the natural resources in mines, forests and water power, the banks and financial houses, are largely owned and exploited by English-Canadian or American capital; the French-Canadian provides the cheap labour, usually lacking trades union protection. The nationalists of today are determined that this situation shall change, and that in their own province they shall not be restricted to exercising a political power rendered helpless by the existence of concentrated economic power in other hands. With this determination many English Canadians, only too aware of the situation in Quebec in regard to living standards and social legislation, would warmly sympathize. The difficulty is to decide upon a practical policy for effecting a change, and here the nationalists are at the moment baffled.
The situation presents various alternatives. The nationalists can control the political power of the state in Quebec; the problem is how to use it against the trusts and monopolies. The co-operative movement has great possibilities in certain fields of production and marketing, and is looked upon with favour by the Church (witness the very successful development of co-operatives under the auspices of St. Francis-Xavier College at Antigonish, Nova Scotia) but it is slow to take effect and cannot be a substitute for political action. Corporatism (not to be confused with cooperation) is offered as another way out, but how it could control large-scale industries is not evident, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be fitted into a federal programme. Plans for state regulation and a "new deal" of a liberal sort, which leave ownership of monopolies untouched, do not seem to offer more than a palliative. A socialistic programme, such as that of the C.C.F., would give the nationalists the control they want, for then the state would nationalize the "foreign" (i.e. non-French) capital in the trusts and would place them in charge of government boards which the French Canadians would control. But such a proposal, as has been pointed out, meets the clerical opposition to socialism.
In any case, no matter which way the nationalists turn, they are led to the necessity of co-operation with English Canadians in the federal field if they intend to do a thorough job inside Confederation, for the B.N.A. Act, as Mr. Aberhart's experiment has shown, simply does not permit of complete control of the economy of a province by a provincial legislature. Hence the nationalist movement is in an impasse; it hovers on the brink of more drastic state intervention in business, afraid to make the plunge, and flirts with separatism just enough to prevent it offering the cooperation with Ottawa which could cure many of its troubles. So far it has contented itself with such measures as compelling foreign corporations developing natural resources to take out provincial charters, beginning a tentative programme of hydro-electric development under state control, supporting "la petite industrie" in the small towns in the province, and stimulating the "achat chez nous" which is the French-Canadian equivalent of a "buy British" campaign. It is impossible to predict how long these slender achievements will satisfy the demand for action. The drive against "communism" in Quebec, however, sponsored by the clergy, is a powerful deterrent to any proposals that the government should expropriate existing investments, for the accusation of "communist" would at once be hurled at any daring advocate of such an idea [7. Mr. Duplessis, for example, was charged with following Russian and Mexican tactics by the Liberal opposition leader in Quebec simply because he ventured to remove some of the tolls from an important private bridge leading to the island of Montreal.]
The political and economic situation in Quebec is transitional. Much will change before a new equilibrium is found. The simple idea that the economic inferiority of French Canadians is mainly due to their old fashioned educational system is beginning to take root. [8. See the remarkable criticism of Catholic education in Quebec by Rev. Brother Marie-Victorin at Three Rivers in October, 1938, quoted in Le Jour, October 22, 1938.] The increasing urbanization and hence industrialization of the French-Canadian people, and the exploitation of their workers by corporations which they do not control, are producing fertile soil for a more radical movement among the masses than has yet appeared. For that reason the other parts of Canada are viewing with some alarm the growth of fascist tendencies in the province, and the denial by the authorities of long-established constitutional rights of freedom of the press, of speech, and of public meeting. The Padlock Act, aimed only at an undefined "communism", is being enforced though communism in Quebec is in fact almost non-existent, while organized fascist parties, though small, have been drilling members and distributing extreme anti-semitic propaganda without interference. The mass of the people, there seems little doubt, do not support fascism, yet there are enough idle young men in the cities, and enough approval by authorities in church and state of strong action against suspected "reds", to provide an atmosphere in which such movements can flourish. [9. See "Embryo Fascism in Quebec", by "S.", Foreign Affairs. April, 1938.] Whatever may be the outcome, it will profoundly affect the whole Dominion, for the French exert an extremely powerful political influence at Ottawa. No national policy can long be followed which does not receive considerable support from Quebec.
Source: Frank R. SCOTT, Canada Today. A Study of her National Interests and National Policy, Second edition. Oxford University Press, 1939, pp. 72-77.
© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College