Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
October 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Ross GORDON, The Historiographical Debate on the Charges of Anti-Semitism Made Against Lionel Groulx, M.A. Thesis (History), University of Ottawa, 1996, 141p.




Throughout his varied career as historian, author and polemicist, Lionel Groulx had critics.  He was called a 'separatist' and a 'racist' and an 'anti-Semite'.  For most Canadians outside of Quebec, however, he was an unknown quantity, his works have not usually been translated and his views were not meant to be appealing to non-French Canadians.  Little mention of him and his work was made in the English Canadian press, with the exception of the papers put out by the Canadian Jewish Congress, nor in academic works until the 1940’s (when he was in his mid-60’s).  He had by then been a controversial figure for decades within Québec.  Then Blair Fraser’s attempt to put Groulx into the context of the wartime divisions between French and English Canada set off what was to become an ongoing debate: was Lionel Groulx an anti-Semitic troublemaker, an ideological thinker, or a misinterpreted national historian?  Was he more than the sum of his most unhappy writings and associations?  Up until the 1980’s the lines were fairly clear.  It could depend upon one’s view of Canadian history, or even upon one’s political inclinations.

Some writers who characterised him as anti-Semitic did so in such a way as to colour a readers viewpoint of his entire life’s work.  He was irredeemable. The tendency was to take quotes from only those works that were racist and anti-Semitic and to draw parallels with racially driven movements in Europe that were contemporaries of Groulx’s. 

Others who felt that there was more to Groulx than just those works, who felt he was more complex than that, wrote about his anti-Semitism but put it into context of the times from which he grew and noted the tendency of many other political and academic characters of those years, both English and French Canadians, to be anti-Semitic.  This second group felt that his other works, created over a lifetime of writing and teaching, vindicated Lionel Groulx from such ignominious treatment by contemporary writers.  There was a third group who wrote of Groulx’s life as though it were one of unblemished dedication and enlightenment, who found no cause to mention the dark reaches of his soul that from time to time crept on to paper.

Then in the 1980’s, after so much had been written about Lionel Groulx’s anti-Semitism, came Langlais & Rome’s first attempt to find some middle ground on the Abbé.  This promising beginning was short lived.  David Rome had taken a big step towards coming to some understanding of Groulx without actually forgiving nor forgetting what he represented.  Between the two of them their rare book published in English and French, there came together the enormous research of Rome with the interpretation of Francophone nationalist Langlais.  Neither held the absolute truth on Groulx and his work and so a common ground looked to be attainable.


Then came Esther Delisle.  With the controversy over Esther Delisle’s thesis, the battle lines were drawn and quickly hardened into harsh arguments.  To Groulx’s defenders there are not enough strong words to put into their counterattacks on the editorial pages.  It is ugly and meanspirited, and one has to ask: Was this necessary?


Lionel Groulx rarely came right out in the open with his anti-Semitism, and when he wrote about it privately, as in the letter to M. Lamoureux, he still used euphemisms and vague accusations about the Jewish love of money and their moral neutrality to convey his dislike for them.  This does not make him especially unusual for his times.  But in his position of trust and leadership, he could have exercised restraint.  Lambert Closse on the other hand is a name caller, a conspiracy theorist, a hater of Jews.  If Groulx really felt that way about Jews, then one would think that there would have been more signs of his hatred.  Look how Delisle tries to put Groulx in the picture:

  "Groulx laments that the city now belongs to the Other. Paul Anger takes a ride on a Montreal tramway and describes (in Le Devoir) the passengers....the sordid, dubious characters from the slums of some city in Europe, the cucumber noses, hand-wavers, flat feet, mouths that loudly spit out foreign sounds and the occasional, mangled English word, eyes that stare menacingly at you. Behold the Jew." (1) 

By juxtaposing the two, Groulx and Angers, she relates to the reader that they are the same type of writer.  But the very use of the euphemism "the Other" by Groulx shows his reluctance to come right out and spit on anyone by name.  Anger, and others, wrote publicly in Le Devoir of their hatred and conspiracy theories.  Any one of them could have been Lambert Closse.            Again in another chapter, Groulx is shown to be warning the Jews and English: "It goes without saying that I am neither anti-English nor anti-Semitic.  But I have noticed that the English are pro-English and the Jews are pro-Jew.  I thus ask myself why French Canadians cannot be pro-French Canadian to a similar degree." (2)  Delisle immediately follows this with a quote from Closse: "We should not be afraid to dig up the French cultural axe.  Its worth compares favourably to the swastika; if Jews or other foreigners fail to realise this, they will have to learn at their own expense." (3)

Esther Delisle went through a lot of turmoil to bring her thesis to fruition and have it accepted and, as she outlines in her book, she continues to suffer attacks on her integrity and her motives from journalists and academics in Quebec.  She names some of her attackers, Jean Éthier-Blais, Pierre Anctil, a student named Stephane Stapinsky.  But for her the fact is that the same ideology that drove the Nazis to murder 6 million Jews was alive and well in Quebec in the period that she covered.  Whereas she began by thinking that she would find only some elements of Charles Maurras' right wing nationalism, she ended up "knee deep in Maurice Barrès, Fascism and  National Socialism." (4)  She concludes her work with the sobering comparison between Adolph Hitler and Lionel Groulx; same ideology, same anti-Semitism.  It is no wonder that her critics were so agitated.  She tied Groulx to fascism by recalling his desire for a strong leader.  Where some thought that he was referring to the Messiah, and others to a nationalist hero figure, Delisle saw it as a parallel to the rise of fascism in Europe.  "And doesn't Groulx's ideology share its 'Nietzshean ecstasy' with European Fascism? And its millenarianism?", she asks.

Others had amply already proven that Lionel Groulx wrote anti-Semitic material.  It is her hope that by exposing this close call with a North American fascist state:

"there would never again be a 'Traitor', or a 'Jew,' in Quebec, it would give me a certain amount of satisfaction." (5)  "It is not hard, either, to imagine the price that real human beings would have paid for this institutionalised delirium had Groulx and his ideological clients taken power.  Parked in ghettos, deprived of their political rights, deported to Palestine, given special passports, assembled in re-education camps, living under a dictatorship, Jews and French Canadians would have expiated the crimes imputed to their accursed doubles." (6)


What did her thesis and subsequent book do further the study of Lionel Groulx's anti-Semitic side?  It very obviously put the debate back on the map in Quebec and, for the first time in decades, in English Canada.  This alone is of consequence.  Lionel Groulx, as mentioned, is to many people an unknown quantity.  His name does not appear in the popular culture, he seems to have little influence or presence in today's world.  Yet his life's work is massive and awaits future generations in libraries and schools.  His memory is kept alive by the institutions he established and the journals he founded.  He lives on, waiting to be re-discovered.  In the meantime there are spokespersons, politicians and artists, journalists and academics, who repeat his dictums and publish his thoughts on an every day basis.  They do not mention his name, but the ideas are there.  It is therefore of great importance to get the whole picture of this man. 

There had been an ongoing revisionism of Groulx's life and work that threatened to whitewash him until he was clean in the eyes of anyone who read his works or heard a quote in a speech.  Much of what he wrote and did was benign, but over the years he was being elevated above his darker side, his lower works.  If he could be exonerated for having written anti-Semitic and racist articles, then those types of characterisations must not be in and of themselves bad.  If his encouragement of the young men in Jeune Canada is forgotten then it stands to reason that anyone doing the same today would be in good company.  This is one of the main reasons her work was worthwhile.  It shed light on an ongoing effort to rehabilitate Groulx, to put him into a better light that could be useful for propaganda purposes.  As a 'victim' or an ideological 'freedom fighter' his words and actions take on an entirely different meaning.  As the sage old ‘father of nationalism’, out of touch and a bit of a romantic, he can be made to seem entirely harmless.  If every critic of his active indifference to the place of other ethnic groups in society is shown to be motivated by a desire to oppress the rights of the Francophone majority, then anything goes politically.  There are no limits once that boundary has been crossed.

Secondly, her work is useful in that it puts the debate back on track, intellectually.  Over the years it had been easy to isolate and negate criticisms of Groulx on the absurd basis that they had been written by 'outsiders'.  This was taken to the extreme in the total indifference shown to David Rome's work.  He was no outsider, except by 'race', an ugly irony.  That allowed the 'insiders' to write profusely about Groulx and his era without recourse to Rome or Wade or Betcherman.  By simply being who she was, she could force the debate back on to the main screen of public opinion without being simply ignored.  It should be mentioned that Pierre Anctil had done good work on Groulx as well, and counts as an 'insider'.  But the context that Groulx was placed into by Anctil is a little too benign.  This idea that of the three types of anti-Semitic society Groulx could have encouraged, he chose the least harmful one, is not a solid defence of his actions.  Context is not enough to remove the guilt of what he did, and it does not protect those who let it go without criticism.

The efforts to revise the history of Lionel Groulx and his influence on the society in which he lived will continue.  But, it seems, every decade or so someone comes along to remind students of the real nature behind the man.  It is interesting that as historians for the most part kept their distance from this subject, the social scientists and especially the political scientists, took up the debate.  That in itself shows how Groulx’s image had been ‘evolved’ since the 1940’s.  He was a political figure more than a historical one.  Revisionists who hoped to use his reputation as an intellectual/victim to further their own interpretations of Quebec’s place in Canada opened the door to Delisle’s counterattack.  She has been criticised for using models developed in political science to study history.  But just as the neo-nationalists rejected the old unscientific models of Groulx’s histories, and the social scientists and social historians pushed him into their models where the individual was not held responsible for the great movements of their times; so too could Delisle put him into the model that asks an individual to accept responsibility for their actions.  Anti-Semitism can no longer be seen as something societal thereby absolving the individual of choice and subsequent guilt.

Where the debate goes from here will be guided by the reaction to her work and others who take it up or take issue with it.  So far nothing has been written exclusively on the Lambert Closse book, in and of itself one of the worst anti-Semitic documents ever produced in Canada.  The fact it has successfully escaped further investigation is probably a result of the efforts to side-track Delisle’s accusations that Groulx was Closse.  The book itself remains, whether he wrote just the introduction or the chapters she attributes to him, and must be investigated.


(1) Ibid. p169.

(2) Ibid. p186. Quoting Groulx in Directives.

(3) Ibid. p187.

(4) Ibid. p202.

(5) Ibid. p207.

(6) Ibid.


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Source: Ross GORDON, The Historiographical Debate on the Charges of Anti-Semitism Made Against Lionel Groulx, M.A. thesis (History), University of Ottawa, 1996, 141p., pp. 112-118.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College