Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 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.


Section II


1. Lionel Groulx

"No English-Canadian historian was ever lionised as Lionel Groulx was in Quebec." (1)



Lionel Groulx was born in the village of Vaudreuil, near Montreal, on Jan. 13, 1878.  He died in Vaudreuil on May 23, 1967 and in a most unusual gesture for a non-politician, was given the equivalent of a state funeral.  Over his long lifetime he made a profound impact on the society in which he lived.  He published 30 books of history and fiction, 20 shorter works and hundreds of articles, some under pseudonyms.(2)  He was a priest, an historian, a professor, editor and a public speaker. He founded L'Institut d'histoire de l'Amérique française in 1946 and the Revue d'histoire de l'Amérique française in 1947.  In 1956 the Lionel Groulx Foundation was created to which was added the Centre de recherche en histoire de l'Amérique francaise in 1976.  There were few places in Quebec society where his name was not known, his influence felt.  He has been honoured by the naming of public buildings, a college, a Metro station and even a mountain.


He first came to prominence in 1913 when he responded to the published complaint of Henri Bourassa, in Le Devoir, that Canadian history was not being given its due in universities and colleges in Quebec. Groulx sent a letter to Le Devoir promoting his own 900-page textbook that he had written on his own time and was swamped with requests.  A teacher at the Valleyfield classical college from 1900, (he was ordained a priest in 1903,) he had begun writing his textbook in 1905 and had worked on it while spending three years in Europe studying philosophy and theology at the doctoral level.


In 1915, after a sold out series of public lectures entitled "Nos luttes constitutionnelles" that he gave at Montreal's then Laval University made a sensation, a chair of history was created for him to fill.  It was from there that he worked tirelessly to revise French Canadian history, to attack the commonly held historical view that Confederation had been beneficial to French Canada and that the British had been generous in their dealings with the conquered French.(3) It was from there, as well, that he influenced countless students, some to the point of political action.


He is seen by many to be the spiritual father of Nationalist Québec, the creator of the separatist myths.  With his stories of Laurentia and the cruelty of the British conquest, he may be viewed as a forceful propagandist in the fight for French Canadian rights and status as a 'distinct' society.  He may also have become an attractive target for counter propaganda as well, something that cannot be ignored in such emotional debates as sovereignty and historical rights.  Ironically, even after the fallout from Delisle's book, one is hard pressed to find mention of Groulx in the popular nor political cultures of Québec today.  He was a man of his times, and seems to have been largely left there.  The controversy over Delisle's work, and Mordecai Richler's use of it in his own essays, has shown that an entire life's work can be minimised and marginalised to the point that Groulx now is a symbol rather than a historical figure.  He can be either the symbol of anti-Semitism in Quebec, particularly Nationalist Quebec; or, he is the symbol of nationalist Quebec itself.  He is the spirit behind the inevitability of separation, or the embodiment of a racist society.  It is probable that he would have liked neither personification.


2. Quebec anti-Semitism


"Les Canadiens francais ont la réputation d'être antisémites." (4)


Where did Lionel Groulx's influences come from?  What kind of society formed his views on Jews, for example, and did his choice of career have any bearing on his future as a controversial writer?


French Quebec has been singled out at times as a society wherein anti-Semitism is found at higher levels than elsewhere in Canada. (5) To grasp the thorny problem of anti-Semitism in Quebec, it is necessary to put it into an historical perspective. 


There appears to have been little problem for the original Jews who immigrated to French Canada, few as they were.(6) At the time of the Dreyfus Affair (when Montreal was 250 years old) the Jewish population of all of Canada was less than 15,000.  By 1921 after a boom period of immigration it was 126,196. (7) This meant that at that time the Jewish population comprised just 1.42% of the general population.(8) Indeed by the 1931 census when the mark was up to 1.50%, the decline of Jewish immigration was well under way thanks to strict immigration laws in place since 1923.


Put into operation to keep Canada a predominantly white Anglo Saxon country, to keep the status quo, these restrictions prevented all independent immigration, those without family sponsorship, to only `bona fide agriculturists.' The Jews who had immigrated to Canada were massively urban, some 96% lived in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. The federal government moved to prevent persons who belonged to "races that cannot be assimilated without social or economic loss to Canada." (9)  According to Abella and Troper, immigrants were chosen by their similarities to the majority `race'.  Preferred immigrants were northern Europeans.  Non-preferred settlers were those from Eastern Europe, Russia and the Baltic's (except for agricultural workers.)  Lastly came the ‘Special Permit’ class of immigrants from Italy, Greece, Syria, Turkey and all Jews (excepting those who were already British subjects), Blacks and Orientals. Getting a Special Permit was nearly impossible in most cases.  It has been pointed out that instead of prohibiting specific groups from immigrating, the government of Canada was in fact prohibiting everyone and only letting in specific groups. (10)


Anti-Semitism and indeed anti-immigration of most ethnic groups was government policy in Canada, English and French Canada, and that the idea of race as a means test for entry into this country was by no means thought unusual.  Canada, under the stewardship of PMs MacKenzie-King and R.B.Bennett from the 1920's to after W.W.II, gave Canada the dubious distinction of having the worst record of any western country for accepting Jewish immigrants.  Australia, for example, accepted many thousands more.


Historically, most Québec people were tolerant of their fellow citizens, including those who were Jewish.  In fact most French Canadians outside of Montreal would have had little or no contact with Jews, except for the occasional appearance of peddlers in their village.  Jews were predominantly urban dwellers who overwhelmingly chose the port of Montreal as their home in Quebec. In some parts of Montreal, Outremont for example, they made up a significant proportion of the population. (11)  The greatest stresses early on were to be found between the established Jewish communities and the Yiddish-speaking immigrants fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. 


But there were intellectual and spiritual movements emanating from Europe, particularly France, that were starting to catch on with some people in Quebec.  Gustave Le Bon, for example, had divided human kind into four distinct branches or races in the 19th century.  He found that there were the primitive; the inferior (in which he placed Negroes); the moyenne or ‘average' (Chinese); and the superior Indo-Europeans.  This was not considered an unusual theory for the 19th century.  Indeed, one of the ‘fathers' of racist theory, and one who was to have a major impact on the 20th century was  Comte Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882).  His work Essai sur l'Inégalité des Races Humaines, (1853-55) synthesised much of the scientific work on race being done at that time and put a mythological patina upon a France that had once been pure and was now degenerate. His tales of an Old World in which aristocrats and peasants lived in a stable environment where decisions were made locally and for the good of the people struck a chord in many places.  One of those places was Quebec. (12)  He too divided man into ‘races' by colour, appearance and culture.  He too put white Europeans at the forefront.  He even devised methods by which to measure the relative degeneracy of each race.  But he added something intriguing on to his racial theories: the degeneracy of the Aryan race was inevitable because of the mixing with other inferior races.  While he did not find great favour in France during his lifetime his work was to become one of the cornerstones of 20th century racism.


French Quebec in the late 19th, early 20th centuries was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic by faith.  The Roman Catholic Church was a part of all of French Quebec society from education to political life to opinion making newspapers and reviews.  In the early French colony Jews and Protestants had been forbidden to reside beside the Catholics.  The French colonists had lived in a 'peasant culture with historical links to nobility.' (13) They believed in a tradition of loyalty to the soil, king, country and church and disdained the pursuit of wealth and commerce. (14) They were largely shielded and unaffected by the French Revolution itself, it never spread as far as French Canada (though neither did the American Revolution right next door.) The people looked to the Church for leadership.  The colony, however, was affected by the reaction to the French Revolution.    


In 1864, some 80 years after losing much of its power over the citizens of France to the Revolution, the Catholic Church in Rome released the Encyclical of Pius IX entitled Quanta Cura. In that document the Pope condemned liberalism and rationalism and "affirmed the rights and liberty of a church faced with claims and encroachments by the secular state." (15) A list of eighty ‘inadmissible errors' made by western civilisation and challenged by Rome was attached.  Included in that list were two errors that stood out:

   # 7.7 Catholicism was not considered to be the sole state religion;

   #7.8 Certain Catholic countries had decided in their laws that foreigners who settled there should be entitled to practice their particular religions openly. (16)


What this Syllabus said, in a fashion binding upon all Catholics wherever they were, was that other religions were not equal to Catholicism.  This was to have consequences, not only for Confederation in Canada which was under negotiation at that time, but to the future treatment of non-Catholics in Québec. (17)


It was a rallying call for the Ultramontane movement. There was to be no argument with the church, no room for secular ideas; the Pope was considered to be infallible. (18) The battle for control of the masses between church and state, the fight for the soul of the populace that had begun in France with the Revolution was spilling over to the new country of Canada.  While the state had given equal status to Jews and other non-Catholics in France and had usurped much of the Church's powers and lands, a reactionary force in Quebec would protect the colony from a similar fate. By the time of the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890's and its conclusion in the early years of the 20th century, many priests and nuns, whole orders even of the most reactionary Ultramontane cloth, had left or were forced out of France and came to Quebec.


The church-controlled press of Quebec for some time had published attacks on liberalism and freemasonry and Jews.  In 1866 Vicar General Mailloux wrote in La Gazette des Campagnes that Jews were in favour of progress (which was not considered a ‘good thing'), loved luxury, fashionable cloths and jewellery.  There were so few Jews in Quebec at that time it’s difficult to know how he came by this opinion except perhaps as an imported one from France.  Alfred Decelles, a librarian in Ottawa, wrote in 1881 on "The Jewish Question" in L'Opinion Publique linking Jews to the exploitation of the poor and international plots and rehashing the wandering Jew stories of old.


Those attacks were joined by others such as that of Mgr. Louis-Francois Laflèche who in 1884 linked Jews with Freemasonry. (19) By 1889 it had become common catholic dogma that Jews inspired and led freemasonry. (20) La Semaine religieuse de Québec, for example, found in 1889 that ‘cosmopolitan Jewry' was pulling the strings of revolutionary propaganda in its lodges and press in Europe.  Montreal's La Croix in 1905 used "the [French] Jew [Adolphe] Crémieux" and his alleged comments on the media to call for the suppression of "big, Freemason papers." (21) What was similar about most of the articles written on the ‘Jewish problems' in Quebec was that the examples used came invariably from Europe. The Rothschilds were invoked instead of local Jews for example. 


Why would The Protocols of the Elders of Zion be sold in Catholic bookstores and priests, such as Father Lacasse, write a book with a chapter on "Our enemies the Jews" in which he claimed that Jews were out to seize and control Quebec? (22) One could say that nothing holds a people together better than the fear of outsiders.  It is an effective tool used by church and government alike.  But there was already the dreaded English Canadian threat, and the perceived American cultural threat. (23)


Anti-Semitism could be seen as an effective tool for the church to fight a rearguard action against modernity and state intervention. The Ultramontane faction of the Catholic Church blamed much of its loss of power and prestige in Europe on freethinkers and political radicals. As non-Christians Jews were seen as potential freethinkers and that could have led to radicalism in Quebec. By keeping them under attack, by instilling the fear of God into the local populace, perhaps it was felt that they would keep a lower profile than those in France. Edouard Drumont's writings became hugely popular in Quebec in the late 19th early 20th centuries and his imitators were legion.


Edouard Drumont (1844-1917) was an infamous journalist in Paris, and for a time, a deputy from Algeria, who built a career writing outrageous attacks on Jews.  (His 1886 work La France juive even caused him to be challenged to a duel.) (24)   He started his own journal La Libre Parole in 1892 from which he railed against Jews and capitalism, intertwined in his mind (25) , and fought for the honour of the church, state, and army against the Jewish officer Dreyfus during the celebrated trial.  His successful La Libre Parole came under the ‘contrôle d’un groupe de catholiques ultra-conservateurs’ (26) in 1910 which wrecked his plans to merge with Action française. (27)  (Coincidentally, Lionel Groulx was in France while much of this activity took place.)  There even appeared for a short lifespan, La Libre Parole,  in Montreal in the 1890's.  Longer lasting was, La Libre Parole Illustrée,  which kicked off its publication life with a "satire against the Jews, after the fashion of the celebrated journal of Drumont." (28) La Croix a "Catholic and Independent Review" published Drumont's work as did Le Nationaliste, L'Action Sociale, L'Etudiant and the opinion leading paper for the intelligentsia: Le DevoirDrumont had adherents in many parts of French Canadian society and his stand against Dreyfus was applauded. (29)  


"La presse ultramontaine canadienne emboîta le pas à la presse francaise pour dénoncer ce en quoi on voyait une conspiration pour corrompre la nation française." (30) They were the "Christ-killer race" according to La Verité. All of them belonged to the "deicide race" was how abbé Henri Cimon wrote of his pilgrimmage to Jerusalem.” (31). By making them a different race it was easier to think of them as outsiders who could perhaps be forced to one day leave. They were aliens in the traditional patrie. (Worse yet they mostly spoke English.) An example from a pilgrim book by a Recollet friar named Joseph l'Archevêque published in 1911 spoke of  the Jews of Jerusalem as having "crooked  noses, the stooped backs, the ghastly faces. These are people of appalling debilitation...[who exhibit] the degeneracy  peculiar to their race." (32) The friar, who met the pope in person on his trip, went on to point out to his audience back home that the Jew lives to dominate, especially Christians.  There were others who poured forth anti-Semitic poison.  Jules-Paul Tardivel the "leading Quebec anti-Semitic journalist" and founder of La Vérité. (33)  He was a pioneer in the linking of Jews with Freemasonry at the end of the 19th century and he passed his paper on to his son  who continued the venomous journalism for a long time. 


"L'Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne" (ACJC), founded by the teaching clergy in 1903 was particularly xenophobic.  Jews could not be assimilated, they said, and therefore constituted a threat.  Into this environment of hatred, often organised and published through Church organs, came the young priest Groulx.  It is likely that his later works of anti-Semitic content were to a large extent influenced by his youthful exposure to the above mentioned journals and contacts with their authors.

3. Lionel Groulx - anti-Semite

There have been accusations of racism and anti-Semitism made against Lionel Groulx for many years by many different parties.  To look at all of them separately would require more space than is available in a paper of this length.  The facts, however, are clear and mostly undisputed; he did, under various nom de plumes, write critical and unfair portraits of the Jewish population of Quebec.  It would be difficult to find someone who could claim that Abbé Groulx never wrote an anti-Semitic word.  What one finds, however, is that there is disagreement over the place that anti-Semitism takes when reviewing his life and work.  To some writers his anti-Semitism was a character trait, a flaw that taints all of his work and should be kept in mind whenever his name arises.  To others, his anti-Semitic work was an aberration to be viewed within the context of his entire output.  It was, to this second group, a tiny fragment of his life's work that may be safely ignored and in fact represents the commonly held opinion of the times in which he lived more than his own personal hatreds.


What one finds is that it is not so simple to predict what kind of opinion on Groulx any particular writer might make.  One cannot divide opinion into easily predictable groups with any certainty.  That is to say that, for example, not all Anglophone writers are accusatory towards Groulx and not all Francophone writers defend his name.  Ethnically, Jewish writers have been tougher on him as a whole, but then someone like Esther Delisle, who is a self described pure laine Catholic Québécoise, is easily the toughest critic that ever wrote on the subject. (34)   Whether one is more of a Federalist or a Nationalist does have some bearing upon one's opinion of the importance of Groulx's anti-Semitic work.  As this study progresses the reader may note that an authors' affiliation to a viewpoint of Quebec history, largely divided between federalist and nationalist schools of interpretation, can have a significant influence upon their judgement upon Lionel Groulx's life's work.  Indeed, whether or not one condemns Groulx outright as an unrepentant anti-Semite often seems to hinge upon one's view of Canadian history and Quebec's place in it.  To a Quebec Nationalist, Groulx is difficult to criticise because of his place as a builder in the pantheon of nationalist ideology.  He did much of the groundwork for future generations of nationalists and nationalist historians and although his work has largely fallen into disuse, he is a beloved icon.  For that same reason he is a figure to be called into question by federalists.  If it can be shown that one of the fathers of present day Nationalist ideology was a racist and proto-fascist; then those who follow in his footsteps, or at the least those who do not distance themselves from his name, are not trustworthy.  For those with no political axe to grind, they can expect to be criticised in those same terms whatever their intentions may have been.

(1) Huot, Giselle. "The preacher (Lionel Groulx)" Horizon Canada, v7(81) 1986, p.1940.


(2) It has been estimated that he used between 8 (Trofimenkoff) and over a dozen (Delisle) pseudonyms during his career.


(3) Huot, op cit.  p1941.


(4) J.P. Gaboury.  Le nationalisme de Lionel Groulxp35.


(5) In one survey, taken in 1987, the Institute for Social Research of York University studied anti-Semitism in Canada.  It found that in the rest of Canada one-third of the population fell into the highly anti-Semitic category, in Quebec it was 70%.


(6) Louis Rosenberg, Canada's Jews, “Those who fear for the future of racial purity in Canada forget...mixed in the Plains of Abraham was Jewish and German blood.” p119.

(7) Ibid. p12.

(8) Ibid. p10

(9) Abella & Troper. None is Too Many.


(10) Canada's Jews, p. 124.


(11) About 23% of Outremont’s pop. was of Jewish origin in 1931.


(12) George L. Mosse. Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism,  p51.


(13) Jacques Langlais & David Rome. Jews & French Quebecers, p58.


(14) Ibid


(15) Ibid quote from the encyclical unpaginated.


(16) Ibid.


(17) As Langlais and Rome point out,  the ultramontane bishops in Quebec attacked the separation of church and state and liberalism as a whole in the Confederation talks.  "Intervention by Rome was required to prevent the attack from degenerating into open conflict between church and state." p60.


(18) Actually he was declared infallible by the Vatican Council of 1870.


(19) Rome, David, ed. Canadian Jewish Archives (CJA) no.33. p24


(20) Ibid. p26


(21) Michael Brown. Jew or Juif?, p135


(22)  Oblate Zacharie Lacasse. Quatrième mine. Pp. 57-63. As quoted in CJA, p47.


(23) In fact it has been suggested that the French Canadian struck out at the Jews because they were an easy, handy target, whereas the English  business and financial elite were too powerful to criticise.  Lita-Rose Betcherman. The Swastika and the Maple Leaf, p23


(24) Enclopaedia Universalis. v28, p1067. Paris: 1989.


(25) Ibid. “le capitalisme est à la propriété ce que Cain est à Abel.”


(26) Ibid.


(27) Ibid. “la fusion avec l’Action française envisagée par Drumont, qui voulait céder son journal à Léon Daudet, a échoué.”


(28) Jew or Juif? p134.


(29) "La presse ultramontane canadienne emboîta le pas à la presse française pour dénoncer ce en quoi on voyait une conspiration pour  corrompre la nation française."Pierre Anctil, Juifs et réalités juives au Québec,  p304.


(30) Pierre Anctil, Juifs et réalités juives au Québec, p304. 


(31) Jew or Juif?, p139


(32)Ibid. Quote is from Vers la Terre Sainte, p13


(33) Jews and French Quebecers, p63


(34) She was told, "Only a Jew could be that interested in anti-Semitism." Traitor and the Jew. p.18.



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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. 6-18.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College