Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Quebec Nationalism


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College


Before our specific examination of Quebec nationalism it is fitting that we analyse briefly the concepts of nation and nationalism. Evidently, it is only after one has acquired a clear view of what nationalism is in general, that one can grasp the particularities of Quebec nationalism. Further, these general considerations will give us a strong theoretical base to be able to outline the different forms of Quebec nationalism. Indeed, it will be shown that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a Quebec nationalism but that, instead, one can identify clearly three very different forms of nationalism throughout Quebec history. The general considerations will serve to lay the foundations for the specific discussion regarding Quebec that will follow.

The concept of nation and nationalism: general considerations.

A nation is a community of individuals cemented together by a sense of solidarity and wishing to perpetuate its existence in the future; normally, it does this through some form of political action although it is possible to imagine a nation without a political context. Ever since the Greek philosophers of the Ancient World, the human need to belong to something larger than ourselves has been well recognised. Contributing to the sense of solidarity are a number of factors that may exist. None of these factors is essential in itself but their total absence would make it impossible for the strong sense of togetherness, or solidarity, to exist. Some of these factors are described as "objective", meaning that they are easily recognisable and unchallengeable, and "subjective" factors that are more difficult to measure and assess, yet are important in the creation of the sense of solidarity.

Objective factors contributing to the forging of nations are a common territory, common language and culture, ethnicity or race, customs and traditions, as well as religion. Sharing some or all of these elements in common binds these individuals together, helps define them as identifiably separate from others, and forges links of solidarity between them. The subjective factors are the shared sense of history, of their origin, of the struggle faced in the past, the clear consciousness of constituting a separate entity, a shared appreciation of what they would consider as their common interest, and their desire to continue to live together in the future. Of all of these factors, history is the most important as the characteristics, objective or subjective, have been forged by the passage of time, and nations frequently demonstrate their existence through history. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the motto of Quebec, which appears on its Coat of Arms, is "Je me souviens" [I remember]. In any case, the objective and subjective factors are such that it is ordinarily easier for the members of a nation to understand and cooperate with each other than it would be to do so with other nations.

In many instances, in the course of history, nations have managed to perpetuate their existence through the formation of a state. Indeed, since the French Revolution, this has been a major factor in explaining a number of events. In the XIXth century, there emerged what was called the "principle of nationality" through which many nations tried to gain independence or separate political recognition. Evidently, it is easier for nations to preserve and perpetuate their existence if they have a state that they control, and where steps may be taken to safeguard their individuality. Many nations have sought to gain the safeguard of a political entity. However, nation and state should not be confused. While many states were constituted by a nation, and thus may be considered nation-states, other states contain more than one nation and are thus multinational states. A state may thus accommodate several nations and the use of the word nation as a substitute for state, as in the expression the United Nations or the earlier League of Nations, is somewhat abusive and misleading.

Related to the word nation is the ideology of nationalism. Indeed, this needs to be stressed. Nationalism cannot exist without the underlying belief in the existence of a nation. While nationalism does not necessarily arise in all nations it, nevertheless, cannot exist without the context of the existence of a nation. Thus, to recognise the existence of nationalism is to admit of the presence of a nation or of a process that is creating one. This may appear self evident yet a peculiarity of the Canadian situation is that Quebec nationalism has been and is well recognised throughout the land by people who will deny, at the same time, the existence of a Quebec nation or of a multi-national state in Canada!

There are evidently many forms of nationalism. In its mildest manifestation, it is a sentiment that is shared by the members of a nation that wish to perpetuate its existence, to ensure the survival of the group. Taken in this form, virtually all French Canadians, in the past or today, may be considered as nationalists as all have wished for the survival of French Canada. Even notorious anti-nationalists, such as Pierre E. Trudeau, would be recognised as nationalist under this form. Thus, ordinarily, nationalism means somewhat more than that. Nationalists invariably display a sentiment of reverence and loyalty to the nation; they usually attach a great deal of importance to the characteristics that define the nation and help distinguish it from other nations. They will frequently insist on the maintenance of these characteristics and will defend them strongly against attacks. Their vision is to view all situations through the prism of the effect that events or ideas will have on their nation. Instinctively, they will think of the classification or organisation of human beings as fundamentally based on nations. Other forms of organisation or definition of human beings are deemed not to be so important (class, gender, generation, etc.); indeed, nationalists will often fight such other definitions of groups that exist as engendering division within the nation. Nationalists tend to view individuals primarily as they relate to and affect the group. In the hierarchy of values, individualism is downplayed, even considered dangerous under certain circumstances. To the nationalists, collective will takes precedence over individual desires. Frequently nationalists believe that the achievement of socio-economic goals may be more easily or fully realised within the context of the nation than otherwise. Lastly, nationalists consider that the interest of their group takes precedence over that of other groups, especially when such interests are in competition or contradiction to that of their nation.

In general, nationalism has had "bad press" in the western world since the Second World War. In part, this is attributable to the horrors disclosed by the excesses of nationalism during the war, or in our time in such places as in Bosnia. These excesses committed in the name of nationalism deserve the universal condemnation that they have received. However, one should be cautious in judging. In fact, one should carefully distinguish the nationalism of the "dominant and strong" from the nationalism of the "dominated and weak". The former gives rise to imperialism and the subjugation of small, and often defenceless people, to ugly manifestations of raw power, while the other is the reaction of the small people in their resistance to aggression and subjugation. The nationalism of the strong is often rooted in racialist ideas and constitutes a threat to liberty and fraternity. Such is not necessarily the case for the anti-colonialism of the small and weak nations. Thus, when in the 1960's and 1970's one heard chanted in nationalist meetings in Quebec: "Le Québec aux Québécois" [Quebec to Quebecers], one should not surmise that what was meant was that there was a desire to exclude all those who were not "Québécois" from the province. What it expressed is the sense that the province was dominated by foreign forces and that this should not be the case. What was expressed was the nationalism of the weak, the reaction of the dominated. But if the same chant was now heard on the eve of the XXIst century, when so much has happened to alter conditions within the province, one might justifiably be concerned as to its meaning, and condemn it without reservation. Still, many nationalists in Quebec will claim that the nation is dominated, and hence not free, as long as it has not become independent. As the results of the referenda on the issue show, the debate still rages on and is not about to be settled easily. In a sense, it is the existential problem of Quebec.

Specific considerations for classification of forms of Quebec nationalism:

With the above comments made, it would normally be possible to proceed to describe and define the nature of Quebec nationalism. However, in reality, further comments are necessary so that the nature and evolution of Quebec nationalism will be fully grasped. The classification proposed below rests primarily on these considerations.

The first problem raised by the specific case of Quebec is one that does not normally arise with other nations. This problem is what is the nation? In essence, nationalism divides the universe into two groups: those who are part of the group, that is those that you would think about when you would think of "we", and the rest of the world that is not part of the group and which would be referred as "they". Nationalism inevitably creates a dichotomy between "we" [our group] and "they" [the rest of the world]. Who is part of the "we" is usually clear for most nations. Such is not the case in Quebec. Thus, when the definition of the "we" changes, however subtly, it is because the nature of the nation, and thus the nationalism, is also changing. There have been three such changes throughout Quebec history. Thus, we must distinguish three different forms of nationalism in Quebec history.

A second consideration touches on what the theoreticians of nationalism have identified as the class foundations of nationalism. This view comes to us particularly from Marxist writers. They point out that nationalism is an ideology usually assumed and integrated within a specific class that seeks to advance its own selfish interest through the use of nationalism and the seeming promotion of group status. While some good may be achieved for the group, what nationalists seek, in the Marxist view, is to advance their class interest. Marxists have a tendency to be internationalists in perspective and to view nationalism negatively. While we may not completely accept these considerations, we should carefully note the group or class that promotes the ideology of nationalism, in order to explain some of the differences that may exist with earlier forms of it. As we will briefly see, the groups sponsoring nationalism have changed in Quebec history.

Lastly, one should note very carefully the various ideas, the ideology associated with the nationalism, the source of its inspiration which tells us a good deal about it, and the political content, if any, that may be associated with it. The ideological base of nationalism, and the political project associated with it, are very instructive in helping us to distinguish between different forms of nationalism.

One last point should be made and it is of considerable importance. One should not confuse the nationalists of Quebec with Quebec itself. While there have been times when the nationalists of Quebec have been as one with nearly all of the people of Quebec, such as during the period immediately preceding the Rebellion of 1837, or at the time of Riel, or during the two wars on the subject of conscription, there have been many other times when they were not followed by the bulk of the population. Thus, it should never be presumed that the people of Quebec agreed with all of the ideas of the nationalists. On the contrary, their feelings or actions were frequently at odds with those expressed by the nationalists. In fact, it should be presumed that the more often an idea or a theme was promoted by the nationalists the more this reflected not only the importance that this idea had in the mental universe of the nationalists but, as well, the inability of the nationalists in convincing the people of the validity of their views. What you repeat all the time is what you have been unable to obtain. Aside from this considerable resistance to nationalist ideas among the bulk of the population, we must also keep in mind the existence of a significant population of anglophones or allophones in Quebec who have remained largely impervious to nationalist ideas.

Based on the above considerations, we may distinguish three different forms of nationalism that have dominated Quebec at different times: the "Canadien" nationalism of the period of 1791-1840, the Ultramontane nationalism of the period of 1840-1960, and the Social-democratic nationalism of the last forty years. This classification is similar, with notable differences, to that proposed by Léon Dion in Nationalismes et politique au Québec, 1975, 177p.

The "Canadien" liberal nationalism of the period of 1791 to 1840:

There is considerable controversy about various aspects of the nationalism of this period and it is not my purpose to seek to elucidate all of the questions under debate.

This period begins with the enactment of the Constitutional Act. In 1791, about one generation after the conquest, the British Government divided the province of Quebec into two parts: Upper Canada and Lower Canada (Quebec). The primary reason for this had been the desire to accommodate the Loyalists who had arrived in Quebec following the American Revolution. Until this point, there had not been manifestations of nationalism in Quebec despite the fact that the people of Quebec had been conquered by a foreign power. However, as the Loyalists poured into Quebec, and created in this process a viable English Canada besides the already existing French Canada, there rapidly arose a need to separate the province into two parts so that each could be accorded the institutions and rules that it would support. So, when the British government created Lower Canada in 1791, it was natural for the French speaking inhabitants to consider that they had been given a province where presumably, while still under the British crown, they might do as they please. Lower Canada was to be "their" province. In this perception, they were mistaken.

Four factors were to lead to the rise of nationalism in Lower Canada in this period. The first was the emergence of the French Canadian professional class. Historian Fernand Ouellet was the first to document the role and importance of this class. This group was made up of an increasing number of lawyers, notaries, land surveyors, and doctors that the classical colleges of the time produced. They were the sons of the agricultural class and they found only miserable employment within the increasingly impoverished agricultural communities of the province. The poorer the agricultural class became, the more miserable the professional class became. They hoped for a better future for themselves and for the people that had produced them. Barring their advancement in society was the traditional class of the seigneurs and of the clergy, both the product of the Ancien régime, conservative, traditionalist and increasingly opposed to new ideas especially of the sort that came out of the French Revolution. By contrast, the professional class forcefully embraced many of the ideas stemming from the French Revolution. The British Government was allied with this traditional class; its representatives in the colony viewed with increasing disdain the election of farmers and professionals to the House of Assembly where they noisily voiced the increasing discontent of the community they represented. In the view of British officials, government should not be entrusted to "the people" but to the "right people".

The second factor that contributed to the rise of nationalism was the agricultural crisis that emerged in the St. Lawrence Valley at this time. Ouellet insisted that there was a clear link between the appearance of the agricultural crisis, which he dated from 1802, and the rise of nationalism. Many have challenged this view. However, while it is likely that the agricultural crisis started after the appearance of nationalism, and thus was not the cause of it, it is clear that the deteriorating economic conditions considerably fuelled the spread of nationalism from 1815 on. By the 1830's, economic conditions were so bad in the St. Lawrence Valley that a revolutionary nationalist context had been created. Elements of this crisis helped focus attention on nationalist goals: there was increasing competition for agricultural markets from other more productive parts of the British Empire; there was more and more a shortage of land in the seigneurial system while the British authorities liberally distributed the remaining land of the province to speculators or immigrants from the British Isles; the number of immigrants coming into the province to compete for the scarce jobs available was also blamed on the British authorities. The poverty in the St. Lawrence Valley among the French inhabitants as well as the Irish settlers was in stark contrast to the relative prosperity of the British settlers.

A third element contributing to the crisis, one common with other colonies, was the lack of responsibility in government. When it established the political system to be applied to the Canadas in 1791, the British Government had created a political system that reflected its fear of democracy. The American Revolution seemed to have taught Britain not that it should be more liberal with its colonies but exactly the reverse. The British believed that they had lost the American colonies because they had given too much power to the democratic component of the Government, to the colonial assemblies; they felt that the executive branch of government should be reinforced. Executive positions were usually held by British officials or upper class colonial subjects on whom one could depend to resist popular demands. Further, the French Revolution convinced them of the danger of entrusting too much power in the hands of the "populace". Consequently, they created a constitution where the balance was squarely in the hands of appointed British officials and their social allies. In Lower Canada these were the most conservative seigneurs and the clergy. Throughout British North America there arose a call for reform, a call for Responsible Government. In this endeavour, the French and Irish inhabitants of Lower Canada were allied, linked together by similar distrust of British institutions, deteriorating economic conditions, and by influence from European republican principles.

The last element to contribute to the nationalist cause was the increasing sense among the French inhabitants that they were not in control of "their province". There is no doubt that social and economical power escaped them completely. Even politically, while they represented the majority in the Assembly, they were distinctly in minority on all councils, hence where it really counted, and in the civil service where decisions were formulated. Only demographically did they continue to dominate. Yet, plans were devised in anti-canadien circles to bring more immigrants into the province, to reunite the two Canadas so that assimilation of the French would be achieved. All the while, nothing was done to stem the tide of emigration to the United States that started in the 1830's. Time and again, attacks were formulated in British circles against French laws and the seigneurial system, with the result of further entrenching the French in their defensive position.

It is the junction of these four factors that brought the Rebellions of 1837-1838 in Lower Canada. The discontent was widespread and its expression had distinctive nationalist overtones. The leader of the nationalist movement was Louis Joseph Papineau.

The nation of the Patriotes, as they were called, was "la nation canadienne". The term canadien was customarily used in those days only in connection to the French speaking and Roman Catholic inhabitants of the province. Yet, it is clear that their nationalism was inclusive. They were broadly supported by the Irish component of the population and several of the Patriotes leaders were English speaking. Indeed, when the second rebellion broke out in 1838, it led to the proclamation of independence of Lower Canada by the self styled President of the Republic, Robert Nelson. The ideological source of inspiration was in the republican principles of the United States and of European movements. The principles of the French Revolution such as liberté, égalité, fraternité are noticeable throughout the period. There is a distinct political liberalism at work. The Declaration of Independence of Lower Canada, while perhaps somewhat on the left of the movement, is very instructive: its goal is to break the colonial link and to establish a Republican government in Lower Canada; all citizens are declared to be equal including Indians; union between Church and State is abolished and freedom of religion and conscience is given to all; the seigneurial system is abolished as if it had never existed; imprisonment for debt is done away with, as is the death penalty for anything but murder; freedom of the press is proclaimed, and the English and French languages will be used by the government.

Thus, the first form of Quebec nationalism was mainly an open, tolerant and liberal movement. It shared characteristics with several similar movements in Europe at the time and had a largely political aim, although the socio-economic overtones were also strong. The active group was the class of liberal professions that developed at this time. It forged alliances with many in the Irish community who shared the sentiments and fate of the French inhabitants and with Upper Canadian reformers. It was opposed by the most socially and politically reactionary forces in Quebec at the time: the traditional elites of clergy and seigneurs, the merchants' class, British officials and bureaucrats and British-American settlers who were not always very enlightened and refused to live under the government of the French [see the collection of documents on the proposed union of 1822 also at this site].

Yet, the Rebellions in Lower Canada were a failure. This is not because the nationalism of the Patriotes did not receive broad support. But the leadership was weak, the intent was never to bring about a rebellion, and militarily they were poorly equipped and did not stand a chance. The clergy pronounced squarely against rebellion and exercised enough influence to confuse the population. The British Government moved in a decisive manner and all was lost for the Patriotes in the end. One of the main effects of the failure of the movement was to discredit the professional class and progressive ideas in Quebec. The punishment meted out by the British government to individuals and to the community was swift, and the repercussions were to be felt long into the next period. Quebec was reunited with Upper Canada; it lost even the small measure of self-government it had had between 1791 to 1840, and, following the Durham Report, Britain officially returned to assimilation policies. As historian Maurice Séguin once wrote about the consequences of the Rebellions: the Union Act was a "new conquest". It would be felt even more strongly than the first one of 1760 and would have profound influence in changing the course of history in Quebec, and the nature of its nationalism.

The Ultramontane nationalism: 1840-1960

[Customarily, in French, ultramontane nationalism is called «clerico-nationalisme»; the two terms are meant to convey the same reality]

I described elsewhere on the site the impact and the consequences of the Union Act [see The Durham Report, the Union Act and the birth of the Separatist/Federalist attitudes]. Created at least in part to bring about the assimilation, indeed the destruction of the Canadiens, the Union Act precipitated a major realignment within Quebec. The ignominious defeat of the Patriote movement, the discredit that inevitably fell on the class that had sponsored the more progressive ideas and nationalism, the rapid departure into exile of many of the leaders of the nationalist movement, such as Louis-Joseph Papineau, served to rapidly alter the situation and to shift the power base within Quebec into the hands of the Roman Catholic clergy. To my knowledge, historian Michel Brunet was the first one to have clearly outlined the new position of power of the Church in Quebec following the Union Act [see his communication to the Canadian Historical Association of 1969, and published in the Report of the same year].

The power of the Church, following the Union Act, was reflected in a variety of ways. First, it attracted an increasing number and proportion of the brightest minds of the province within its ranks to the extent that, eventually, about half of all of the university graduates in French-speaking Quebec became priests. The number of religious communities in Quebec increased dramatically in Quebec immediately after the Union Act: between 1837 and 1853, 17 new religious communities were founded in Quebec or arrived from France to Quebec. Among these were the Jesuits, the Christian Brothers and the Clercs de St. Viateur. After 1840, the educated class and the clerical class were basically the same in Quebec. In any case, those that did not join the priesthood studied in the many classical colleges of the province erected and controlled by the Church. In these institutions, they were properly prepared not only for the task awaiting them in the few professions open to French Canadians but, as well, for the defense of the nation and the preservation of the the spiritual values they had inherited from their forefathers. Five classical colleges were founded in Quebec between 1846 and 1852. Aside from the classical colleges, the clergy controlled all the other schools of the French-speaking part of the province from the primary level all the way to the universities. Beyond the schools, the health, social and charitable institutions of the Catholic part of the province were also in their hands. No major initiative, whether educational, social, cultural, and even economical or political, was possible, and potentially successful, without the clergy being involved or providing its blessing. As many have argued convincingly, clericalism reigned supreme over Quebec and reached extraordinary levels by 1896 [see my Roman Catholic Church and Quebec also on this site].

The Church of Quebec, between 1840 and 1960, was an ultramontane Church. In the same way that European conservative and reactionary forces of the early XIXth century looked beyond the "mountains" to the Papacy for inspiration and leadership in their fight against the rising tide of new ideas mounting from the French Revolution, so did the Church of Quebec. It derived from it the same anti-modernist, undemocratic, intolerant and unenlightened views as were defined in the Syllabus of Errors by Pope Pious IX. Beginning in the 1840's, there was an intensification of contacts between the Catholic Church of Quebec and the great ultramontane centres of Europe, in France and in Rome. Between 1840 and 1876, over 150 priests of Quebec crossed the Atlantic, bound for Europe to visit or study. The ultramontane nature of the Church of Quebec has been the subject of dozens of studies and is a well-recognised factor today. The chief proponents of ultramontanism were Mgrs Bourget and Laflèche as well as Jules-Paul Tardivel, a journalist who published a newspaper entitled aptly La Vérité [The truth]. When Bishop Bourget constructed a new cathedral in Montreal, he had it constructed on the model of St. Peters in Rome; to an ultramontane bishop, the Roman model was the ideal, and only model. The same two bishops were active in recruiting soldiers [zouaves] to defend the temporal power of the pope against the attacks of liberal revolutionaries who wanted to unite Italy. That the bishop was able to raise several hundred French Canadian zouaves in a province notorious for opposing foreign wars speaks volumes of the strength of ultramontanism in Quebec in the XIXth century.

Thus, the class that carried the nationalist message in Quebec, after 1840, was the clerico-nationalist class, made up primarily of priests and graduates from the institutions controlled by the clergy. The nationalism they propounded was an ultramontane form of nationalism.

The second major change that one notes in the period after 1840 is the shifting nature of the nation. Prior to 1840, the nation had been "la nation canadienne". While focused on the French inhabitants, its expression had been broad enough to have received the support of many of the Irish immigrants into the province, as both groups were linked by religion and distrust of Britain and British officials. Together, they had forged political alliances. However, as the number of impoverished Irish immigrants increased after 1840, fuelled by the Irish potato famine, the increasing competition for scarce jobs between the Irish and the French served to somewhat drive a wedge between them. As well, the passage of time made the original British settlers increasingly aware of their growing separateness from the people of the mother country so that, eventually, they developed a view of themselves as "Canadians". If the English-speaking population became "Canadians", then the French speaking population could not remain "Canadiens". Previously, to have been "Canadien" was to have affirmed the existence of a separate nation. As the nation wished to continue its separate course of existence, a new self definition was needed: the nation of the French Canadians was born. The expression did not merely say that there existed Canadians that spoke French. It affirmed clearly the existence of a separate people, of a nation. Thus, the "we" shifted from "Canadien" to "French Canadian". The very change of the description of the nation is a powerful signal of the desire of the nation to distinguish itself, to affirm its separate identity, to ward off its integration and assimilation to the rest of the continent or the country. By the same process, the "we" of the nation ceased to be as inclusive as it had been previously; the only members of the nation were those that shared its characteristics: they had to be Catholic, they had to be French speaking, and they had to be of "Canadien" descent. Anybody else was part of "les autres" [the others]. Thus, in this second period, the nation acquired an "ethnic" flavour that it had not had clearly previously.

At the outset, the French Canadian nation was centred in the St-Lawrence Valley, along the ancestral farmlands that dotted the landscape of the province. However, as population continued to increase beyond the capabilities of the farm areas to absorb it, and as the agricultural crisis of the XIXth Century deepened, at the same time as industrialisation was too slow to absorb all the excess population, there occurred large-scale emigration from Quebec to other parts of the continent. The emigration of between 800,000 to 1,000,000 French Canadians, fully 40% of the population of Quebec, from 1830 to 1930 was one of the most traumatic events to have fallen upon the nation. In practice, what it did was to remove precise borders around the nation. Clearly, one could not create a nation-state any more, except in imagination around the scattered settlements of French Canadians in New England, the American midwest, in Ontario or Northern New Brunswick, as well as in Quebec.

The scattering of the nation to different parts of the continent not only made impossible the creation of a nation-state, except as a state of the mind, but raised the question of its survival. It is striking how much the nationalist discourse changed after 1840 to focus on the ideology of la survivance. Survival is a constant theme that runs through the period. The survival of the community against the assimilation plans of the Union Act; the survival of the French minorities in the rest of Canada or in the "little Canadas" of the United States; the survival of a small nation, "un petit peuple" in the words of Abbé Groulx, against the incredible pressure of the North American environment. The theme of la survivance cannot be divorced from the realisation of the minority and endangered position of the nation. French Canadians were not only a nation. They were a minority nation, one that reason would suggest should have died, but also one that miraculously had survived. In the universe of the ultramontane nationalists, such a survival could only be achieved because God was on the side of such a people. If God was on their side, it was because He had a mission for them: as a Catholic people living in a universe of Protestant and materialist forces, their role was to be the witness of true spiritual principles, to bring back to the true faith all of the people of the continent. The nation's role was to survive, to spread, and to convert to the faith others on the continent. If it had a holy mission, it could be deemed to be a holy nation, and if it was so it would undoubtedly survive. This sense of a mission, messianism as he called it, was first defined in 1957 by Michel Brunet in his famous essay: "Trois dominantes de la pensée canadienne-française: l'agriculturisme, l'anti-étatisme et le messianisme", and published in his La Présence anglaise et les Canadiens.

The major context of the rise of clerical power, of the shifting nature of the "we" of the nation, of the theme of la survivance and of the minority position of the people having been established, we must now turn to analyse briefly the main ideological components of ultramontane nationalism.

  • The first component concerns the characteristics of the nation. It is especially after 1840 that much discussion is focused on the three pillars of survival. [I have discussed these somewhere else on the site] The first of these pillars was Catholicism. We should not be surprised that the nation was increasingly defined in religious terms when we remember that the main spokesmen of ultramontane nationalism were priests. The nation was a Catholic nation, with a Catholic mission, on a Protestant continent. Next came the French language, important as a cultural heritage inherited from the ancestors, a symbol of the link of the nation to one of the great civilisations of Europe and, as such, a considerable element of pride, but mostly a shield serving to separate the people from the others on the continent who were English-speaking, and thus an essential element to preserve the faith. Language was important because it was deemed that "la langue est la gardienne de la foi" [language is the guardian of the faith]. As English was the language of Protestantism on this continent, French was the pre-eminent language of Catholicism. The third pillar was the institutions that served to distinguish the nation and separate it from the rest. These were the legal [French civil law], familial [large family, traditional role of the mother] or institutional elements [seigneurial system, classical colleges, co-operative movement] that characterised the nation and had to be preserved if the nation was to last. The three pillars of survival, of which Catholicism was evidently the most important, provided an endless source of patriotic sermons and speeches throughout the period.
  • The second major component in the discourse of the ultramontane nationalists is the embattled nature of the nation. In their mental universe, the nationalists of this period saw the nation as under constant attacks or threats. One is struck by the widespread character of these attacks, much quite real but some imagined. Over time, the nature of these attacks changed, but their presence and ferocity never disappeared. What threatened the nation?

At the beginning, the Union Act itself. After all, it united Quebec with Ontario, and, by this process, removed even the small measure of self-government that the nation had had previously. While a state is not absolutely necessary to the existence of a nation, its absence renders the maintenance of the nation more difficult. In any case, the Union Act set into motion various plans for the assimilation of the French Canadians. As the Union Act was altered, and eventually Confederation was established, this threat receded but was never to be quite forgotten.

As French Canadians were increasingly scattered throughout the continent, including in various parts of Canada, they faced the real threat of assimilation. Dozens of articles by ultramontane nationalists followed the progression, or regression, of French communities outside of Quebec. Victories were celebrated, each increase in the number of French Canadians was duly noted. As time passed, and the first generation of emigrants gave rise to a second or a third, losses were lamented and analysed for the French minorities across the continent. Every new census was the occasion for deploring the heavy losses suffered, the bleeding of the nation to the scourge of assimilation. To a nation very aware of its minority, and fragile status, every loss was a catastrophic loss. So French Canadians counted each other, and eventually the count became depressing nearly everywhere, except in Quebec and in New Brunswick. Numerous speeches were made offering reasons to persevere and ways and means to counter assimilation.

If the general threat of assimilation was very real, given the natural demographical and geographical factors at play on the North American continent, the menace was increased by the intolerant attitude of "les autres" as they disregarded and abolished French-Catholic minority school rights in one area after another in the post-Confederation period. The imperialist era of the late XIXth and early XXth centuries witnessed the rise of several nativist, racialist and otherwise unenlightened movements in North America in general, and in Canada in particular. Throughout Canada, French-Catholic minorities were systematically attacked one after the other in an attempt to make them conform to the White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant mould. Everywhere, outside of Quebec, minorities, racial, ethnic or linguistic, were hounded. French-Catholic minorities stood as a symbol: their presence said that difference was acceptable and good, that diversity was welcomed. Their eradication would give to all the same message: conformity was what was desired. Even arguments that rested on the nature of Canada, the protection of the Constitution, and the evidently special position of the French-Catholics as one of the founding people of Canada fell on deaf ears. In New Brunswick, in Manitoba, in the North West and in Ontario their rights were curtailed. If the nationalists were so successful in spreading the idea of an embattled nation, of a nation under siege, and of portraying "les autres" as a threat, it was because it was so patently a reality. Even where more justice should have been expected, such as in the federal government and parliament, French rights were openly disregarded. Only after long and protracted battles was French accepted on the stamps of Canada or on its currency, both symbols of the bicultural and bilingual nature of the country; meanwhile, few French Canadians rose in the civil service or in the army, and discrimination was rampant.

A fourth menace to the nation was imperialism, war, and their natural extension: conscription. This aspect was especially contributed by one of the greatest of the ultramontane nationalists of the time, Henri Bourassa. Anti-British sentiments, inherited from the time of the conquest and nurtured by many incidents accounted in part for the anti-imperialist movement. It should be remembered that Bourassa's grandfather had been Louis-Joseph Papineau. However, Bourassa was also a great admirer of the British Parliamentary system and of the notions of British political liberalism and fair play. It would be a mistake to view his anti imperialist campaigns as merely anti-British ranting, as many anti-Bourassa observers of the time claimed. To Bourassa, war and imperialism had to be opposed because they were not in conformity with Catholic doctrines of universality and peace. Many times, Bourassa was the echo of pronouncements by the papacy for peace, before and during the war. To an ultramontane, when the Pope spoke, the last word had been said. Yet, while his anti-imperialism and war views found theological justification in Catholic doctrine, for the most part they remained rooted in his nationalism. To Bourassa, Canada was an Anglo-French nation. Each group had a contribution to make to the destiny of the country. Aside from the fact that the imperialists were invariably those most opposed to French Catholic rights, imperialism and war side-tracked the nation from fulfilling its destiny. Conscription was even worse: it demanded a blood tax for reprehensible purposes and denied the basic equality of French Canada with English Canada.

As the end of the XIXth century was reached, and Canada and Quebec entered a feverish phase of industrialisation, this became a new menace. The industrialisation of Quebec was in fact a huge benefit. It helped pull Quebec out of the agricultural crisis that had dominated nearly the entire last century. It improved the standard of living of the population and, eventually, slowed down considerably the emigration of French Canadians to the United States. Given these benefits, it should have been celebrated by the nationalists. To a large extent this was not the case and their analysis of the impact of industrialisation was usually negative.

What was wrong with industrialisation? For one thing, it led to urbanisation. The ultramontane nationalists were strong believers in agriculturalism. Agriculturalism (or ruralism as it is frequently called elsewhere) was not peculiar to Quebec at the time. But, here, it acquired a dominance, a magnitude, that was rarely matched elsewhere. As well, its ideological setting was quite different from that found elsewhere. Michel Brunet defined agriculturalism as an unbounded love of agriculture and a belief that God had meant French Canadians to be farmers. Farming was the natural economy of the people and when you farmed you inevitably communed with the forces of nature and with God. The rural areas were steeped in tradition and were the backbone of the fight for survival of the nation. By contrast, the cities were the work of "les autres". Indeed, in the middle of the XIXth century, Montreal had a majority of English-speaking people and even Quebec City was nearly in majority English-speaking. To the agriculturalists, the cities were a vast impersonal and godless universe, a place full of dangers for one's soul and nationality, an occasion for sins. In the theatres, cinemas, dancing halls, clubs and taverns found in the cities, the nation was subjected to foreign influences and shed its traditional beliefs and values. Family values, the self reliance of the agricultural class, the pride in one's accomplishments all seemed to vanish in the cities as did the connection with the past which farming the ancestral land always provided in the rural areas of the province. By uprooting them from where God meant them to be, industrialisation and urbanisation put the life and the soul of the nation in danger. [see Joseph Levitt, Henri Bourassa and the Golden Calf. The Social Program of the Nationalists of Quebec, 1900-1914, 1969, 178p.]

While industrialisation provided the French Canadians with the possibility to absorb the great excess of population they produced, it also led inevitably to the proletarisation of the nation. The French Canadians did not enter the phase of industrialisation as captains of industry but as lowly, unskilled, and dominated workers. This was one of the aspects of industrialisation that was most resented by the nationalists. The proud, self reliant and independent nation had become nothing but a huge, servile proletarian people. French Canadians were not only a nation, they were a vast working class people dominated by Anglo-American capital. Nation and class were one and the same. This aspect also provided endless opportunities for nationalists to write and pontificate. They sought to stop the trend; they attempted to promote regional economic growth so as to prevent the people from all ending up in Montreal; they preached numerous campaigns for "retour à la terre" [back to the land], especially during the Great Depression. That period of great economic problems was the occasion for the ultramontane nationalists to claim that it proved that they had been right all along in opposing industrialisation and urbanisation. Otherwise, faced with the mounting tide of people leaving the rural areas of the province, the nationalists preached remedies such as the formation of Catholic unions, co-operatives, corporatism, opening new regions to colonisation, achat chez-nous [buy from ourselves], and the training of an elite in the Catholic social doctrines. If some of these remedies were far from useless, they, nevetheless hardly made a dent in the general poverty of the French Canadians.

Finally, industrialisation and urbanisation, its twin sister, brought the French Canadians for the first time in their history in close contact with anglophones. The cities were the world of the English. By 1900, the vast number of anglophones in the province lived in the Montreal area where they constituted a significant proportion of the population. As they completely dominated the economy of the province, except for agriculture, their language became the primary language of business. French was largely immaterial to economic success in the province. In fact, it nearly seemed as if, the less French one knew, the more success one was likely to have. Even in the bastion of the North American French-speaking world, French was a second class language, easily discounted, almost irrelevant. Those who wished to rise had to learn English and shed their French ways. In the meantime, the language of the people deteriorated, and became peppered with anglicisms. This last aspect also provided endless opportunities for the nationalists to write and preach. One of the most prominent nationalist organisations was the Société du bon parler français [Society for good spoken French]. [see the study by Chantal Bouchard, "Une obsession nationale: l'anglicisme", in Recherches sociographiques, Vol. 30, (1989): 67-90]

Aside from the Union Act, assimilation, attacks on French-Catholic minorities, imperialism and industrialisation, communism also imperilled the nation. This theme appeared in the 1920's and reached crisis proportion by the 1930's. While anti-communism became commonplace in the Western world from the end of the Second World War, and fuelled the Cold War, it was a major theme in Quebec long before that. In the pages of the Quartier Latin, the nationalist student newspaper of the Université de Montréal of the 1930's, 27 articles were written about communism but only six directly touching on fascism. Between 1930 and 1936 [issues between # 141 and 209], L'oeuvre des tracts, a publication of the Jesuits that printed small doctrinal brochures on a variety of issues for public consumption, printed 68 brochures and 11 of them touched on communism, the Soviet Union, and the work of the international revolutionaries. An examination of the reports of the secretary of the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-française [ACJC], devoted to promoting Catholic and national causes among the educated youth of Quebec, between September 1930 and March 1933, shows that of the 335 conferences made in the various groups of the Association 7.7% were on communism. Given the hundreds of other possible themes to explore, these numbers seem extraordinary. They are especially impressive when we recall that there was not more than a handful of communists in French-speaking Quebec at the time! The anti-Communist craze led to the enactment of the Padlock Law by the Duplessis government in 1937. The Padlock Law outlawed the use of premises in Quebec for the purpose of printing and distributing communistic propaganda.

What was so reprehensible and threatening about communism? To the ultramontane nationalists who defined the nation nearly in religious terms, and in any case identified Catholicism as the first pillar of the nation, communism was the main menace to Catholic values. Everything was presented to the people as if it pitted Catholicism against Communism. The enemy was out there, lurking, waiting for the people to put their guard down. Communism, aside from preaching various elements opposed by the Church, was a godless system in its ideology, and persecuted religion, and Catholicism, everywhere. As we have seen before, if the nation had a mission it was a holy one. Catholicism would be defended here, even should it come to crumble everywhere else!

As the twentieth century advanced, and the problems linked to industrialisation multiplied here as well as in the rest of Canada, the federal government of Canada became increasingly more active in taking measures to protect citizens [i.e. unemployment insurance, old age pensions, family allowances]. Other factors also contributed to move the federal system of Canada toward centralisation. In centralisation, the ultramontane nationalists found another great menace. They were not incorrect. When Confederation was established, a division of powers was effected between the federal and the provincial governments. In general, at the insistence of Quebec to a large extent, the powers with the greatest incidence on culture, language and society were given to the provinces. In this manner, the social institutions of Quebec were put beyond the grasp of the anglophone majority; only a francophone majority in Quebec could be trusted to handle them in a manner that would not injure the culture of the people. These powers defined the extent of the self-government put in the hands of the nation. To accept to transfer powers to Ottawa, where francophones were in minority, was to reduce the extent of the self-government possessed by the nation, and to threaten the integrity of the cultural and social institutions that characterised it. Clearly, this could not be allowed, even when the federal government proposed measures that would have alleviated great problems in Quebec. So, the ultramontane nationalists mounted campaign upon campaign against centralisation, and stood squarely behind provincial autonomy. However, with provincial autonomy, it was not so much the sphere of jurisdiction of the provincial government that they sought to protect but, rather, the control over the educational, health and social services that the Roman Catholic clergy exercised in Quebec. Provincial autonomy was necessary so that the pillars of survival would remain unaltered and unchallenged. The federal government could not be trusted, and the provincial government was merely the safe-keeper for the nation. [see the discussion on Duplessis, the Tremblay Report and Provincial autonomy elsewhere on the site].

Feminism was one of the challenges that confronted the ultramontane nationalists. These nationalists lived at a time of significant social and economic transformations, of modernisation. These brought changes in gender roles, women making an increasing entrance into labour markets, occupying jobs that either did not exist previously or that had been occupied by men. The workplace, education and the family were drastically affected. Some feminist organizations made their appearance, asserted themselves and claimed for women a place and rights that had not been recognized previously. These were even to extend into the political and professional spheres, areas to this point reserved to men. The ultramontane nationalists considered the feminist trend to put the survival of the nation at risk. If women abandonned their traditional role of prolific mothers, of "queen" of the family and home, then the traditional values that sustained the nation could not be upheld, as it was women's role to teach these values to the children under their care. So, to a large extent, they opposed the feminist trend and continued to embrace a patriarchial form of society where women were respected but kept within the strict confines of the home, family and charitable work. With some notable personal exceptions, until the Quiet Revolution, the only avenue of social promotion for women was to join one of the many religious congregations that proliferated throughout the province. In these, together, women could exercise significant influence, manage considerable budgets and largely free themselves of the tutelage of men. To the extent that the congregations were dedicated to the glory of God, the spread of the Catholic faith - so essential to the survival of the nation -, to the caring of orphans, of the sick, of the aged and to educating the youths, to the extent that they were engaged in these eminently "feminine endeavors", they received the wholehearted support of the clerico-nationalists.

The last, but not the least, of the great dangers that menaced the nation according to the ultramontane nationalists was immigration. On this point, we touch one of the most sensitive elements of the nationalist thinking of the ultramontane period. It has been the subject of considerable debate with eyes focused not on advancing our knowledge and understanding of the phenomenon, but rather to obscure it, deny it or else play it up for political reasons. When studying the attitude of the French Canadian nationalists toward immigration in general, it should be remembered that at no time in the period under question was there ever a desire in the federal government to present immigration to the people of Quebec in such a manner that it would appear that immigration made a positive contribution to the preservation of their nationality. On the contrary, the federal government conducted its immigration policy oblivious to the goals of the people of Quebec. This is especially striking when, otherwise, it is very evident that it reflected very well the desires of English-speaking Canadians on immigration. Thus, we should not be surprised that there was not a very positive response to immigrants in Quebec. One should also note, and ponder, the minority position of the people of Quebec. Every time that an immigrant landed in Canada, the proportion of French Canadians in the country decreased accordingly. Thus, in analysing the attitude of Quebec, or of the ultramontane nationalists, to immigration, the minority situation of the nation should be kept in mind.

The above comments, and nuances, having been made, one is struck by an apparent contradiction: in general, the people of Quebec showed a good deal of tolerance and acceptance of those who came and settled among them, while the nationalists did not. In many respects immigrants were less discriminated against here than they were elsewhere in Canada. Blacks were subjected to segregated schools in Ontario and Nova Scotia, but not in Quebec. The Université de Montréal accepted far less Jews than McGill University did; there were various reasons for that. However, at McGill, quotas for Jews existed; not so at the Université de Montréal. Further, when a Jewish student was accepted at the Université de Montréal, he/she was treated with far more dignity, and with more equality, than he/she would have been at McGill. The Université de Montréal stood fast, and with much dignity, against the mounting cries of those that wanted it to abandon its tolerant policy. Jewish schools and a Jewish hospital were opened in the province with legal sanction and grants from the provincial government. Nowhere else in Canada were Jewish institutions financed by governments.

While the people of Quebec showed a modicum of acceptance of the immigrants once they had come to live among them, the nationalists tended to rant and rave against immigration in general, and Jews in particular [this issue has been well studied by Pierre Anctil in his book Le Devoir, les Juifs et l'immigration, 1988, 161p. Another interesting study, although lacking in nuances, is Esther Delisle, The Traitor and the Jew. Antisemitism and the Delirum of Extremist Right-wing Nationalism in French Canada from 1929-1939, 1993, 215p.]. Anti-semitism was alive and well among the ultramontane nationalists of the period of 1890 to 1945. To them, the Jew was covered with all of the imaginable sins. He was the source of communism, and strangely enough, of the worse excesses of capitalism as well. The contradiction never bothered the nationalists; it only served to blacken Jews further. They were blamed for all of the ills that afflicted the urban society. As the ultramontane nationalists defined the nation in Catholic terms, the more one deviated from this norm, the more unacceptable one became. Of those who came to Quebec in any numbers prior to 1945, Jews most deviated from the norm. They were the supremely anti-Catholic people, Christ killers bent only on their own satisfaction and on destroying everything of value around them. To ultramontane nationalists, overall, one should never think of Jews without immediately associating the word problem with them. The Jews were a problem, they could only be a problem. A nation should protect itself against them. At a minimum, you should not add to your problem by increasing their numbers through immigration, and one should never patronise their businesses as well [achat chez-nous movement]. That the achat chez-nous campaigns had to be repeated so often tells us much about their lack of success among the common people in the province. [for an examination of the negative image of Jews as portrayed in the literature of Quebec, both before and after 1945, consult Victor Teboul, Mythe et images du Juif au Québec, 1977, 235p.; for evidence of recent positive view of Jews, see Naïm Kattan, Juifs et Canadiens, 1967, 133p.]

These anti-semitic views were propounded broadly and openly from about 1890 to 1945. They were found in the publications of the clergy, in otherwise rational newspapers such as Le Devoir, Le Droit and L'Action catholique, they were heard in Parliament or in the National Assembly, they spiced up many conferences and sermons. Yet, they were not universally subscribed to by all of the nationalists: after an initial period where anti-semitism was part of his mental universe, Henri Bourassa came to reject such views and to condemn them strongly in 1923 and 1935. In 1924, Bourassa wrote to a correspondant who had complained to him that Le Devoir was too open to Jews: "I will never fall in the excesses of narrow- minded nationalism, hateful and stupid and which is far too common throughout the world and which is now starting to infiltrate our country". Armand Lavergne, a nationalist follower of Bourassa, championed the Jewish exemption from the Lord's Day Act enacted in the Parliament of Canada in 1906; virtually only the nationalists were prepared to grant Jews this measure of justice. Indeed, under the influence of Bourassa and Lavergne, the National Assembly of Quebec was the only one to grant an exemption to Jews in 1907 [the exemption was abolished in the 1930's when anti-semitism became stronger in Quebec]. Olivar Asselin was another nationalist to condemn anti-semitism in the 1930's; however, Asselin was a liberal nationalist, and not an ultramontane. After 1937, André Laurendeau, eventually involved in L'Action nationale and in Le Devoir, with Gérard Filion did much to purge nationalism of its anti-semitic components. Yet, these exceptions having been noted, anti-semitism was alive and well among the ultramontane nationalists of the period of 1890 to 1945, and anti-semitism constituted, without a doubt, a major element of ultramontane nationalists' thought in the period.

Aside from the defence of the three pillars of survival, and the fight against all the elements that threatened the nation, three other characteristics of ultramontane nationalism need to be briefly emphasised: their focus on history, their anti-statism and their political objectives.

A very strong component of ultramontane nationalism, one that had been absent from the earlier liberal nationalism, was reliance on history. While earlier nationalists in the period of 1845 to 1915 had made a contribution to this, it is really only with abbé Groulx that history made a strong entrance in the ultramontane nationalist discourse. Abbé Groulx became the first professional historian in Quebec. He was also, between 1915 and 1945, the chief proponent of ultramontane nationalism in Quebec. Groulx lived at a time when the proletarisation of French Canadians took its heaviest toll. He railed continuously against it and against the many ills that afflicted "his people". In this process, the nation had developed a huge inferiority complex. To Groulx, this was a tragedy. At all costs, pride in one's self and in one's nation had to be restored. Where else was one to find the elements to restore pride and faith in one's destiny than in history? To Groulx, French Canadians were not only a nation with a holy mission, they were the descendants of a people that once discovered, evangelised, conquered, civilised and controlled much of the North American continent. Once, they had been masters of the continent and if they had done so it was because they had had great qualities and had not been cowardly or subservient. They were from a race of heroes, carved out of the best of Catholic France, cast upon this continent to tame it. A good example of that was Dollard des Ormeaux who, with 16 friends, had stopped the invasion of Canada by the Iroquois in 1660 and, with the sacrifice of their lives, had saved the colony. How could a people, coming from such origins, have sunk so low? Only because they had ignored who they were, only because they had forgotten their history. Groulx made it his task to tell the people about their history. It had a moralistic tone and a nationalist goal. He wrote hundreds of pieces about the history of French Canada. He preached incessantly about the necessity of a "national education", that is one that instilled pride in the nation and its accomplishment. Central to his interpretation of the history of French Canadians was the role of Catholicism and of the clergy as the guardian of the values of the people and of the preservation of tradition. [on the role of history, and the connection of the historians of Quebec to the the society that produced them, see Ronald Rudin, Making History in Twentieth-century Quebec, 1997]

Another component of ultramontane nationalism was its anti-statism. Along with agriculturalism and messianism, anti-statism was one of the three dominant myths of French Canadian thought as defined by historian Michel Brunet. Brunet believed that it grew out of the Conquest. There is very little evidence to support that. Rather, it seems more natural to date it from the 1840's, when control of any elements connected to the state was lost to French Canadians, following the Union Act. It is also from that time that the clergy rose increasingly in importance and started to assume such tasks as one expects from government: education, health, social services. After 1840, in so far as these matters were concerned, the Church took care of the people and, in fact, assumed one of the important functions of the state. From this point on, the ultramontane Church preached distrust of the state, a distrust shared by XIXth century liberals in any case. Even when the province of Quebec was created in 1867, a French and Catholic state in practice, the Church continued to preach distrust of the state and ascribed to it dangers that simply did not exist. The effect was catastrophic. Aside from the Catholic Church, the government of Quebec was the only major institution in the hands of French Canadians. Given the social and economical situation of the people of Quebec, they would have needed an active state if they were to develop and overcome the increasing economic inferiority into which they fell. Only by the 1930's did a new emergent form of nationalism in Quebec start to challenge the anti-statist views of the ultramontane nationalists.

Only on one major point, did the near unanimity of the ultramontane nationalists' vision of the world break down: on matters that were political. In general, the ultramontane nationalists were not involved in politics. They frequently held rather undemocratic views in any case. Their focus was continuously the elite. In their mental universe, political parties mostly served to divide the people when what the nationalists wished to do was to unite them. They easily heaped scorn on politicians and had very little faith in political solutions. As much as possible, the ultramontane nationalists emptied their ideology of political content. This aspect has been very well documented by André-J. Bélanger in his book L'Apolitisme des idéologies québécoises. Le grand tournant de 1934-1936 [1974, 392p.]. Abbé Groulx was typical in this respect. He was quite proud, in his Mémoires, to report that he had frequently not gone to vote, as one could not expect anything good from politicians who were all the same in any case.

Yet, while they shunned politicians, and heaped scorn on political parties, there was no escaping the essentially political question of the future of the nation. How would the nation best survive: Within Confederation or out of it? Was the ultimate destiny of the nation to eventually form an independent state? This question provided ample opportunities for debate in the classical colleges and in the various platforms usually occupied by the nationalists. No clear answer was provided to this existential question and in fact it did not make much difference how it would be answered. In so far as the ultramontane nationalists were anti-statists, it did not make much difference if the nation would suddenly have available an independent state: it would not have done very much with such a state in any case. The real question was really: how would survivance be best achieved? Both the separatist and the federalist ultramontane nationalists basically wanted to achieve the same thing: the security of the nation, its survival. And many answered the question in the same ambiguous way that Abbé Groulx did: within Confederation if possible; outside Confederation if impossible. Canada had value to the extent that it might make a contribution in the maintenance and the development of the nation. If this point had been more fully grasped outside of Quebec, real and fruitful political alliances, for practical purposes, could have been forged and French Canadian nationalism could have become a more positive force in Canadian history. The survival of a vibrant French Canadian nation, secure in its rights, would have gone a long way in securing the survival of Canada as well. Instead, increasingly, starting with Jules-Paul Tardivel, continued by abbé Groulx, although somewhat ambiguously, and scores of youth movements in the 1930's, the nationalists turned to separatism to assure the survival of the nation.

While the ultramontane nationalists were very active for over a century, they were not very successful, except in specific circumstances such as during the Riel rebellions, the conscription issues, or during the 1930's. There was a considerable gulf between their message and the views or actions of the average French Canadian. In part, this may have been because they envisaged too much individuals only in relation to the group; this tendency may be normal among nationalists, but it seemed to have been taken to an exaggerated level among the ultramontane nationalists. They were rarely as one with the people, in the same way as the Patriotes had been before 1837. Despite their best effort, they could not stop the emigration of French Canadians to the United States, nor the movement away from the farms of Quebec to the cities. When they railed against cinema, theatres and other leisure occupations, or when they supported prohibition, they were not followed by the people; nor did they fully succeed in making the French Canadians see Jews as their enemy. They did nurture among the people a sense of grievance but, perhaps, that was because the fate of the people was so miserable. They were inward- looking, unprogressive and not very tolerant of others. Yet, in many respects they were well meaning. They set into motion tendencies that were difficult to shed by later generations.

The social-democratic nationalism: 1945 to today

The Great Depression of the 1930's, and the war that followed it, set into motion a slow but profound re-evaluation of nationalism in general, and of ultramontane nationalism in particular.

At first glance, the Great Depression brought the ultramontane nationalists to new prominence in Quebec. The devastating effects of the depression on the well-being of the people of Quebec [see in the statistics and graph section of the site the following: Birth rate, 1922-1945, Marriage rate, 1922-1945, Personal income and cost of living, 1929-1939, Public debt, 1929-1939, and Unemployment of trade union workers, 1929-1939] seem to have demonstrated the accuracy of the many criticisms made by the nationalists of industrialisation, urbanisation and the type of economic world which dominated the province. The effect of these problems was to radicalise a good portion of the youths, to bring the long-standing liberal regime governing the province into discredit and, eventually, political defeat, to make the nationalists pay closer attention to social problems, to question the anti-statism that had characterised the past, as many would turn to the governments to alleviate the problems, turn to political action to achieve social and national goals. It should not be considered that all of these things occurred immediately. In the short run, it gave the ultramontane nationalists the opportunity to be more prominent than they had been in a long time, so that some of their members, such as Abbé Groulx, Philippe Hamel or Paul Gouin, became household names. However, in the longer run, a considerable transformation of nationalism in Quebec began.

The second factor that led to the rise of a different form of nationalism stemmed from the Second World War. The war finished the vast socio-economic transformations that the process of industrialisation had begun in Quebec early in the century. The Great Depression and the war put an end to the emigration of French Canadians to the United States; the end of this process served to make the nationalists focus increasingly on Quebec. The war accelerated the rural exodus in Quebec and firmly planted the economy of the province in the industrial and resource sectors. Following the war, it would be laughable to make speeches about agriculture being the way of life of the French Canadians. The social transformations taking place during the war were no less important: Quebec women received the right to vote and made a strong entrance into the labour markets, education became compulsory and far more widespread, the traditional family (large, rural, religious) was changing rapidly.

A second component connected to the war was also of significance. It demonstrated conclusively that atrocitiescould be committed in the name of ideologies in general, and of racism in particular. Already before the war, perceptive and sensitive nationalists, such as André Laurendeau and Guy Frégault, had attempted to distance Quebec nationalism from right-wing ideologies, glorification of race and anti-semitism. They were too few to really make a dent in well-entrenched ideas. But the war accelerated the process of re-evaluation of components of the old nationalism. However, it should be borne in mind that the defeat of racist ideas in Quebec, as elsewhere in the Western World, was not immediate and was extended over quite a period following the war. Esther Delisle, in Mythes, mémoire & mensonges. L'intelligentsia du Québec devant la tentation fasciste, 1939-1960, 1998, 198p. has demonstrated conclusively, although with her usual exaggerations, the persistence of right wing and racist ideas in Quebec after the war. In the post-war period, Quebec was also to have its first significant, organised anti-nationalist groups.

So, the Great Depression and the war started a process of re-evaluation of the ultramontane nationalism. What was to emerge eventually, and become the dominant form of nationalism after 1960, was a social-democratic form of nationalism. In this recent period of Quebec history, we are confronted with difficulties in interpretation. The best tool of the historian is hindsight. The passage of time has a way of focusing attention on what truly deserves it. It helps separate the mere detail from the more fundamental. We have not yet had enough time to define with great certainty the shape, and future, of the current form of nationalism in Quebec. Also, there has emerged a fair diversity in the scope of nationalist ideas and groups in this last period. Thus, it is more difficult to account for all of them and we have not attempted to do so. What we seek to define is the dominant form of nationalism at any one time. Since 1960, social-democratic nationalism has been dominant.

In analysing this form of nationalism, we will first examine its class foundations. In the introduction, it was argued that the class basis of nationalism determines, to a large extent, the nature and content of the nationalism. This was self-evident with the professional class of the pre 1840 period, as well as with the clerical class of the ultramontane period. Next we will focus on the nature of the nation, on the "we", of the social-democratic nationalism. Lastly, we will analyse the ideological and political content of this nationalism.

The best way to describe the class that has spearheaded the nationalist movement in Quebec is to call it bureaucratic. The term bureaucratic class does not perfectly describe the group. However, the phenomenal growth of the provincial government, during and after the Quiet Revolution, provided huge opportunities for the better-educated population in Quebec. Civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses and administrators were hired in large numbers from among French Canadians to operate the increasingly elaborate and complex network of state institutions in Quebec. The government of Quebec became far more involved in supporting the arts and letters in the province, creating or financing arts centres, providing bursaries or fellowships to creative people, supporting authors and book publishers, and, thus, with the advent of television, contributed to create a large artistic community more or less dependant on the public purse. As well, a third component of the bureaucratic class, is the entrepreneurial class that has been formed in Quebec since the early 1960's. What we are addressing here is not the dominant business class, a class that is internationalist in outlook and personnel, but rather the emerging French speaking business class which often needed the support of the state to find its place in the business world. In one way or the other, the nationalist class that has emerged in the last generation is connected to the government of Quebec and is dependent on its continued growth for its well being. Evidently, its loyalty is directed to the government that supports it, and is itself, the creation of this class. Thus, we should not be surprised that there is such a great focus on Quebec by the current nationalists.

If the class that supports nationalism is different, so is the nature of the nation, of the "we". As, the "canadien" nationalism of the Patriotes became "French Canadian" nationalism in the 1840's, the "French Canadian" nationalism of the ultramontane period became the "Québécois" nationalism from the 1960's. Each of these seeming subtle changes of nomenclature reflects, in fact, a huge alteration in the nature of the nation. In shedding the strongly ethnic components that defined the earlier nationalism, including its racist elements, the new cement of the nationalism became primarily the territorial element, focused on Quebec. The territorial element had not been important in the earlier nationalism, as the nation having been defined as French Canadian, and French Canadians having been scattered all across the continent, then it could not have a precise territorial element. This had been a problem for the separatists of that period, as separatism can hardly be achieved if there is not a precise territorial content. The separatists had resolved this by either calling the proposed independent French Canadian state something like Laurentie, a sort of borderless and, thus, impossible state, or else, as in the case of Groulx, their independent state was only really a "state of mind". Now, with the new nationalism, all the people of Quebec became part of the nation. None were excluded and, as the nation contained various elements, such as francophones, anglophones, allophones and various native groups, it was thus diverse and in need of unifying components. Aside from the territorial component, the unifying component of the Quebec nation was the French language, a language eventually understood by about 94% of the population of the province. The goal of the preservation, development and future state of the nation was also, presumably, a unifying component.

The territorial form of nationalism was evidently more opened to those within the nation who were newcomers. The attitude of the social-democratic nationalists to immigrants was in sharp contrast with that which the earlier nationalists had displayed. This change was essential, as immigrants increasingly made a contribution to the demographic weight of Quebec, and without them the province would begin to decline. While the attitude to immigrants improved markedly, old habits sometimes surfaced and immigrants have complained, at times, that they did not feel as accepted as they should be by the nationalists. Many have claimed that they feel excluded still, as the goals of the nationalists are inevitably primarily focused on the desires of francophones [promotion of the French language, independence]. The incident of the referendum night of 1995, lost narrowly by the nationalists, when the Premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, blamed this loss on "money and ethnic votes" is raised as an example of lingering intolerance of "les autres" among the nationalists. Yet, it should be remembered that the Premier was forced to resign after he made this disparaging, and inaccurate, comment because such intolerant views have now become not only unacceptable to the population of Quebec in general, but to nationalists as well. To define the nation in ethnic terms are still a reflex that is found among the new nationalists, but it is also an attitude that has become unacceptable and inappropriate. The anti-nationalists are prone to play-up the instances of ethnic nationalism, and the nationalists provide them with sufficient ammunitions from time to time. To the student of Quebec nationalism, it is clear that the evolution of the recent past toward a more open form of nationalism is unmistakable; tolerance has become part of the universe of the nationalists. Yet, it is also clear that the nationalists of Quebec have not embraced multiculturalism as has been done in English Canada since the late 1960's.

An inevitable corollary of territorial nationalism, of focusing the nation on Quebec, was that the nationalists ceased to see the nation as a minority nation. If the nation was the Quebec nation, then the Québécois were a majority nation. If it was a majority nation, it was likely to act as if the social, economical and political institutions of Quebec were an extension of its will, and would be the instruments for its advancement and security. It would also alter the relationship that existed between the Quebec nation and the rest of the people of Canada, deemed also to form a nation, in the cosmology of the social-democratic nationalists. Before 1960, the relationship that existed between the French Canadian nation, a minority nation, with the rest of the country or the continent, constituting together a majority, was that of a threatened and persecuted minority. When the will of the two nations clashed, the minority nation had to give way. This nurtured a sense of unfairness but also the sense of threat to the nation; this sense of threat was important for the survival and the cohesion of the French Canadian nation. Now, the clashes would be between two majorities with no way to resolve them. The implications for the continuance of Canada were far greater than before.

What were the main ideological elements of the new nationalism and how can it be described as social-democratic? To what extent was it different from the earlier nationalism?

An important element of the new nationalism was its opposition to several components of ultramontane nationalism. This aspect was particularly contributed by a group of academics that became very vocal through the 1950's; they were known as the neo-nationalists. They wrote in Le Devoir, l'Action nationale, Relations and railed continuously at the content of the earlier nationalism. They attacked agriculturalism, messianism and anti-statism; indeed, it was in this period that Brunet wrote his famous essay defining these "myths", and condemning them at the same time. They discounted much of the historical interpretation of their predecessors, arguing instead for a more scientific base to the knowledge of the past, and propounding, in the process, a rather pessimistic interpretation of history. Gone were the Catholic virtues of the people, the focus on religion was replaced by socio-economic interpretations instead; the Conquest was emphasised as the cardinal event in Quebec history. They also rejected much of the three pillars of survival. The faith and the institutions were downplayed and replaced by language. The sense that survival had somehow been miraculous was ridiculed; sociological factors now explained the survival of French Canada. Much of this greatly upset the high priest of the ultramontane nationalist period, Abbé Groulx. He could not understand how these writers could so turn their backs on their predecessors, reject their values, and still claim, in the process, to be nationalists! This was especially the case for the all-important aspect of Catholicism. The neo-nationalists were defining the nation in secular terms. Meanwhile, the anti-nationalists were also strongly condemning clericalism in Quebec. When Groulx died, in 1967, Claude Ryan wrote that he was "the spiritual father" of modern Quebec. A more inaccurate statement could hardly have been made! The ultramontane nationalists interpreted the work of the new nationalists as attempting to demolish what they had erected, and what they believed in. On the whole, they were not incorrect. [On the neo-nationalists, consult Michael D. Behiels, Prelude to Quebec's Quiet Revolution. Liberalism Versus Neo-Nationalism, 1945-1960, McGill-Queen's, 1985, 366p.]

Another component of the new nationalism was statism. Between 1945 and 1960, the nationalists discovered the state. This was in sharp contrast with the nationalism of the earlier period. We should not be surprised that a bureaucratic class discovered the state, and what one could do when one controlled a state! These views were put into practice at the time of the Quiet Revolution and an elaborate state system was set up [see at the site: Quiet Revolution, and Jean Lesage and the Quiet Revolution]. The primary argument in favour of state intervention that was made was that the state was the only lever of development that was controlled by the nation, and that it was the only effective way that the long standing economic inferiority of the French Canadians, individually or collectively, would ever be removed. Thus, these nationalists sought to use the state more frequently, and as the Quebec state was limited in its scope of activities by the practices of the federal government, and by the constitutional stipulations that govern the provincial governments in Canada, the nationalists sought to extend the powers of the government of Quebec. Sometimes, this put the government of Quebec on a course of confrontation with the federal government. Thus, while confrontation with the federal government seemed to follow the same path as before, in reality it did not. Previously the nationalists clashed with the federal government in order to defend provincial autonomy, to safeguard the characteristics of the nation, the pillars of survival. Now the nationalists clashed with the federal government to extend the powers of the provincial government, and obtain a greater share of the taxes collected in the province, so that the state in Quebec would be more active.

With the Citélibristes, the nationalists shared the desire to modernise Quebec, to secularise it, and to democratise its political processes. All these objectives are quite apparent in the achievements of the government of Jean Lesage during the Quiet Revolution, as well as in the first term of office of René Lévesque's Parti Québécois, between 1976 and 1981. In the 1950's, Le Devoir conducted many campaigns, and was at the forefront of the battle against the corruption of the Duplessis government. The electoral laws eventually enacted in Quebec were among the most democratic to be found anywhere in the world.

Another element of the new nationalism that developed after 1945, an element so important that it serves to identify these nationalists as "social-democratic" nationalists, was the incorporation of "social" issues as part of their system of thought. A careful reading of the works of the ultramontane nationalists of the earlier period shows that they paid attention to socio-economic issues. But their focus on these issues was based primarily on their wish to see Catholic social doctrines applied as solutions, and, by so doing, to prevent solutions from being imported from other systems of thought. In other words, their social concern was rooted in their desire to maintain unaltered the pillar of Catholicism. They had also viewed social problems primarily as national problems. Social and economic issues were intimately related to the inferior economic situation of French Canadians. In their estimation, French Canada constituted a vast dominated class whose problems needed to be confronted through the angle of the nation. For them, to have recognised the existence of classes within French Canada, would have been to divide the nation. The solutions they proposed to these socio-economic problems, while not intrinsically bad in themselves, usually hinged on "national" components: French Canada needed "national" Catholic labour unions, co-operatives would be reserved only for the members of the nation [example: the Caisses Populaires], "national" education, etc. The first major breakdown in this junction of social and national issues occurred in the 1930's. By a decision of the Canadian episcopate, the Catholic [and social] elements of various organisations, such as in the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne, a venerable nationalist youth group that was founded in 1904, were divorced from the "national" components. Henceforth, the Catholic organisations would only pursue Catholic goals. To clerico-nationalists, such as Groulx, this was a tragedy, as national and Catholic goals had been so profoundly enmeshed. The controversy that broke out on this point was resolved in favour of restricting Catholic organisations to Catholic, and by extension, social goals. This decision was to contribute, eventually, in lessening the influence of Groulx and, by contrast, in increasing that of Père Georges-Henri Lévesque, founder of the Social Science school at Laval University [On this controversy, see Giselle Huot, "La correspondance Georges-Henri Lévesque-Lionel Groulx (1934-1937)", in Les Cahiers d'histoire du Québec au XX siècle,(summer 1994): 85-118]

Thus, from the 1930's, social problems started to be seen as separate from national problems. The existence of independent social critics served to focus the nationalists in a more realistic way on social problems. Among the new nationalists that appeared on the scene at the time, there began a slow, but unmistakable integration of social ideas in their system of thought. This is noticeable among some of the members of the Bloc Populaire, and would become very evident with the Asbestos strike in 1949. In general, the inspiration for the new social thought of the nationalists, as for the Citélibristes, came from the French Catholic left of Emmanuel Mounier, personnalisme, and the journal Esprit. [See Peter Taaffe, "The Influence of the French Catholic Left on Quebec, 1945-1955", in The Register, Vol. 4 (1983): 53-72]

In the 1960's and 1970's, the social ideas of the nationalists became increasingly radicalised and shifted progressively into socialism or Marxism. Scores of publications and small groups reflected this new tendency and the social-democratic nationalists were by-passed on the left by the Marxist nationalists. Still, the main impact of the appearance of these groups was to help focus the nationalists on strictly social and economic questions. Eventually, even in the Parti Québécois, it would not be rare to see discussed the need for the nation to become independent because it would be the best means to resolve socio-economic issues. The party liked to project a modernist, progressive, and socially active image; it never disliked having the epithet of social democrat applied to it.

Aside from the elements already raised, and superseding them in importance, and with an impact that is far reaching, there has been the phenomenal growth of the separatist movement, or of the independence movement as the nationalists like to call it. It is not my purpose here to trace the history, and the reasons for, the growth of the separatist movement in recent Quebec history; this will be done somewhere else on the site eventually.

From the time of the Union Act, where the issue of the survival of the nation became the existential question in Quebec, two attitudes developed: one stressed that survival would be achieved by co-operating with English Canadians, in a common country, to achieve common goals, this we call the federalist attitude, while the other emphasised the need to create a separate state, dedicated to the preservation of the nation, this we call the separatist attitude. In the ultramontane period, the nationalists were divided between the two attitudes, although the federalist attitude was evidently the more popular one. It should also be remembered that the lack of a precise territorial element for the nation, in the mind of the ultramontane nationalists, made separatism almost impossible to achieve in practice in the period before 1960. Since the 1960's, there have been considerable changes on this point.

Several aspects of the new nationalism, and other circumstances, brought a phenomenal rise of separatism since the 1960's, to the extent that it is dominant among the nationalists, and supported very strongly among francophones [see my chart of nationalist support also on this site]. The new nationalism focused on Quebec, and on the growth of importance of its state; thus, it possessed the territorial element requisite to apply separatism. It also detached itself from the notion of a minority nation, and thus from the various minorities across the country. The existence of minorities is not a reason not to achieve independence any more as would have been the case before. The new nationalism has also shifted the emphasis from mere "survival" to the notion of "development" of the nation; it has been deemed that more powers to Quebec are necessary to achieve this development. It is also apparent that Canada has not been able to absorb in an effective and acceptable manner the new nationalism in Quebec; thus the federal government has stayed away from the more collective solutions, such as special status for Quebec, that might have been required to resolve the problem. As a consequence, successive federal governments have evidently made mistakes, and the failures caused by these mistakes have fuelled the separatist side. The separatists have also been able to find popular and charismatic leaders, such as René Lévesque or Lucien Bouchard, who have very effectively attracted support to the separatist cause. Lastly, the growth of the separatist movement was fuelled by the example of widespread decolonisation achieved elsewhere in the world in the 1960's, or the break-up of multi-national states in the 1990's.


Thus, it is apparent that nationalism has been a major force in Quebec history. First, the British colonial links, and later the issue of the survival and development of the nation, have fuelled nationalism in Quebec. It is also clear that, properly speaking, there is no such thing as Quebec nationalism. In fact, there have been various forms of nationalism, each corresponding to a different definition of the nation. In this respect, we have distinguished three main forms. The first was the "Canadien" nationalism dominant before 1840. This form of nationalism was especially progressive, tolerant and inclusive. It was also very popular. The changes that occurred at the time of the Rebellions of 1837-1838, and of the Union Act, rapidly led to the rise of ultramontane nationalism (clerico-nationalisme). The nature of the nation changed significantly, it became the French Canadian nation. This nation was a minority nation, and in the nationalist universe, it was confronted with considerable threats. It centred on the defence of the three pillars of survival, primarily on Catholicism. The nation was in a miserable state and the nationalists offered various solutions for curing the many ills that afflicted it. These nationalists were not very successful, frequently preached in the desert, and often had to repeat the same thing; they were confronted with the existential question as to how best to assure the survival of the nation. To a large extent they were prepared to stay in Canada. As Quebec evolved, and increasingly industrialised and urbanised, the solutions proposed by the ultramontane nationalists were opposed and a new form of nationalism emerged: the Québécois nationalism. The nation was now focused on Quebec and was a majority nation. Many of the ideas of the past were discarded. The new nationalism was secular, more tolerant and open, on the left, with considerable social preoccupations. It challenged Canada in ways more serious than anything done previously. It was primarily separatist and received increasing support among francophones, although it made very little inroads among anglophones and allophones and was strenuously opposed by both groups.

Thus, at any one time, there was a dominant form of nationalism in Quebec. This nationalism was frequently in reaction to the earlier nationalism. However, it should not be deduced that earlier forms of nationalism and attitudes did not survive to compete with the dominant form. Liberal forms of nationalism continued in the XIXth century in l'Institut Canadien and in the Rouge party. Elements of it evidently influenced Henri Bourassa. Ultramontane nationalism was rapidly discarded from the 1960's onward. However some of the views of these nationalists continued to persist, especially in their vision of the others as threatening, and some intolerant reflexes.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College