Henri Bourassa – Between La Fête Nationale and Canada Day

Henri-Bourassa. Orange Line, opened 1966.

When Mark Twain visited Montreal he famously remarked that ‘This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window’. The rest of his anecdote is less well known. He was told that a new church was going to be built. Where would the space be found he wondered. ‘We will build it on top of another church and use an elevator,’ came the reply.

For a city as irreverent and as secular as Montreal, his story is prescient. Churches abound and their bells ring out each Sunday noon. It is unclear to me who goes. The church on Prince Arthur is now condos, possibly with an elevator, La Cathedral is better known as skyscrapper with a shopping mall beneath. Oh yes, there may be an illuminated cross on the mountain, but that is more a symbol of Montreal’s devotion to itself than the Christian faith.

Montreal was founded as a religious city, the Ville Marie of Jeanne Mance. Religious fervour may have diminished with the commercial interests of the fur trade, but the power of the Catholic Church prevailed through to the middle of the twentieth century. In the sixties, the Quiet Revolution changed all that and much else. Schools and healthcare were brought under the control of the provincial government. Energy production was nationalized as Hydro-Quebec became one of many symbols of national solidarity.

In short, Quebec replaced the Church as the altar of collective worship and of social support. At all levels of society the new language of worship was French. Much of the anglophone business and government elite were replaced by French speakers while on the ground street names were changed. Few institutions of reverence survived the change.The result was a change so total that the old way of life seems incomprehensible and that history seems to begin in 1967. When it intrudes there is a moment of confusion as when my sixty year-old hairdresser casually drops Church Street into his French discourse. Seeing that he has lost me, he explains ‘de l’Eglise’, the street literally around the corner from his shop, and only then do I think ‘Oh yes, things were different’

Of the institutions that did survive the newspaper, Le Devoir, is perhaps the most august. Founded in 1910 by Henri Bourassa, the politician, journalist and scion of the Papineau family, Le Devoir is the paper of choice of the Quebec intelligentsia. So precisely worked out are its editorial positions that medieval theology can look sloppy in comparison, and a Saturday morning spent in its company is to feel that one has received a telegram from God.

Politically liberal, socially progressive and often in favour of the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada, Le Devoir played a crucial role in bringing down the government of Maurice Duplessis in the 1950s and paved the way for the Quiet Revolution. For all this, Bourassa himself was a staunch federalist who served in the Laurier government, an arch-conservative who opposed female suffrage, and a quixotic fighter of urbanization who saw Canada as an agricultural nation in which Montreal, Toronto and Winnepeg were ‘monstrous tumours’.

A firm believer that the French language and the Catholic Church were essential elements of Canadian identity, when the number of French-speaking students in Manitoba was so diminished as to make separate schools unviable, it was Bourassa who Laurier called on to resolve the question. Unhappy with what emerged as the only workable solution, Bourassa is thought to have been instrumental in gaining its approval from the Vatican.

In his vision of Canada, there was no room for the racist Quebecois nationalism of Lionel Groulx, but equally there was little scope for Canada as a servant to Britain’s imperial ambitions. So strong was this feeling that he resigned his position in the Laurier government when Canadian troops were sent to support Britain in the Boer War. From then on Bourassa, though retaining his seat in parliament as an independent, found his mission in articulating a devout, bilingual Canada saved from separation or annexation by the United States by unity within the British Empire.

Le Devoir was Bourassa’s ultimate tool in spreading his vision in all its complexity. He set it out in his editorial of 26 July 1910. Taking in Canadian history from the Battle of Quebec through to the question of French language education as well as the arguments of his opponents, it is as fragile as the church window that Twain might so easily have smashed.

It is a century and a half since Canada became British territory, first by conquest and then by the treaties that followed.

Thirteen years after the transfer, it only remained under British power by the freewill of French Canadians, faithful to their given oath.

When Arnold and Montgomery aimed Anglo-Saxon canons beneath the walls of Quebec [in the first Revolutionary War of 1775], Sir Guy Carleton [the governor-general] issued a call to arms to the city’s inhabitants.

The French Canadians responded en masse to the call and split their blood to defend the British flag against the English protestants of his Majesty [George IV].

The few English residents who had settled in the city since the conquest left the town and cautiously waited on the peaceful banks of the Ile d’Orléans not knowing if they would continue to cry “Long live the King” or “Long live the Revolution”

When Montgomery was killed and the siege lifted, they returned to the city, resuming their commerce, returning to a loyalty all the more fierce than had the American bullets not begun.

Little by little, these ardent patriots took hold of all the lucrative functions – the magistracy, the civil government, administration – and the governors of the colony made them their intimate advisors. How, indeed, to entrust the fate of the country to foreigners, to Aliens, good enough to offer their breasts to the bullets of the Anglo-Saxon rebels?

Around 1800 to 1810, those who were awkward, like Panet and Bédard, who believed that they had acquired the right to speak for their compatriots [in the largely advisory Legislative Assembly], were imprisoned.*

In 1812, the doors of the prisons were opened and a few commissions of Justice of the Peace and Militia Captaincies were distributed among the “foreigners” to further a new defence of the British flag against the attacks of their anglo-saxon cousins in the United States.

The invasion was repelled and the oligarchy resumed its rights.

The Canadiens naively believed that half a century of loyalty, twice spilling their blood for the Crown, gave them the right to claim the equality of the two races before the law.

The gallows and exile made them understand their error.

And the sons of the fugitives of 1776 [British loyalists who left the new United States for Canada] held the cord which strangled the descendants of the volunteers of 1776 and 1812.

The British parliament united the two Canadas, making Lower Canada [modern Quebec] pay for the bankruptcy of the superior province [modern Ontario] and gave the two provinces equal representation, even though the population of the French province was significantly higher than that of the English colony.

When the proportions were reversed, the inhabitants of Upper Canada noisily clamoured and obtained the rigourous application of the principle of proportional representation which they had resisted when it was not to their advantage.

The remarkable statesmen who assured Confederation gave as its basis three great principles: the autonomy of Canada in the Empire, the autonomy of the provinces in the confederation, and the protection of minorities – the English Protestants in Quebec and the French Catholics in the English provinces.

This regime, after all, has not worked too badly. But history and truth force us to see that none of the violations of this triple principle have been committed by the province of Quebec or by French-Canadians.

It is not bitterness that inspires these refections and historical reminisceneces. There is no good in purposely creating that sentiment in the souls of my readers.

My only object is to make understood to all those, English, French or Irish, who would forget that Canada only remains English soil because of the constant loyalty of French Canadians. And this loyalty merits as much recognition as that brilliantly displayed in the time when French Canadians held in their hands the exit of the British Crown from Canada, and when, for their part, the official representatives of Great Britain treated them like pariahs.

Without this loyalty, doubly commendable, England would not hold an inch of land in America.

Far from my thinking is the conclusion that French Canadians have acquired the right to dictate their will to the British Crown or the anglophone majority of Canada.

No, Canada is not and must not be French, no more than it is nor must be English.

By its political constitution, its ethnic composition, and by natural right, Canada is an Anglo-French confederation, the product of the fecund union of two great and noble races. It must remain, under the aegis of the English Crown, the inheritance of a bilingual people.

Neither of these two races has the right to dominate the other, to impose, whether in the country’s internal government or in regard to the motherland, a policy contrary to the tradition and common interests of confederation.

These essential truths are understood by farsighted Anglo-Canadians. Despite his prejudices, which I combat in public and in private – at the same time [the 1890s] that Messrs Laurier, Lemieux and their friends joined with Sproule and Hughes to abolish separate schools and the French language in half of Canada [in the Manitoba Schools Question] – despite his prejudices, Mr Goldwyn Smith [the academic, reformer of the University of Toronto and anti-Semite] did not cease to recognize that Canada is not an Anglo-Saxon country.

Mr Leacock, the most ardent and the most logical of Canadian imperialists, brilliantly proclaimed that no imperial problem could be resolved without the participation and support of French Canadians. The eminent professor at McGill was not afraid to add that, even to achieve their ideal, Anglo-Canadians must not set out to dominate French-Canadians nor absorb them by gradual fusion.

He considers the presence and the peaceful rivalry of the two races, the two ways of thinking, one of the most precious advantages of Canada.

All tentative domination or absorption will only undermine the force of national feeling in French Canadians. The day when they no longer feel in themselves, not only in the province of Quebec but in all included in the Canadian confederation, when they no longer see in the constitution, in the laws and mores of Canada, the mark of its double origin, they will cease to put the nation’s institutions above those of the United States.

All those who, in the State or in the Church, enforce the assimilation of French-Canadians by language, intellectual formation, or way of life, are the worst enemies of the peace, the grandeur and above all the unity of the Canadian people.

* There seem to be some errors here: Bédard was born in 1799 and was not a politician at the age of 11. Nor does his biography indicate that he was imprisoned. Nevertheless, he was instrumental in the 92 Resolutions, presented to the governor general by the Assembly under the leadership of Papineau in 1834. These swore allegiance to the British crown but demanded more powers for the Assembly and that Canadiens be allowed to serve in the government. British refusal to acknowledge these demands was a contributing factor to the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837-38. During this period, Panet and Bédard, both judges, were suspended for assenting to heabus corpus when this right had been denied.

UPDATE – 18 November 2012: Thanks to Marian Scott, I am able to straighten out some confusion about the Bédard to whom Bourassa is referring. In short, the pairing of Bédard and Panet with the date 1810 is confusing and suggests Bourassa has muddled his Bédards.

In 1810 Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, the leader of the Parti Canadien (later Parti Patriote) and founder of the Le Canadien newspaper (later  Le Patriote), was arrested on the orders of Governor Craig. While seeing the British as a guarantor of freedoms and the constitution of Lower Canada, including the French language and the Civil Code, he sought more power for the assembly at the expense of the Governor. Alarmed by these demands in the context of both the Napoleonic Wars and the republicanism of the United States, Craig took steps to have Bédard silenced.

In 1838 Bédard’s son, Elzéar, was suspended with his fellow judge Philippe Panet for assenting to habeas corpus when that right had been suspended by the Special Council set up following the Lower Canada Rebellion. Bédard fils played a significant role in the events leading up to the Rebellion by helping write the 92 Resolutions. These  developed the ideas of Bédard pére and were presented by Papineau to the legislative assembly in 1836 before he became leader of the Patriotes in the Rebellion later that year.

Consulted for this post

Bélanger, Réal. ‘Bourassa, Henri’. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto and Université Laval. 2000.Web.

Bourassa, Henri. Fais ce que dois: 60 éditoriaux pour comprendre Le Devoir sous Henri Bourassa (1910 – 1932) Ed. Pierre Anctil. Quebec: Éditions Septentrion, 2010.

Oulette, Fernand. ‘Bédard, Pierre-Stanislas’.Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto and Université Laval. 2000.Web.

Vachon, Claude. ‘Bédard, Elézar’. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto and Université Laval. 2000.Web.

Vachon, Claude. ‘Panet, Phillippe’. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto and Université Laval. 2000. Web. 

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