From Lionel Groulx, The Birth of a Race

Lionel-Groulx. Green and Orange Lines. Opened 1978.
Lionel-Groulx. Green and Orange Lines. Opened 1978.

Of all the stations in the metro system, Lionel-Groulx is the most controversial. Named after the priest and historian, he dominated a strand of French Canadian intellectual culture from the 1920s to his death in 1967. To his admirers, including former students at Université de Montréal, André Laurandeau, a future editor of Le Devoir, and Jean Drapeau, who became Mayor of Montreal, he was a “shepherd,” guiding French Canadians, often unwilling, away from the evils of the city and international capitalism to an “earthly paradise free from English domination”.

To his critics, he was a fascist anti-semite who held his compatriots in contempt, guiding them only towards a Catholic dictatorship modeled on Mussolini, Dolfuss and Portugal’s Salazer, whom he cited with admiration. Understandably they might prefer to see the name of the jazz musician, Oscar Peterson, in place of Groulx’s on Montreal’s most familiar map.

Groulx’s vision of Quebec was modeled on the rural communities of the pre-revolutionary France. At first drawn from the areas of Dieppe and Rouen, the Norman founders of the colony were later supplemented with arrivals from other areas of France, notably the orphans Paris and from La Rochelle. These formed the basis of the French Canadian race and “the ethnic influences that shaped it’s soul. Those who arrived after 1700, even 1680, found the young race fully formed … its essential lines ever fixed”. The colonizers were scrupulously selected: no deformity was permitted and impotents, male or female “were unpityingly sent back to France”. Their intellectual development also did them honour: untouched by the Republican spirit of the Revolution, it is shown, by whom is not clear, that before the taking of the Bastille, “there were collective liberties, well-being, joie de vivre, and even sufficient public education”.

It was true, there had been the wars of religion, but “the good rural people recovered from the disasters soon enough” and, in any case, the militias were not instituted until 1688. Under Henry IV, the peasants enjoyed “an amiable repose”, which thanks to the good king, they savoured in “their rural cabins”. Where the nobility did not move to Paris, they remained to do good work among the people. Where they had, the people could still rely on the clergy, “the soul of French rural life and all its progress.” Yet, for all their deference, the colonizers of New France were not servile and citing earlier historians of social reform in France, Groulx  presents an image at once egalitarian and hierarchical, traditional and advanced. “‘Many were landowners, especially in Normandy, where servitude disappear first and peasants and petty nobility cultivated the land with their own hands … It was these fecund and energetic families that colonised Canada, where their descendants religiously conserved the mores we  [in France] have lost’. By the end of the Middle Ages, culture was more advanced in Normandy than in any other part of France”. Transported across the Atlantic it could only flourish. “The old Canadiens, of excellent French race, manifested all goodness in their elegant maintenance of the native nobility”.

For all its contradictions, the image of a docile, agrarian population, benevolently guided by the Catholic Church was a image popular long before Groulx. The bucolic fantasy is seen in the the writings of the politician J-C Taché, who, in 1854, wrote: “We had feudalism which is to the good, and it is probably in part due to this institution that we have chivalrous morals and the exquisite manners of our population.” Groulx quotes him approvingly, going on to remark that Voltaire would have been surprised, by the ease of habitant life which had remained agricultural and had escaped the predations of commercial interest afflicting the French peasantry. It is  seen in the writing of Louis-Joseph Papineau and of his grandson, Henri Bourassa, the politician, editor of Le Devoir and sometime mentor to Groulx. Nostalgic, sentimental, in the hands of Lionel Groulx it was a call to French Canadians shake off the political, economic, and moral lethargy of outside interests and define themselves as a nation.

In 1992 Esther Delisle, a PhD candidate at Université Laval, shattered this image by accusing Groulx and his followers in the French Canadian political and intellectual elite of anti-semitism.

Her accusations, their repercussions, and Groulx’s legacy are all stories for future posts. A suivre!

Consulted for this post

Ramsay Cook. “The Triumph and Trials of Materialism”. The Illustrated History of Canada. (Toronto: Key Porter, 2007)

Lionel Groulx, La naissance d’une race. (Montreal: La Libairie d’action canadienne-française. 1930)

Esther Delisle. The Traitor and the Jew: anti-semitism and extremist right-wing nationalism in Québec from 1929 to 1939. Trans. by Madeleine Hébert with Claire Rothman and Käthe Roth. (Montréal: Robert Davies Publishing, 1993.)

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