At Lionel Groulx, the Delirium of the Nation

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

Reading Esther Delisle’s account against the French Canadian nationalist and anti-semite, Lionel Groulx, the case against him seems overwhelming. But Groulx was neither the first anti-semite nor the first person to create a national myth. In the hardships of the Depression, Groulx was hardly in original looking for scapegoats, and finding them. As Delisle, herself notes, the higher entry requirements and quotas that applied to Jewish students at McGill and a ban at the Montreal Stock Exchange are testament to the attitudes of Quebec’s English speakers. English Canada was not immune to anti-semitism: the nineteenth-century journalist and historian, Goldwyn Smith, advocated the union of Canada with the United States and spoke of Jews as dangerous parasites. He influenced William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister from 1935 to 1948 and whose immigration polices amounted to a refusal to admit Jewish refugees from Germany during the Second World War.

In other respects Groulx was not wrong: English speakers, Canadian, American, British, were considerably wealthier than their French-speaking neighbours. From Confederation onwards foreign money poured into Canada, much of it to and from the  English speakers who made their home on the south side of Mount Royal in the area now called the Golden Square Mile. In this highly concentrated area, according to one oft-cited figure, its 25,000 residents controlled seventy per cent of Canada’s wealth. But this was not a conspiracy, Jewish or otherwise. It was just business, and Groulx’s mistake was to think that nostalgia for the seigneurial deference of the habitant tenant farmer could compete economically with rapidly industrializing capitalism. The mistake of business and government was to think that grotesque inequality of the era would not unleash equally grotesque hatreds.

In 1967, the year of his death, Groulx was invited by his former student, Mayor Jean Drapeau to the opening of Expo’ 67. Defiantly urban, the Expo was a celebration of modernity and common humanity, everything Groulx had stood against.  Groulx’s vision  continued on the fringes of Quebec culture with the Phalange, promising an enlarged and ethnically pure Quebec, but it was the Marxist Féderation de la liberation du Québec that was the main channel of extreme French nationalism. By then, André Laureandeau had denounced Jeune-Canada and his earlier anti-semitism and became a leading intellectual in the Quiet Revolution, the events which saw Quebec become increasingly secular and nationalize its energy industry. In the pages of Le Devoir he now targeted corruption in French Canada, famously attacking the abuses of the Duplessis government as those of a puppet colonial regime.

Yet while one commentator suggested that Groulx had simply lived too long, the power of his myth of the French Canadian nation can be judged by the reaction to Delisle’s 1992 thesis. Indeed, for some Groulx was identical with Quebec and the national myth he espoused.

If they succeed in beating Groulx, in destroying the Myth, then Quebec is finished. They want to wipe it out, like they razed the French college of Sudbury [in Ontario, succeeded by Collége Boréal] … forgetting to place him in another era when the language was used differently. Groulx was much more harsh in his descriptions of the Québecois themselves than he was with regard to the Jews. Are we then to suppose that he was anti-Québecois?

– Jean Éthier-Blais, “Regard sur une époque révolue”, Le Devoir, 28 March 1992.

On the other side, Montreal’s pre-emenient English writer of the time, Mordecai Richler praised Delisle’s work in O! Canada! O! Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, and took the view that “From the beginning, French-Canadian nationalism has been badly tainted by racism”. To which one may ask, which nationalism hasn’t?

Reviewing the two books in the Literary Review of Canada, Gary Caldwell, argued that Delisle’s book had explicitly ignored the context of Groulx’s times, and so omits English-speaking anti-semitism, the complexities of Montreal’s economic history as well as its ever fractious but largely peaceful social relations; that while writers in Le Devoir and L’Action nationale called for deportations, no such call is made  by Groulx himself, whose published writings yields only two anti-semitic remarks which hardly amounts to a decade long “delirium”.

Yet there is something equally disingenuous about Caldwell’s own point: eager to highlight that under the pseudonym, Jacques Brassier, Groulx stated that “Antisemitism is not only an un-Christian solution; it is a negative and stupid solution”, Caldwell ignores the instruction Groulx gives to French Canadians to shop at home and the hopeful prediction that:

… in six months, a year, the Jewish problem will be resolved, not only in Montreal, but from one end to the province to the other. The only Jews who will remain will be those who can earn a living among themselves. The rest will have decamped, will be forcibly dispersed to find their living in occupations other than commerce.

– Lionel Groulx (writing as Jacques Brassier), “Pour qu’on vive,” L’action nationale, April 1933.

Perhaps Groulx is guilty of nothing more and nothing less than the original sin of any nation. The impulse to define always sets limits and so always will exclude. The dangers of that impulse were learned in the economic crisis of the 1930s in across Europe and North America, and in that Groulx is just another example we forget at our peril.

Twenty years on, his influence is much diminished, yet the contradictions of the fantasy persist. In Québec City, members of the officially secular Assemblé nationale debate the contradiction of the primacy of the French language and a charter of rights prohibiting all forms of discrimination under both a crucifix and the crest of the English monarch. Secular, French-speaking, enriched by its diversity and egalitarian, these are the values every would be immigrant must learn before receiving the Certificat de sélection du Québec. It is an irony then that Quebecers, new and old, celebrate their Fête nationale on the Feast Day of Saint Jean Baptiste, as was called for in L’Action nationale, wildly as it was not.

It is in Montreal, where most immigrants settle and there is a long history of English, these contradictions often come to a head. It is also where, beneath a gigantic illuminated cross which practically demands irreverence from a city known for its irreverence, they daily they find their solution. Yet even in the heart of the city, the bucolic idyll is hard to resist and from the stands of Jean Talon and Atwater markets, groaning with produce fait au Quebec, to the store cupboard staple of bright yellow tins of pea and ham soup, the  mythic habitant is never far away.

Lionel Groulx writing as Jacques Brassier in L'Action nationale, April 1933. The full issue can be accessed via the BAnQ's website.
Lionel Groulx writing as Jacques Brassier in L’Action nationale, April 1933. The full issue can be accessed via the BAnQ’s website.

Consulted for this post

Irving M. Abella and Harold Troper. None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933 to 1948. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.)

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.)

Jean Claude Marson. Montréal en evolution. (Montreal: Fides, 1974)

André Laurendeau, “Maurice Duplessis à l’Assemblée nationale: la théorie du roi nègre”, Le Devoir. (18 November 1958).

Gary Caldwell, “The Sins of the Abbé Groulx,” The Literary Review of Canada (July–August 1994) 3.7: 17-23.

Lionel Groulx (writing as Jacques Brassier), “Pour qu’on vive,” L’action nationale (April 1933) 238-47.

Marie-Pier Luneau, Lionel Groulx: le mythe du berger (Montreal: Leméac Éditeur, 2003)

Brian Upton, “Watch Kept on Secret Society,” Montreal Star (21 September 1963)

Anatole Vanier, “La Saint-Jean-Baptiste”, L’action nationale (May 1933), 257-58.

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