Nation avant nationalisme

  • Yvan Lamonde, Howard Scott (Translator) and Phyllis Aronoff (Translator)
    The Social History of Ideas in Quebec, 1760-1896. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andre Furlani

Yvan Lamonde is probably best known to English readers as a co-editor of the magisterial History of the Book in Canada, and the chief distinction of The Social History of Ideas in Quebec, 1760-1896 is its superbly close attention to print culture after the Conquest. Lamonde provides, above all, an engrossing history of the advent of parliamentary institutions and the print vehicles for participation in them. As popular government began to emerge following the defeat of l’ancien régime, so too did another novelty, public opinion. Quoting extensively from the archive he has done so much to curate (e.g. in Le rouge et le bleu, compiled with Claude Corbo), Lamonde confirms that old ideas have many young offspring yet in Quebec society.

The Treaty of Paris had guaranteed freedom of worship and the 1791 Constitution authorized what soon became a bilingual House of Assembly elected by a broad, although by no means universal, suffrage. The British political system secured the loyalty of a population that had endured the disenfranchisement of absolute monarchy. Les Canadiens had already rebuffed the American revolutionaries and in 1812 would war against the U.S. army and, more controversially, would resist their own revolutionary patriotes in 1837. As in Upper Canada, it was zeal for “English liberties” that inspired revolt when the metropolis balked at making the appointed Governor responsible to the elected House, but even this was insufficient to mobilize a large constituency against the Crown. “There is no escaping the fact,” Lamonde writes, “that the French Canadians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were culturally and politically Franco-British Catholics living in America.”

With the Assembly came a free press that, while often persecuted, became the chief instrument to harass the prerogatives of the unelected English Legislative and Executive Councils. Although established initially by the anglophone merchant bourgeoisie at a time when Montreal was a majority English-speaking city, gazettes, voluntary societies, museums, organized sports, subscription and circulating libraries proliferated among francophones from the 1840s on. The Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste, commemorating the patron saint, is very much still active, counting among its officers the current chief of le Bloc québécois.

Lamonde poignantly documents the persecuted yet pugnacious Quebec career of liberalism, checked by British parliamentary Tories, ancien régime seigneurs, and the Roman Catholic bishops. The early journal L’Avenir promoted sovereignty of the people, an elected Senate (Legislative Council), freedom of conscience and of the press, for which outrages Bishop Ignace Bourget forbade parish priests to absolve the journal’s readers.

The “Declaration of Independence” penned by Robert Nelson among the exiled Patriotes, deemed incendiary in 1838, proposed equality of all persons, including aboriginals, abolition of seigneurial rights and customary law, the repossession of all public lands, separation of church and state, abolition of tithes and freedom of conscience, secret ballots, and bilingualism in all public affairs. For this the Church harried the rebels while Bishop Lartigue refused burial in Catholic cemeteries of any patriote who died with a gun in his hands.

Church intervention in State affairs thus long remained doctrinal in Quebec, where not until 1875 did a law penalize “undue influence” of clergy. Having demonstrated its loyalty during the Rebellion, the Church was rewarded with the legal recognition (i.e. the right to possess goods without risk of confiscation) it had surrendered in 1791. In 1841 it was able to take control of education. The metropolis was content to cede social authority to the Quebec clergy in exchange for its servility to the Crown, ironically leaving the Quebec bishops to fancy that they were free now to apply the ultramontaine doctrine par excellence of making the State subservient to the Church. In reality, of course, the Church was in the State’s pocket, free only to preach and teach the alliance of throne and altar and to denigrate popular sovereignty as a “sophism.” Meanwhile, the liberal professions had to organize schools outside the university in the absence of a French institution in Montreal.

Although the patriotes now belong to an official mythology of nationalist aspiration, Papineau and his confederates were exponents of pro-Britishism, seeing the Conquest as a transition from absolutist violence to the rule of law and justice. Even as he opposed the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1848, Papineau wanted a democracy rather than an ethnic enclave. He boasted that Lower Canada was “the first of all the English colonies to pass a naturalization law applicable to all men, without distinction of religion or country of birth.” Lord Durham’s report trivialized a political conflict as a “contest of races” in order to obscure the democratic objectives of the reformers.

The Union of Upper and Lower Canada and a generation later Confederation, were vindicated with majorities for the Conservative parties in Quebec that had endorsed them. Eventually Sir Wilfred Laurier was able to become the first French Prime Minister of Canada (his mother was Scottish) by forging a moderate liberalism that was not anticlerical. Laurier insisted that Quebec modelled its liberalism not on revolutionary Jacobins but on British Members of Parliament tabling reforms by constitutional means.

Between the Union and Confederation a francophone “spirit of union,” Lamonde argues, “reached a sort of apotheosis in the commercial union of a market economy involving the exchange not only of goods, but also of information and ideas” (372). This spirit was buttressed by associations that consolidated a liberal civic alternative to ultramontaine society through public lectures, publications, and their libraries. The library of the most important association, the Institut canadien de Montréal, circulated many books on the Index, especially fiction..

Reviewing the catalogues of early nineteenth century bookstores and the records of lending libraries, Lamonde notes the emerging popularity in the 1840s of Romantic fiction extolling nature, primitivism, and the exotic and newspaper serials, by e.g. Balzac, Hugo, and Dumas. Although France was vilified as impious and regicidal, its novelists, and the Catholic Romanticism of Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity, exerted a great influence. The Quebec novel meanwhile arose painfully in the face of clerical vilification and legal non-existence. Copyright was only legislated in 1832 and not applied for many years.. Québécois novelists published excerpts to raise interest from subscribers. Few were published in book form before Confederation. Poets meanwhile contributed to the politicization of print culture with partisan and patriotic verse.

One unavoidable liability of Lamonde’s emphasis on print is that, disseminated primarily by elites in the liberal professions and the clergy, ideas circulated among a small, though certainly growing, literate French population. Confident that their religious institutions were under no threat from the Crown, les Canadienscontinued throughout the period to identify themselves without contradiction as francophone Catholics and British subjects. Under a Church holding a monopoly on francophone education in the confessional school system and intractably hostile to rational inquiry, industrial training, and secular humanism, les Canadiensremained under a formidable intellectual liability. To his credit, Lamonde traces elements of dissent in non-literate society, e.g. through turns of phrase and expressions that entered the language in conjunction with political crises. During the Rebellion the peasant charivari was transformed into a political demonstration; the carré rouge student demonstrators of 2011 adopted the clanging casseroles of the pro-Patriotes to bring down the Charest government.

Although critics of the original Histoire sociale des idées au Québec rebuked an apparent “exclusion” of anglophone culture, Lamonde discusses throughout the British influences on French culture and society, noting, for instance, the importance of Daniel O’Connell’s leadership of reform in Ireland. Papineau’s supporters urged the parallel, while in Parliament O’Connell himself rallied for Lower Canada’s rights.

Like it or not, the authority of the Church established an assured basis for francophone culture, and though itself contemptuous of nationalism, incubated a national identity. It was not a patriote or a liberal but an ultramontaine journalist and novelist, Jules-Paul Tardivel, who in the final years of the century first argued the necessity of separation, based on the then-popular providentialist poppycock that les Canadiens were a Christian elect placed on earth to counter the grasping commercial materialism of Anglo-American life. His 1895 novel Pour la patrie converts religious zeal into ethnic radicalism to imagine such a Catholic republic. Yet, as Lamonde notes, two years later francophones joined fervently in the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign. Prime Minister Laurier could plausibly declare at a Jubilee in Paris: “We are loyal to the great nation that gave us life, we are loyal to the great nation that gave us liberty,” and insist that “Canada is a nation, although it is still just a colony.”

The second volume of Lamonde’s indispensible history extends to the threshold of the Quiet Revolution, and its English translation is to be eagerly awaited. Quebec certainly continues to live out its social history of ideas. When the last Parti québécois government tabled legislation to deprive religious minorities of certain enshrined civil liberties, paradoxically on the ground of a universalist secularism, Premier Pauline Marois and her minister Bernard Drainville inadvertently revived the Catholicism of Bishop Bourget, otherwise so despised by sovereignists. Religious toleration was once again a contested principle. Until the party’s defeat in the 2014 general election, veils and yarmulkes had taken the place of offending Victorian paeans to accommodation.



This review “Nation avant nationalisme” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 168-71.

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