A joy to read: Lionel Groulx

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A joy to read: Lionel Groulx
in L'Action nationale, vol. 84, no 6, juin 1994, pp. 840-850

Translation of Un bonheur de lecture: Lionel Groulx

Lecturer invited to the third lunch-talk of L'Action indépendantiste du Québec, which, on November 22, 1993, gathered more than 130 people including Mrs. Louise Harel, Andrée Ferretti paid this vibrant homage to the work of our national historian.


Lionel Groulx, abbot, historian, professor, writer
Andrée Ferretti, indépendantiste militant, writer
I read or re-read, in a few days, more than one thousand pages of the work of our famous historian. I then rediscovered with pleasure an intellectual of an immense scope, as much for the extent of his erudition as for the innovation of his conception of history and his methods of rebuilding the past, comparable to that of the best social science thinkers and researchers of the first half of the 20th century. I moreover enjoyed the beauty of a language and a style which make the erudite work of Lionel Groulx a true literary work.

However, this joy of reading could only be, for someone like me who loves to share my enthusiasm, accompanied by the desire to see other people read this considerable author, particularly today where as much his epigones as his detractors serve him, either by magnifying him in glorifying and obsolete presentations and analysis, or by reducing him to the defamatory formulae of their vision as ignorant and malevolent essay writers.

It is important indeed, to read him today with intelligence, not to regard Lionel Groulx as a contemporary, however current his work may remain under several aspects, but as a historical figure marked by his time. His vision of the world and ours were nourished at too different sources not to be shaped by often divergent values.

We should never lose sight of the fact that Lionel Groulx was born in 1878, that at the end of the Great War (World War I), he was 36 years old, that he was thus an already accomplished man, more so as he had been remarkably precocious. However, if it is true, as the majority of the historians sustain, that the 20th century really began at the end of this war, one must admit that Lionel Groulx, until approximately 1920, was a man of the 19th century, entirely impregnated by the ultramontane ideology.

It is well-known that in French Canada the ultramontane Church imposed, at the time and since a long time, its faith, its dogmas and its ideas. Received almost universally by the French-Canadian population of all social backgrounds, its lesson and its values were indissociably tied to all the intellectual activity, an activity which was not restricted to composing with this given, but which conformed to it. The bonds of thought and this Catholicism were not, indeed, only those of belief, but those of culture and institution, with all that this comprises of monolithism in the fields of education and knowledge. Now, is it necessary to point it out, Lionel Groulx was, as of 1891, a pupil, and later a student in a seminar, trained for priesthood.

How, consequently, not to be astonished that the young abbot succeeded rather quickly, as soon as the advent of the new era, to free himself from the influence of a formation so rigorously dominant, to substantially free himself from it, without disavowing it. On the contrary, throughout his life, this man found in fidelity to the fundamental principles of his family, social and religious education, the point of support which enabled him to work out a renewed interpretation of our history. This attitude is another mark of his intelligence, since as well, there is no creative exercise of thought which is not nourished by specific cultural assets, sufficiently recognized to be exceeded without being unobtrusive. There is, for example, no nodal logic but as tributary to Aristotelian logic.

Nevertheless, not everyone becomes the hero of a distinguished intellectual adventure. How did Lionel Groulx arrive there? For my part, I am convinced that it is the love that he felt for his people which is the true framework of it. It appears obvious to me that his creative work of explanations, debates and not yet exhausted engagements, where an intelligence sensitive to our history is constantly present, is but another face of his luminous love for his "small people". I admire that during the 70 years of his active life, he pursued no other goal, through his multiple research, writings, courses, conferences and all other actions, than that of developing among French Canadians a national conscience sufficiently oriented to work out coherent projects, likely to serve their blooming. And, today, in front of the positive representation that the Quebec people have of themselves, I am filled with wonder at the powerful success of this work, by recalling to myself that it was accomplished among a people which was then more deeply alienated than ever before, after having undergone, since 1840, not only without revolt, but with the most debilitating of resignation, the political and economic domination of English Canada, with its corrosive effects on all the aspects of its development, particularly on the assertion of their national identity.

Also, even if I cannot see Groulx' work, from any point of view where I could place myself, committed on the way of the independence of Quebec, I no less see it as the material of origin of the contemporary independence movement, as the intellectual frame for the reflexion which gave birth to it. And it is finally as an independentist militant that it touched me.

To be human is to care for one's own difference

Claude-Lévi Strauss, anthropologist, ethnologist, philosopher
The difference and the opposition between cultures, says Claude Lévi-Strauss in Le regard éloigné (1983), far from expressing some signs of racism, expresses, on the contrary, the essential and constant conditions of the self-development of humanity. "That each people held on to their roots and became aware of their value was the manner specific to each one to ensure their existence and the survival of humanity".

Lionel Groulx did not await Lévi-Strauss to understand that it is in persevering in their own being that each people, like each individual, fully assume their humanity and thus take part in the humanization of all; He had no need to rely on an erudite theory to be convinced that the conscience of his identity was the basis of any creation and that creation is the royal path leading to others.

Thus, to defend one's national identity, wrote he in Si Dollard revenait (1919), "That does not mean to say, as many try to make it believed, that one wants to cloister one's mind nor to refuse the truth and universal beauty to oneself; but that means to say, for example, that one intends to put in all things the reflection of one's own heart, that original work is better than imitated work; and that to act in this way is not to fanatically serve the truth and the beauty of one's own country, but the truth and the beauty in one's own country".

He pushed even further his demonstration of the indissociable bond between identity and creativity in Notre mission française (1941): "Moreover, that artists or intellectuals be not frightened; I do not ask them to make Christian or Catholic. I do not ask them to make French-Canadian; To French Canadians, I simply ask them to be. That they be men in plenitude; and that to be so, they be rooted and of their creed (...) and I do not worry any more for theirs works. Don't they imagine, either, I don't know through what antinomy between originality and universality, between national culture and human culture. Originality springs out, did we say, when man manages to reveal his essence of man. Without the shade of a paradox, one can sustain that the more a literature, the more an art are original, the more they are human, and by that even, the more they carry the universal in them."

This conviction of the necessary assertion of oneself, for oneself and not against the others, is the guiding line of the Groulxian endeavour which holds the French-Canadian people as the first responsible of their destiny, of their servitude as well as of their eventual blossoming. It is so inherent in all his works that it appears restrictive to me to give but one particular proof of it. I will nevertheless quote some lines of it taken from L'économique et le national, a conference twice given, in February 1936, in front of the respective public of the Chambre cadette de Commerce de Montréal (Montreal's Young Chamber of Commerce) and of the Jeune-Barreau de Québec (Quebec City's Young Bar Association). Groulx then endeavoured to show the indissociability of the bonds between the control of the economy and national development. In a passage, he imputes the economic inferiority of the French-Canadian people and the dependence which it implies, to their "essential confusion": "When one has lost oneself for having turned one's back to the principle of one's life, one can only be saved by returning to one's vital principle (...) One acts in a certain way only if one is this way."

Elsewhere, after having traced the great lines of an economic policy which would favour our development, he takes the time to precise: "A French-Canadian policy is not necessarily, that I know, a policy of aggression or of injustice towards anyone. We do not aim to dispossess anybody; only we do not plan, either, to be dispossessed. We do not prevent anyone from living, but we also want to live. And I consider that is not to take the place of the others than to take our own. I am not, need I say it, anti-English, nor anti-Jew. But I notice that the English are pro-English and that the Jews are pro-Jews. And insofar as such an attitude does not harm charity, nor justice, I will not reproach it to them. But then I wonder, in the same order of ideas, why French Canadians would be everything, except pro-French Canadians?"

It nevertheless remains true that Groulx's propensity to sometimes exaggeratedly praise his people, in the name of values some of which became completely obsolete has, per moments, obstructed my reading. I allot this behaviour of Groulx to his hope to entreat by speech a mediocrity that was real and which worried him to the point of anguish, which ran up against him painfully. An eminently cultivated historian, he knew that the ideal fascinates and carries away, that it dominates consciences and imposes its constraints. Whence his insistence to propose for the admiration of French Canadians, and for their imitation, a human ideal founded on the valorization of the courageous battles of our ancestors to survive, preserve their language and their faith, cultural properties which attached them to two very great civilizations, those of France and Catholic Rome. Because Groulx knew perfectly that only the cultures in situation of exchange and interaction have known how to blossom; that on the contrary the cultures locked up in a closed political space could not survive. Thus he regarded Catholicism as an important vehicle of our opening to the world.

And it is precisely what the current enemies of the Quebec people cannot tolerate: that Groulx avoided us to become an aphasic people, by inculcating us the conscience of our national identity and the will for us to affirm it.

History: a continual creation

Pierre Vallières, essayist, journalist, novelist, member of the FLQ
A nation exists by the motor and vital representations which she takes from her past, not to fix herself to them, but to propel herself towards the future. A nation can only assert herself on her lines of force, because the nation is a community which grows on roots through history and whose mission is to constantly reshape the heritage from where she started. "Nothing falser than definitive history, could I notice once again", confided Groulx in volume 4 of his Mémoires, in telling us of the strenuous work done for the republication in his work: La découverte du Canada - Jacques Cartier, "to re-feather, to dress à la mode this old nightingale." But it allowed me to notice one of the great conferences which he pronounced between 1928 and 1945, to notice the major influence that it still exerts on our politicians, our intellectuals, our writers, our artists. Nobody among us who does not retake, in his manner, the Groulxian analysis of the Quebec illness, of its recent and far away causes, of the means to cure it.

"Masters in our own house", for example, was for a long time the articulatory concept of the program of national redress preached by Groulx. "Equality or independence" is also a problématique which he raised, not to forget the idea of sending to Ottawa a block of MPs exclusively devoted to the interests of Quebec. Up to Rene Lévesque who, under the concept of sovereignty-association, only retook Groulx's proposition, formulated on several occasions, to make of the State of Quebec a national and French State that would still share sovereignty with the Canadian State in several fields, of which economy and international relations. One can also stress that he showed before the writers of Parti Pris, the indissociability of the bonds between the economic, the social, the polical and the cultural in the appropriation of our national destiny, just like he denounced, before Pierre Vallières and as fiercely as him, the misdeeds of American imperialism, not only for Quebec, but for the world. And did he not celebrate, as soon as 1915, the universality of the "homo quebecensis" so dear to Gaston Miron.

To repeat while believing we are inventing, isn't it the most eloquent demonstration of culture?

A work to be completed

And yet! Still, this man who had for passion the full blooming of his people, this man who lived "in anguish every day that this people played their destiny", has remained powerless to assume in all its properties the political dimension of his endeavour which was national independence.

He has indeed supported this option only in 1922. And even so because he believed that the Confederation would soon crumble down by the unceasingly accelerating tumble of the British Empire. Taking into account this possibility, he then conducted a vast investigation into the conditions of realization and the immediate consequences of independence, with the goal of preparing the future.

Setting aside this exception, Lionel Groulx was an autonomist. He defended the confederative union wanted, according to him, by the French Canadians who entered it willingly. Based on the equality of the two founding nations, on the recognition of their differences and the expressed will to respect them, the Confederation was in his eyes a victory achieved in a hard fight by the French-Canadian people. Although each day he noted the bankruptcy of the institution, he never ceased believing in the constructive dimension of the "spirit" which had chaired, according to him, to its creation, like he never ceased requesting the return to this "spirit". Because, if it were respected, Groulx believed, we could advantageously live in a true confederation, i.e. in a harmonious and effective union of provinces as autonomous as possible, proud of their own originality and, also, of their common fatherland.

Thus, it did not appear contradictory to him to serve the Confederation since far from implying that the French Canadians should melt away in the anglophone majority, it enabled them to affirm their specificity. Strong of this... Groulx assigned himself, during more than fifty years, the task to wake up and develop the national conscience of his compatriots which he judged each day more defective since their victory of 1867, so that they require of their provincial government that it fully exert all the powers of its jurisdiction and that it relentlessly fights against the smallest of encroachment by the federal government.

It is this provincialist nationalism which today still holds Quebec locked up in the dialectic between majorities and minorities which "obliges it to a perpetual restarting of the same fights, born from the same claims, for the same objectives", like Miron and myself demonstrate in the introduction to the Grands textes indépendantistes.

One could thus sustain that Lionel Groulx objectively worked against the independence of Quebec. I once thought it. I do not believe it any more. The independence project, like any liberation project, is a long-term historical process and it supposes, in order to be carried out, multiple points of support. However, since memory is the leaven of the future, Lionel Groulx, by making us the gift of our history, built the foundations on which we since then build our country.

And I am infinitely grateful to him for this.

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