The myth of a fascist Quebec

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The Myth of a Fascist Quebec
in L'actualité, March 1st 1997

Translated by Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote

Unofficial translation of "Le mythe du Québec fasciste" by Luc Chartrand in L'actualité, March 1st 1997, vol. 22, no 3

The Enquiry

The Roux Affair resurrected, everywhere in Canada, the prejudice whereby the Quebec of the 30s and 40s was antisemitic and fascist. L'actualité magazine enquired on the topic.

The last discovery of historian Esther Delisle will give ulcers to her colleagues: during the conscription crisis of 1942, the American and Canadian secret services were convinced that some noted nationalist leaders from Quebec, including abbot Lionel Groulx, were conspiring in a clandestine pro-Nazi organization baptized "Garde de Fer" (Iron Guard)!

Esther Delisle, whose doctoral thesis* on the anti-semitism of French-Canadian nationalists of the Thirties is the most controversial in the history of Université Laval (L'actualité, June 15, 1991), is about to publish a new book on the Quebec of the World War II period (and the post-war period as well). In it, she exhumes a sulfurous confidential report addressed to the American Secretariat of State by the United States' consul in Quebec, Rollin R. Winslow. This report, whose starting point was inspired by an investigation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), pertained to two young activists, Raymond Chouinard and Laurent Tardif. The first was arrested for having distributed pro-German leaflets at an anticonscription meeting in Limoilou - Canada was then already at war against Germany. The second, studying at Université Laval, is a presumed accomplice. Notes and a diary found at Tardif's made it possible to believe that he was undertaking "very subversive" political activities, even that he was practising espionage, and that he reported to a group of nationalist leaders: the consul gave out a list of 14 names, which constitutes a true "Who's Who of the Quebec nationalists of the Thirties", notes Esther Delisle.

According to the report, Lionel Groulx and abbot Pierre Gravel, priest of the Saint-Roch parish, in Quebec, "have continued to hold clandestine meetings with the group of young nationalists of which Tardif was member and that, after Canada had entered the war. The journal [of Tardif] tells how abbot Gravel explained the advantages of national-socialism in Germany".

The "scoop" is so big - the majority of the people named are notable moderates - that one wonders who is poisoning who! Did the RCMP try to discredit the French-Canadian nationalists in the eyes of the allied secret service? Why were there never any arrests for these seditious activities?

Black list or hoax?

Here is the exact list (with errors...) of the supposed leaders of a Quebec Pro-German Iron Guard, as drawn up by the United States consul in Quebec City in spring of 1942:

Esther Delisle unearthed this report in the files of the Department of State, in Washington. By chance, she assures us. But "thanks to archivist John E. Taylor, grand guru of the files of the CIA and the OSS [ Office of Strategic Services ], the ancestor of the CIA ]", while she was researching on the presence in Quebec of Nazi collaborators. "I baptized "Delisle Law", says she as a joke, this phenomenon by which while seeking files, one never finds what one thought of finding but often finds things even more interesting!"

But the one by whom the historical scandal arrives had up to now had much trouble rallying historians to her analysis. Esther Delisle is not shy to associate the French-Canadian nationalism of the Thirties and Forties with Nazism, and she describes the movement against conscription (the compulsory enrolment) as "a smoke screen of national-socialism".

In her young forties, she is a newbie in the field of historical research and, what does not help her, she received a training not in history, but in political science, in particular with Israeli researchers specialized in the analysis of the antisemitic and Nazi speech.

Unemployed, she lives in a more than modest apartment in the Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood, in Montreal - "the Jews do not pay well!" she says, sarcastically. She is an "annoying one" who, in interview, constantly oscillates between pickling humour and sudden mood changes: the trembling voice, she raises her eyes toward the sky or takes refuge in an obstinate silence as soon as she meets scepticism.

Since the publication of the book summarizing her thesis, Le Traître et le Juif (L'Étincelle), she has multiplied interviews and pronounced conferences in the synagogues of Montreal (at the invitation of the political wing of the B'nai Brith of Canada Association), at McGill University and the diners of Cité libre.

"One seeks more and more often to use history for political ends", worries historian René Durocher, of Université de Montréal. "Whereas the first duty of the historian is to understand..."

The "Roux Affair" (L'actualité, Nov. 15. 96) revived, a little everywhere in Canada, the stereotype of fascistic Quebec. Jean-Louis Roux himself added water to the mill by declaring that the fact of having smeared his sleeve with a swastika was characteristic of "the mentality of a great part of Quebec youth of the time". Senator Jacques Hébert sustained that the youth of his time did not have, to get information, anything other than Le Devoir, which was strongly anti-semitic. From one ocean to the other, newspapers evoked the turbid past of Quebec at the time of the crisis and the war. B'nai Brith took advantage of the occasion to demand that the name of the Lionel-Groulx metro station be changed. During an interview at Le Point, on Radio-Canada television, Esther Delisle accused former anticonscription leader André Laurendeau (who will later become director of Le Devoir), even though considered as one of moderates of his generation, to have been a crypto-Nazi!

Jean-François Nadeau, who prepares a PhD in history at the Université du Québec à Montréal and specializes in the years 1930 to 1945, denounces the "spirit of trial" which rots the historical debate. "One does not want to understand, says he, one wants to judge." The sociologist Gary Caldwell goes further: "These unslung attacks translate a will to show that Quebec is an unhealthy society."

But there is no smoke without fire: during the crisis, the principal tenors of French-Canadian nationalism were indeed fascinated by the new dictatorships of Europe.

This time was marked by a profound distress. In North America as in Europe, the economic crisis was devastating. In 1932, unemployment exceeds the peak of 30% in Quebec. And the wages were in free fall: in the Canadian manufacturing industry, the average annual wages passed from 1042 dollars in 1929 to 777 dollars in 1933... Whether fascist, communist or democrat, to speak of the "failure of liberalism" or that of capitalism was commonplace. Because the liberal capitalist system actually crumbled down with the crash of 1929. People sought new ways. And scapegoats...

Le Devoir of the time was analyzed through and through and nobody tries to deny its sometimes virulent anti-semitism. The same applies to the monthly magazine L'Action nationale, of which abbot Lionel Groulx was then the intellectual leader. As for Jeune-Canada, a student movement primarily made up of Groulx' disciples, it distiled towards Jews a worrisome rhetoric: "In Germany, it is impossible to step on the tail of this bitch of Jewry, without hearing people bark in Canada", will we hear once in one of its assemblies - a quotation later reported with regret by André Laurendeau (who was one of the leaders of the movement) and repeated ad nauseam lately.

Does that make the Quebec of that time a fascist society?

"Originally, Fascism was a rather precise ideology, says Jean-François Nadeau. But the Communists thereafter generalized the meaning by applying it to all their enemies on the right."

Fascism is initially an Italian political movement which brought to power the dictator Benito Mussolini, aka "The Duce", in 1922. Still today, in Montreal, on one of the walls of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense Church, in Petite Italie, one can see a mural dedicated to Mussolini, realized in 1933 by painter Guido Nincheri. "At the beginning of the Thirties, says Nadeau, Fascism did not make waves in Montreal outside the Italian community."

The government of Mussolini has a rather good press in French Canada beginning in 1929, the year of the signing of the Lateran Treaty, which sanctioned the rights of the Vatican State. One often cites Italy as an example to follow: the regime of the Duce accomplished great works, some say (such the draining of the Pontins marshes), and the trains are on time! The corporatist regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, in Portugal, also arouses some interests in Quebec, because it claims to represent the "Christian social order" proposed by the Catholic Church.

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, the support with Fascism increased in Quebec, not so much because of ideological convictions as for reasons of solidarity among Catholics in the war against Communism. "All the catholics of the world rallied behind Franco", says Jean-François Nadeau. At the church, the French Canadians were praying for the success of the nationalists and the defeat of the republicans.

Claude Ryan, whom we consulted as much for his rigour as for his memories, remembers, like many others, the rather favourable allusions to the fascist regime of Europe: sometimes "They were sometimes presented to us as models. But they were passing remarks. Never were they presented to us in a detailed or doctrinal way. In fact, one knew almost nothing of these regimes."

André Laurendeau, who sojourned in France in 1936, was quickly disenchanted with regards to Italian Fascism. "Its success rests for a great part on the exaltation of the will for power and on the crushing of human freedoms", he said. "Why become disciples of Mussolini when it would be so simple to be put ourselves to a school which does not diminish anyone: the school of the Church ", answered Lionel Groulx.

Before the interview, Claude Ryan had noted, in a little black note-book, the readings and the intellectual influences at the time of his studies in classical Externat of Sainte-Croix, in the East of Montreal, from 1937 to 1944. The enumeration lasted for long minutes. It went through Demosthenes, Herodotus, Cicero and Livy ("the greatest authors", comments on Mr. Ryan), French classics, de Villon to de Musset passing by Molière, Lamartine, Corneille and Racine... "This was our menu, said he!"

"Moreover, each one made his own readings: Le Devoir, La Presse, Canada, Le Jour, Le Clairon, Le Canada français. The periodicals were also numerous: L'Action nationale, L'Amérique française, the Carnets viatorien, the Revue dominicaine... and more."

Why this abundant list?

"I want to show you that the intellectual climate of the youth of the period was not that which was depicted during the Roux Affair, when some suggested that the only intellectual foods available came from Le Devoir and L'Action nationale. In my class, a student was selling subscriptions to L'Action nationale, but he did not sell more than two in a class of 25."

Historian Jacques Rouillard, of the Université de Montréal, also believes that some tend to exaggerate the influence of Le Devoir and do not see the pluralism which existed then in Quebec society. From 1930 to 1940, he says, the daily pulling of Le Devoir was of 17,000 copies; Le Canada, a liberal newspaper but also an opinion paper which constantly denounced anti-semitism, had a comparable pulling: 15,000 copies. "That is without counting the popular press: La Presse sold 177,000 copies per day and Le Soleil, 75,000!"

According to Jacques Langlais, founder of the Institut interculturel de Montréal and craftsman of the dialogue between Jews and Christians in Quebec, the extreme right of the time was only "an intelligentsia movement, concentrated in Montreal": "I studied at the Collège Saint-Laurent - the city of Saint-Laurent was then still the countryside - from 1932 to 1940. Never have I heard a single anti-semitic remark!"

In classical colleges, the nationalist current of the right was for a good part circumscribed to the Collège Sainte-Marie, a Jesuits establishment in downtown Montreal, attended by Jacques Hébert and Jean-Louis Roux. "Sainte-Marie was the hotbed of nationalists!" Claude Ryan remembers laughing.

There was in Quebec only one straightforwardly fascist movement, that of the Parti national social-chrétien (PNSC), founded by Joseph Ménard and Adrien Arcand. But it did not intermingle with the nationalist circles: Arcand was royalist! If he admired Nazi Germany until the beginning of the war, it is because he dreamed to found a regime of the same type in all the British Empire. And, by this fact, he was close to the Nazi movement of the English Oswald Mosley. At its beginnings, the PNSC displayed the swastika. It changed its emblem in 1938, when it amalgamated with other Canadian Nazis groups to form the National Unity Party: the "blue shirts" will rather wear... the torch and the Canadian beaver!

Adrien Arcand was an illuminated who could recite, in Greek, the four Gospels, whole chapters of Homer's Iliad and a number of classical plays, in French or English. The influence of his party remains difficult to evaluate. Its leaders claimed that it numbered 84,000 members, a figure which at the time was retaken by the American press. The reality was certainly much lower... The RCMP, which had seized the lists of its members in 1940, concluded that it numbered 7,083 in Canada, including 5,942 in the Montreal area and 982 in the remainder of Quebec (which leaves only 159 outside Quebec). Even these figures are disputed by Jean-François Nadeau, for whom the party "did not exceed 1,000 members in 1938".

"As a matter of fact, Groulx and his disciples, of which Pierre Dansereau [who will become the well-known ecologist] and André Laurendeau [who will become journalist], consider Arcand's movement to be vulgar", says Jean-François Nadeau. And the Church, far from having affinities with Arcand, prohibited him from renting parish halls to hold his meetings!

After all these nuances are made, what remains of the fascist Quebec?

One can compare the right of the Thirties with the left of the Sixties and Seventies. To the extreme of these movements are the marginals (the party of Adrien Arcand, the Marxist-Leninist groups), which were hardly numerous, each one in their time, but whose ideas were largely diffused and influenced public opinion. Who forgot the Marxist proclamations published by the three main labour unions in the Seventies? When one proposes this analogy to the historians, it rallies René Durocher as well as Esther Delisle!

"Even if fascist ideas were widely diffused, says René Durocher, they never threatened the democratic institutions of Quebec. The liberal current was more powerful, it is indubitable." But Fascism and anti-semitism ended up exerting an influence on the public opinion and the political decisions of time, in particular in what pertains to the refusal to let the Jewish refugees of Europe enter to Canada...

Regarding the French-Canadian politicians who are indignant at the persecution of the Jews in Germany, Lionel Groulx wrote, in 1933: "To have our great men of politics march in favour of the persecuted Jews, be it 4,000 miles away from Canada, is one thing, and [...] to have these same men do something in favour of Catholic minorities and even of minorities of their own blood strangulated at their door is something else."

A few years later, in 1938, when the German army walked on Austria and that the world, for the Jews, is divided in two - "the countries where they cannot enter and those where they cannot live", according to the expression -, the popular pressure to prevent refugees from entering to Canada increased: a petition of people being opposed "to any immigration and especially to Jewish immigration" was submitted to the Canadian government by the Saint-Jean-Baptist Society*. It counted... 128,000 signatures!

It is the historian Irving Abella, of the York University, near Toronto, former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, who reported this fact in None Is Too Many (cosigned by Harold Troper, Lester Publishing), a work on the Canadian policy concerning the Jewish refugees of the Holocaust.

In the tumult of the Roux Affair, Irving Abella believed it necessary to write the Globe and Mail to warn English Canada... "Without the shade of a doubt, Quebecers must recognize their sordid antisemitic and racist past before and during the Second World War [...]. But, frankly, the past of English Canada is hardly better [...] While the friends of Jean-Louis Roux were throwing stones in the windows of Jewish stores, there was much more serious antisemitic violence in the streets of Toronto during Christie-Pit riots, as well as in Winnipeg, where the local brown shirts attacked the Jews, and in other English Canadian cities."

Irving Abella received L'actualité at his place, in the well-off neighbourhood of Lawrence Park, in the north of Toronto. (“Before the war, the Jews could not live in this district”, says he.) Abella is part of these anglophone intellectuals, more and more numerous, who try to warn English Canada against interpretations of Quebec's history that are a little too interested. Sean Purdy, of Queen's University, in Kingston, recently wrote in an Internet discussion forum visited by historians: “The critic of Quebec nationalism concerning the Roux Affair was a disguised attack against current Quebec nationalism [founded on] a dissimulation of English Canada's own history. [...] As was done in the case of relations with the Aboriginals.” “As a sociologist”, says Gary Caldwell, ex-director of a section of the Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, “To this date, I have never seen any demonstration of the existence a stronger xenophobic current in French Canada than in English Canada.”


Mackenzie King: An admirer of Hitler

“Hitler and Mussolini, though dictators, really endeavoured to obtain for the masses [various benefits] and thus to ensure their support. [...] The dictatorial manner was perhaps necessary in order to withdraw these benefits from the privileged who monopolized them up to that point. [...] One could end up seeing in him [Hitler] one of the savers of the world.”

- Excerpts of the personal journal of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, quoted by Irving Abella and Harold Troper in None Is Too Many (Lester Publishing).

In Impossible Nation (The Mercury Press), a recent essay (to be translated absolutely!), the cultural correspondent of The Globe and Mail in Quebec, Ray Conlogue, interpret in this manner the growing use in Canada of the stereotype of fascistic Quebec: “The basic idea is to convince the minority that it is inapt to self-govern. One starts by insinuating that it does not have the economic competence. If that does not work, one accuse it of something much more serious: moral incompetence.”

Already, in 1960, American historian Mason Wade had noticed how, in front of Quebec nationalism, English Canada had the reflex to evoke the spectre of a “basically fascistic, totalitarian and authoritative French Canada, without true instinct for the North-American democracy”. This stereotype is well anchored in the Canadian political culture.

Irving Abella shows in his book how Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada from 1935 to 1948, called upon the French-Canadian opinion to justify the closing of Canada to the Jewish refugees in front of foreigners. However, his personal newspaper reveals that he was quite simply antisemitic himself, opposed to Jewish immigration, and that he vowed to Hitler as well as to Mussolini a kind of admiration which one does not meet in any Quebec nationalist leader...

But for Irving Abella, the question of knowing which of Quebec or the remainder of Canada was “the worst” in terms of anti-semitism is a false quarrel. “All of Canada was penetrated by anti-semitism during this period, and all of Canada should remember it.”

David Rome: A Jew in the Metro

Several years before the recent polemic launched by B'nai Brith of Canada about the name of the Lionel-Groulx metro station, the archivist of the Canadian Jewish Congress, David Rome, had expressed the complex feelings which the toponymy of Montreal provokes among Jews...

“For the Jews which who study the history of Canada, two stations of the Montreal metro strongly evoke the great Jewish migration in Quebec one century ago and the men who lived at that time.

“Million of Montrealers transit through the Henri-Bourassa metro station or the Henri-Bourassa boulevard, thus named to perpetuate the memory of the speaker, philosopher and theologist who founded Le Devoir, and by the metro terminus which perpetuates that of canon Lionel Groulx, the professor, nationalist, historian and writer. [...]

“The toponymy of Quebec's landscape is a genuine educational tool, a reflection of the esteem of the people for a whole kaleidoscope of ancestors [...], venerated in the the name of a historical and patriotic tradition. [...]

“But nowhere is this tradition perceived in a more confused way than in the hearts of the Jews, where blend complex conflicts of interests, past emotions and experiments [...]. That Quebec was able to create such a collective culture of recognition of its great characters says much on its homogeneity. [...]

“Bourassa and Groulx lived, one during the first hours and the other during the worst times of the Holocaust, while remaining completely blind to the German evil. This myopia is an illustration of the narrowness of the social and cultural perception of French Quebec, particularly remarkable when one compares it with that its anglophone neighbours. [...]

“But the human sacrifices [of the War], including those of tens of thousands of Canadians and million of Jews, revealed a new Quebec on the map.”

Taken from The Jewish Biography of Henri Bourassa, by David Rome, Canadian Jewish Archives, 1988.

1837-1937: "We will have our French State"

In its speeches, Lionel Groulx appears as a moderate. His opinion nonetheless raises enthusiasm.

In the months which preceded the centenary by of the Patriots insurrection of 1837, the nationalist fever of the youth was very high. The world is in a state of crisis, and the prospects for the future are non-existent. The atmosphere is explosive because there is also much bitterness in the air: Maurice Duplessis, lately elected, has just betrayed his nationalist allies, to who he had promised the nationalization of electricity.

It is in this context that the Congress of the French language is held at the Colisée de Québec on June 29, 1937. Thousands of young people impatiently await for something to occur. Lionel Groulx must pronounce the closing speech. In a vitrine of Quebec City, life-size wax statues show Louis-Joseph Papineau passing the relay to abbot Groulx...

This speech of Groulx, which several people regard as the most important of his career (fundamentally, it resembles any of the others), has nothing to do with a heinous harangue and resembles, as much by the tone as by the constitutional orientation, of the “quoi qu'on dise et quoi qu'on fasse” of Robert Bourassa...

“The Confederation, we support it, so long as it remains a confederation [...]. The bonne entente, certainly, I am for it [...]. But the bonne entente I want, is a two-way relationship. It is the bonne entente on its feet. Not a bonne entente for the easily deceived. Not a bonne entente at any cost: doctrine of degradation, where all of our role consists in keeping the flies away from the lion; but a bonne entente based on mutual respect, on equal rights. [...]

“To our compatriots of the other origin and the other culture, I would hold [...] this language, that I consider neither impertinent, nor daring, even less unjust: "We are here two races, two cultures, destined to live side by side, to collaborate in the common good our province and our country. You, anglophones, are proud of your blood, your history, your civilization; and, to serve this country as effectively as possible, your ambition is to develop yourself in the direction of your cultural inneities, to be English all the way down to the marrows. [...] Likewise, as proud of our past, our blood of our culture as you are of yours, we claim that our right is equal to yours." [...]

“Whether or not others want it, our French State, we will have; we will have it young, strong, radiant and beautiful, spiritual hearth, dynamic pole of all French America. [...] The snobs, the bon-ententistes, the defeatists can shout, as much as they want: "You are the last generation of French Canadians!" I answer them with all the youth: "We are the generation of the living. You are the last generation of the dead!"”

The crowd of the Colisée exploded "as lava from the mouth of a volcano", wrote Groulx several decades later. "I understood, that night, how far can go the movement of a crowd waiting for the time to manifest itself.»



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  • Rome, David (1977). Clouds in the Thirties: On Antisemitism in Canada, 1929-1939, Montréal: Canadian Jewish Archives


  • Caldwell, Gary. "La controverse Delisle-Richler", in L'Agora, June 1994, p. 17-26.
  • Chartrand, Luc. "Le chanoine au pilori", in L'actualité, June 15, 1991, p. 114-115.
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  • Groulx, Lionel and André Laurendeau (correspondance). "L'esprit des années 30", in Les Cahiers d'histoire du Québec au 20e siècle, no 3, hiver 1995, p. 81-101.
  • Rouillard, Jacques. "Le Québec était-il fasciste en 1942?", in Le Devoir, 13 nov. 1996, p. A-7.
  • Stapinsky, Stéphane. "L'esprit de procès au Québec", in Possibles, 1995, p. 17-32.
  • Trépanier, Pierre. "La religion dans la pensée d'Adrien Arcand", in Les Cahiers des Dix, no 46, 1991, p. 207-247.

See also

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