Chapter Seven
Politics and Culture: The French Canadians in the Second World War

Richard Jones

The French Canadians approached the Second World War with misgivings. They were particularly concerned about avoiding the introduction of military conscription for overseas service. As for the details of Canada's participation itself, there were, of course, great differences of opinion. In the federal Parliament, Liberals such as Liguori Lacombe, Wilfrid Gariépy and Jean-Francois Pouliot had voted against war credits and demanded a separate Canadian policy. Maxime Raymond, the well-known nationalist and federal MP for Beauharnois-Lapraire, opposed Canadian participation in any foreign war. Jean-Charles Harvey, of the newspaper Le Jour, first favoured limited participation but, as the plebiscite approached in which the federal government was seeking to be released from its anti- conscription promises, he campaigned for a YES vote. Louis Francoeur, a popular radio commentator, demanded that England financially support Canadian participation in the war. When, in 1940, the National Resources Mobilization Act was passed, Camillien Houde, the Mayor of Montreal, advised his compatriots not to register, but the Catholic hierarchy, under the leadership of Cardinal Rodrigue Villeneuve, recommended compliance to the faithful. Despite the shades of opinion, there was broad agreement between French Canadians as to the essential point: any attempt to impose conscription should be fought. And the Francophone politicians merely reflected, in their own fields of activity, their constituents' basic concern.

When the conscription issue was raised during the Quebec provincial electoral campaign in the autumn of 1939, both parties (the Liberals, who were in opposition and the Union Nationale, who were in power) strove to convince the electorate that they represented the best defence against conscription. The Union Nationale under Duplessis had doubts about Canadian participation in the war and maintained that the federal government would take advantage of it in order to pursue its policy of centralization. The provincial Liberals obtained valuable help from their federal counterparts, who, under the pretext of supporting the provincial Liberal leader, Abelard Godbout, proclaimed from the rooftops that if Quebecers voted for Duplessis, they, would have no choice but to resign, at which point the federal government would not hesitate to introduce conscription. Godbout and his federal allies criss-crossed the province, promising that with them the threat of conscription would be averted. The Liberal leader even undertook to "quit my party and even fight it if, from now until the cessation of hostilities, a single French Canadian is mobilized against his will under a provisional regime (Union government) in which our present ministers in Mr. King's cabinet participate."1 As is known, Godbout won the election. Many English-speaking Canadians heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that a Liberal Quebec would favour the cause of participation. The Toronto Star saw in the defeat of Duplessis a Canadian victory in the country's war effort.2 but in reality, Quebec's voters had chosen Godbout because he seemed to offer the best guarantees against conscription.

The federal French-speaking politicians also had to take stock of the revulsion French Canadians felt towards conscription. Rebuffed by Quebec since time immemorial, the

--81--


Conservative Party, under the leadership of Dr. R.J. Manion, spent a good deal of effort trying to allay the traditional fear in which French speaking Quebecers held that party. Before Duplessis was defeated, Manion tried to obtain his support but, in the face of the unpopularity of the Quebec Premier in English Canada, he ended up keeping his distance. During the 1940 electoral campaign, a prominent Quebec Conservative, Major C. Gwyllym Dunn, President of the Chronicle-Telegraph, wanted to organize a meeting between Duplessis and Manion. The federal leader replied by telegram, saying that he vas busy and asked Dunn to "keep in mind effect of every move on other provinces".3

Other Quebec Conservatives tried in vain to steer their party towards a less "imperialist" position. Georges-Henri Héon, MP for Argenteuil in the House of Commons, was resolutely hostile to sending Canadian troops to Europe since Canada had in no way been consulted about the policies that threatened to lead to war; there had to be popular consultation.4 Frédéric Dorion, a Conservative from a long line of Conservatives, told Manion after the stunning defeat in 1940 that he was "convinced that the Province of Quebec in the next elections would be ready to support the Conservative party only, insofar as it did not outdo the King government in matters of the war effort."5 Dorion begged Manion to try to restrain the enthusiasm for participation of several Anglophone Tories. Showing realism, Manion replied: "I fear that you are asking too much when you suggest that I prevent some of our members from criticizing the Liberal party for not pursuing the war effort more energetically."6 Dorion entered the House in 1942 after the Charlevoix-by-election, but it is revealing to note that he ran as an independent, not as a Conservative. Broadly speaking, Quebec rejected the Conservative candidates in 1940. Manion seems to have understood the reason for the setback to is party: "We couldn't convince the good old mothers of Quebec that we weren't going to send their boys to the slaughter,"7 and there can be no doubt that the rare Conservatives who did succeed in obtaining the support of French Canada during this period owed their success to their anti-conscription stands.

Just as the Conservatives had to fight against the longstanding animosity of Quebec electors towards them, so did the Liberals enjoy the favour of the same voters. This is why, in part, some Liberals could allow themselves to talk around the subject when commenting on compulsory enlistment without turning off too many voters. A famous example of this was Louis St. Laurent, whom King had chosen to replace Ernest Lapointe, his Francophone right- hand man who had died in 1941. Appointed Minister of Justice, St Laurent had to get himself elected, and so he faced the voters in Laurier's old riding, Quebec East. By-elections were called for February 9, 1942 in this and three other constituencies. St. Laurent fought the nationalist Paul Bouchard. At a time when the federal plebiscite was already under discussion, the issue of conscription could not, perforce, be avoided. Bouchard campaigned in favour of Canadian independence from Great Britain and denounced Canada's military obligation without mincing his words. St. Laurent's comments, on the other hand, were more ambiguous. Recalling 1917, he stated that he was "opposed to this conscription" and assured his listeners that it would "not be repeated under ... King". By contrast, he defended the principle of the plebiscite, going so far as to say: "I will probably come and ask you to vote YES on the plebiscite."8 St. Laurent won the by-election with a majority of 4,000 votes over his rival, Bouchard. Are we to conclude that the voters were not irrevocably opposed to conscription? Surely not, for the Liberals had tried hard to show that King, in Ottawa, gave much better guarantees than the Conservatives who had imposed conscription in 1917. Unless people voted for the Liberal candidates during the by-elections, party workers maintained, the position of the Prime Minister would be weakened and he might even be obliged to resign. Arthur Meighen, reviled by Quebecers, who

--82--


saw him as the father of conscription, could, in that event, take power at the head of a Union government, and then the people would have conscription immediately, brought in on bayonet point as it had been in 1917, without any popular consultation. Of course Bouchard did say that he was against conscription, but what could he do in Ottawa? Apparently the voters understood the message.

Certain nuances aside, then, Francophone politicians denounced compulsory enlistment for overseas service, and in that regard, no one could claim that they were not representing their electors. Indeed, during the plebiscite in April 1942, an overwhelming majority of French-speaking Quebecers indicated their unwavering opposition to conscription. In what follows we will try to show that this opposition was in large part dictated by simultaneously nationalistic and social considerations.

In her book, The Crisis of Quebec, 1914-1918, Elizabeth Armstrong attributes French Canadian opposition to conscription in 1917 to a "passive sense of nationality". On the one hand, French Canadians rejected British imperialism, a cause ardently espoused by many English Canadians. On the other hand, at the time of the Ontario school crisis surrounding the notorious Regulation XVII, they seemed to believe that their fate would be decided on this side of the Atlantic, that the "Prussians" of Ontario were a greater threat to the collective rights of the Francophones than the German Prussians, as Henri Bourassa somewhat bitterly remarked. But what was the situation in 1939-45? Was the nationalism underlying Francophone opposition to conscription of the same kind as that expressed during the First World War?

Anti-imperialism was certainly very much alive among Francophones in 1940. At the moment when the spectre of conscription reappeared, Franois-Albert Angers, a well-known nationalist, wrote: "Deep in every English Canadian, if indeed he is a Canadian, slumbers an imperialist, a gentleman who, having lived in a world empire, carries with him and receives from his parents, an imperialist conception ... of the defence of his new country."9 For the imperialist Anglophone, "defend" means "demanding absolute security", which in turn means that he has to control the world in such a way that he alone has real security. According to Angers and many other nationalists of the period, the French Canadians did not share this point of view and had no interest whatever in becoming involved in the quarrels among the great powers. The imperialists described this world view contemptuously as "isolationist".

Thus, French Canadians and English Canadians did not have the same analysis of what the world had at stake in the war, even though the French Canadians did generally sympathize with England and the United States. The French-language nationalists also, however, worried about the danger that this conflict could pose to traditional society. For them, the war would greatly encourage the degeneration of French Canadian social and moral life and contribute to the anglicization of the Francophones and, what was more, held the gravest risks for provincial autonomy, that pillar of the survival of French Canada. Let us examine these allegations more closely.

The nationalist elite, which stood solidly behind traditional society, had often pointed out the alarming consequences of the First World War for French Canada. They did not hesitate to hold the World War responsible for certain socioeconomic transformations, even though these changes would have happened anyway, although perhaps at a less frantic pace. Maxime Raymond, the federal MP and the founder of the Bloc Populaire in 1942, blamed the First World War for the increased exodus of French Canadians towards the United States. Besides,

--83--


he said, the war had given the young a taste for adventure and especially for urban life, so that when they returned home, they settled in the cities rather than going back to the land.10 The war had, of course, stimulated Canadian manufacturing industry, thus contributing to the urbanization of the country. But, in the opinion of the nationalists, the unfortunate phenomenon of urbanization, which was destroying the rural foundations of French Canadian society, could only intensify during the Second War. They were not slow to grasp the meaning of certain things said in the House by Col J.L. Ralston, the federal Minister of Defence, on the question of the exemption for the sons of farmers. For him, an enormous number of Canadian farmers hardly produced more foodstuffs than they needed for themselves and their families. The Minister wondered, then, "whether those men ought to be left in that occupation, or whether some farmer with capital and greater productive capacity and a sufficient establishment for the purpose would not better be raising the food" for a farmer in the other category.11 For the French Canadian nationalists, this English-speaking Minister, the pro-conscriptionist to end all pro-conscriptionists, wanted to reserve agriculture for the Westerners while dealing the death blow to French Canadian rural life and hence the traditional order. For the nationalist elite of that period, agriculture was not a profession like any other. It still continued to be the way of life upon which an entire civilization rested as indeed was stressed by the Quebec episcopate after the war came to an end.12

The war also stimulated the entry of women into the job market, thus sowing anxiety among the defenders of the traditional family. For the ƒcole Sociale Populaire, a Jesuit organization, the working woman was the "terrible price of modern total war."13 The magazine Relations predicted that the presence of women in the factories would bring about the "break up of the family"14 while Alfred Charpentier, president of the Confederation des Travailleurs Catholiques du Canada, worried about the repercussions of working nights on the health of women and other members of the family.15 And who, the question went, would look after the children? Would people not be obliged to entrust them to "more or less benevolent strangers charged with bringing them up as though they were so many numbers in a collection of children forcibly subjected to a stifling, mass-education system?"16 Still worse, some English leaders seemed to be considering the conscription of women. The French Canadian nationalists were not slow in reacting: they had said "never" to the conscription of men; to the conscription of women, they had to reply "a thousand times, never!" In short, they feared that the consequences of women working were fare more serious than all the physical ravages and even the massacres of war. What would a victory won at such a price really be worth?

The problem of morals in the army also worried the clerical and nationalist leaders. As F.-A. Angers said, the quality of moral life was not "as high as could be expected in a country whose leaders officially described themselves as the defenders of Christianity."17 More precisely, drunkenness and the sins of the flesh were common currency there. Invariably, there was an "accursed bar" right in the middle of the military camps, which "no sooner open than it was filled with, and filled, soldiers." The majority of young recruits became cursers and blasphemers. The officers seemed to prevent the soldiers from attending mass. In the neighbourhood of the camps, "mothers bitterly complained of the danger, unfortunately not always platonic, that followed their daughters on account of the prestige of the uniform. And the passage of regiments in turn often left behind weeping and gnashing of teeth."18 Furthermore, "theoreticians lacking any conscience" were advocating contraceptive methods among the soldiers. Rumour even had it that officers were discouraging the practice of continence as "dangerous to the personality" and were more concerned with hygiene than morals.19 The situation was troubling, especially "when one thinks of the risk this entails for the

--84--


souls of those who will not return."20 In the face of the multiple dangers of military life, the Canadian episcopate thought it meet to ask the soldiers to be "worthy of the name Christian" and "not to take advantage of the leisure that would be granted them to betray their blood at the same time as their consciences and waste, in the name of vile pleasure, the strength that they owe to the service of their God and Country."21 Conscription could certainly accelerate the work of national sabotage that was already going ahead at full steam, but the nationalists seemed to go so far as to regret even Canada's participation in the war.

The language question was also much discussed during the war years. Andre Laurendeau, a journalist and defender of nationalist causes, wondered if the old plan to anglicize the French Canadian was not resurfacing with the conflict. He brought to mind the speech by J.S. Duncan, of the Ministry of Defence, who had stated that the air war should be conducted in one language and that the pilots should be trained in English, the majority tongue. The situation was hardly better in the army. French-speaking soldiers were integrated into English units and all the military camps outside Quebec functioned in English. Laurendeau also deplored the new stress placed on bilingualism in Quebec itself, which could only favour English, since it was the Francophones who were supposed to become bilingual. He though it more important to campaign in favour of French since that was the language that was threatened. Mgr. Camille Roy, the Rector of Laval University, admitted that the Francophones ought, perhaps, to learn English in order to get along in the business world, but asked that "care be taken lest a bilingualism that had become so general that it was on the lips of all the little children of Saint Urban and Saint André-deep-in-the-forests finish up as English unilingualism."22 The moment, therefore, had come to defend French but precautions had to be taken. The Censor's Office was watching out for every word that might be damaging to Canada's war effort, and the federal government was maintaining that national unity was essential for the pursuit of the war. Would the defence of the rights of the Francophone minority and the demand for a juster bilingualism not be seen by the federal authorities as a cry of rage that was unlikely to harm national unity, and hence as unlawful? French Canada, truly, was in a worrying position.

The war and the centralization it brought also threatened provincial autonomy. The Quebec nationalists were traditional supporters of autonomy, mistrusting what they identified as the expansionist aims of the federal government in fields, which, in their opinion, fell under provincial jurisdiction. In the wake of the Great Depression Ottawa had set up a royal commission to look into the relations between the federal government and the provinces. The nationalists received its recommendations with a good deal of trepidation, seeing in the report a veritable centralizer's bible. The commissioners had proposed that the provinces give up their powers of taxation to the federal government in return for various subsidies and grants. This recommendation inspired the deepest worry among the nationalists, for whom the power to tax was a necessary guarantee of provincial autonomy. According to André Laurendeau, "Ottawa is proposing to us that we exchange our rights for a few pieces of gold."23 F.-A. Angers entertained the same doubts about the Rowell-Sirois Commission's recommendations, seeing in them a new centralization campaign. In his opinion, increasing centralization "is to prepare for another 1837 and the death of Confederation", to place Quebec under the yoke of the English Canadian majority and push the Francophone minority towards assimilation.24

For the nationalists, even limited participation had very grave risks for French Canada. Several of them had known the experience of the First World War; now this new conflict threatened to be still more disastrous for the nation. By contrast, most Francophones did not

--85--


seem hostile to participation as such, although it would be hard to speak of popular enthusiasm, as in 1914. For all, however, conscription was unacceptable and the politicians thus represented a point of view which they probably also espoused personally.

The opposition to conscription, and even to participation, was based on other factors that had been absent in 1914, factors connected to the actual idea of society which people held. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 had stunned the west and the major social problems encountered in various countries after 1918 had continued to spread fear among defenders of the established order. The world view of the clerical and nationalist elite in Quebec, just like that of the European right wing, was marked for several decades by the attempts of the left to weaken and overthrow civil and religious constituted authority. Espousing the cause of order and rejecting that of revolution, the elite here showed, throughout the critical years between the wars, a certain sympathy for the right-wing dictators who had seized power in several lands under the pretext of containing the communist threat. Often critical of the methods of the right, French Canadian Catholic circles were scarcely hesitant about approving its goals. When war finally broke out in 1939, they persisted in thinking that the communists were a much greater danger than the fascists. This idea was not without its influence on the elite's interpretation of the role it thought Canada ought to play in the war.

Between the wars, the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec unceasingly denounced atheistic communism, banded together with free-masonry and international Jewry in an infamous trinity. It is true that after 1920, communism paused in its expansion and even Russia retrieved some semblance of order. But for Catholic circles, peace hardly returned. Anticlericalism reared its head in France, Mexico and elsewhere. The events in France in particular troubled the French in Canada and L'Action catholique, a Quebec daily, even published a chronicle for several months entitled "The Religious War in France".

On the threshold of the 1930s, the social and economic situation deteriorated and the communist menace again became serious. As the decade continued, the revolutionary danger increased in Germany, France and Spain, to name only three countries. At the same time, in Russia, Stalin initiated massive purges and communism took on an even more horrendous aspect than ever.

Who, therefore, would save the world from the Red terror that threatened to engulf it in flames? In 1922, after his march on Rome, Mussolini levered himself into power in Italy and announced his intention of restoring order and saving his country from a bloody communist revolution. Although relations between church and state were strained for a while, Rome and the Vatican finally signed a Concordat in 1929. This act passed off the Italian Duce as a veritable "tool of divine Providence"25 and, what is more, his anti-communism earned him great admiration in right-wing circles. When Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, Catholic circles hardly spoke out in condemnation of him, opposing the sanctions which some people wanted the League of Nations to impose on him. For L'Action catholique, what Italy was doing was no worse than what other countries, like England, had already done before. Besides, the opinion of the paper was that Moscow was behind the forces pushing the League into imposing sanctions on Italy. Instead of blaming Italy, L'Action preferred to condemn the Jews and free-masons who, it said, were busy inventing the worst news items in order to turn public opinion against the Italian leader.

It is common knowledge that Catholic Quebec fell in right behind General Franco and

--86--


the Nationalist party during the Spanish Civil War. This conflict was analysed in absolute terms: it was a struggle between the forces of Good (Franco's nationalists) and Evil (the communists and socialists), between christian civilization and revolution. When Hitler and Mussolini entered the war in support of Franco, L'Action catholique hardly found any cause for complaint: "If the Nazi dictator and the Fascist Duce have faults on their consciences, it is surely not for having succeeded in halting communist ambitions. Although their intervention may be a subject for discussion, they have still saved Europe from the Bolshevik peril."26

As for Hitler himself, Catholic circles were slow to criticize him. Needless to say, they did find that the Furrier's methods were sometimes brutal, but his iron discipline "is reestablishing order where otherwise disorder and total disregard for the right to life and property would have reigned. It is a lesser evil which has its greater advantages."27 Eugne L'Heureux, a well-known nationalist and editorial writer in various newspapers, went so far as to ask whether Hitler was not "richer than his detractors in this virtue that has become so rare among parliamentarians, and yet is so necessary: sincerity."28 In 1936, L'Action still found that the "strong method" was justified in the struggle against communism, since the adversary did not "tread lightly". And with regard to the persecution of the Jews, Quebec catholic circles shared the traditional anti-semitism of right-wing groups. Hitler may have had his faults, but "one has to give him credit for having snatched his country from the hands of the Communists by laying his iron hand on the disorderly elements, very many of whom, in Germany as in Russia, were Jews."29 With the passing years, and certainly right up until the end of 1938, the spokesman of the archdiocese of Quebec condemned the methods used against the Jews while justifying the campaigns against "these undesirables".

Other right-wing European dictators also won the admiration of catholic circles, but none, perhaps, was appreciated more than Portugal's Salazar. Later, Marshal Pétain drew the support of many Francophones in Canada. The Quebec right had always shown its antipathy towards the Third Republic, with its socialist, often anti-clerical governments. But the Vichy regime was received more favourably because it further incarnated the national and catholic tradition of old France. Marshal Pétain had dissolved the masonic lodges, restored the privileges of the religious communities, promised to organize France on a corporate, christian basis, and had replaced the revolutionary slogan "Liberté, ƒgalité, Fraternité!" with the motto "Travail, Famille, Patrie!" Of course, pro-Vichy sympathy started to decline as the regime fell under Nazi domination.

In the eyes of the clerical and nationalist elite in Quebec, therefore, communism appeared to be a decidedly more serious threat than fascism. Catholics could, of course, disapprove of the methods used by the fascist dictators, but they did endorse certain of their goals: the restoration of order and the containment of the Red peril. Despite the faults of the fascists, it was possible to believe in their redemption. Catholicism and communism, on the other hand, were irreconcilable. As Jules Dorion, the editor of L'Action catholique, wrote: "Fascism ... varies according to the character of the man who practises it.... Marxism ... which is embodied in today's communism, is the negation of that which differentiates man from beast and which makes of him an animal albeit more intelligent than the other animals, but whose fate is no different."30 Cardinal Villeneuve fully agreed. In a circular addressed to the diocesan clergy in 1937, the Archbishop of Quebec stated: "Dictatorship is far better than revolution."31 Thus at the approach of war, French Canada showed little interest in fighting the fascist dictators, the less because they were expecting the enemy to be communist Russia. Nonetheless, Hitler did not have significant support in Quebec in 1939 and, as the fighting

--87--


intensified, the sympathies of French Canadians were on the side of the allies. Canada, therefore, should participate in the war but without falling back on conscription for overseas service.

By contrast, the English maintained that Canada had to fight to save democracy from fascist tyranny and dictatorship. The Quebec elite hardly endorsed this goal: after all, dictatorship was sometimes necessary to maintain order. Eugne L'Heureux, for example, denounced the "illusion" of popular sovereignty, upholding the thesis that the masses were unsuitable to govern since "the Creator has not given them the ability."32 In 1937, Jules Dorion expressed the opinion that democracy and fascism could "both quench the thirst of peoples for justice."33 Louis-Philippe Roy, at Franco's announcement that he was setting up his dictatorship in Spain, refused to be shocked: "Dictatorship is not incompatible with Christian civilization. Salazar is a dictator about whom Europe has no cause to blush and of whom Christianity may legitimately be proud."34 Is it therefore surprising that it was impossible to whip up the enthusiasm of the Quebec elite for a crusade involving every sacrifice including conscription, by stressing the need to save democracy in its struggle with dictatorship?

Our primary interest here has been with the reactions of the clerical and nationalist elite, without attempting any analysis of the attitudes of the other groups comprising Quebec society. Even if we know that French Canada was almost unanimously opposed to conscription, our research does not permit us at this time to show whether ordinary mortals shared the concerns of their leaders. But in a society in which the church still occupied a very important position, in which few other institutions could really rival it, and in which the incidence of religious practice was extremely high, neither have we any reason to doubt the influence of the elite on the mass of the people. We have seen that the attitude of this elite towards the war and Canadian participation was based on nationalism and conservatism. But the man in street, of course, did not analyse the world in such elaborate terms. For him, the war was being fought in a far-off theatre and hardly touched him. He could agree that Canada should participate; but he certainly did not feel the necessity for conscription whose price he, in every likelihood, would be required to pay.

--88--

Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (6) ** Next Chapter (8)



Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation