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Je Me Souviens: Remembering Quebec

By Juli Loesch Wiley


This article was originally published in Caelum Et Terra, Spring 1995, Volume 5, no 2, and is used here with the author’s permission.

To obtain permission to republish this article, contact the author by clicking on the author's name link above.



            Caelum et Terra readers who cherish agrarian ideals and the possibility of a comprehensive Catholic culture will be interested to know that there was at one time a large Catholic agrarian society quite close to us on this continent.  I am speaking, of course, of Quebec.


            I am also speaking in the past tense.  In the 1960's there was a Revolution Tranquile--- a "quiet revolution" --- which can be described, it seems to me, as an extraordinary example of socio-suicide.


            Two hundred years ago --- and in some areas, as recently as 50 or 60 years ago--- Quebec's rural people lived almost as the European peasantry did in premodern, pre-capitalist times.  They engaged in mixed farming, forestry, fishing, poultry-raising, livestock, and dairying, and the crafts associated with farm pursuits.  A significant part of the rural economy was non-monetary (barter and production for home consumption) with a flourishing birthrate and a family- and Church-centered ways of life.


            The French-Canadian Catholic hierarchy was explicitly resistant to economic individualism, urban commotion, and intellectual "freethinking" as practiced in Anglophone Canada and to the south in the United States.  An unbroken series of vigorous French-speaking bishops were determined to lead the collective effort to maintain a distinct Quebecois society.  The majority of French-Canadians supported the bishops in this cultural separatism: it was a genuinely popular goal.  And for the better pat of two hundred years their efforts were successful.


            Indeed Catholicism permeated French-speaking Quebec.  Virtually all French-speaking children attended Church schools.  There were very large numbers of religious vocations: as late as 1941, there was one man or woman in religious orders for every eighty-five Quebec Catholics.  All schools, hospitals, and social welfare institutions were staffed by religious orders.  The Church dominated publishing.  Labor unions, agricultural societies, and civic and fraternal groups were Catholic organizations.  Church holy days were civil holidays.


            The size of families remained large in the early years of the 20th century, with Quebec's population doubling every quarter-century.  Pilgrimages to rural and urban shrines were common.  And the Church exercised its vigilance in sponsoring farmers' co-ops and fending off socialism and Freemasonry (as well as suppressing practices such as attending dances, concerts, or plays during Lent!)


            Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal for more than thirty-five years in the mid-nineteenth century, went so far as to instruct his priests to pass the word to parishioners that they were to vote only as the clergy advised.  Voters should consult with their priests, who, by following the word of the bishop (who in turn followed the Pope), would give them political direction from Jesus Christ.  These extreme statements earned Bourget a rebuke from other Canadian Catholics and eventually from the Pope himself.


            The particular style of Bourget's politics had faded away y 1900, but for several more decades a fairly stable French-Catholic culture remained.  The province had the highest rate of weekly church participation of any region of comparable size in the world; Quebec City remained a bastion of Pius IX-type piety and conservative politics until well after World War II.


            Most Canadian Protestants, and even many non-French Catholics (e.g., the substantial numbers of Irish, Slavic, and Italian immigrants and their descendants who settled mostly in Montreal) viewed efforts to defend a closed French-Catholic society as misguided or worse.  But for generations of French Canadians, the successful implementation of  an ultramontane Catholicism gave rich inspiration to distinctively Quebecois music and liturgical arts and family folkways, providing as degree of intellectual, social domestic and religious stability found nowhere else in North America, except perhaps in the Hispanic Southwest.


            Certain factors had long been working against this stability, however, and the accumulation of many stresses began to show its effect toward the middle of the 20th century.


            Most of Quebec is not suitable for agriculture.  The Canadian Shield, a slab of earth's granite crust with thin, rocky soil and stretching into very cold latitudes, covers ninety-five percent of the province. Composed of rugged woodlands and, to the north of the Larentian Hills, treeless frozen tundra, it can support very little human population.


The most fertile and most  densely populated zone is a narrow region in the southernmost five percent of Quebec: the lowlands of the St. Lawrence Plain.  Even here, prospects for agricultural prosperity are limited.  (Many of the farms in the Eastern Townships average a growing season of only 100-130 days.)


            Almost all of the farms of Quebec were operated by their owners: they were family farms.  But the fertile lands suitable for cultivation were fully occupies one hundred years ago.  Favorable condition s for population growth disappeared as farms were subdivided into smaller and smaller plots.  By the mid-20th century, half of all Quebec farms were under one hundred twenty acres.  A good deal of this acreage was in woodlot and pasture;[ conditions did not permit intensive cultivation or high productivity.


            Unlike the Amish, Quebec farmers did not have a rooted tradition of cooperation.  Tooo many farmers were isolated, wretched, and deeply suspicious of their neighbors.


The Church strongly favored the formation of mutual aid societies and farmers' clubs.  In a remarkable paragraph in their 1937 Pastoral Letter on the Rural Crisis, the bishops had this to say about L'Union C atholique des Cultivators (the Catholic Union of Farmers, or U.C.C.):


If, for example, the U.C.C. were able to enroll all the members of our farming community,  it would ensure a stronger and better adapted political     

Representation… a safeguard for the defense of collective interests… confidence and enthusiasm in the hearts of all of our worthy farmers… Such a professional association, supported by all the classes of society, would maintain the agricultural character of our rural schools… deliver our rural class from the exactions of the money-power, and would make our farming world a vast economic force… promote the creation of industries in keeping with local needs and resources… address other defects in  our financial system, and also in other matters relating to roads, railroads, hydro-electricity, by bringing them all back to a fundamental policy which places the family first.


            Visionary bishops proposed that Quebecois could develop a true rural civilization, steering clear of both capitalist individualism and socialist collectivism.  Indeed the Church explicitly championed producers' cooperatives and solidarity at every level of society.


            Did this vision succeed?  Partly.  Clearly not enough.  Quebec's bishops, in their Pastoral Letter, went on to complain that many farmers still tended  to operate in ignorance and isolation, even when their ignorance resulted in the ruin of their farms, and their isolation guaranteed misery for their depressed and struggling families.


            About 1,500,000 Quebecois, over a century and a half, were forced to emigrate: they scattered to other parts of Canada and to the United States:  about 500,000 of them settled in New England alone.


            This was all complicated by the fact that in some ways Quebec was like a Third World country in relation to the rest of Canada.  The agriculture-poor Canadian Shield is incredibly rich in mineral resources.  Between 1910 and 1970, mineral production increased 10,000% in gross dollar value (not accounting for inflation.)  This huge growth was matched by the development of spectacular hydropower resources, and very rapid industrialization.


            Quebec's economic growth, however, did little change the economic position of French-Canadians.  Most of the mines and extractive industries wee (and are) owned by Anglo-Canadian business concerns and by multi-national corporations.  All electric power in Quebec was nationalized in 1963; the forests of the North are likewise under the control of Ottawa, not Quebec.


            I can't do more than sketch the economic picture here.  Let me just say that as Quebec produced more and more wealth, the rural Quebecois somehow got more and more marginalized.


            Between 1955 and 1970, the yearly birthrate plunged from almost fort per thousand to about fifteen per thousand --- below replacement level--- bringing about a demographic crisis.  The rural population aged, and the number of people who were poor, disabled, unemployed, and requiring government assistance increased.


            The nature of the economy changed precipitously.  During the Second World War, industry dislodged agriculture from its economic dominance.  An avalanche of men and women, eager to shake themselves free from a legacy of agricultural depression, abandoned their small and failing farms and roared into the cities where jobs and social services could be obtained.


            In the smaller cities and greater Montreal the Church evidently lacked the resources to massively reorganize its parishes and schools to deal with the unprecedented high tide of recently urbanized country people.


            Just as well, some people said.  Catholic education had long been scandalously two-tiered.  There was a highly formal and traditional curriculum --- Greek, Latin, mathematics, philosophy and theology --- in the colleges classiques for those whole families always comprised the professional and, I could almost say the "episcopal" class.  And there were the rural parish schools for the rest: too often this meant a superficial or nominal training in the matters of faith, and the bare rudiments of literacy and numeracy.


            Many country had been pulling their boys out of school as soon as thy were old enough to work in the lumber camps of the North and earn a pittance for their families.  And for the girls?  The same, but less…


            The bishops, aware of the grave dangers of rural stagnation and illiteracy, proposed to reform the parish schools to focus on subjects essential to rural development: principles of soil conservation and animal husbandry, management and farm economics, the development of a solid, well-trained, well-read leadership for the network of credit unions, agricultural colleges and cooperatives which the Bishops envisioned in their hard-hitting 1937 Pastoral Letter on the rural crisis.


            Perhaps it was already too late.


            Simultaneously, another---- and opposite--- trend was developing.  There was always a certain amount of status for those of the urban elite who were able to send their children to be educated in France.  Beginning in the 1930's, and increasingly in the post-war period, the universities in France became dominated by a Marxist intellectual class.  The French Empire in Africa and Indochina bred its polar opposition the campuses: the radical Left anti-imperialist intellectual community.  This avant-garde increasingly dedicated itself to supporting Marxist and nationalist revolutions in Algeria and Mozambique, in Vietnam and Cambodia, in French Polynesia and Micronesia, you name it--- and in Quebec.


            Of course Quebec was not a French colony--- not since the end of what we Americans call the French and Indian War.  But the children of Quebec's urban elite, educated in France--- or students at Quebec universities influenced by imported, radicalized French faculty --- was being formed in that same tumultuous intellectual milieu.  (Pol Pot, the butcher of Cambodia, was educated in Paris, joining the French Communist Party in 1952: the same Party which Ho Chi Minh had joined two years earlier.)


            Nieces and nephews of monsignors--- and, too often, monsignors themselves--- called for a thoroughgoing radicalization ad secularization of French Canadian society.  The new class called for the "masses" of Quebec to "untie themselves from the rosary and the plow," to "stop being backward" and to "join the rest of the world."  The bold ones called openly for a Soviet Quebec.


            Pierre-Elliot Trudeau comes to mind as an example of this new class: urban, cosmopolitan, dismissive the rural habitants and their irritating pieties; and utterly devout in his attentiveness to the new State monopolies buttressed by a burgeoning bureaucratic apparatus that seemed to be, suddenly, everywhere.


But even more important, in the long run, were the revolutionaries in the household of the Faith.  Writes one commentator:


[Since the 1930's at least], intellectual trailblazers among the Jesuits and Dominicans had openly professed their Marxism.  By 1958, communist student groups had already been organized in the Church's leading institution of higher learning, Laval University in Montreal… The Dominican Georges-Henri Levesque, dean of Laval's faculty of social sciences, boasted of having transformed the faculty into a leftist cell and its retreat house, Maison Montmorency, into a leftist club for revolutionaries--- all before 1960.


            So you had a world-wide Depression  in the thirties.  A small, feverishly radical University-educated avant-garde in the cities.  A large number of nearly-illiterate habitants on the farms.  And then the catalyst:  World War II.


            In 1943, the province made schooling compulsory for the first time.  The rural/village parish structure became increasingly irrelevant as the population of Quebec went from twenty-five percent urban in 1930 to about eighty percent urban in 1960; greater Montreal alone ballooned out  to absorb almost forty percent of the population of Quebec Province by mid-century.


            In 1964 a provincial Ministry of Education was created, and for the first time in Quebec history the Catholic Church was not in control of the schools.


            Distorted interpretations of Vatican II crippled the old Quebecois sense of the Church as un unchanging rock of stability and sanity.  Leading academics (including theologians. Of course) flicked away Humanae Vitae like a piece of lint.  Catholic traditionalists were humiliated, their confidence shaken. In the late 60's, it even became chic to adopt "church words" pertaining to the vessels of the altar, phrases from the Sacred Liturgy, etc. as obscene and scatological swear-words. 


             Criticism of Catholic institutions of a sort once rarely heard now became incessant.  Attendance at the Sunday Liturgy plummeted.  Reception of the Sacraments was abandoned.  Between 1960 and 1970, more than a third of the professed religious "took a walk," repudiating their solemn vows, and this caused incalculable scandal.  Mass defection from the priesthood "orphaned" hundreds of parishes; some once-flourishing men's and women's religious orders virtually disappeared.


            Social pathologies became rampant.  It was as if Quebec had caught a kind of sociological AIDS: any opportunistic infection that came long prostrated hundreds of thousands.  There was effectively no immune reaction.  Suddenly, disastrously, people had no resistance.


            Forms of disintegration never before seen in Quebec--- family breakup, family-abandonment, and non-family-formation, youth drug addiction and horrific violent crime, Pill-inspired promiscuity and teenage pregnancy, abortion and suicide-- hit had in the late sixties with the suddenness of a hurricane.


            Quebec went from having the highest birthrate in Canada, to having the highest rate of male and female sterilization in all of North America.  Much as the left-wing French-speaking intellectuals fulminated about "cultural genocide" and the absorption of Quebec into Anglophone Canada, they promoted--- and then, could not stop--- the demographic collapse which still seems to be irreversible.


            Church schools--- gone.

            Catholic hospitals-- gone.


            Gone too were the charities-- the social services--- the benevolent societies--- which had once been the main solace and protection of the poor.


            Every important institution in Quebec fell from the hands of a shaken, disoriented Church and was snatched into the grip of a burgeoning, contemptuously secularist State.


            Almost overnight, it seemed, a stable synthesis of Catholic, French, rural, conservative, isolationist, and pre-capitalist values had vanished.


            Of course, pockets of personal piety remained.  You can still draw crowds for saints' day celebrations in Montreal, even today.  But the Catholic cultural milieu was gone.


            With several decades' perspective, we can both marvel at the strength of that two-hundred-year-long French Catholic synthesis, and wonder at its incredibly swift collapse.


            I myself am no historian, so I can only ask questions and hope that others can supply the answers.


What  follows is a series of "what-ifs." Perhaps they are pipe-dreams.  Perhaps, on the other hand, they are to some degree plausible within the real history of Quebec.  Who can say?  But bear with me for awhile: perhaps such "what-ifs" can uncover the conditions for building a sustainable agrarian-spiritual community.  I want to discover whether such communities are realistic to hope for at all.  I want to trade the "what-ifs" for "yes, ifs."  I want some of the answers to be "yes."


What if the rural Canadiens had reduced their childbearing one hundred years earlier (through even more widespread celibate monasticism, delayed marriage, or whatever forms of abstinence were available to them) so that the farms could be passed on from generation to generation without being reduced in size below the limits of economic viability?  And what if  Church sponsorship of cooperatives had started one hundred years earlier?  Would that have stabilized the rural culture?  And would a non-growing but sustainable rural culture have been able to resist the forces of urbanization and secularization?


Or what if the French-speaking, intensely Catholic farm folk kept having their fine large families, but sent their young people off to start new colonies to the south rather than watch them be culturally vaporized by piecemeal emigration and urbanization?  Would a long-term, systematic plan of group emigration and colony-planting have sufficed to keep their beloved, traditional way of life alive?  (Isn't colonization the way the Amish deal successfully with tier child-rich, land-based way of life?)


What if urbanization can't (or shouldn't) be stopped forever?  The Church flourished with most French-Canadians were country people; what if the Church had been able to "move with the people" when the  countryside emptied into Montreal?  Did the end of agrarianism have to mean the collapse of Catholicism?  Was the old line of the bishops right or wrong in linking Catholicism so inextricably to a rural, pre-capitalist way of life? 


What if the bishops had themselves been revolutionary?


For two centuries, the hierarchy of Quebec was politically and economically--- as well as socially and religiously--- conservative.  They urged loyalty to the British Crown, to the Ottawa government, and to the powers-that-be: an orientation which enabled them to negotiate the survival of the Catholic community in 1763, but which it might have been wise for them to re-think 150 - 200 years later.  As it was, they opposed revolutionary movements of any stripe.  The bishops of Quebec (unlike the Bishops of Rome) were even slow to recognize the right of laborers to organize, out of fear that unions upset the hierarchical order given by God.  In many ways, they forfeited the loyalty of the urban working class.


If the birthrate remained high, and massive emigration did not relieve the stress, the result may well have been tremendous, even explosive population pressure. This might have generated a surging political movement for securing that Quebec's wealth be used for the benefit of Quebec's people.  And then, what if the Church herself had provided the voice demanding that the forests, the vast mineral resources, the stupendous hydroelectric generating capacity be developed by and for Quebec---- not Ottawa--- and not Wall Street?


Could a conservative Church have allied herself with the resultant revolutionary energy--- without succumbing to the Marxist temptation?


As it played out, the revolutionary ("Vive Quebec libre" )movement was viciously anti-Church.  But what if a loyal and energized laity--- the parish-based, cooperatively-organized farmers of the U.C.C., in league with loggers and mineworkers and urban industrial unionists--- had taken the lead in demanding the redistribution of resources from the economically dominant English-speaking to the downtrodden French-speaking Canadians?


With control of the resources--- and control of the time-table and direction of their own development--- could the Quebecois have managed an orderly transition to a widely prosperous, mixed urban-rural, still-Catholic polity?


What if it had been different?  Could the Church of the habitants, humble, unsophisticated, devout, have shielded them somehow from the tsunami of social and political changes--- many of them pathological--- which has engulfed every other agrarian society on the planet?  Or could the Church have equipped them to ride that tidal wave somehow. To "surf" it, to come out steady and on their feet?


Their traditional piety, the piety of Pius IX, taught them to be lambs: obedient, long-suffering, in some ways too easily led.  Could these lambs have learned something new from the "New Things" of Leo XIII, that lion of social justice?


Quebec's motto, "Je me souviens" ("I remember") is inscribed below its coat of arms which bears three symbols: there's the fleur de lis for France and the maple leaf for Canada.  The third symbol is the  lion.


Perhaps what an agrarian society requires to sustain itself is the power to resist.  They need the power to reconfigure their own institutions rapidly (particularly the schools) and then say "no" to the omnivorous, omnicompetent State.  The power to decisively exclude outside interests eager to exploit the forests and minerals and the people of the land.  The heart to envision the cooperative-based, solidarity-oriented rural civilization --- a new kind of community--- and the teeth and claws to enforce it.


What if what Catholic-Canadien agrarianism really needed was the power to fight back?  Perhaps what the fleur de lis and the maple leaf needed was the lion after all.



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