How Far We Have Fallen: Canada’s Catholic Heritage


Charles A. Coulombe

O Canada!
Land of our ancestors
Glorious deeds circle your brow
For your arm knows how to wield the sword
Your arm knows how to carry the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of brilliant deeds
And your valor steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights.

As with Her Majesty’s Australian and New Zealand realms, the COVID-induced attacks upon the rights of the Queen’s Canadian subjects have been breath-taking. Those in the Province of Quebec have been particularly grotesque, ranging from a court forbidding a father to see his son to the feckless premier of la belle Province, François Legault, insisting upon extra taxes for those who have not been vaccinated. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau predictably applauded these measures. But both totalitarians are typical of the nadir to which the French-Canadian political class has sunk. Back in 2019, Legault violated his campaign promise not to remove the crucifix from the Speaker’s Chair in Quebec’s Parliament. The secularism bill he and his government shoved through might seem natural in to-day’s secular world; but it was the final touch in a long betrayal of the French-Canadian culture and nation by its leadership.

The translated words of the still-used French version of O Canada! quoted at the beginning of this article do give the flavour of French-Canadian history – much more than the anodyne and non-sectarian official English version. Every Catholic nation’s population – so long as the majority of them are indeed Catholic – believe that their own country has a Providential, even Divine Mission; this true from Spain, Portugal, and Ireland to Poland – and was true of the nations lost to the Protestant revolt (Norway established the first Catholic diocese in North America – at Gardar in Greenland). It is tragic that from time to time these visions were seen as conflicting rather than complementary.

This was certainly true of most French Canadians in the first half of the 20th century, for whom their history was indeed “an epic of brilliant deeds.” From the time the deeply Samuel de Champlain founded the City of Quebec in 1608, the stories of our early settlement were peopled with such saints as St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, St. Marguerite d’Youville (who introduced the Feast of the Holy Family to the Church), St. François de Laval, St. Marie de l’Incarnation, Bl. Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Ven. Jeanne Mance, and Ven. Jérôme Le Royer de la Dauversière. They in turn were heavily supported by France’s Queen Mother, Anne of Austria, and the devotees of the Compagnie du Saint Sacrement (a secret society dedicated to the expansion of the Catholic Faith – and including in its numbers St. Vincent de Pau) In the early days of the colony, the Jesuit Relations were written to let folk in France know how things were, and have since become at once spiritual, historical, and literary classics. The Order’s contribution to their nascent French and Indian flock was more than literary: six Jesuits sealed their commitment to God and their people with their blood: St. René Goupil (1642), St. Isaac Jogues (1646), St. Jean de Lalande (1646), St. Antoine Daniel (1648), St. Jean de Brébeuf (1649), St. Noël Chabanel (1649), St. Charles Garnier (1649), and St. Gabriel Lalemant (1649). Always outnumbered by their Protestant foes in the Thirteen English colonies to the South, their seemingly endless struggles with them produced many heroes: the devout knight who founded Montreal, Paul Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve; Adam Dollard, Sieur des Ormeaux, whose self-sacrifice at the head of his men prevented the Iroquois destruction of de Maisonneuve’s nascent settlement; Pierre Boucher de Boucherville, who became the prototype of the valiant and pious Canadian Seigneur; and on and on. So too with such explores as La Salle and the Le Moyne brothers – the Sieurs de Bienville and d’Iberville, who explored the Mississippi and in the latter two cases built the foundations of French Louisiana and the Gulf. As with the Spanish in the American Southwest and Florida, where the Lily went, the Cross followed. During the French Regime, the parish was the centre of everyday life, in the small settlements of Quebec, Montreal, and Trois Rivieres, and throughout the small villages. Religious orders of nuns taught children and managed hospitals, while the year revolved around the liturgical calendar.

The conquest by the British in 1759 and following cession of French Canada to them four years later initially seemed to threaten both the habitants’ Faith and culture. But the wisdom of successive governors and George III resulted in the Quebec Act of 1774. Although denounced in the Declaration of Independence, it not only guaranteed the French of Canada their free exercise of their Religion and partial support for it, it preserved their laws and extended the boundaries of the Province to include all the French-speaking settlements in what is now the American Midwest. As a result, the saintly Bishop Briand of Quebec rallied his flock against the American invasion, and excommunicated Fr. John Carroll for attempting to seduce the French Canadians from their allegiance.

The end of the American Revolution brought a flood of Loyalist English-speakers to New Brunswick and Ontario; despite the presence of a few Anglophone merchants in Montreal (who had mostly been pro-rebel) beforehand, this was the beginning of Anglo-Canada. From that time until now, the two “Founding Races” have lived in uneasy proximity. Because of their heritage of Loyalty to the Crown, however, the Monarchy became the only real bond of unity against the larger Southern neighbour. Two political tendencies would develop amongst the newcomers and their descendants down to the present: the first, the Liberals or “Grits,” who began by favouring annexation to the United States, in time would claim to be “Canadian” Nationalists, became Socialist, and are now the most faithful partisans of abortion and everything else unsavoury that masquerades as “modern.” The second are the Conservatives or “Tories,” who valued the country’s connection to Britain philosophically as a block to American liberalism. Among their best known more contemporary writers and thinkers were John Fathering (Freedom Wears a Crown) and George Grant (Lament for a Nation). But there were also Catholic Anglophones. Scots immigration began in 1772, with Highland refugees leaving Protestant landlords who were trying to force them to convert and settling on Prince Edward Island. In 1803, future Bishop Alexander MacDonell arrived in eastern Ontario with members of a militia unit of which he had been chaplain. The result of this is that there are more Catholics of Scots descent in Canada than in Scotland – and more native speakers of Scots Gaelic. Irish immigration also grew, and one of the Fathers of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, was an Irishman who was cured of his republicanism by a sojourn in the United States.

Meanwhile, as the 19th century wore on, the French-Canadian ethos developed under the aegis of such Churchmen as Montreal Bishop Ignace Bourget and Trois-Rivieres Bishop Louis-François Richer Laflèche and historian and journalist Jules Paul Tardivel, the “Canadian Veuillot.” For such thinkers, it became obvious that the French-Canadian has a providential role to play as an outpost of Catholic French civilisation in an Anglophone and Protestant continent. Their ideology was called “la Survivance,” – the survival, which was to be defended in three areas: Faith, Language, and Customs. Active defence of the first was seen in the departure of hundreds of young men for Italy to defend the Pope as Papal Zouaves in the 1860-70 conflict – which became a defining moment in the young nation’s emerging identity. Skirmishes were fought with the Anglophone majority over the schools in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba. That last-named province and Saskatchewan were the sites of rebellions in the 1870s and 80s by the French-speaking Metis, under the leadership of Louis Riel. This led to a great deal of ill-feeling between the two races for a while: forgotten by the French was Riel’s intermittent madness (during one of bout of which he had proclaimed himself Jesus’ younger brother); similarly ignored by the Anglos was that despite his dislike of the government in Ottawa, Riel had also rallied the Metis in the name of Queen Victoria against an incursion by Fenians from the United States.

Despite many setbacks and massive immigration to the mills of New England, the French-Canadian Nationality continued to develop. The Francophone Oblates of Mary Immaculate evangelised the Indians of the West, protected by the Royal Canadian mounted Police, whilst French Canadian farmers settled empty parts of Quebec and Ontario. Religious orders flourished; of many holy founders and foundresses we shall only mention the wonder-working Ven. Mother Catharine-Aurélie Caouette. She began the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood, whose convents rapidly multiplied across North America, and as far as China. Throughout the industrial towns of New England and upstate New York, “Little Canadas” sprang up – each centered on an ornate parish church built with immigrants’ pennies. The Midwestern States of Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska received contingents of French-Canadian farmers in various of their rural districts. Party distinctions among the French-Canadians could be fierce, but only a small minority were anti-clerical, which was rightly seen as an Anglophone affectation.

All of this would be tested by World War I. The Conscription Crisis led to a serious breach between French and English. After the War, Quebec was dominated culturally by Msgr. Lionel Groulx, the great historian, and Maurice Duplessis, arguably the greatest politician the French-Canadians ever produced. The two differed from each other on many points, but agreed on the providential nature of the French and Catholic Fact in North America. This was the era when the crucifix was placed on the Speaker’s chair in the Quebec Parliament and the Montreal City Hall, and when the intelligentsia of Quebec rushed to read Pius XI’s social encyclicals.

But some intellectuals resented the place the Church held in French-Canadian life; they envied the anti-clericalism and supposed freedom of their Anglophone and Metropolitan French counterparts. Many were Marxists. As the 1940s and 50s wore on, their numbers and influence grew; the death of Duplessis in 1959 marked the beginning of the rise of a totally secular and leftist Nationalism. In 1966, the Queen’s Representative in the Province of Quebec, Lieutenant Governor Paul Comtois, lost his life in a successful attempt to rescue the Blessed Sacrament when the Province’s Government House burned. Duplessis’ party lost power to the Liberals in Quebec the next year. Parallel with the implosion of Catholic self-identity after Vatican II, the new masters of the Province carried through the so-called “Quiet Revolution” – banishing the Church from every aspect of social life: education, health care, labour, and the like. Birth control and abortion were happily introduced. All the while the bishops did nothing. In the words of Msgr. Groulx: “What to think of our ‘silent’ episcopate – I am not the only one to say this – rather lacking in great personalities, moreover in a sad loss of influence, which decides to speak, very well indeed, on the occasion of the centenary of the Confederation, but which could not come to an agreement, according to all appearances, to effectively defend school confessionality, to curb the moral debacle, and which, without protesting, let itself be taken over by its seminaries or colleges, alone clergy recruiting centers? (…) We are descending little by little, but irrevocably towards intellectual mediocrity. In this field of the spirit, we will no longer walk hand in hand with the laity. Will we be redeemed by moral superiority? Will there be more saints among us? I would like to hope so.”

Unfortunate, his hopes were not fulfilled. From that day to this, the French Canadians within and without the Province have become ever more secular; their birthrate – once the highest in North America – has dropped below replacement numbers. Nor have the Anglo-Canadians benefitted, as most of them have lost their own sense of self-identity. What has replaced both is a bilingual moral and cultural vacuum, of which Trudeau’s and Legault’s dictatorial regimes are fitting representations. Perhaps it is a good thing the crucifix came down from the Speaker’s chair – there is no place for such a symbol in a bordello.