MY FRIEND, JEAN BAPTISTE
Being the first of a series of four articles in which an Ontario-born Canadian examines the Canada that is Quebec and thereby reveals an altogether charming people.
THE editor of MacLean's Magazine, in asking for these articles on Quebec, said in a letter:
“Elsewhere in Canada there has existed suspicion against Quebec and the French-Canadian. That suspicion,
I think, arises from the fact that the people of the other provinces know very little about French-Canada.
“I would like you to show the French-Canadian as he is. I would like you to point out what he did in the way
of colonizing his country, how he farmed a heartbreaking soil, how he is firmly anchored to very noble traditions. Such articles as I have in mind would dwell on the picturesque side of Quebec, its quaintness, its simplicity, its beauty. They would reveal the poetic side of the French-Canadian, his love of home, his appreciation of the fact that there is more than the dollar in life. They would describe the cultural aspect of the better class French-Canadian, a point often overlooked in other parts of the Dominion. They would show what the province has done in the way of encouraging literature and art. They would show how the Provincial Government has safe-guarded its natural resources more than has any other Provincial Government.”
That task is a delight to one who has found in Quebec, as I have, a spiritual home, and resents for the Québécois that misunderstanding of them which prevails elsewhere in Canada. I recall my school-days in a typical small Ontario town bordering on Quebec, the complete failure to impart to us any knowledge of Quebec or its people, although we were next door to it and they constitute onequarter of the population of Canada. Such knowledge as seeped through this neglect consisted of a hazy, ignorant and unfounded prejudice against a dim, far-off, mysterious Quebec, and a people of another language and religion, steeped in ignorance and superstition and anti-British prejudice, a sort of ill-conditioned foreigner, not Canadian at all. It is a tragedy that the majority of the people in that town, and in many towns like it, still adhere to that belief. What makes it worse is that the extent to which that prejudice has been partly shattered is due, not to their own eager thirst for truth, but to the unceasing fight the Québécois have maintained for their just treaty rights of race, religion and language.
People say: “Oh, to know Quebec you shouldn’t judge by the cities, nor the towns near them. Go down on the Lower St. Lawrence, the Gaspe coast and those places where the people haven’t mixed with the English-speaking people and been contaminated by the outside world and the movies.”
A residence of some years in this province has con-
vinced me that this is a wrong assumption. It is wrong because much the smallest portion of the Quebec population has not made connection with English-speaking people, the movies and the modern world; so if one wishes to study the French-Canadian as he is and not as he ought to be, one must study the French-Canadian who has effected these contacts with a broader, if not a better life. That assumption is right only to the extent one wishes to study the ideal French-Canadian, the old habitant type. However, we deal not with yesterday, but with to-day—and tomorrow.
A Contrast of Tongues
rpOR the purpose of this * study I will endeavor to reflect the life of a village and district forty miles from Montreal, intimately known to me. Such a community offers a faithful cross-section of the lives of the greater portion of the people of Quebec, and the word pictures of Quebec life pre-
sented throughout these articles will be drawn from personal observation.
This village is like several hundred others within easy commuting distance of Montreal, its native all-the-yearround population of about one thousand people consisting almost entirely of French, with a sprinkling of English
families, the word English being used here in the sense the French-Canadians use it: to designate all those who are not French. The natives of the village, both French and English, speak both languages. The summer residents, like most of the English residents of Montreal, are seldom acquainted with the French language, in direct contrast to even partially educated French-Canadians, nearly all of whom speak English; they have eager minds and they
are not self-conscious and afraid of being laughed at as we are when we speak a strange tongue. That is why even the simple country people of Drummond’s poems speak English of a kind. Although not exactly “matey,” the French and English natives of our village are quite friendly with one another. There is no ill-feeling, and racial trouble of any kind never occurs, the only noticeable antagonism being a tendency for each to favor its own race in its business dealings and social life; the French store secures the French trade, and except for my presence there, a French dance is a French dance, and vice versa.
The employment of the people is almost entirely of a casual nature and their employers are nearly all English. In the winter it is hard; there is not much to do except for the lucky few who have steady j obs. For the others, there is only “the ice,” our sole “industry,” a terrible job that demands the longest hours and the hardest toil on those days when the weather is most bitter, when the cruel wind drives over the lake at its worst, for it is then that the harvest of the ice is at its best. It must be cut and stored in the ugly ice-houses that deface the landscape of the lake’s otherwise beautiful shore. From there, all summer long, it goes in train-loads to keep Montreal cool. Aside from that, there are only odd jobs here and there at thirty cents an hour, three dollars a day, average income probably fifteen dollars a week or less. This small amount, however, is augmented in some families by the presence of daughters who, during the summer months, secure employment as maids amongst the summer residents.
Nevertheless, on these wages and with such casual employment, a great number of our people own their own homes or are slowly paying for them. The prevailing type of those homes in the French sections, typical of the entire province, even in the cities, takes the form of a particularly ugly looking flat roofed square house, of brick in the cities and frame in the village. Here and there in the country districts, particularly in those districts furthest removed from the railway and closest to the old life, this ugly style of architecture is relieved by the presence of charming little whitewashed
‘cottages of squared logs or of plaster, surrounded with flowers and shrubbery, vinecovered, with slender, sloping roofs of graceful curves and wide-spreading eaves. There are many such near here at Oka; in St. Joseph, almost the entire village is ef such construction.
Here Crime is Unknown
THESE homes and villages lack certain conveniences found in the ordinary Canadian or American village home, but they possess others not found there. For instance, there is no sewage system, nor is there a fire company. Neither is there any policeman or jail, for the excellent reason that none is needed, although we have a bar here. These are a law-abiding people and crime is unknown, During a residence of some years here I have never heard of any crime of robbery or violence occurring, although the houses of the summer residents, occupied in the winter time, offer an easy mark for robbery. Although beer and
wine is sold in the hotel and “hard” liquors can be purchased from a government store nearby, drunkenness appears to be the prerogative of the Anglo-Saxon; not that it is common amongst the latter, but such rare drunkenness as does occur, occurs almost exclusively amongst them. In the summer, this ordinary population is augmented by another thousand English people, golfers and so on of the genus business and summer-resident, with no definite philosophy of life such as these simple people have, as a class caring for little that the French care for—beauty and the art of living. Instead, they are taken up with the struggle for dollars, their greatest achievement is to beat last year’s sales record or to take a few strokes off their golf score. They set the tone of the place and dominate its whole life.
. They also furnish the chief source of income to the French families for the greater portion of the year; they employ the men as
gardeners and odd-job men, and their wives take the sisters and daughters, and sometimes the wives of their French employees, for maids and charwomen. The village shops, most of which are French-owned, depend on their patronage, and the farmers of the vicinity conduct with the visitors a thriving trade in butter and eggs and garden produce at prices fifty per cent, above those ruling in nearby villages, which are off the railroad and consequently neglected by the summer-people.
The village straggles irregularly but pleasantly for two miles along an elm-shaded river road on the banks of the Ottawa River. It consists of that one long main street, as yet unnamed—there is no hurry here—from which stubby streets a block long break off at irregular intervals, to pursue their short course back toward “the bush.” In those features it is exactly like nine-tenths of the Quebec villages. All are the same shape as the farms, parallelograms, and cling steadfastly to the railroad, the river and the main road; in short, to human society. In our village, however, a line of demarcation occurs smartly in the middle of the parallelogram. The lower half consists of the regular French residents, with a sprinkling, in the summer time, of English summer-residents. The upper half consists of the English summer-residents with a sprinkling of all-the-year-round French and English residents. Between the two groups of homes and residents is an
immense gap. The English are the employers; the French are the employed, in most humble employment too. Their attitude toward their employers more than fits that circumstance; it is almost reverential.
To them, the most ordinary of the English people who come for the summer months, and who seem to do so little work and yet live in what is to them great luxury, seem great “sports.” There is no mean envy though; their own lot in life is fixed and fatalistically accepted.
We have one movie theatre Which shows on Saturday nights—gala occasions—a Masonic Hall, a French, a United, and an English church; one French and one English school.
One would say this is not exactly a favorable setting for the continuance of the French mode of life. Obviously economically, the English dominate; and that usually decides . . .But .we shall see what happens in Quebec.
'T'HESE people, and all those of - Quebec, attract attention because, more particularly in the country districts, they resist the standardizing influence of a continent, and are so different to any other people found in North America. The traveller everywhere sees color, feels and absorbs the rich dramatic picture of a poetic people indelibly stamped with
a past which still lives. Cyril Maude recently said of Montreal something that applies to all of Quebec: “I feel here as though I were still on the stage; wherever I go, on the streets . . . everywhere, everybody seems to be doing ‘stage business.’ Life here is full of color and drama.”
Even the most humble of the Québécois give recognition in their lives of the fact, even though they may not be consciously aware that there is such a thing as what Havelock Ellis calls The Dance of Life, that all is not struggle for wealth and regret for failure; there is joy and there is beauty in simple living. Their teachers and their leaders stress greatly the less material side of life, remind them of the romance and the color of their past, and hold out to them the hope of a greater future. Thus all classes jealously guard the note of beauty and apply imagination to the drabness and duties of life. It is more true in the country, in a village such as this, than it is in the city, where, inevitably, certain classes have become “modern” in the worst sense. In the country, the farmer sings at his work and on the road before daylight in winter on the way to market, as he walks behind the load to keep warm; and one always finds the quick smile and the cheery word on the lips of the old-young mothers of large families in every farmhouse, though their work be endless and their beauty and their youth, in all but years, fled.
The old habitant type is not disappearing. One might as well say the French-Canadian race is dying out. The Québécois are so deeply rooted in their old customs, that the latter persist sid by side with the cheapest and trashiest of modern custom and thought, both active in the same individual. That this is an evolutionary development of persistent strength is proven by the fact that the anomaly occurs even in “the younger generation.” They do not entirely throw overboard the ideas of their elders, a fact due not only to the ingrained conservatism of a peasant people, but also to the patriarchal system of family discipline which is maintained in all sections of Quebec society; the family is sacred and the head of it is the head. While life persists, that head is the father. When he dies it is the mother. The younger generation merely pick up a few of the current ideas of the day and add them to their ancestral cargo. The English and the economic influ-
ence is only on the surface; it is like water washing over rocks. These people are like that; they go to the movies, occasionally to Montreal; they see the life and hear the talk of the average business Babbit . . . and with very few exceptions it leaves them entirely unmoved in all essentials. They may, chameleon-like, acquire some of those characteristics, but in the main they continue to live that deep inner life which is peculiar to themselves, which is in the very marrow of their bones.
Although the French-Canadian enjoys many aspects of life the great majority of Canadians neglect, they by no means allow their enjoyment of those things to interfere with their love of money. Largely of Norman ancestry, an ancestry synonymous with sharp practice in money matters, they prove that blood is thicker than water, and thrift, if not sometimes worse, is their middle name. A nearby priest of my acquaintance, noted for his good works, took, according to custom, goods in kind for church dues. In this way he accumulated great stores of wood and other commodities which he sold to the poorer of his parishioners at less than their market value. One day, a man outside his flock, asked the priest as a favor to sell him a quantity of oats which he knew the priest had thus secured. “No,” replied the latter, “these oats I have received from my people are only husks!”
“What?” exclaimed the other, “you let them do that to you?”
The priest shrugged his shoulders resignedly: “It’s their custom of centuries, I cannot change them.”
Contradicting that evidence is the practice of a certain doctor, also a French-Canadian, very much so. It is almost impossible to screw a bill out of him. His patients must dun him unmercifully, and, guiltily, he squirms like a small boy, evades the point, and invents weak excuses for his crime. The more practical members of his family say that he keeps no accounts, that they find amongst his papers weird memoranda of professional services: “Called twice at house of the man with the white dog” “medicine to girl with scar” . . . he does not even know his patients’ names! One thing is certain, his poorest patients never receive a bill.
He confirms the charge that his compatriots are more than thrifty when he complains of one feature of his own generosity. “These people— they cannot understand that—that someone will actually do something for nothing to help a fellow creature! They think it must be because I am very rich and do not need the money. They say: ‘Oh that doctor! He is
very rich! He must be. He does not charge!’ All they know or think of is money!”
Certainly one must accept with caution many of their statements and
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Continued, from page 9
promises in the ordinary transactions of business. Their offences in this respect are so frequent and flagrant that one is forced to the conclusion that they “know not what they do,” and that such conduct is due to the fact that they are in certain aspects, irresponsible children. Certainly any other explanation would be very hard on their character for truth-telling.
The Quebec Trilogy
THE Quebec faith is wrapped around a trilogy, love of land, language and religion. All three are inextricably interwoven. Disturb one and you disturb all.
In Oka there is a settlement of Iroquois Indians who, until sixty years ago, belonged to the Catholic Church. Various land troubles arose between them and the Sulpicians, who were, and still are, Seigneurs of Le Lac des Deux Montagnes, the Lake of Two Mountains, as a result of which the Iroquois seceded from the Church and eventually became Methodists, or, as they are to-day, Unionists. Nevertheless, the ancient influence lingers.
One of these Iroquois, a nice, quiet boy who neither speaks French nor has anything much to do with his French Roman Catholic neighbors, occasionally performs odd jobs for me. Early in this month of May as he was digging in my garden, he leaned on his shovel to remark: “On Ascension Day, that is the thirteenth, I will put in my own garden.”
“Why Ascension Day, particularly?” I
“Oh, things always grow better if you >ut the seed in on that day,” he earnestly issured me. “But why?” I persisted, mowing the reason, but wanting to hear iis. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said as he reumed his digging in a way that showed he lid not wish to discuss the matter, “but ve always do that; the garden grows
That is the general belief and practise >f the French; but it is the greater proof >f the strength of the belief that even the Indians, unfriendly to the French though hey are, and Methodists at that, conorm to it.
The belief has its sequel on November he first, which in the Church calendar is je Jour des Morts, All Soul’s Day, The Day of the Dead, or, The Day The Souls Valk. On that night the people will not venture from their houses for untold vealth; and it is the belief that it is im>ossible, it is sacrilege and the utmost Lisaster to dig in the earth on that day >ecause then the blood of the dead runs md that process must not be disturbed.
A neighboring French lady related an ixperience she had last Autumn. She was nost anxious to set out certain tulip bulbs is the season was already far advanced. )n “The Day of the Dead,” she was in he grounds with her gardener, a man who las worked for her for years, so she intructed him to plant them.
“No! No!” he exclaimed as his face
blanched and showed every indication of extreme fear. “Don’t mention such a thing Madame! Not on the ‘Day of the Dead!’ You will disturb their blood! No! No! I cannot do it, and it is not safe to even talk about it!” He cast a frightened glance about him.
“But you must!” she ordered. - “See! My tulips! They will be ruined.”
“No! No! I cannot!” he cried again, torn between fear of his employer and the unseen, but not equally.
“Here!” she exclaimed impatiently. “Look! I will show you! ... See! I will strike the earth myself, and no blood will flow!” And she seized the spade. “No! No!” he moaned, covering his face with his hands. “I will not look!” and turned away, shuddering as he heard the spade strike home. Nor did he look, nor did he dig. In Quebec there are some things more powerful than economics and the fear of losing one’s job.
T MENTIONED both of these beliefs to
my confidante, Madame O’Malley, a French woman with an Irish name, an intensely practical person, and, furthermore, one whom I suspect of giving but lip allegiance to the rites of her church and the customs of her people. It is this that makes her opinion an acid test for me of things I hear upon which I desire an opinion that is if anything, cynical and unbelieving. If it passes Madame O’Malley I know it is all right for my purpose.
She had been laughing a moment before, but at the mention of this matter she became suddenly serious. “Well, I don’t know,” she said, doubtfully, as she stopped to bite a thread, for she wras, as usual, sewing. “It’s not lucky to dig on that day. That is sure! I have not seen it myself, but others have, I know that. My man, he would not dig on that day, not for anything. Sooner would he cut his own hand off. Myself I never knew anybody that would dig on ‘The Day the Dead Walk.’ One man there was a long time ago, but I did not see it; he laughed about it at Mass and said he was not scared for that. He went ploughing on that morning after Mass, and my husband’s father ... he saw him in the field. That man who laughed, he saw the blood run so he stood right still where he was ploughing ... so scared he could not speak! Of course,” she added reassuringly, “I did not see it myself.”
So that was that. When Madame O’Malley even faintly believes any one of the numerous current local legends, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that every other French person around here implicitly believes it.
A Quebec priest once said: “We do not need to go to the people. We are there!” He was right. They are. There is not an episcopate in the world more faithful to the Vatican than is Quebec. It is natural and it is just. In the days after the British conquest of Canada, the small French
population of Quebec was left at the mercy of former foes who, however good the intentions of their government, were not always careful to observe the spirit of the treaty enacted to ensure just treatment for the defeated French. Their own natural leaders of the upper classes for the most part deserted them, either by returning to France or by coming to terms with the British, sometimes at the cost of the poorer classes of their own race. In that crisis, casting about for leadership, the habitant found what he sought in the priests of the Church who made their cause the cause of the Church, just as in an earlier day was done in the Protestant church in Scotland under similar circumstances, and with the same result. The church, a different one in each case, secured the earned confidence of the people and a hold on them which time only deepens.
These things help to explain some of the anomalies of life in Quebec, these huge religious edifices of grey stone, wealth and power in every line, thrusting splendid spires up amidst the humbleness of small hamlets; the large families enjoined by the civil and religious authorities, irrespective of the visible means of support for them and the poverty and ignorance that sometimes result as a consequence. As a result of the respect in which the Church is held and the power it wields, it is safe to say that if his affairs make him dependent upon the goodwill of his own race; if he desires to enter politics, business, a profession, or if he is a farmer and merely wishes to retain the respect and confidence of his neighbors; in short if he wants to prosper in any material way, and unless he is prepared for business and social ostracism, the average FrenchCanadian must observe his religious duties and otherwise, ostensibly at least, subscribe to the tenets of the official Church of his race. Those few amongst them who do not do so either leave Quebec or merge their social and business life *with that of their English-speaking compatriots. But such rebels are few.
The Church Crier
RELIGION enters not only into the things of the soil; it enters into every department of French-Canadian life. There is that unique and ancient custom of Quebec, thriftily French in its utilization of religion for mundane ends, of crying from the church steps after “ten o’clock Mass” each Sunday morning, the news and announcements of the coming week, religious and secular alike— special church services, election notices, auctions, all public gatherings. Originating in the dim past when there were no newspapers, the custom is still extraordinarily useful in the way it reaches the people of the “back-country” who regularly come to Mass every Sunday, even if they do not often read a newspaper, or, because of the isolation of their farms, seldom have an opportunity for a good gossip with a neighbor.
The officiating personage is le Bedeau, a combination of bell-singer, sexton and usher, who is the equivalent of the old English beadle. He comes out on the stone steps of the church after the last Mass, where all the people are gathered together, gossiping and exchanging the news of the week before they break up to go home, while they wait for him; the more impatient of them perhaps already at the hitching rack untying their horses for the long drive home. There and then he cries his news.
Such little customs, unimportant in themselves, partly explain the hold of the church on the French people of Quebec; its usefulness; the way it enters into their daily lives and actually serves their wants, not only in the things of the spirit but in those of the body and the purse; religion is made practical and useful for them. Similarly, it does not oppose but associates itself with any cause which seems worthy and which its flocks seem anxious to espouse. It does not fight current views; it goes with them. It is thus with education in Quebec. The time, perhaps, was when the church was not too anxious to forward that cause; it tended to take the young people out into the world, away from Quebec, and lost them to the province and the church. But to-day the church leads in a constant enlargement of the already large educational programme of the province which is so ably directed and fostered by the Provincial Secretary.
Elsewhere, in a nearby factory town, the priest informed me: “The managers of these factories, they are decent fellows and they understand how things are here: We have many people, and there is not always work for all, so although the employers are English and owe no allegiance to us, when there is hiring and firing to be done, especially any laying-off 'of the hands, they come to us and they say: ‘Here, Father, we have to lay off so and so many people. Now you know what families in the parish need work most. Here is how many we must get rid of; you tell us which ones should go to do the least harm.’ I tell them,” he pursued, “and they do it. That is sensible co-operation for we know intimately every family.”
It is in these things, which to civilized and sophisticated minds the world over, are the most important things in the life of man, that we are hopelessly inferior to our French compatriots.
Instinct For Beauty
THAT spirit of the instinct for the beautiful is met with everywhere in the combined activities of church and people. The former thus becomes a strong binding force of all the qualities of the people it serves, and offers one of the most splendid mediums for the expression of the dramatic note in their lives. Nowhere can processions more picturesque be seen than those produced in every little village on saints’, and other fete days, to say nothing of Montreal and Quebec where the supreme effect of religious artistry and worship is reached. On those days, in every city and village, the caps of spectators are doffed and all sink to their knees as, followed by surplice-clad choristers and long lines of priests in brilliant or in black robes, preceded by boys swinging censors as they chant, the elevated Host goes by in the Fete de Dieu, or the Feast of Corpus Christi. All take their places in the procession that winds its way, singing, through the streets to the village church, and each house is dignified with its humble little altar set out in the front yard, bright with streaming ribbons and masses of newly-cut flowers—not only in such simple villages as this but in the more sophisticated cities.
In Montreal it is a scene of great grandeur as the mile-long procession passes through decorated streets densely packed by reverent spectators. The officiating priest, robed in the processional vestments, holding in front of him the shining monstrance, with its gilded points radiating from the central receptacle containing the Host, and thus enhancing its position in the sight of the people. As the Host is borne past, all the devout kneel in adoration to the Corpus Christi, until it has passed by. As the Sacred Host is borne by the Fathdr Provincial along the route, the people kneel reverently on the sidewalks. Those in the procession under the direction of one of the Franciscan fathers, pray and sing hymns, as they walk along. The concourse of people shows as deep a reverence as if within the four walls of a church. In that solemn moment of the Mass, at the elevation of the Sacred Host, a great hush falls over the assembly of kneeling men and women, devout in prayer and thanksgiving . . .
Such festivals and holidays are endless in Quebec and are in fact a frequent interruption to business, so much so that, except on the more important ones, only the French-Canadians close their offices and shops; others do not, the holidays are too frequent. There are two or three holidays in Quebec throughout the year to one elsewhere in Canada. They are not all religious holidays, because the people so greatly love any social gathering that they are apt to seize on any occasion for holiday. Some years ago nineteen out of the thirtyfive religious holidays of the year were suppressed or conveyed into Sunday for dual celebration, and later fourteen more were suppressed; but others crept in and still continue to do so; and their number still is legion. But each one is a drama in itself and as such is celebrated.
One sees in all these things the manifestation of that great love of beauty which characterizes the most humble of this race, a love of beauty, a joy in life, that owes much to a simple life lived close to the soil and understanding it.
This is the first of a series of four articles by Mr. Pearson on Quebec. The second mil appear in an early issue.