Quebec and the War

Despite difficulties Jean Baptiste is doing well as a volunteer. Convince him that the Hun is at our gate, not at somebody else’s gate; and he would accept conscription

Says LESLIE ROBERTS August 1 1941

Quebec and the War

Despite difficulties Jean Baptiste is doing well as a volunteer. Convince him that the Hun is at our gate, not at somebody else’s gate; and he would accept conscription

Says LESLIE ROBERTS August 1 1941

Quebec and the War


Despite difficulties Jean Baptiste is doing well as a volunteer. Convince him that the Hun is at our gate, not at somebody else’s gate; and he would accept conscription


WHAT ARE the facts about French Canada and the war? When French-Canadian leaders of Church, State and Press preach, broadcast or write pro-war, are they running against the stream of public opinion in their own bailiwick? Is their attitude merely a pose to cloak lukewarm sentiments? And if French-Canadians are not contributing their full share to the war effort, why not?

What follows is the report of a fact-finding expedition penetrating the jungles of Ottawa and Quebec City to the highways and byways of Quebec’s down-river country, urban and rural. While it is not possible to consider today’s events, as regards the conscription question, without briefly examining the back drop of the past, the time dealt with is primarily the hour in which we are living, because it is in the Here and Now that liberty fights for survival, not in 1917, not in 1837, not when the French were taking Canada away from the Indians, nor when the English, in turn, were taking it away from the French.

Two questions require answers: 1. What part has French Canada played in the war up to now, and 2. Is Quebec’s antipathy to conscriptive service outside Canada insurmountable, or can a solution be found satisfactory to Englishand French-Canadian alike? (Thatter, it shoulde l

be noted, appears to take for granted that English Canada wants conscription and would vote for it—which is pure assumption.) But, first, about the record.

“Win or Perish”—Lapointe

ARE at war. We must work, fight, win or perish

V * together!” The words were addressed to his fellow French Canadians by Justice Minister Lapointe on the eve of the Victory Loan campaign. He added: ‘‘Let there be no division of section, of race, no division of nationality or religion.”

It was not the first time Ernest Lapointe had urged French Canada to an all-out war effort. In September, 1939, he had led the French-speaking members of the Commons in support of the resolution advising the Governor-General to ask I lis Majesty to let Germany know about Canada. A few weeks later, when Maurice Duplessis dissolved Quebec’s legislature and called a snap election because of the “invasion of provincial autonomy” of Ottawa’s war measures, then made his famed Participation speech at Three Rivers, Ernest Lapointe and Charles Cavan Power, Canada’s two-fisted Quebec-Irish Minister'of National Defense for Air led the anti-Duplessis drive. The results you know. What happened in the subsequent Federal elections is also a matter of common knowledge. Ancient history now, but that is the record.

Quebec chose pro-British Adelard Godbout to replace the “nationalistic” Duplessis. After Mayor Houde had been removed to a detention camp (by a French-Canadian Superintendent of R.C.M.P. on the orders of the FrenchCanadian Minister of Justice) for urging Quebec to resist National Registration as, he declared, the forerunner of conscription, Montreal ignored the Iloudist candidate for the mayoralty—and the province registered without demur.

Church dignitaries, led by the* French-Canadian Cardinal Villeneuve, outspokenly proclaim the war a fight to the death to save Christianity. The French-language press, including its two strong papers of clerical tone, l'Action Catholique oí Quebec and Lc Devoir oí Montreal, is definitely pro-war, though anti-conscriptionist. Yet the statement continues to circulate outside Quebec that French Canada is not doing its bit. The deep-seated antipathy to conscription for service overseas is accepted as indicative of apathy. One outside observer, Life's Eliot Janeway, has even called French Canada “pro-Axis” and its people “an ideal Nazi Fifth Column.”

Defense Minister Ralston is authority for the statement that Quebec has filled its quota in every drive for recruits. On June 1, the writer was informed by an authoritative source that French-Canadian enlistment in the present drive for 32,000 men was slightly better pro-rata than that of English Canada. However, it can be said that total French-Canadian enlistment in the active Army, Navy and Air Force, as of June 1, was below the ratio between English - speaking and French - speaking {populations. Nevertheless there are underlying causes, which have nothing to do with apathy or enthusiasm.

Language Difficulty

'“TAKE, first, the Air Force. In setting forth qualifications

for young men desirous of becoming pilots, observers, gunners and navigators, an educational standard was necessary. So one was written into the rules. It entailed, among other items, fluency in English, in which language the Commonwealth countries happen to be conducting the war. Other yardsticks were required and these, too, were established. In general they may be described as those of the Ontario educational system. They were not set up by the politicians, but by the qualified top men of the R.C.A.F.

But the major language of Ontario is not the language of Quebec, and the education standards of Ontario are not those of Quebec either. Quebec’s schools of the higher learning have leaned from the time of their inception toward what are generally called the liberal arts. Not until June, 1941, for example, did Laval University produce a course leading to the degree of Mining Engineer satisfactory to the Corporation of Professional Engineers of Quebec. Ontario, on the other hand, carries the student along more rapidly in the subjects classes under the science heading.

Quebec is out in front in some respects, but behind in others, and the others happen to be the subjects most likely to qualify a young man for a technical or mechanical job. Although Premier Godbout is presently engaged in reshaping his school system, some years will pass before the new product begins to roll down the assembly line with a diploma in its hand. There lies the crux of the Air Force problem as regards French-Canadian enlistment, a condition which has sent thousands of young Frenchspeaking Canadians back to their homes, bitterly disappointed because they cannot learn to fly.

The fault lies not with the applicant or the Air Force, but with the school system. Obviously we cannot assemble squadrons in which numerous pilots, navigators or gunners can’t speak English. In the last war it didn’t mattei. If we talked in the air we were talking to ourselves, principally in

strong, abrupt Saxon. But in 1941’s aerial war squadron leaders are in constant telephonic communication with the pilots in their formations and formations are in voicetouch with the ground. There simply isn’t time for FrenehEnglish broadcasts.

At Quebec City’s Number Four Manning Depot. R.C.A.F., French-Canadian recruits are now being given a grounding in English by instructors who were formerly English teachei s in the French schools of the province. But it doesn’t work easily. The youngsters may work assiduously in class, but they still want to speak French when lessons are over. You can’t produce a bilingual product in a few weeks. Even if you could, the number who can be handled is limited.

No less a person than Ernest Lapointe summed up the problem for this observer in a sentence. “We have discovered,” said the Minister of Justice, “that we can’t fight a bilingual war.” It wasn’t a pleasant idea to accept. It struck a blow at that peculiar human quality known as pride of race. The Minister would like to think of squadrons of blithe young French-Canadians knocking the Hun out of the skies above Britain. Maybe we shall have to change our ideas of what constitutes a matriculation certificate when we receive candidates sound in wind, limb and character, suitable pilots in embryo. Meanwhile, there’s the rub. And its a bad one.

Not Enough French Units

AS WITH the war in the skies so it is with the technical 1 ^ and many mechanical branches of the Army . . . and what part of the Army in this year’s war doesn’t depend on mechanism to make it tick? The language problem crops up again hers. You cannot, for example, run a bilingual signals service. Tot it up and there isn’t much left for the run-of-mill youngster from Quebec but the good old footslogging, gravel-crushing infantry. What has French Canada done there?

Overseas are the Royal 22nd. Regiment, Les Fusiliers Mont Royal and Le Regiment de Maisonneuve, all French from colonel to Private Trudeau. The ranks of what are commonly regarded as Quebec’s English-speaking units • • ■ Victoria Rifles, Grenadier Guards, Black Watch, Sherbrooke Fusiliers and others ... are deeply impregnated with the French-Canadian flavor. Some are as much as fifty per cent French. All mentioned are either overseas, or on garrison duty beyond the borders of Canada, or in training here preparatory to leaving for the theatre of war. Even Western Ontario has a regiment of highlanders in the Active Army in which two companies out of four are filled with French-speaking citizen-soldiers.

Could the problem have been resolved by mobilizing more complete French units for overseas? Possibly. But up to the present the problem has been to satisfy every comer of the Dominion by providing it with regional representation in the Battle of Britain. Had more of the French-Canadian regiments been called to the colors (the reference here is to infantry formations), the favoritism cry would have arisen in other regions, where proud standards fly. Thus, instead of hearing it said that FrenchCanadians are ducking the job, we might have been hearing that French Canada wants to hog the show for its own line units and freeze out good Scots and Ulstermen and Welsh outfits without which no Canadian fighting force could be regarded as complete.

Enter now the personal equation. Once the quotas of the French-Canadian regiments are filled, where is the young Canadien to go in search of a musket or a Bofors gun? He wants to serve with his own kind. He wants to be cussed-out by French-Canadian officers and N.C.O.’s. He prefers to soldier in a unit possessing a Catholic padre. Remove him from his own people and he grows homesick for the sound of his own language and the company of his compatriots. What can we do about this problem? To say: “There’s a war on. Let him join up and make the best of it!” is no answer. This young man is not poured in the same emotional mold as his brother Canadians. Chances are he has never been out of the deep French country in his life, until he finds himself on a troop train, bound for a training camp in Ontario or the Maritimes. He does not always react well to English-Canadian officers and noncoms, nor they to him. His sergeant yells at him to quit talking doggerel and speak English and he begins to wish to le hon Dieu he had stayed home and tended his father’s herds. He writes letters, and the letters are read by other young men back home who may have been thinking about joining up, and they decide maybe they’d better stay where they are. Sounds as if the English don’t want them, or like them. Which is all very stupid, but all very human. And much of this sort of thing has happened, to the writer’s knowledge, back home in Quebec.

Yet in spite of all the difficulties, caused by two peoples of entirely different instincts, emotions and outlooks sharing half a continent, the Maisonneuve Regiment was the first in Canada to close its recruiting books when the First Division was mobilized, the Lower Saint Lawrence from Rimouski through Gaspé is one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting terrains, Montreal’s Rosemont district is said to vie with any urban area in the country for recruiting

per thousand of population and the Navy (where they don’t seem to worry so much about inflections of the human voice) abounds in gallant young sons of Quebec looking for—and getting—a cut at the Battle of the Atlantic.

Such, then, are the facts and problems of French Canada’s participation in the war on a voluntary basis.

Attitude On Conscription

V\7TIAT, THEN, of conscription? Would Quebec vv fight obligatory service in 1941 as it fought it in 1917? On what terms, on what conditions, would French Canada accept it, if it would accept it at all?

In his attempt to get under the skin of the FrenchCanadian point of view this interested onlooker has travelled far afield, leaving the statesmen, the politicians, the dignitaries of the church and the journalists to their seemingly endless debate, to try and find out what the common man thinks. Numerous typically FrenchCanadian villages and towns have been visited . . . Three Rivers, Ste. Anne de la Perade, Berthier, Farnham, Iberville, Ste. Agathe des Monts, to name a few. Victims of the questionnaire have been shopkeepers, garage attendants, farmers, housewives, country doctors, young

men, elderly men, girls. The first question asked of each of these was:

Are you opposed to conscription for service overseas?

The answer, without exception, was Yes. Not a good start for a reporter in quest of information.

The next question was simple enough. Why?

At this juncture the response began to vary. A shopkeeper in the Laurentians evoked the statements of Churchill and Beaverbrook . . . “We need munitions, not mm” . . . and wanted to know if Colonel Ralston or Major Power know more about what Britain requires than these gentlemen. A fanner not far from Famham, in the Eastern Townships, insisted that if Lord Halifax means what he says when he tells the United States that Britain wants American supplies, not soldiers, the same applies to Canada. He believed that more soldiers poured into Britain simply means more difficulty in feeding and housing them, and his conclusion was that we are shipping men over solely because Les Impérialistes insist upon it.

In Berthier a housewife, mother of a member of the overseas forces, insisted that, although it is every Canadian’s duty to defend his native soil, it remains his right to choose whether or not he wants to fight anywhere else. In Ste. Anne de la Perade a young man accosted on the street gave as his view that our leaders (Liberal and Tory

alike) promised a war without conscription and that it should not be brought in without an election.

Numerous questions were asked of each person, depending in each instance on the trend of the conversation. Finally, however, this question was asked in every case: “If you were convinced that if we do not defeat Hitler in Europe, or elsewhere, he will attempt to conquer Canada, or invade North America, would you then favor conscription of men to fight him anywhere in the world, to prevent him coming here?”

And the answer, in every case, was “Yes!”

Here, it seems to the writer, rests the crux of the whole discussion. French Canada does not yet accept the thesis that Pan-Germanism constitutes a threat to its own way of life, or to the safety of North America. And again, reasons may easily lx? found for this point of view.

The basic reason is rooted in the life of Quebec itself. Its people arc not world-minded. Hundreds of thousands of them have never been outside the borders of La Province. Thousands have seldom heard English spoken. To them Europe is a strange place, a world removed from Canada. They have never seen it, never will and don’t particularly want to. They have no relations there, because their forebears have been in Quebec for nigh unto three centuries. Contrary to widespread opinion, there is no public senti-

mentalizing over Vichy and Petain, but only deep sympathy for the people of France in their plight—an entirely different matter. To the man in the street, Petain is little more than a name. Whatever the reason for maintaining a representative of the Vichy regime at Ottawa may or may not be, depend upon it the basic one is not any demand from Quebec that it should continue.

In short, rural French Canada (and a considerable part of urban French Canada) is not world-minded. It is Canada-minded, North America-minded, but above all Quebec-minded. Charge this to the centuries-long determination to maintain racial integrity, folkways and institutions and you will not be far off the mark. French Canada has been too busy fighting for itself to take time out to examine the state of mankind beyond its borders. Adelard Godbout is doing something about this condition, but it will take time.

First Loyalty to Canada

"pRENCI I CANADA is infinitely sympathetic to Britain, however, and wants Britain to win. Inversely Jean Baptiste despises Hitler, loathes Germany, prays for victory. But t he French Canadian distinguishes between

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the people of Britain and what may be termed the ruling class. He wants the British people extracted from Hitler’s clutches. He thinks that any young man who wants to go over and lend a hand should be encouraged to do so, and he regards such young men as heroes—not as fools, as some people suggest he thinks. At the same time he believes such aid must be voluntary, given as neighbor helps neighbor in distress. In fine, he lacks the conviction that the conflagration will spread to Canada, or to this hemisphere, an opinion still shared, it must be noted, by numerous English Canadians and a considerable number of citizens of the adjoining Republic, but not by this observer.

French Canada’s approach to the war is Canadian, nothing else. Thus a leading French-language daily in Montreal carries at its masthead every day the memorable words of the late Lord Tweedsmuir: “Canada is a sovereign nation and she cannot take her attitude docilely from Britain, or from the United States, or from anybody else. A Canadian’s first loyalty is to Canada and to Canada’s king, and those who deny this are doing, to my mind, a great disservice to the Commonwealth.” The words may be taken as the text by which French Canada lives.

To sum up, the French Canadian thinks highly of Britain as an equal partner, and of the British Commonwealth, but not of Empires. He gives his fealty, and all of it, to the King, because he is King of Canada. When he fights he does so to save Canada, to save his own way of life in Canada, to defend Canadian institutions and the religion he has always been free to follow in Canada. Fighting, he wants a Canadian flag over his head, and he wonders why other nations of the Commonwealth have theirs while we don’t. Give him, beyond this, the sincere conviction that these things he loves, his Canada, his Quebec, are threatened and you can conscript him, or do anything with him that is fair and above board, and he will lick his weight in wildcats, anywhere you care to send him. But first you must convince him that the homeland itself is in peril.

How, then, to bring about this conviction? Not, as has been suggested by establishing conscription everywhere in Canada outside Quebec and leaving Quebec’s Legislature to settle its own course. That way run rivers of ill will, if not "corse. Imagine, if you can, what the attitude of Canadians outside Quebec would become to the residents of la vielle Province if that were done. Quebec, in turn, would be torn with internal strife, while becoming the haven of refuge for every draft evader in the other eight provinces. No. not that. Put such a proposal to the French Canadian (and the writer has put it to more than a score from every walk of life) and the reply is “What do they think we are, nous autres?”

Nor can it be done by forcing the will of the majority on a large third of the

Canadian population. That way lies permanent schism, perhaps the disruption of Canada. Nor can we cling to the converse proposition, that the minority shall accept no part of what the majority is presumed to want. That way, too, an infinity of trouble and schism can lie. Then what?

First of all, the necessity for conscription would have to be made perfectly clear and incontrovertible. It cannot be done through the broad generalizations which feature most Letters to the Editor. The necessity to be established is that of defending Canada by sending drafted soldiers to whatever places in the world they can best do the job of saving their homeland. Mr. Roosevelt is getting that idea across to French Canada better than anybody else has done it. The writer has heard that, wherever he has gone in Quebec since the President made his “National Emergency” broadcast at the end of May.

Then, outside Quebec, but seeping through to Quebec ears, too much stress is laid on Empire and not enough on Commonwealth, partnership, on Canada and on the basic war aim, which is the salvation of freedom. That is not a writing man’s opinion. It is what he has been told wherever he has gone, by men of high and lowly estate. The man-power question cannot be overlooked, either, for when Churchill, Beaverbrook or Halifax tells Uncle Sam he doesn’t w'ant men, only weapons, Canada is listening in. Another point stressed everywhere in Quebec is the absence of conscription for overseas service in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and, latterly, Churchill’s request to Ulster to abandon the idea in Northern Ireland. Sometimes even a good idea can make more trouble than it is worth. These are things men and women discuss, down in the French country, whenever the issue is raised . . . and whenever means every day.

The Hun at Our Gate

rT"'HE FIRST question to settle, then, is need, and that can come only from the fountainhead, our elected government. It calls for a public breakdown of our national man power, because we, the people, do not know what it is, what disposition we are making of men and plan to make of them in the future. Nobody knows what comprises a war job, outside the services and the war-supply industries; just what kind of people can best be spared to tote guns and fly planes, nor how many of them. Maybe we shouldn’t be debating conscription at all. Maybe we should be discussing the question of conscripting everybody in the country who can lift a finger, to do the task he or she can do best for Canada. That point has been raised with the writer by Georges Pelletier, editor of Le Devoir and one of French Canada’s most erudite sons.

Nor can the question of inter-racial relationships be ignored in settling the

problems of war. Admittedly there are many things the two Canadian peoples either do not like, or understand, in each other. They need not be canvassed here. They have been argued on every hustings in the land since we came together to found a nation. One thing we have in common is our love of Canada. Can we start with that and find a meeting ground? Many’s the man of good will in French Canada who has informed the writer during the course of this expedition of inquiry that it is high time we met and talked out our basic differences—see if we cannot resolve them through the fragile arts of compromise, even though we have to wait until the war ends to give effect to most of the ameliorations essential to true bonne entente. A few generous gestures on the problems which arise from bilingualism and biracialism from, say, Ontario, would go far to dispel the clouds of doubt in many French-Canadian hearts. A few' in reply from Quebec would work wonders in the neighborhood of the Great Lakes.

But the basic question remains. If conscription is, or should become, necessary, how are you to convince French Canada that we ourselves and our whole way of living are imperilled by events now happening beyond the seas? How are you to prove that the I lun is at our gate, not at

somebody else’s? How, by the way, are you going to convince all English Canada, all America, all men who want to be free?

French Canada is moving toward that concept. Lapointe, Power, Godbout, the Cardinal and his bishops, a major part of the French-language press, are hammering the thought home every day, though not by way of proposing conscription. Once French Canada is convinced, English Canada will be amazed by what happens to that logically-minded gentleman, Jean Baptiste. The first thing Quebec will ask for will not be conscription of young manhood, but conscription of the nation itself, with equality of sacrifice right across the board.

What’s wrong with the present situation (if anything is wrong) is our method of approach to a people who, in Premier Godbout’s words are “the most Canadian of all the Canadians.” The problem is not conscription, not what happened in 1917, but, if there is a problem at all, what end is to be served and what it is we have to save. That is the only conclusion possible to a reporter examining a state of mind to find out what makes it tick. And, so far as the voluntary war is concerned, French Canada hasn’t been doing so badly, particularly in the light of the problems involved.