The “religious crisis in Quebec politics

In a 4,000-word report two Quebec priests indicted their whole province for “political immorality” and pinned part of the guilt on their own church. Here’s the story behind what these men of the cloth angrily call

Blair Fraser November 10 1956

The “religious crisis in Quebec politics

In a 4,000-word report two Quebec priests indicted their whole province for “political immorality” and pinned part of the guilt on their own church. Here’s the story behind what these men of the cloth angrily call

Blair Fraser November 10 1956

The “religious crisis in Quebec politics

In a 4,000-word report two Quebec priests indicted their whole province for “political immorality” and pinned part of the guilt on their own church. Here’s the story behind what these men of the cloth angrily call

Blair Fraser

Policemen thought Quebec’s provincial election last June the quietest in years. In Montreal only fifty-two were arrested for election frauds. There were lively moments, as when forty men with baseball bats and crowbars smashed a Liberal committee room and beat up party workers, but by previous standards the day was tame.

“There was no shooting,” Detective Chief Georges Allain pointed out. “It was all very quiet compared to some other years.”

Yet this genteel exercise, which returned Premier Duplessis and his Union Nationale for a fourth consecutive term, set olí the loudest, longest fuss about electoral corruption that Canada has heard since the Beauharnois scandal of the early 1 D30s. when VV. L. Mackenzie King and his Liberal Party went through “the Valley of Humiliation.” Charges of corruption are nothing new at election time—in some provinces they’re a habitual reaction of the losing side, and nobody pays much attention. What made the commotion in Quebec exceptional, and what has kept it alive all these months, is the unique source and scope of the indictment: The accusers are two Roman Catholic priests.

They charge not merely ward heelers but the whole population, and describe contemporary politics as a breakdown of Christianity: “Never, perhaps, has the religious crisis in our midst been so clearly revealed.”

Most sensational of all, they place a large share of the guilt on their brethren of the cloth, the Roman Catholic clergy in Quebec, who they say have condoned and even applauded gross political immorality.

Father Gerard Dion and Father Louis O'Neill, of Quebec City, the authors of this reverberating blast, have no special authority or status in the hierarchy of their faith — they are privates, or at most subalterns, in the army of the Church Militant.

Neither is an authorized spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church, nor did their proclamation carry the church’s blessing. Like all writings by clergymen it was read by a “censor” before publication, and this fact led many Protestants and even some Roman Catholics to think it was an official rebuke by the church to the Duplessis government and its clerical supporters. Not so. The “censor” has no other duty than to certify that a publication contains nothing contrary or repugnant to the church’s teachings. His authorization doesn’t imply approval.

Father Dion heads the industrial-relations department in Laval University’s faculty of social sciences. For ten years, as an extramural supplement to his work as a professor, he has been putting out a monthly mimeographed newsletter called Ad Usum Sacerdotum (roughly “For the Use of the Clergy”). Father O’Neill, a boyish-looking young man who was ordained only six years ago and now teaches logic and philosophy at Petit Séminaire in Quebec City, has lately been helping Father Dion with this modest publication. ( They send it out free of charge and appeal to readers once a year for donations to finance it.)

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The “religious crisis” in Quebec politics continued

WLL the priests get away with attacking the Duplessis regime? These men tried it and didn't

Written for priests only, it is read by a small minority even of them. There are about four thousand Roman Catholic clergy in the province of Quebec, but the normal circulation of Ad Usum Sacerdotum is only seven hundred, mostly among labor-union chaplains and others with a special interest in social and political questions. It was in Ad Usum Sacerdotum that the famous essay on Quebec's political morality first appeared.

This was not by any means the first time Fathers Dion and O'Neill had criticized words or works of the Duplessis government. As priests with their hearts in the Catholic labor movement they have often deplored Duplessis’ labor legislation, attempts by the government to suppress or defeat strikes, and similar activities or attitudes of the Union Nationale.

But the previous attacks attracted little or no public notice. What made news this time was not only the proclamation but the reaction to it.

It was from readers, not the writers, that newspapers got hold of it in the first place. Robert Duffy of the Toronto Globe and Mail was the first to break the story, but by that time no fewer than three Quebec priests had sent their copies of Ad Usum Sacerdotum to Le Devoir, the fiercely independent Montreal newspaper that has been a thorn in Duplessis’ side for years. Le Devoir printed it in full, the same day Duffy’s story appeared in the Globe and Mail.

An astonishing chorus of acclaim then broke out. Dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals wrote to echo and applaud.

Most significant of all was the response of the clergy. Not only fellow priests but several bishops wrote to Fathers Dion and O'Neill, in effect: “Congratulations on your courage in saying something that badly needed saying.”

What they said ran to four thousand words, but the essence of it was this:

Quebec's election had been a "flaunting of stupidity and immorality” in which “lying was elevated to a system." Voters had been misled by preposterous “myths,” especially “a myth of communism.” They had also been corrupted and browbeaten by “vote buying, abuse of the electoral law, threats of reprisal against those who do not support the 'right party,’ false oaths, impersonations, corruption of electoral officers.” All these things, the two fathers said, “seem to become normal elements of our social life at election time.”

What bothered them most was the indulgence with which even some members of the clergy regarded all this: “We .have met priests who thought such (grossly false) propaganda ‘smart,’ and who did not object too much so long as ‘it favored the good cause.’ ”

They name no political party, and take care to remark that none “has a monopoly” on the practices they deplore. But it's clear from the nature of the charges and the examples they choose that the w'orst offender, in their view, is Duplessis’ Union Nationale.

Can two humble priests make such charges against the all-powerful Duplessis regime and gel away with it? Quebeckers are waiting with lively interest for the answer to that question.

The record of the past is ominous. Mgr. Joseph Charbonncau, who as archbishop of Montreal supported the strikers against the Duplessis government in the Asbestos strike of 1949, was abruptly retired a few months later — “for reasons of health,” officially, though Mgr. Charbonncau said he felt fine. Father Louis Philippe Camirand, the fiery priest who was the heart and soul of the Asbestos strike, has since been transferred to another city. Father Richard, who as editor of the Jesuit magazine Relations published an explosive series about silicosis in the Laurcntian village of St. Remi d’Amherst, was posted to an obscure parish in northern Ontario. (Admittedly, the silicosis story as told in Relations was full of errors.)

Most notable of all. the famous Father Georges-Henri Lévesque is no longer dean of Laval’s faculty of social sciences, the post he made nationally known, and from which he caused frequent annoyance to the Duplessis government by calling for various social reforms in Quebec. Father Lévesque now presides over a new Dominican establishment in what used to be Kent House, a hotel at Montmorency Falls outside Quebec City. Within the Dominican Order it may be a promotion; to the public of Quebec and of Canada it looks like an assignment to oblivion.

Priests are even more keenly aware than are laymen of the high casualty rate among outspoken critics of Duplessis. In Quebec City I was told of one young priest in a small-town parish who wrote a letter of hearty congratulation to Father Dion, but who added a cautious postscript:

“Please treat this letter as confidential. I don’t want to be ‘exiled’!"

Neither Father Dion nor Father O'Neill has been "exiled” yet, but Father O'Neill, the more junior of the two, has been told not to make any more public utterances. However, there has been no repudiation by Church authorities of the views expressed in Ad Usum Sacerdotum. After all, the pamphlet deals with morality, which is hardly an improper subject for priests to write about. Also, it deals with matters that are notorious, and well known to all.

Some readers thought the two fathers had special, secret information about the methods used last June. They had none. They printed only “what everybody knew,” and many of their charges can be documented by public statements taken out of newspapers.

When they talk about “vote buying,” for example. they are not talking only or even chiefly about secret deals behind closed doors. The most striking offers were made from the public platform by Premier Maurice Duplessis himself.

A new bridge for a right vote

In a campaign speech in Hull, Que., he spent some minutes ticking off each item of government work that had been done in the district, and its value in dollars. Having added them all up, he concluded: “We expect Hull to say thank you next Wednesday.”

At Shawinigan Falls he was even more explicit. People there have been trying for years to get a new bridge over the St. Maurice River. The premier told them that if they wanted a bridge they had better defeat their Liberal MLA, Rene Hamel.

There were other cases, less widely publicized but equally flagrant, of the same kind of thing.

“Where 1 live,” said an indignant priest in a Quebec suburb, “they paved the street right up to the polling station, and they stopped there a little while before election day. Then the party workers told the people, ‘If you want the paving job finished, you'd better vote for our man.’ ”

In the same way the fathers’ charge of “systematic lying” referred not to a mere whispering campaign but to open public statements. They were talking about paid advertisements, radio and TV broadcasts, platform speeches designed, as they put it, “to make people believe that to preach social security is to slide toward Marxism, that to promote health insurance is to sabotage our religious communities, that to feed the hungry in underdeveloped countries is to impoverish ourselves and encourage communism.”

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The "religious crisis" in Quebec politics continued from page 1

“The Union Nationale is too strong and too many voters don’t care”

Fathers Dion and O’Neil! mention no examples by name, but one that they may have had in mind was the campaign against nationalist Kenc Chaloult. Running as an independent with Liberal backing, Chaloult was beaten by a small margin in the northern riding of Jonquierc-Kenogami.

Rene Chaloult is an old-line Quebec nationalist who has been active in provincial politics for more than twenty years. He is noted for fiery eloquence, personal honesty, and a prickly independence which has kept him from remaining long in the ranks of any political party. During the war he was a leader in the French-Canadian battle against conscription, and a warm admirer of the Vichy regime of Marshal Petain in France.

To call such a man as Chaloult a Communist requires great faith in human gullibility," but apparently this faith was rewarded in Jonquiere-Kenogami. As Fathers Dion and O’Neill ruefully noted in their pamphlet, “the anti-Communist slogan seems to have been used with considerable success. A low type of literature penetrated the rectories and the convents . . . Nuns read or heard strange things about people, who, until then, they had thought were Catholics.”

Again the fathers mention no names. But Chaloult’s workers swear that in at least one rural convent in JonquiereKenogami, nuns taught the children to pray to God that “the Communist Mr. Chaloult” might be defeated.

Chaloult’s experience also illustrated some of the other things the two priests talked about. Electoral officers, for instance.

In urban parts of the riding like Arvida, where the labor vote is strong, Chaloult got good majorities. His workers say that in many of these urban polls, by an odd coincidence, large numbers of spoiled ballots turned up. Inadvertently, no doubt, the returning officers would forget to initial them as the Election Act requires.

Chaloult lost by only about two hundred, and demanded a judicial recount. Even more ballots were then found that the returning officers had forgotten to initial, and the Union Nationale majority went up to over three hundred. In the rural ridings where the Duplessis man had a majority they found none of these lapses of memory — all the ballots were good.

I asked why, if these things were true, Chaloult hadn’t contested the election.

“Useless,” 1 was told. “There is nothing we can do.”

The Duplessis government amended Quebec’s election laws after the 1952 election in which it lost some scats. One amendment provides that no writs may be taken to compel or prevent or investigate any action by an election officer, “nor any special or provisional measure of any nature whatsoever may be taken against any election officer acting in his official capacity.”

Contested elections used to be heard by the Superior Court, judges of which are named by Ottawa. A Duplessis amendment transferred them to district magistrates, appointed by Duplessis.

Several defeated candidates who thought of contesting the 1956 election were advised, or decided for themselves, that it would be a waste of time. To them it’s crystal clear what Fathers Dion and O’Neill meant when they spoke of “abuse of the electoral law.”

Many of these men arc deeply discouraged. Sympathetic as they are with the sentiments of the Dion-O’Neill pamphlet, they doubt that it will have any practical effect. They think the phalanx of the Union Nationale is too strong, and that too many voters don’t care.

A rally to rouse the people

Not much has appeared in Quebec’s secular activities or organizations to prove these pessimists wrong. Nobody seems to think the Liberal Party vastly different from its triumphant rival, so far as political behavior is concerned. One priest, who strongly endorses the views of the Dion-O’Neill article, said with a bitter smile: “Liberals have come to me complaining that they didn’t have enough money to buy the people’s votes.”

The only political organization that has tackled, explicitly, the problem of civic morality is a new group called Rassemblement, a title more easily understood than translated. It hopes to he a rally or mobilization of all men of good will, a means of arousing and educating the people of Quebec in politics.

Rassemblement is not a political party. Its president is Pierre Dansereau, dean of science at the University of Montreal, a gentle and cultivated man who looks the very antithesis of a practical politician. Its supporters are the fighting idealists of I.e Devoir, the intellectuals of the Catholic labor movement, all those elements both lay and clerical who are usually described (sometimes to their own embarrassment) as “liberal” Roman Catholics.

They are all worthy men, who deserve to be and who are highly respected. However, they have all been dedicated foes of the Union Nationale for years. There is little reason to suppose that they will be any more powerful or effective now, merely because they have taken a new name, than they have been ever since 1944 when Duplessis returned to power.

If the reverend editors of Ad Usum Sacerdotum have struck a real blow at the Union Nationale’s power, it will make itself felt not through any secular organization hut through the Roman Catholic Church itself. The really important question is: Did the Union Nationale go too far in its attempt, often a successful attempt, to identify itself with the cause of the church? Will this powerful electoral weapon prove in the end to be a boomerang?

Certainly the Duplessis forces had the open support of many Quebec clergy last June. Father Dion and Father O’Neill give examples: “Some priests took part personally in the campaign. In a suburban parish of Quebec one curé carried kindness so far as to preach from the pulpit in favor of his candidate, and even solicit votes from door to door. In the same county another curé told his flock to vote for the man whose party would be in power, for ‘without that we get nothing.’ Another: ‘Vote for whom you like, but when we have a good government we should keep it.’ One final case: ‘Before you go to vote, don’t forget to look at our fine new school.’ ”

Moreover, they say, “there is reason to believe that laymen are not the only ones influenced by gifts in money or goods. Gifts to pious causes or welfare associations, contributions to parish works, these touch the sensitive strings in some ecclesiastical souls.”

Even worse, in their view, was the clergy’s willingness to echo the “myths” of the Union Nationale campaign: “We have seen the anti-Communist theme used, and in almost the same terms, by reputable members of religious orders, recognized Fascists, pitiable comedians and authentic blackguards.”

Father Dion and Father O’Neill shudder at the thought that innocent Catholics in Quebec might actually believe the Union Nationale and its doctrines represent an aspect of the Catholic faith: "We bear a terrible responsibility before God if the people end by believing that this hash of pious sentimentality, barefaced civic immorality and Fascism in the larval stage is the Kingdom of God.”

Most of all they deplore the apathy with which priest and layman alike regard electoral corruption:

"What we ought to find most disturbing is that so few people think these things scandalous. Similar methods in Communist countries rouse the indignation of our brave folk, and whet the zeal of Catholic journalists. At home in Quebec they quickly get popular absolution. People even laugh and brag about them as if they v/ere innocent pranks.

“Unhappily this characteristic is more and more manifest among the FrenchCanadian people . . . We must admit that on this plane our English-speaking compatriots set us an example. Moreover, our political immorality seems scandalous to them.”

This last theme, the attitude of English Canadians toward electoral customs in Quebec, was further developed in an autumn issue of Ad Usum Sacerdotum. It is one that the two fathers take very seriously. (Father O'Neill, by the way, is French-speaking in spite of his Irish name.) It is also one that may make a deepening impression on the intensely loyal French-Canadian clergy.

The later issue of Ad Usum Sacerdotum carries an open letter from Murray Ci. Ballantyne, whose recent book. All or Nothing, is the spiritual autobiography of a convert to the Roman Catholic faith. Ballantyne was born in Montreal into a Presbyterian family of Scottish descent. He became a Roman Catholic at twenty-three, and he writes as one personally acquainted with both the major divisions of the Christian religion.

Ballantyne says flatly: "It is the political immorality of Catholics which scandalizes Protestants ... All my experience leads me to conclude that the biggest obstacle to the conversion of our separated brethren is our scandalous indifference to public morality . . . How, they ask, can a church be true when its members freely lie, cheat and sell themselves in political matters?”

Qf course political corruption is not confined to one province, Ballantyne admits, but "1 have found that political immorality is much worse among the Catholics of Quebec than among the Protestants of other provinces. It is worse both in degree and in kind.”

His complaint is not only that "Quebec is notorious in the whole of Canada for blatant and dangerous political dishonesty,” but still more that priests condone and even connive at it. One example of connivance: "The widespread habit of issuing false charitable receipts for income-tax purposes. As we all know, this malpractice is exceedingly common. Only too often it is our priests who knowingly sign such false statements. Sincere Protestants are disgusted by such a practice, and I think they are fully justified.”

As a matter of fact Protestants have raised no public outcry about this or any other aspect of political behavior in Quebec. Except for Le Devoir, no newspaper of either language ever criticizes the Duplessis government. The wealth of Quebec is mostly in Protestant hands, and the business community of the province is solidly behind the Union Nationale. Its backing is no less substantial for being mostly silent.

However, the relative blackness of pot and kettle is beside the point. The point is that a publication written solely for the clergy has been blasting the clergy itself for political misbehavior, and that its clerical readers appear to agree with its biting remarks. Just possibly, this may indicate a turning of the tide. There is at least some reason to believe that in the 1956 campaign, the zeal of the Union Nationale overshot its mark.

A Liberal member of the Quebec Legislature told me an ironic story: “You know, we’d have lost this election anyway,” he said. “The Duplessis men didn’t need to do anything special—the most we could possibly have won would have been thirty-five or forty seats, if that. But they wanted to make sure, and they made too sure.

"The other day 1 met a Union Nationale member, and he was furious at all the talk about corruption and graft. 'We won anyway, didn't we?’ he said. 'Damn it, we didn't steal all the seats we carried.’ But it’s true, you know, that people are talking as if they did steal every seat.”

If that is true, the prospects for change in Quebec have markedly improved. Quebec is tolerant, even indulgent of human frailty, but Quebec does believe in moderation. If the clerical Davids of Ad Usum Sacerdotum have convinced their reverend readers that things have now gone too far. they may yet bring down Goliath, if