Who’ll Le Devoir battle next?

KEN JOHNSTONE April 14 1956

Who’ll Le Devoir battle next?

KEN JOHNSTONE April 14 1956

Who’ll Le Devoir battle next?


IT IS DRAB AND DISMAL, a dirty grey neighborhood in downtown Montreal on Notre Dame Street just a few blocks east of the Hotel de Ville and a stone’s throw from Bonsecours Market. Aboosamra Kouri imports olive oil at one corner of the street, and across from him the United States Jewelry imports cheap gew-gaws. An excellent and inexpensive French restaurant, Au Pierrot Gourmet, brightens up the view farther down the block, and across from it T. Carli-Petrucci offers religious statuary for sale. Right next to Mr. Pétrucci is a sand-colored four-story building that was once a shoe factory. Outside the building two young and sad-looking pickets carrying signs stroll listlessly to and fro. And just inside a door at the east end of the building, a bored-looking Montreal policeman takes shelter from the weather. It is just another episode in the fighting life of Le Devoir, journal of combat.


* helped elect Duplessis but often attacks him

•X* champions unions hut locks out its printers

* shocks St. Laurent by calling for a Canadian republic

•Xis Catholic to the core hut clashes with the clergy

•X* always loses money but seldom a fight

The locked-out printers of Le Devoir have been picketing since last April, and the end seems nowhere in sight. The paper still comes out regularly, and nobody seems to mind the pickets very much, although one carries a sign that particularly annoys the editors: Le Devoir imprimé par des scabs (Le Devoir printed by scabs). For the last word is the kind of Anglicism that Le Devoir opposes on the grounds of good French.

Good French is just one of the causes dear to the heart of Le Devoir (Duty) which carries on its masthead the laconic motto: “Fais ce que Dois.” This translates roughly as “Do Your Duty.” That motto and the way it has been applied make Le Devoir one of the most unusual, provocative and certainly one of the scrappiest newspapers in Canada. With a mere thirty-thousand circulation, appearing early each morning on the streets of Montreal and delivered to most of the cities, towns, villages and hamlets of Quebec, it is probably the most influential French-language publication in the country.

The paper has been credited with tumbling governments and smashing political careers, including that of Sir Wilfrid Laurier; with creating conscription riots in the streets; with overturning the civic administration of Canada’s largest city; and with inflicting on Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis a massive attack of chronic indigestion. Following the rugged path of duty, Le Devoir has attacked former friends as violently as it has attacked its traditional foes. It has lost readers and supporters, and it has replaced them with others. When the newspaper was founded in 1910 by the great Canadian nationalist, Henri Bourassa, pessimists gave it six months at the most. They’re still saying it can’t last another six months, but nobody seems to know precisely which six months.

The paper is full of contradictions. It is so Catholic in tone that many English Canadians think it is owned by the church. But nobody really owns Le Devoir. Bourassa launched the paper by public subscription in 1910, selling shares at fifty dollars each but keeping a majority of them himself. Then he asked for and got back, free, nearly all the shares he had sold. Fewer than twenty still remain in the hands of private individuals. When he resigned from the directorship in 1932 he set up an unusual arrangement whereby his shares would be handed on in trust to successive directors as long as the paper lasted. Should the paper become bankrupt, the assets would be turned over in trust to the existing Montreal archbishop (now cardinal) and an effort would be made to found another similar paper. Failing that, the assets would fall to the diocese. Yet, in spite of its Catholic tone and connection, Le Devoir has frequently clashed with the clergy. One archbishop cuttingly remarked: “Henri Bourassa is the kind of Catholic who prefers to listen to dead popes rather than living bishops.”

As a champion of provincial rights, Le Devoir helped to bring the Duplessis administration to power in 1936, and still supports him as “the lesser of the two evils” against the provincial Liberals, whom the paper regards as tools of Ottawa. Yet it has been a scathing critic of Duplessis, and the premier has variously called Le Devoir “cowardly,” “venal,” “heartless” and “perfidious.”

It’s the voice of French Canada but it has turned against Canada’s two French-speaking prime ministers. Such developments as the Treaty of Westminster which gave Canada complete independence, the abolition of appeals to the privy council, and a Canadian governor-general were demanded by Le Devoir at a time when such demands were called “treason” by English-Canadian newspapers. Its proposal of a Canadian republic has been called “shocking” by Prime Minister St. Laurent.

As a champion of social justice Le Devoir has conducted campaigns against industrial disease and vice, and has supported trade unions far more often than not. Yet it locked out its own typesetters and replaced them with teletypesetting machines.

The paper loses about fifty thousand dollars a year, but the deficit is regularly made up by a public campaign conducted by Les Amis du Devoir, an organization of about four thousand of its most active subscribers. Donations ranging from a dollar to a thousand dollars pour in each February from all parts of the province, with priests, students, business leaders, cultural and service organizations prominent among the donors.

Despite its contradictions, Le Devoir remains the most influential and mostquoted French-language newspaper in Canada, and the reason is not hard to find. The paper has never wavered from the program set for it by Bourassa in 1910. He declared it a journal of combat pledged to fight for the cultural, religious and language rights of the French Canadians. He opposed Canadian participation in British wars, particularly without a vote of the Canadian population, and he fought British and American “imperialism.” He demanded social justice for the poor. He fought Quebec separatists as he advocated a broad Canadianism based upon the mutual respect of the two main ethnic groups in Canada, a nationalism that demanded Canadian independence and saw no place in Canada’s political affairs for either France or Britain. But most of all he expressed the aspirations of French-Canadian intellectuals, struggling against the overwhelming political and economic dominance of an English Canada impatient with these aspirations. Le Devoir readers are priests, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, politicians, teachers, university students and leaders in the trade unions, co-operatives and credit unions; nationalist, Catholic, and proud.

In forty-six years Le Devoir has fought for its program with unflagging tenacity. In both wars it opposed conscription at the risk of suppression. It has been wooed by the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Union Nationale of Premier Duplessis. But it remained independent, poor and tremendously influential. Gerard Filion, its present director, has called it “the conscience of French Canada.”

Filion is a tall broad-shouldered man of forty-eight, with a long strong face and a forthright manner. Born at L’Isle Verte near Riviere du Loup on the St. Lawrence, he went to classical college at Rimouski, graduated from Laval University in 1931 and obtained his master of commerce degree from the University of Montreal in 1934. His first job, at twenty-five, was with the Union Catholique des Cultivateurs (Catholic Farmers’ Union). As secrecaiy of the organization and editor of its paper, La Terre de Chez Nous (Oar Homeland), he helped build the membership from ten thousand to forty thousand and the circulation of the paper from thirteen thousand to eighty thousand. He earned a reputation as an excellent organizer and a very blunt man. “My boy, you wield the curry comb a little too roughly,” the president of the Farmers’ Union, J. A. Marion, frequently warned him.

Le Devoir had always worked closely with the Farmers’ Union, and when Georges Pelletier, then director, fell ill in 1944 the chairman of Le Devoir’s board, lawyer Jacques Perrault, approached Filion and suggeste? that he join Le Devoir as assistant to the ailing Pelletier. Filion, himself suffering from an ulcer, declined. Besides, he wanted ful responsibility or none.

Meanwhile, several members of the board of management who were Union Nationale sympathizers were making a strong effort to secure a successor to Pelletier who would be more favorable to the Duplessis regime. The staff already included a number of Union Nationale supporters. But Perrault forestalled this move by persuading Pelletier to turn over his controlling shares in trust to Archbishop Charbonneau, and on Pelletier’s death in 1947 thr liberal-minded archbishop acted on the majority advice of the board of management by naming Filion director and gave him the controlling shares.

Filion began by firing the Duplessis supporters on his staff. This drew the fire of the premier, who declared in the provincial legislature that Filion was turning faithful and loyal workers of thirty-five years service out in the cold to starve. Filion noted editorially that they had been promptly given jobs by the provincial government. He jeered: “We have a verbal agreement. I fire them and Maurice hires them.”

Filion has since built up a highly effective editorial team. Slight, scholarly, bearded Orner Héroux still remains as managing editor, a job he has held since the paper was formed. But now, in poor health and confined to his home, he manages to write only one or two editorials a week. He is the specialist on questions of nationality and minority rights.

Assistant managing editor in name and managing editor in fact is André Laurendeau, a tall, thin and asceticlooking man with a small trimmed black mustache and tired eyes. Laurendeau, a leading figure in the Bloc Populaire, was elected to the provincial legislature in 1944, and his ability to tangle effectively with the hard-hitting Duplessis won Filion’s admiration. He was one of the first appointments of the new director. Like Filion he covers all subjects from international politics to municipal affairs in his editorials.

Secretary Paul Sauriol, a solidly built grey-haired man of fifty, is another top figure on this team. He has been with the paper since 1928, and his editorials cover federal and local affairs and education. Sauriol has a whimsical humor. “In Quebec we believe in the family as a social unit,” he told me, “and in Le Devoir we take our beliefs seriously. Gérard Filion has nine children. I have nine children. André Laurendeau, the slacker, has only six. But of course he is a much younger man.”

Laurendeau and Sauriol, together with Ottawa correspondent Pierre Vigeant, a quiet-spoken man in his late forties, and young Pierre Laporte, a law graduate who covers the provincial legislature, sometimes go for Saturday conferences to Filion’s home at St. Bruno, about twelve miles southeast of Montreal across the St. Lawrence River. There the big rambling nine-roomed colonial-style frame house that Filion bought eleven years ago when the family numbered only five is now straining at the seams with the parents and nine children, together with occasional guests. In winter Filion likes to go skiing on nearby Mount Bruno with his children. In summer he plays golf at nearby Beloeil. In contrast to Laurendeau and Sauriol, who like best to listen to classical recordings on hi-fi machines, Filion’s favorite recreation is working around his property.

Filion prefers to keep his family life separated from his business, and he rarely accepts a business engagement for Saturday. Nevertheless, during the greater part of the year he has to return to Montreal each Saturday evening for his appearance on the panel of Chacun Son. Métier, a French-language television program similar to What’s My Line? The fee is an important part of his annual earnings often thousand dollars. At that he is the highest-paid member of Le Devoir.

The top salary at Le Devoir is not much more than a hundred dollars a week, with a starting minimum for reporters of fifty dollars. These rates were established by Filion in 1947, replacing the former scale of fifty top and twenty minimum. They have not changed since. But salaries are not an issue at Le Devoir, for when the journalists’ union called a strike in sympathy with the locked-out printers, only five of the twenty members of Le Devoir’s unionized editorial staff heeded the call.

Nor do working conditions explain the devotion of Le Devoir’s reporters and editorial writers. The editorial offices, along with the circulation and business offices, are located on the second floor of the building, past the guarding policeman and up a narrow flight of stairs. The walls are painted a faded green, and they are grimy and dirt-streaked, badly in need of a cleaning and another coat of paint. Filion’s office, strategically located between the circulation department and the business office, is an austere cubicle about twelve feet square.

In the newsroom the flow of news passes under the eye of Marcel Thivierge, the news editor, who writes headings for the stories and in his spare time hammers out stories on such subjects as the recorded music of Mozart and the revolution of high fidelity. I asked him whether Le Devoir under Filion still maintained its policy of encouraging news stories with editorial slants.

“Of course,” he replied. “We believe that our reporters should have opinions, and should state them.”

It must have been the only thing that Filion did leave intact in the old Le Devoir. The paper is remembered by old subscribers as a paper that ran its editorials on the front page, with a dearth of headlines, a great number of signed articles devoted to the church and the home, few and very small photos, numerous signed columns, and very little advertising.

Today Le Devoir is a lively-looking paper that contrasts strangely with the dingy premises in which it is conceived and put together. Its name is printed in red ink, and the editorials have disappeared from the front page, which has oneor two-line banner headlines and usually a three-column eye-catching photo in the centre of the page. The paper is only twelve pages.

The punch of Le Devoir, its editorials, appears on page four, with the lead editorial taking two columns. It is usually signed by Filion, Laurendeau, Héroux, Sauriol, Vigeant or Laporte, depending on the subject and circumstances. Opposite it appears a threecolumn political cartoon by Robert LaPalme, who sometimes signs himself “Greatest cartoonist since Confederation,” kidding Union Nationale advertisements that proclaim Duplessis “the greatest prime minister since Confederation.”

They create bite and punch for Le Devoir

The women’s page is lively, and the theatre and fine arts page carries almost as much weight in artistic circles as Le Devoir editorials do in politics. Two pages are devoted to finance; on its two sports pages, presided over by puckish little Xiste Narbonne, in his forty-fifth year with Le Devoir, the “good French” tradition of Le Devoir is ignored for the language of the ring, the rink and the playing field.

If today’s Le Devoir bears little physical resemblance to that of Henri Bourassa, its spirit is unchanged. Bourassa had built his paper around his program for an independent Canadian foreign policy and his defense of French-Canadian rights. With Le Devoir he had brought about Laurier’s Quebec downfall in the 1911 elections by fighting against a Canadian navy.

Bourassa saw the navy as a tool of Britain’s Joseph Chamberlain. He predicted conscription in World War I, and when it came he fought it bitterly and courageously. When he spoke at a public meeting in Ottawa the platform was invaded by a burly army sergeant who clutched a Union Jack in his hand and demanded that Bourassa wave it. Bourassa replied calmly: “I am ready to wave the British flag in liberty, but I shall not do so under threats.” The sergeant, intimidated by the reply, climbed down from the platform.

Meanwhile, . anti-conscription riots broke out in the streets of Montreal, and the English-Canadian press demanded that Bourassa be interned and his paper suppressed. Prime Minister Borden ignored the demand.

Le Devoir emerged from World War I with enhanced prestige in Quebec, and when Georges Pelletier, trained under Bourassa, took over the director’s post in 1932, he followed his master’s program faithfully.

Pelletier went after the long-lasting provincial regime of Liberal Alexandre Taschereau in 1933, and over the next two years he built up a formidable case of incompetence, waste, graft and corruption through a searching examination of public accounts. Le Devoir received a major share of the credit when the regime was swept from power and the new political party of Maurice Duplessis, the Union Nationale, took office in 1936. Toward the new regime the paper adopted a cautious “wait and see” policy.

With World War II, Le Devoir was soon back on familiar ground. In 1942, when Prime Minister King demanded a plebiscite to relieve him of his pledge of “no conscription,” Le Devoir joined with the Ligue pour la Défense du Canada in leading the opposition, and seventy-four-year-old Henri Bourassa emerged from retirement to speak on the Ligue platform. Again Le Devoir received a large share of the credit—or blame, depending on the point of view — for Quebec’s seventy - two - percent “no” vote in the plebiscite, which contrasted sharply with the eighty-percent “yes” registered in the x-est of Canada.

For Pelletier, however, it was a painful victory. When conscription was becoming a hot fedei'al issue in 1941 Ernest Lapointe, Quebec’s gx'eat champion who was pledged to x'esist conscription, entex'ed his last illness. Le Devoir’s Ottawa correspondent, Leopold Richex-, in a scathing article, labeled the illness “diplomatic.” The dying Lapointe told his son-in-law, Roger Ouimet, now a justice of the Montx'eal Superior Court: “Tell Georges Pelletier that I bear no grudge. Evex*ything is forgiven.” Pelletier wept when he received the message.

The conscx-iption fight was his last and most sti’enuous effort. Exhausted by his labors he suffered a sti'oke in 1944 and died in 1947. In those three yeai's Le Devoir drifted quietly, and then was suddenly stix'red to action again by the bustling Filion.

Filion arrived at Le Devoir on April 10, 1947, and quickly made his policy clear in a series of fi'ont-page editorials. He reaffirmed Bourassa’s program, adding the slogan of a Canadian republic and emphasizing the paper’s support of the legitimate demands of labor.

Trouble with llie queens

It was on this last issue that Filion’s stand had its greatest impact. During Bourassa’s day, union issues had not been numerous. Pelletier had offered vei'y cautious support to labor. But Filion jumped in with both feet. He lost a lot of old conservative readei’s, but he bumped circulation from 14,000 to 30,000 by replacing them with younger and more liberal-minded leaders. Yet their social composition did not change. The paper’s championship of labor over the last nine years has not made it popular with the union membership, apart from the leadei’S. It is too high-brow for the average worker.

Filion sent reportei's to cover strikes and he wrote stx-ong editorials to explain the issues. In May 1947, he supported the textile strike at Ayers Limited in Lachute even though two strike leaders wei'e known communists. That same year strikes at Bennett Limited in Chambly, Associated Textiles in Louiseville, the packing houses in Montreal and Dominion Textile received Le Devoir support and explanation. The paper was quick to report and denounce the role of the provincial police when they intervened against strikers.

Filion kept his eye on other issues too, and treated them just as vigorously. So when Le Devoir revealed that two so-called beauty queens being promoted by an outfit called the League for Public Welfax-e wex-e in fact wellknown and much-convicted prostitutes, their lawyer filed notice of action for fifteen thousand dollax-s damages. The only trouble was that every so often one of the girls would get picked up and sentenced again for plying her trade. The suit was dropped.

An accusation by Le Devoir that Premier Duplessis was trying to get control of the wealthy and widespread Caisse Populaire (credit union) movement through legislation brought an indignant denial from Duplessis and the dropping of the legislation the paper had questioned.

In 1948 the paper took up a campaign on silicosis, aimed at a plant at St. Remi d’Amherst, north of Montreal, where working conditions had allegedly resulted in a number of deaths. Le Devoir attacked the company, a former subsidiary of Hollinger interests, later taken over by Noranda Mines, for poor working conditions, and it attacked the provincial government for failing to grant workmen’s compensation to men suffering from silicosis and to the families of those who had died from the disease. It continued its attack for more than a year. Finally the plant was closed down and Premier Duplessis, in _ an unusual statement declaring that “there can be no question of legality or illegality in a case of human suffering,” ordered that workmen’s compensation be granted. It was a quotation that Le Devoir was to throw up at him during subsequent labor disputes.

Le Devoir criticized Duplessis for making a trip to Ungava in the Hollinger private plane. Duplessis retorted that the paper was “dishonest and perfidious.”

But the paper’s big fight in 1949 was j waged in support of the asbestos workers of Thetford Mines and Asbestos J who went on strike on Feb. 15. Eight ! days later Le Devoir reported the arrival of a hundred provincial police at Asbestos and a month after that it told of police using clubs on the strikers. Le Devoir published pictures of the many ; wives of Tommy Manville, the playboy heir to an asbestos fortune, under the j heading, “The order that the provincial police defend.” The strike ended July 1 with no apparent gains for the j strikers, but a year later they got new wage rates based on a figure fifteen points above the cost-of-living index at Premier Duplessis’ insistence.

From this campaign it jumped into the Montreal municipal scene by running a series of forty-one articles by dismissed vice-buster Pacifique Plante concerning vice conditions in the city. The series sparked the vice probe that ushered in the city’s present reform administration. Le Devoir had taken up the issue when it seemed a dead one to other Montreal newspapers.

It quickly aroused wide interest in the city, and it also roused the racket boys. Two of them paid a visit to j Filion at Le Devoir and advised him to stop the series or take the conseq uences. j When he phoned for the police, they vanished. But they threatened to j wreck the printing plant, and Filion i obtained a police guard. His wife in St. Bruno was repeatedly called on the telephone and warned that something would happen to their children if her ■ husband didn’t smarten up. F ilion cairied a gun in his car but otherwise paid no attention to the threats. In the J spring of 1950 Le Devoir’s campaign j bore fruit when the Superior Court j granted a petition for a probe into j Montreal vice conditions. But it wasn t j until four years later when the new adj ministration was swept into power in ! Montreal that the campaign ended.

At the beginning of 1954 a series of ¡ articles by Quebec correspondent Pierre j Laporte on mismanagement of the quarter-billion-dollar Quebec Hydio Bersimis power development again stimulated Duplessis’ vocabulary. He denounced Le Devoir as “a yellow sheet, full of slanders, libels, villainies and venom.” He further characterized Laporte as a “pig” and an ingrate who returned treachery for a kindness that Duplessis had once done Laporte’s family.

Le Devoir’s current war with its erstwhile union friends grew out of wage negotiations last April when Filion became convinced that the union demand for an increase of seventeen dollars a week was aimed at getting control of the paper by bankrupting it. He estimated that the increase would raise the annual deficit of the paper from $50,000 to $125,000, and he decided that rather than face ultimate bankruptcy he would lock the union out and try to run his paper with a nonunion printing staff.

Some sixty of the 130 employees were either locked out or quit work in sympathy, and Filion, Laurendeau, Sauriol, Vigeant and Laporte took turns writing articles each day explaining their position on the strike. And each day the last year’s wages of the striking workers were listed in the paper, most of them over five thousand a year. Filion pointed out that the new rates were higher than the salaries of managing editor Héroux and secretary Paul Sauriol, higher than at any other newspaper in Montreal.

The paper has not missed a day’s publication. Meanwhile, the pickets continue to picket. Le Devoir continues to support union struggles in other fields, and their mutual opponents are gleeful.

And so Le Devoir goes its own unique way. To Gerard Filion the big issue in Canada today is federal-provincial relations. He contends the federal government is aggressively undermining provincial autonomy, and he supports Duplessis in his stand on maintaining provincial taxation rights, but watches him suspiciously where other things are concerned. This and other issues are mulled over by Filion, his editors and his staff in that drab downtown building which produces its curious mixture of fact and opinion.

“Le Devoir is not a newspaper,” Pierre Laporte said recently, “it is a way of life.” ★