For the sake of argument

Quebec’s nationalism won’t die with Duplessis —and perhaps it shouldn’t

RALPH ALLEN November 7 1959
For the sake of argument

Quebec’s nationalism won’t die with Duplessis —and perhaps it shouldn’t

RALPH ALLEN November 7 1959

Quebec’s nationalism won’t die with Duplessis —and perhaps it shouldn’t

For the sake of argument


When Maurice Duplessis died a

whole generation of liberal-minded, anti - segregationist Canadians sighed with relief and hope. It was too bad about Duplessis himself, a man of vast strengths along with his vast failings. But the province he loved, cajoled, ruled and bullied for twenty years was certain to be better off. So was the Dominion he held at arm's length from his province. The Duplessis brand of nationalism was sure to die soon after its leading advocate. That’s what large numbers of small-1 liberals were saying on the day Duplessis died.

All of what they were saying may be so. Perhaps it will be to the ultimate advantage of Quebec and Canada if it so turns out to be. But let's not start betting on it. Above all let us not fall into the error of believing that Duplessis’ kind of nationalism is a spent and altogether useless force.

The futility of hand-wringing

Nationalism, for better or for worse, is one of the great feeders of our political and military history. In a confused and dangerous world it is one of the few defenses left for minorities. It is also one of the commonest excuses for strongarmed majorities. In the aggregate it is a more powerful influence on man’s affairs than Communism. Christianity and democracy com-


On the debit side nationalism is the force that has set the allegedly peaceful people of Asia at each other’s throats—the Indians against the Pakistani, the Chinese against the Indians, half of Latin America against the other half, the Algerians against the French, the Russians against nearly everybody, the Egyptians against the Jews, the people of Canada — in thank Heaven a more limited and less passionate way — against the people of the United States. It can be claimed that what all these antagonists are partly antagonistic about is politics, but it cannot be denied that what they’re wholly antagonistic about is boundaries, land, race and, in short, nationalism. On the credit side it can be claimed that millions of people have survived and grown only because they had boundaries to protect them.

To wring our hands, and only wring our hands, over the evils of nationalism will accomplish as little as we have accomplished by wringing our hands over sex and alcohol. A much greater man than Maurice Duplessis once put the case for nationalism better than Duplessis ever did. The person who speaks is Henri Bourassa. just before the first world war: “What I would wish is that between the old English frigate about to sink and the American corsair preparing to pick up the wreckage we should manœuvre our barque with prudence and firmness, so that it will not be swallow'ed up in the vortex of one nor be carried away in the wake of the other. Uet us not sever the chain too soon, but let us not rivet the links too closely”

Bourassa—like Duplessis but in an infinitely grander style—was a nationalist on two levels. He sought to isolate Canada from the dangerous and disreputable turmoils of the outside world. He also sought to isolate Quebec from the romantic, bloody and, in his eyes, often foolish affairs of Canada.

Bourassa, the parliamentarian, the editor and the orator, understood nearly everything about Canada. and he understood it in both languages. He came along at a propitious time for a real fire-eating nationalist, a time when hundreds of thousands of Canadians who detested everything Bourassa stood for—detested his race, his religion and his politics—were arriving at conclusions similar to his for rea-

sons not quite the same as his. Quite clearly Canada was being hemmed in and suffocated by its two rich relations. One of them, the English relation, wras obviously a silly ass. The other rich relation was quite a bit smarter, but lie was every bit as objectionable. He talked at the top of his lungs and spilled ashes on the rug. Bourassa kept urging us to get rid of both these benevolent kinfolk, but not to do it too soon.

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For the sake of argument

continued from page 12

`~To lick nationalism would be admirable; next best is to join it"

In 1911 Bourassa and the rest of the country had an almost unparalleled chance to choose up sides. There was a general election coming up. The prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, had just brought off one of the finest strokes of business ever achieved by a Canadian prime minister. He had arranged a tariff treaty with the United States under which Canadian raw materials were to be admitted to the United States almost duty free and their manufactured goods were to come into Canada under about the same conditions. Theoretically this was almost too good to be true. Canada had been seeking something of the sort for more than fifteen years. But the United States had constantly refused to consent. In each of the years 1896, 1900, 1904 and 1908 there had been a general election in each country. In each of those years Canada had voted for lower tariffs and the United States had voted for higher tariffs.

But now Laurier had broken the log jam. He drafted his reciprocity treaty with President William Howard Taft and brought home this fat and long-desired plum with confidence and pride and offered it to his presumably grateful people. What happened? The people began asking what that damned scheming Yankee scoundrel Taft was up to now. They burned Taft in effigy and went roaring through the streets singing rude songs about him. Laurier’s Tory opponents, who at first had thought they were altogether undone by Laurier’s brilliant statesmanship, plucked up their courage and rushed to the attack. They dusted off old battle cries from the days of the sacred John A. Macdonald — "No truck or trade with the Yankees" — "A British subject l was born: a British subject 1 will die." The railway baron, William Van Horne, took a horrified look at reciprocity and cried aloud that he was "out to bust the damned thing." And he and his fellow protectionists got a great deal of unintentional help from their opponents — and opposing nationalists — in the United States. Champ Clark, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, proclaimed: "1 hope to see the day when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possession clear to the north pole." A U. S. Senator was heard to announce: "Canadian annexation is the logical conclusion of reciprocity with Canada." President Taft himself announced solemnly: "Canada is at the parting of the ways."

All this was good red raw meat to the Canadian protectionists, who rushed up their reserves. Rudyard Kipling himself cabled on the eve of the election: "It is her soul that Canada risks today." A group of Montreal clubwomen passed a resolution saying that reciprocity meant “Annexation, injury to home life and the marriage tie, a lessening of national religion, morals and patriotism.”

On the eve of the election the harassed and hopelessly misunderstood Laurier found himself crying forth his own epitaph: "I am branded in Quebec as a traitor to the French and in Ontario as a traitor to the English. In Quebec I am branded as a Jingo and in Ontario as a Separatist. In Quebec I am attacked as an Imperialist and in Ontario as an antiimperialist.”

When election day came Laurier and the reciprocity treaty w'crc snowed under. But history has almost forgotten that Laurier’s successor. Sir Robert Borden, was a nationalist too.

Very soon Borden’s new government, which had gone into power on a surge of nationalism, was forced to defend itself against charges of colonialism. And now the foreign devil that Canadians began eyeing w'ith suspicion and alarm was not the kindly Mr. Taft but a brash young Englishman named Winston Churchill. Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty in Britain and he was telling Canada how to build and run its navy. Or rather how not to build and run it. Everybody knew there was going to be a war with Germany; Churchill said Canada should send over men, ships and guns but not try to manage them herself. This put the young Englishman right at the eye of a fresh cyclone. One maddened Canadian member of parliament got up in the House of Commons, read the American Declaration of Independence, then read one of Winston Churchill’s patronizing memoranda to the Canadian government, and choked forth: “That document is calculated to cause more irritation, to undermine more seriously our constitutional freedom than any document that has come from authority in Great Britain to any colony since the days of Lord North.” Another M.P. prophesied that Churchill had taken "the first step in the direction that will ultimately mean the separation of the Dominion from the . . . Empire."

As an advocate of protection, it was not surprising that during the 1911 election Borden had allowed his supporters to use anti-American verses like this:

“Lord God of our fathers, rise up at Thy people's cry

"For blindness has stricken the nation and the doom of our land grows nigh.

"Rise, rise up ere it falls. Lord, und blast with the fire of Tliy mouth

"The treason that barters our birthright for the gold of the Kings of the South."

Borden’s suspicion of the United States was quite in character with his personal background and his political tradition. His suspicion of the United Kingdom was less well known. As a Tory and an Imperialist Borden should have been, in theory, an uncritical supporter of the British government. But he wasn't. After he was elected and the British cabinet refused to give him information or consult him about what was going on during the war he sent the Cabinet this message:

"It can hardly be expected that we shall put 400.000 or 500.000 men in the field and willingly accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than if we were toy automata. Any person cherishing such an expectation harbors an unfortunate and even dangerous delusion. Is this war being waged by the United Kingdom alone, or is it a war being waged by the whole Empire? If I am correct in supposing that the second hypothesis must be accepted, then why do the statesmen of the British Isles arrogate to themselves solely the methods by which it shall be carried on ... It is for them to suggest the method ... If there is no available method and if we are expected to continue in the role of automata, the whole situation must be reconsidered . . . Procrastination, indecision, inertia, doubt and hesitation and many other undesirable qualities have made themselves felt in this war.”

This was the voice of a nationalist. Mackenzie King echoed it much later:

"Anything like a direct or indirect attempt at Downing Street to tell the people of the Dominions what they should do is certain to prove just as injurious to so-called ‘Imperial solidarity’ as any attempt at interference in matters of purely domestic concern. If membership within the British Empire means participation by the Dominion in any and every war in which Great Britain becomes involved, without consultation, conference or agreement of any kind. 1 can see no hope for an enduring relationship."

It is not altogether a coincidence that the least successful prime minister of this century, Arthur Meighen, seemed to many Canadians—although the estimate was grossly unfair—to be more an Englishman than a Canadian. It is not altogether a coincidence that John Diefenbaker. many years later, spoke up loudly for nationalism while Lester Pearson spoke up quietly for internationalism and that Diefenbaker became our prime minister and Pearson didn’t.

What I am contending is that the opponents of nationalism—of whom this writer is one by instinct but not by practice—are enormously right and, alas! half blind. Call nationalism what you will: the herd instinct, the group instinct, the instinct to form ranks behind barriers of geography, history, race, color or religion. It is still there and it is still almost irresistible. We do well in hoping it will go away, along with our other dangerous habits. But we'll achieve nothing by assuming it has gone away already or is on the way to going away. To lick it would be admirable: the next best thing is to join it.

In Asia, in Europe, in Africa, in North America, in Canada and—to return to the original point—in Quebec, nationalism will not die overnight. Quebec nationalism will not die with Maurice Duplessis any more than Canadian nationalism died with King. Russian nationalism with Stalin or English nationalism with Victoria. And minorities in general,

whatever their origin or location, are

most unlikely—and perhaps even unwise —to abandon their nationalism until

majorities abandon theirs. That time is a long time away and the more clearly we recognize the fact the fewer misunderstandings there'll be within the universal anarchy of nations, states and provinces, ie