The author is a historian, sociologist, writer and teacher at the University of Quebec at Chicôtime in history, sociology, anthropology, political science and international cooperation programs and holder of the Canada Chair for Research on Collective Imagination.
I am not the first to address this question, which has been at the center of the debate on the Quiet Revolution. Many intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s painted a very bleak picture of the French-Canadian past: a docile, little folk, resistant to change, indifferent to democracy, submissive to authority, turned toward the past and tradition. This picture wasn’t entirely wrong, but empirical research that would have helped separate fantasy and reality was largely missing.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, a counter-thesis has emerged that has largely invalidated the old picture. Some representatives of the new trend were satisfied with quick writings that formulated criticisms or hypotheses without evidence. Other works provided rigorous empirical analyses, but their results did not penetrate much into the public’s imagination.
An ambiguous picture of a “traditional” society
Severe criticism of French-Canadian society (before 1960) was fueled by some well-established arguments. It showed a colonial society that, after failed revolutions, did not fight hard to liberate itself. The conservatism of the elites, the censorship and despotism of the Church, aimed, except for minority minds, at hesitation, if not opposition to modernity. She also provided examples of the lag this community had (generally behind English Canada) in terms of literacy, community facilities (eg, public libraries) and health (particularly infant mortality).
But by going so far—indeed, very far—she reproached working-class circles who considered them bent and aloof, steeped in medieval tradition, on their knees before the clergy, but rather content with their lot. Specialists have depicted a familial, rural community, closed in on itself, fearful of foreigners, captive of subsistence farming, and somewhat close even to tribal communities (” popular communities “).
Likewise, there has been talk of devout mothers thriving in the many maternity departments, of well-behaved workers subservient to their boss, as well as of a mentality heavily inclined to spirituality and hostile to doing business.
All this formed a stereotype, promoted by literature, the media, textbooks, foreign intellectuals, who had a difficult life. Not surprisingly, it inspired some Quebecers with embarrassment or even what has been called a “shameful memory”. But is this vision of our past faithful to reality?
What does scientific research say?
I will only comment here on the stereotype associated with popular circles in the city as well as in the countryside.
Well-behaved workers? Strong studies have shown that employees are very self-centered, critical of the employer relationship, and frequently engage in very difficult struggles. They also showed the difficult fate of the Catholic unions, which are considered very satisfied.
home residents? The rural population, like the urban population, showed a great deal of mobility according to the needs of the families. The most eloquent signs are the massive exodus from the countryside toward Quebec cities and the stream of immigration that drove nearly a million of our “people” toward the United States between 1830 and 1930.
Hostility towards foreigners? Let us avoid confusing the spread of xenophobia and anti-Semitism among the elites with the often pleasant welcome that families gave to visitors or immigrants.
Business resistance mentality? In most areas of Quebec we have seen innovative and daring individuals, often from humble backgrounds, sometimes farmers, going into business and displaying lively entrepreneurship.
Indifference to democracy? This ignores the great interest aroused by local politics and the fever that gripped the population on the occasion of the elections. Again, it was the more conservative elites and especially the higher clergy who feared popular suffrage.
On the other hand, to free themselves from English colonization, the people had little means. He would need the help of the elites. he did not come.
The authoritarianism of the church, the reaction of believers
Other features are inseparable from the power relationship in which the Church is most often involved. Illiteracy was mainly the result of the policy of the higher clergy, enemies of compulsory education. Extreme fertility was partly (well I say: partly) the fact of the constant threats (excommunication of sacraments, excommunication, condemnation of hell) that priests burdened mothers with. However, they resorted to all kinds of forbidden means (mostly of their own invention) and they were not very effective for limiting births.
Orders to force electoral choices on believers were regularly ignored, as was the urgent call to support conscription of 1918 and extensive rural propaganda until the mid-20th century.e century. The clergy worked to purify popular (“vulgar”) culture, to eliminate the so-called superstitious beliefs, bad habits, indecent clothing, disastrous leisure activities (dance, cinema, circus, etc.). without result.
Conversely, citizens’ projects for free schools, “neutral” public libraries, and secular charities were often suppressed.
Quebec’s historical studies of church functioning, popular culture, mindsets, and many other collective realities rarely bring a dimension to authority. So the analysis is poor and biased. We will need many more studies conducted in this spirit. It will show a more accurate view of our ancestors.
Along with the politics of the Church, it is necessary to take into account the fierce resistance that she opposed. Here as elsewhere, let us beware of what the dominant voices say. One letter can hide the other.
Finally, if a “disgraceful memory” must be attached to our past, it has little to do with popular behavior, so many excesses of the authorities that sometimes succumbed to what was already called in France “Catholic without Christianity”.
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