In July 1997 Quebec City unveiled a bronze statue of Charles de Gaulle outside its walls. Though the $150,000 price tag might have seemed exorbitant to Canadians whose cash–strapped governments have in recent years been compelled to cut social services, for Quebecois sovereigntists it was a small price to pay for the assurance that from now to forever the eminent general will preside over the Plains of Abraham, site of a definitive French defeat at the hands of the English in 1759, terrestrial source of perpetual French Canadian humiliation, historical souvenir of all that is wrong with the world.
It is of course fitting that de Gaulle should rule over the Plains, for few events in the history of Quebec’s sovereigntist movement can match the long–term influence of his cry “Vive le Québec libre!” from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall in July 1967 before a crowd of fifty thousand. “Whatever General de Gaulle’s ambiguous motives may have been,” wrote Canadian historian Ramsay Cook soon after the event, “there can be no doubt that his adventures in ‘la nouvelle France’ finally brought into focus the nature of the current Canadian crisis.”
If de Gaulle’s visit to Quebec in 1967 is remembered as having stirred a crisis among Canada’s federalists, to Quebec’s sovereigntists it stands as a signal event in their collective memory. The liberator of Paris was now their liberator. And even as a “quiet revolution” made radical changes in their own society, de Gaulle seemed to be saying that France was now eager to embrace her distant brood. “France sees you, she hears you, she loves you.”
So let us say that Quebec received de Gaulle as something of a savior—in the words of former Quebec premier René Levesque to the French National Assembly in 1977, de Gaulle’s declaration was heard like a prophetic shot around the world. Nineteen years later Premier Jacques Parizeau claimed that the general’s four small words lived on “in the life of a people.” And in his autobiography, current Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard effuses over the memory of a youthful handshake with de Gaulle in 1959: “He held out his hand. I grasped it eagerly. I couldn’t help noting how fine and smooth it was.”
Why this hero worship? What was so wrong that led French Canadians to turn to de Gaulle as a sort of Quebecois messiah? As a first step toward an answer, we might observe that from the 1850s until the early 1960s, Quebec’s French–speakers believed themselves to be actors in a drama of universal import. “What Christian,” asked the influential nineteenth–century French Canadian bishop L. F. R. Laflèche, “believing in the all–wise Providence controlling every event on earth, could fail to be struck by the resemblance between Abraham’s behavior when he took possession of the land God promised his descendants, and that of Jacques Cartier as he took possession of this Canadian territory to which . . . the same Providence had guided his footsteps?” It was obvious to Laflèche that French Canadians had, in his terms, a “providential mission”—to be a Catholic light and witness to North America and the world, to stand against liberalism and modernism.
It was in service to that mission that Quebec’s religious and political leaders worked to preserve the French language and culture that had grown up along the St. Lawrence River, not for their own sake, but because those goods were inextricably tied to the Catholic faith to which French Quebeckers owed their existence as a people. They believed, correctly as it turns out, that whereas the scattered and outnumbered French–speakers in New England, the Canadian West, and Louisiana were in large measure doomed to assimilation into North America’s predominant Protestant culture, Quebeckers who remained true to the Catholic faith and the French language and culture in which that faith was expressed could maintain a coherent society. Thus Quebec’s premier, the heavy–handed Maurice Duplessis, in 1946: “The province’s strength lies in the depth of its religious feeling. . . . [It] must be the citadel of Christian civilization in Canada and even the entire North American continent.”
Before Duplessis died in 1959 it seemed that life in Quebec would continue as ever. An article published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1960 observed that the nineteenth century had “passed lightly over the French Canadians.” Little did anyone know that within the next few years Quebec would undergo a most radical transformation.
In Appointment in Rome, his recently published account of the Synod for America in late 1997, Richard John Neuhaus considers, inter alia, the cultural and theological positions taken in recent years by Canada’s Catholic bishops. Being “finely attuned” to the preferences and whims of Canada’s elite culture, Neuhaus writes, Canada’s Catholic bishops seem to be committed to the rule that, above all, one must not give offense. This commandment has been in effect especially in Quebec, where in the 1960s the Catholic Church fell from its status as Quebec’s chief purveyor of culture to that of a lowly target of scorn. Neuhaus captures the measure of Quebec’s reconstruction, wrought by the convergence of a desire on the part of some elite Quebeckers to “catch up” with the modern world and the reforming spirit of Vatican II. “With stunning rapidity, paralleled only by the Netherlands,” he writes, “Quebec went from being one of the most religiously observant societies to one of the least observant. Schools, hospitals, and social services were rigorously secularized; priestly vocations evaporated; Mass attendance plummeted; the churches were emptied; and politicians and priests together declared the revolution a success.”
Neuhaus is right, though that last point needs nuancing. Throughout the 1960s Quebecois clerics were at the center of the very movement that would soon push them into irrelevancy. Proponents of “keeping up with the times” so as to “effectively engage in dialogue with the culture,” they believed that Quebeckers who had formerly gone to church out of a sense of mere cultural duty would now go for more high–minded reasons—the chance to share their spiritual journeys with nonjudgmental sisters and brothers, for example. But no sooner had Quebec’s “progressive” priests repudiated one conformity than they fell into line with another, working with the new cultural engineers to produce what is now one of the most militantly anti–Catholic and stultifyingly conformist of Western societies.
It’s not that the relationship between church and state in Quebec was not crying out for change. In Neuhaus’ words, “everyone agrees that the earlier concubinage between Church and government in Quebec was unhealthy.” Indeed, some of Quebec’s Catholic bishops had become so dependent on the state’s patronage by the late 1950s that Premier Duplessis could say, with some justice, that the bishops ate from his hands. And it is easy to understand how things could have come to that pass: Following the collapse of France’s North American empire in 1763 the only real authority that remained in Quebec was the Catholic Church. Were it not for the Church, Quebec’s French–speaking community would not have survived. By the 1960s, however, Quebec’s clerics had grown accustomed to wielding and acquiescing to political influence, and reform was necessary.
By the 1970s, many within Quebec’s Catholic Church were forced to recognize that what they had really signed on to was, so to speak, their own death warrant. “We did not realize how much would be destroyed, or how quickly,” Neuhaus records one old priest as saying. “We wanted to liberate [Quebeckers] from the oppression of the Church and we ended up liberating them from the Church.” Rarely in modern times has well–intentioned but misguided zeal cost so much.
So what filled the cultural space made vacant by the collapse of the Catholic Church in Quebec? A lot of things. Soon after he was elected leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Gille Duceppe reminded the Canadian press that “Before Duplessis died, we’d all go to church and make our sign [of the cross], and a year later we didn’t go to Mass any more. So we looked for another set of values, one that was all–enveloping, like the Church.” Like many, Duceppe first turned to communism. Then, as Montreal political scientist Denis Moniere has noted, there were those young Quebeckers who simply enjoyed their new–found liberty to embrace “the pleasures of immediate consumption” and to shatter “old taboos.” But more significant for Moniere and eventually for Duceppe and many others is that in the 1960s Quebecois separatism become a significant political force—just when Quebeckers were abandoning their churches en masse. For many, nationalism filled the void created by the Church’s collapse in Quebec.
And the way some French Quebeckers talk, you’d think that that was a pretty good trade. What’s clear, though, is that despite their newfound projects, in the 1960s a large number of French Quebeckers felt a sense of existential rootlessness for the first time.
In 1895 the American expatriate and arch–nationalist Jules–Paul Tardivel opined that “God has planted in the heart of every French Canadian patriot a ‘flower of hope’”; and for all contemporary Quebec’s secularity, one suspects that something of the hopefulness Tardivel detected in the cities and towns along the St. Lawrence somehow lives on. To be sure, Quebec’s sovereigntists no longer embrace the aspiration, pronounced by Tardivel, “that there be established, on the banks of the St. Lawrence, a New France whose mission shall be to continue in this American land the work of Christian civilization.” Rather, they look to the fulfillment of the promise of the Quiet Revolution: a patrie of their own. But at the heart of both aspirations is hope—in times past, a hope that righteous endurance could transform the French Canadians’ piece of earth into a city on a hill; in the present, a hope that political independence will somehow wash away existential despair. “We’ll have our country!” Jacques Parizeau told his dejected supporters on the night of the defeat of the October 1995 referendum on sovereignty. “Vive l’espoir, vive le Quebec!”
Which brings us back to the statue of General de Gaulle outside Quebec City, just a few hundred yards from where Parizeau called on his partisans to keep hope alive—where, despite setbacks and failed referenda, the cry for a free Quebec arises, like incense, night and day. And we recognize that what Quebecois nationalists seek in that graven image is a final answer to the question that has been at the heart of French Canadian public life for some two centuries: What is Quebec for?
Nowadays not very many among Quebec’s dwindling Catholic faithful would want to say, as did their ancestors, that their people constitute a New Israel. They wouldn’t want to say that the Quebecois are a uniquely chosen people. But what they could say is that for all the things Quebeckers regret, or think they regret, in their history, the Catholic faith provided their forebears with an answer to the one great question they have always had in common. Whether Quebec’s Catholics will be able to muster up the courage to say such a thing is another matter.
”Ours,” one Quebecois priest told Father Neuhaus, “must be the quiet generation.” But as the standard life expectancy and average age of Quebec’s Catholic clergy converge, one wonders if that ostensibly prudent wariness isn’t really a betrayal. Dead men don’t speak; the number of young men entering the ministry is minimal; churches are closing their doors; religious ignorance continues to skyrocket; Quebec’s suicide rate and other manifestations of social despair make the American condition seem rosy in comparison. All the while, Quebec’s Christian leaders mutter faint platitudes behind closed doors.
Preston Jones, a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa and fellow of the Pew Program in Religion and American History, is currently finishing a Ph.D. thesis on the Bible in late nineteenth century Canadian public life.