Monday, 9 May 2011

The rise of Catholic clerical power in Lower Canada: After the rebellions

In 1806, Le French Canadian was established by Pierre Bédard in Quebec with its motto: ‘Notre foi, notre langue, nos institutions’. These became the three pillars of survival for French Canadians and had increased resonance in the aftermath of Durham’s Report in defining the distinctiveness of French Canada. The focus was placed upon what Michel Brunet called ‘Messianism’, ‘agriculturalism’ and ‘anti-statism’.[1] From 1841, leadership was progressively assumed by the Roman Catholic Church and religion was increasingly stressed to distinguish the French Canadian people from their ‘Protestant’ environment. The Church emphasised the duty of French Canadians to spread their religion and the conservative rural values associated with it. It also preached distrust of a state that was dominated by a majority alien in culture and religion. It was therefore better to rely on the Church to provide services normally associated with the State: charity, health, welfare and education. The Church was regarded as the guardian not just of the faith of the people but also of the nation. Within a few decades, the Church supplied the French Canadian people with a transcendental vision of their new situation. [2] Its definition of the French Canadian nation explicitly refuted that of the Patriotes, which had a strong liberal and emancipating connotation. As emphasised by a clerical ideologist in the 1840s, ‘it is not borders, nor even laws or political administrations which make a nationality; it is a religion, a language, a national character’. [3] The entanglement of Catholicism with nationalism later evolved into a close relationship between the Catholic faith and the French language according to which the latter was the best means to keep alive the former, and was condensed into the motto ‘the language, guardian of the faith’.[4]

During the rebellions, Mgr Jean-Jacques Lartigue[5], since 1836 first bishop of Montreal and his coadjutor, Ignace Bourget[6] were actively involved in maintaining the authority of the Church and colonial government against the demands of the rebels.[7] The Roman Catholic hierarchy threw its weight behind a policy of compromise. [8] Lartigue’s first injunction was dated 24 October 1837, two days after a demonstration by 1,200 Patriotes in front of the Cathedral of St-Jacques protesting against the sermon given by Lartigue on 25 July at the ceremony when Ignace Bourget was consecrated as Lartigue’s coadjutor with the right of succession. [9] Lartigue had reminded the congregation of the Catholic Church’s attitude to rebellion against lawful authorities. [10] The first pastoral letter restated the traditional doctrine of the Church to ‘the obedience due to authority’ casting serious doubt on the wisdom of the radicals’ policy, which he considered imprudent as well as harmful. However, he did not threaten ecclesiastical sanctions against those in his diocese who did not respect his instructions. This letter was not well received by Patriotes. La Minerve on 30 October was particularly critical, as was Étienne Chartier, priest of St-Benoît who challenged the argument on which the pastoral letter was based. [11] According to Gilles Chaussé:

…although the clergy disassociated itself from the views expressed by the curé of St-Benoît, nonetheless a significant section of the clergy entertained serious doubts about the action of their bishop and on his view of the doctrine of unconditional obedience to the Crown and its representatives. [12]

This pastoral letter reminded clergy and laity of their religious responsibilities. [13] In reality, for many Patriotes it meant making a choice between their religious and political conscience. [14]

Following Lartigue’s death in 1840, Bourget took his place at the head of the diocese. He had been Lartigue’s secretary since 1821 and had been well prepared for this task. The ten years after the rebellions saw considerable change in the Roman Catholic Church.

The character of education in Lower Canada both before and after the rebellions was a major concern for the Church. Before 1800, the education of habitants had been left largely in the hands of the Church and was largely ignored by the colonial state. This proved inadequate and accounted for the low levels of literacy among habitants. In 1801, legislation empowered the governor to appoint trustees who would form a Royal Institute, the administrative body of a new system of education. The governor appointed commissioners in parishes or townships that wished to set up a Royal Institute school and they would oversee the construction, financing and maintenance of the school while the colonial government would pay for the teachers. Although the legislation originated in a proposal from the Anglican bishop Jacob Mountain, there was little initial opposition to the Royal Institute schools from Catholics. However, by the 1810s, the Catholic hierarchy under Plessis was concerned that these schools were part of an assimilationist plan by Anglicans.[15] This opposition limited the potential of these schools for French Canadians and between 1801 and 1824 only between 13 and 17 French Canadian localities established these schools. Although resistance by the Roman Catholic Church was a major factor, there were other reasons for the limited impact of Royal Institute schools. There was an unwillingness of parents to contribute to costs and relations between the Legislative Assembly and colonial government deteriorated over government costs.

In 1824, the government introduced the fabrique law. This provided for elementary education directly controlled by the parish fabrique (church council) and was supported by both the Church and the nationalist Parti Canadien. It allowed the parish priest and the fabrique to use a quarter of the parish’s annual revenue to finance schools. This legislation did not replace the state-run Royal Institute schools but established a parallel system more in keeping with French Canadian needs and wants. Despite the potential of the fabrique system, it appears to have made as little impact on the education of French Canadians as the Royal Institute schools. Parish revenues were generally inadequate to sustain a school and parish priests appear to have preferred spending the money on enriching the fabric of their churches rather than the education of their parishioners. In addition, there was growing alienation between the Church and the more radical and reorganised Parti Patriote that took a more liberal nationalist view and wanted to snatch education from the grasp of the Church.

This growing ideological and political split was exacerbated in 1829 with the passage of the Assembly School Act that gave deputies rather than local priests control over elementary school system. [16] This legislation, renewed in 1832, created a third parallel system of education, the Écoles de Syndic that the colonial state was prepared to finance. It wanted a system of public education to reduce levels of illiteracy but this concerned the clergy as they saw it as lay interference in what they thought should be a Catholic education. The anglophone middle-class exerted pressure in London to establish a free and public system of education conscious of its importance in producing a skilled workforce. The plan called for primary and secondary schools in each parish or canton and the introduction of a university in Quebec. The Church feared that schooling would occur in ways that were contrary to Catholic faith and morality and that the centralising nature of the legislation would further limit control by the Church.[17] However, attempts by parish clergy to put pressure on habitants by, for example, refusing the sacrament to those who sent their children to Assembly schools of had a negative effect, a reflection of the growing resentment by habitants of the ways priests spent fabrique revenues and their simmering anticlericalism. The hegemony of parish clergy was being challenged by rural liberal professionals and merchants who were increasing critical of the Church over education and the sought control through the democratic nature of the fabriques. This, however, had the effect of hardening the attitude of the Church hierarchy to the Assembly’s School legislation.

When the Assembly attempted to amend the legislation in 1836, it was rejected by the Legislative Council on the grounds that the new bill was too costly and would extend the control of deputies over the existing system in unacceptable ways. This rejection was the result of two things: the effective lobbying of Lartigue that met with a sympathetic hearing in the Council and the increasingly bitter disputes between the Patriote deputies and the nominated Council members. The rejection of the school bill left Lower Canada without an official school system, something lamented by contemporaries. La Minerve stated that ‘Today, a vital law for this colony expires...The Legislative Council in its rage and folly has closed 1665 elementary schools...’[18] Durham’s Report was highly critical of the Assembly schools because he maintained they promoted patronage and abuse since Patriote deputies used for their own political advantage. In general terms, however, the impact of the Assembly schools in rural areas led to an increase in levels of literacy and had the widespread support of habitants. [19] Despite calls from parents for the reestablishment of the Écoles de syndic, in 1838 Arthur Buller proposed a new non-sectarian system of education for the United Canada where anglophones and francophones would be educated together ‘in order to develop harmony and mutual understanding and, in the long term, the anglicising of French Canadians.’[20] The desire for assimilation of French Canadians was always a political hope.[21] To avoid colonial government assuming the expenses of running this system of education, there was to be a school tax that parents and landowners would pay. This provoked widespread opposition from both Protestant and Catholic clergy who saw this as an attempt to leave education in the hands of the state.[22] The Catholic Church’s campaign for a Catholic and French education system in Lower Canada during the 1840s proved an important feature in its revival as the institutional basis for revived French Canadian nationalism that was conservative rather than liberal in focus.

In Europe and especially in France and Italy during the 1820s and 1830s a Catholic revival linked to ultramontanism became increasingly important and it arrived in Quebec during the 1840s. Mgr Bourget, who had close links with the Papacy, restructured the Church to increase its presence in the social and political spheres as part of the campaign to strengthen French Canadian faith and willingness to adhere to Catholic doctrine. To achieve this he initially needed to resolve the problem of the shortage of priests in the province and recruited priests from religious communities in Europe. This resulted in an increase in the number of priests per head of population from 1:1,800 in 1830 to about 1:1,000 by 1850. This expanded clergy allowed Bourget to make the presence of the Church felt more closely and in a more disciplined manner in the lives of parishioners. This was accomplished since priests became more involved in charitable work, education and the organisation of religious processions, retreats and temperance societies.

La lutte que se sont livrés mutuellement l’Église et l’État au XIXe siècle, aussi bien en Europe qu’au Canada-français, n’a été en fait qu’une transposition, au niveau des institutions, d’une opposition fondamentale entre deux groupes sociaux aux intérêts divergents, soit le clergé, d’une part, et la bourgeoisie, d’autre part.[23]

The Church was also concerned by the influx of largely Protestant immigrants into Lower Canada at the same time as many French Canadians emigrated to the United States. Like other elite groups, the Church was concerned about cultural survival and consequently promoted the colonisation of new lands in Canada where French Canadian communities could be established beyond the influence of Protestant anglophones. In 1848, Bourget supported calls for a project to colonise the Eastern Townships and subsequently expended considerable energy in colonising northern Quebec.

Initially Bourget was wary of the reformist politics of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine but by the mid-1840s, he recognised the value of an alliance with the dominant political grouping especially with the introduction of responsible government in 1848. The new structures gave the people a stronger voice since their representatives were now ministers in the Executive Council. Bourget’s spiritual revival was closely linked to his political agenda for the Church would have greater influence over the lives of the people if those lives were being structured and monitored by Catholic clergy. The French Canadian petite bourgeoisie also saw the advantage of allying with the clergy, which needed the support of the Lower Canadian middle-class, to strengthen their position in relation to British middle-class commercial power. In seeking these alliances, Bourget was without doubt

...l’un des premiers leaders ecclésiastiques à saisir l’importance de cette entreprise comme facteur d’intégration et de cohésion à la fois idéologique et administrative au sein de la communauté religieuse canadienne.[24]

In 1840, education was still relatively decentralised. The 1840s, however, saw the central state and its political agents take control of institutions that had previously been under the control of local bodies or by creating new institutions. Municipal and school laws created a local structure of governance where none had existed before and this was regulated by a centralised state. The development of education policy after 1840 was closely linked to changes in local administration introduced by Lord Sydenham. In 1840, his Municipal Ordinance was the first attempt to bring municipal government to Lower Canada creating two levels of local government. At the local level, municipal corporations were established based on existing parishes and townships with over 300 inhabitants with limited powers vested in an annual meeting for all male residents who met the property qualification. Regional municipal corporations were based on districts (initially 22, but increased to 24 in 1842) with district councils, which met quarterly, with the power to levy taxes for municipal projects. These basic features of municipal government were criticised by Lower Canadian members of the new Assembly largely because the new councils were firmly under executive control. There was also considerable resentment among habitants at the taxing powers of the councils. This situation was made worse by Sydenham’s belief that a comprehensive public education system was as important as municipal government. The result was a period of intense debate over the form that this education system should take lasting from 1841 to legislation in 1846 that laid the foundations for Quebec’s system of schooling for over a century.

The Common Schools Act was adopted in 1841 and applied to both Upper and Lower Canada. The act remained in force in the upper province only for a short time and was replaced in 1843. After this the two sections of the United Province developed separate systems of education. The control of schools that had previously been vested in the Assembly now lay with the office of superintendent of education. The original legislation established one superintendent but in 1842 governor Bagot appointed an assistant superintendent for each province and Jean-Baptiste Meilleur was appointed for Lower Canada.[25] The legislation introduced, with several modifications to satisfy opposition, Buller’s proposals but it did not prove promising: few schools were founded and local opposition often prevented their construction and financing. [26] The cooperation of the new district councils was essential for the success of the new system and this was not forthcoming. Meilleur made clear in 1843 that the reason why local taxation was not introduced was the suspicion of local voters that the monies collected would be used for other than local purposes. The connection between the municipal and school acts in the early 1840s can be seen as one of the major reasons for the failure of the common school legislation.

Despite opposition to the 1841 legislation, schools did gradually increase in number during the first half of the 1840s largely because parents and the Church were willing to provide funding on a voluntary basis. To address the problems with the legislation, in 1845 taxing powers were given to locally-elected school commissioners rather than to the municipal corporations.[27] However, this legislation was replaced a year later by the 1846 Act ‘to make better provision for Education in Lower Canada’. The most significant feature of this Act was the return to compulsory school taxes: in addition to annual school taxes, parents of children between 5 and 16 had to pay a monthly tax whether their children attended school or not and this was symptomatic of a more centralised system of education. The Church gained a little ground through this legislation as it allowed clergy to act as visitors to the schools. However, there was widespread opposition to the compulsory nature of school taxes that took the form of withdrawing children from school, refusing to elect local officials and putting pressure on the Church to make the tax voluntary. [28] While compulsory taxes remained, adjustments were made in response to local complaints.

The emergence of a professional state bureaucracy and the introduction of responsible government that gave the dominant political groupings access to widespread patronage resulted in closer ties between the Roman Catholic Church and Lafontaine’s Reform Party and this was reflected in important changes at local level. Social legislation and the bureaucracy necessary to manage it provided openings for professional men in French Canadian rural society. Participation in local government and school affairs gave individuals status within their communities as well as potential access to lucrative patronage positions. Following Bourget’s lead, local clergy involved themselves in Church initiated social activities as a further way of influencing the lives of their parishioners. For both the professions and the Church, the social initiatives introduced by the state provided important opportunities. It was this new alliance and the loss of prestige for the traditional seigneurs that led to their alliance with habitants over state-imposed taxation. This represented a reversal of the situation in the 1830s when it was the alliance of habitants and professionals that confronted the Church and seigneurs. Education in itself was not the issue; it was a matter of who should control it.

Bourget was largely responsible for the assertion of the rights of the Church over their parishes and schools and over birth, marriage and death, the critical events in people’s lives that were independent of the state. [29] Education was seen first as a means of training good Christians and only secondly intelligent and educated individuals.[30] However, European ideas of secularisation and anticlericalism were not without their supporters in Lower Canada in the 1840s and 1850s. The Parti Rouge supported the abolition of the dime in 1849 that would have severely weakened the economic position of the clergy and the Church in general.

The return of Papineau from exile in 1845 and the emergence of the Rouges as a radical, nationalist party reasserted the role of education and liberalism in the development of French Canadian nationalism. Faced by this, the Church drew attention to the fact that the French Canadian nation was defined in terms of its language and religion. It restated its links with the French Canadian people and also its loyalty to the British Crown. [31] Bourget’s position was reinforced by the elevation in 1846 of Pius IX who was more open to innovation than his predecessor. He went to Rome to ask for the establishment of an ecclesiastical province and to recruit clergy who were prepared to go to Canada and, as a result a new diocese was set up in Toronto.

The decade after the rebellions saw widespread change in the Canadas. Political changes, modifications in established political ideologies and crises in social policy especially in education were issues in which the Catholic Church with its growing self-confidence and viability as a loyal part of the colonial state had little choice but to be involved. In the aftermath of the rebellions, it was the Roman Catholic Church that provided many in Lower Canada with a focus for their faith but also for their political and cultural aspirations. Though conservative clerical nationalism was not fully formed by 1850, its roots were clearly identified in the growing ultramontanism of the Church and in its increasing appeal to many French Canadians as the protector not simply of their faith but of their cultural heritage as well.

Perhaps the most enduring bequest of Victorian Christianity whether Roman Catholic or Protestant to its religiously committed descendants has been in the realm of form rather than content. The nineteenth-century ‘churching of Canada’ differed significantly from the corresponding process witnessed in the United States and as a consequence, the anatomy of contemporary Canadian religion bears less resemblance to its American counterpart than might initially or superficially be supposed. In this respect, the evolution of Canadian religion has followed a European rather than an American model, in keeping with a characteristic Canadian reluctance, both French and English, to abandon the ties of ancestral authority in a revolutionary American manner. Steeped in the heroic mythology of religious dissent and constitutionally celebrating the separation of church and state, the United States has long accommodated the sect as its predominant and paradigmatic mode of religious organization. In contrast, Canadian religion boasts establishmentarian roots. Sectarianism has undoubtedly played a vital and vigorous minor role but it has been large churches with strong links to powerful political, business and cultural elites that dominated Canadian religious experience.


[1] Brunet, Michel, La Présence Anglaise et les French Canadians: Études sur l’histoire et la pensée des deux Canadas, (Beauchemin), 1964, pp. 113-166.

[2] Eid, N. F., Le clergé et le pouvoir politique au Québec: une analyse de l’idéologie ultramontaine au milieu du 19e siècle, (Hurtubise), 1978, Ferretti, L., Brève histoire de l’Église catholique au Québec, (Boréal), 1999, ibid, Hardy, R., Contrôle social et mutation de la culture religieuse au Québec, 1830-1930 and Voisine, N., Histoire du catholicisme québécois: Les XVIII et XIXe siècles, Vol. 2: Réveil et consolidation (1840-1898), (Boréal), 1991, provide context.

[3] Cit, Dumont, F., Genèse de la société québécoise, (Boréal), 1993, p. 227, and Lamonde, Y., Histoire sociale des idées au Québec, 1760-1896, (Fides), 2001, p. 286.

[4] Sylvain, Philippe, ‘Libéralisme et Ultramontanisme au Canada français: affrontement idéologique et doctrinal (1840-1865)’, in Morton, W. L., (ed.), Le Bouclier d’Achille: regards sur le Canada de l’Ère victorienne, (McClelland & Stewart), 1968, pp.111-138, 220-255.

[5] Ibid, Chausse, Gilles, Jean-Jacques Lartigue: Premier eveque De Montreal and Chausse, Gilles and Limieux, Lucian, ‘Jean-Jacques Lartigue’, DCB, Vol. 7, 1836-1850, pp. 485-491.

[6] ‘Ignace Bourget’, DCB, Vol. 11, pp. 94-105.

[7] Ibid, Lemieux, Lucien, Histoire du catholicisme québécois, Les XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, Vol. 1, Les années difficiles, (1760-1839), pp. 383-394.

[8] Correspondance de Mgr Jean-Jacques Lartigue (1836-1840), in Rapport de l’archiviste de la province de Québec, Vol. 25, (1944-1945), pp.173-266; Vol. 26, (1945-1946), pp. 47-134.

[9] Ibid, Chaussé, Gilles, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, p. 199.

[10] Ouellet, Fernand, ‘Le mandements de Mgr Lartigue de 1837 et la réaction libérale’, Bulletin des recherches historiques, Vol. 58, (2), (1952), pp. 97-104. See above, pp.

[11] Chabot, Richard, ‘Etienne Chartier’, DCB, Vol. 8, 1851-1860, pp. 140-146, and more generally ‘Le rôle du bas clergé face au mouvement insurrectionnel de 1837’, Cahiers de Sainte-Marie, Vol. 5, (1967), pp. 89-98.

[12] Ibid, Chaussé, Gilles, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, p. 211.

[13] Ibid, Chaussé, Gilles, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, p. 200.

[14] Ippersiel, Fernand, Les cousins ennemis: Louis-Joseph Papineau et Jean-Jacques Lartigue, Montreal, 1990, provides a valuable juxtaposition.

[15] Nationalist historians such as Groulx supported Plessis’ position but more recently this has been questioned. To establish a Royal Institute school meant that the majority of people in a parish were prepared to support it and more importantly finance it. In addition, the Board of Trustees of the Royal Institute allowed considerable local autonomy so French Canadian parishes could appoint French-speaking Roman Catholic teachers.

[16] Ibid, Lemieux, Lucien, Histoire du catholicisme québécois, Les XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, Vol. 1, Les années difficiles, (1760-1839), pp. 191-197.

[17] Dufour, Andrée, ‘Tous à l’école’, État, communautés rurales et scolarisation au Québec de 1826 à 1859, (HMH, Cahiers du Québec, Collection Psychopédagogie), 1996, p. 36.

[18] La Minerve, 1 May 1836.

[19] Ibid, Dufour, Andrée, ‘Tous à l’école’, État, communautés rurales et scolarisation au Québec de 1826 à 1859, p. 93.

[20] Ibid, Dufour, Andrée, ‘Tous à l’école’, État, communautés rurales et scolarisation au Québec de 1826 à 1859, p. 97.

[21] Curtis, Bruce, ‘The State of Tutelage in Lower Canada, 1835-1851’, History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 37, (1), (1997), pp. 25-43 considers the question of ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ in education reforms.

[22] Ibid, Dufour, Andrée, ‘Tous à l’école’, État, communautés rurales et scolarisation au Québec de 1826 à 1859, p. 99.

[23] Eid, Nadia F., Le clergé et le pouvoir politique au Québec, une analyse de l’idéologie ultramontaine au milieu du XIXe siècle, (HMH, Cahiers du Québec, Collection Histoire), 1978, p. 26.

[24] Ibid, Eid, Nadia F., Le clergé et le pouvoir politique au Québec, une analyse de l’idéologie ultramontaine au milieu du XIXe siècle, p. 32.

[25] Ibid, Voisine, N., Histoire du catholicisme québécois: Les XVIII et XIXe siècles, Vol. 2: Réveil et consolidation (1840-1898), p. 29.

[26] Ibid, Dufour, Andrée, ‘Tous à l’école’, État, communautés rurales et scolarisation au Québec de 1826 à 1859, p. 101.

[27] In 1845, district councils were abolished and greater powers were given to local municipalities based on parishes and townships.

[28] Ibid, Dufour, Andrée, ‘Tous à l’école’, État, communautés rurales et scolarisation au Québec de 1826 à 1859, pp. 110-111.

[29] Ibid, Eid, Nadia F., Le clergé et le pouvoir politique au Québec, une analyse de l’idéologie ultramontaine au milieu du XIXe siècle, p. 37.

[30] Ibid, Eid, Nadia F., Le clergé et le pouvoir politique au Québec, une analyse de l’idéologie ultramontaine au milieu du XIXe siècle, p. 201.

[31] Ibid, Eid, Nadia F., Le clergé et le pouvoir politique au Québec, une analyse de l’idéologie ultramontaine au milieu du XIXe siècle, p. 231.

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