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Parties in flux Church and state The war on the Institute Le Defricheur

The year 1841, when Wilfrid Laurier was born, was the year of the Union of Upper and Lower Canada as a single province. There followed, as he came to manhood, a time of intense political activity, of bitter party and personal rivalry, of constant shift in the lines of political groups and parties. The stage was being set and many of the players were being trained for the greater drama which was to open with Confederation.

Canadian political parties had originally been formed on the plain issue whether or not the majority of the people were to be allowed to rule. In Upper Canada the governing party, known as the ’Family Compact,’ composed chiefly of representatives of the Crown and men who had inherited position or caste from their Loyalist fathers, had been attacked by a motley and shifting opposition, sober Whig and fiery Radical, newcomers from Britain or from the States, and native-born, united mainly by their common antagonism to clique rule. In Lower Canada the same contest, on account of the monopoly of administration held by the English-speaking minority, dubbed ‘Bureaucrats’ or the ‘Chateau Clique,’ had taken on the aspect of a racial struggle.

When at last self-government in essentials had been won, the old dividing lines began to melt away. All but a small knot of Tory irreconcilables now agreed that the majority must rule, and that this would neither smash the Empire nor make an end of order and justice in the province itself. But who were to unite to form that majority, and what was to be their platform? In the Reform party there had been many men of essentially conservative mind, men such as John Redmond before the winning of Irish Home Rule, who on one point had been forced into hostility to an order of society with which, on other points, they were in almost complete sympathy. Particularly in Quebec, as John A. Macdonald was quick to see, there were many such, quite ready to rally to authority now that opportunity was open to all. Other factors hastened the breakdown of the old groupings. Economic interests came to the fore. In the discussion of canal and railway projects, banking and currency, trade and tariffs, new personal, class, or sectional interests arose. Once, too, that the machinery of responsible government had been installed, differences in political aptitude, in tactics and ideals, developed, and personal rivalries sharpened.

As a result of this unsettling and readjustment, a new party developed in the early fifties, composed of the moderate sections of both the older parties, and calling itself Liberal-Conservative. It took over the policy of the Reformers, on self-government, on the clergy reserves, on seigneurial tenure. The old Tory party dwindled and its platform disappeared. Yet a strong Opposition is essential to the proper working of the British system of parliamentary government; if it did not exist, it would have to be created. No artificial effort, however, was now needed to produce it. A Liberalism or a Liberal-Conservatism which stood still as time marched by soon ceased to be true Liberalism; and new groups sprang up, eager to press forward at a swifter pace.

In Canada West the ‘Clear Grit’ party, founded by Radicals such as John Rolph, Peter Perry, and William M’Dougall, and later under the leadership of George Brown, declared war to the knife on all forms of special privilege. Denominational privilege, whether the claim of Anglicans to clergy reserves, or of Roman Catholics to separate schools in Canada West and to ecclesiastical supremacy above the civil law in Canada East; class privilege, like the claim of the seigneurs to feudal dues and powers; sectional privilege, such as it was asserted Canada East enjoyed in having half the members in the Union parliament though her population had ceased to be anything like half all these Brown attacked with tremendous energy, if not always with fairness and judgment.

In Canada East the Rouges carried on a similar but far more hopeless fight. The brilliant group of young men who formed the nucleus of this party, Dorion, Doutre, Daoust, Papin, Fournier, Laberge, Letellier, Laflamme, Geoffrion, found a stimulus in the struggle which democratic Europe was waging in 1848, and a leader in Papineau. The great agitator had come back from exile in Paris to find a country that knew not Joseph, to find former lieutenants who now thought they could lead, and a province where the majority had wearied of the old cries of New France and were suspicious of the new doctrines of Old France. He threw himself into violent but futile opposition to LaFontaine and rallied these fiery young crusaders about him. In L’Avenir, and later in Le Pays, they tilted against real and imaginary ogres, and the hustings of Quebec rang with their eloquence. Their demands were most sweeping and heterogeneous. They called for a vigorous policy of colonization and of instruction and experiment in agriculture; for simplification of judicial procedure and the forms of government; for the election, on the American plan, of administrative as well as legislative authorities; for annual parliaments; for increased powers of local government; for universal suffrage; for the abolition of clergy reserves, seigneurial tenure, and church tithes; and for the repeal of the Union. They joined the disgruntled Tories of their province in demanding, for very different reasons, annexation to the United States. Many of these demands have been approved, some have been disapproved, by time. Right or wrong, they were too advanced for their day and place. The country as a whole wanted, and doubtless needed, a period of noncontentious politics, of recuperation after long agitation, of constructive administration, and this the Liberal-Conservative majority was for the time better able to give, even though corruption was soon to vitiate its powers for good.

The alliance of the Rouges with the ‘Clear Grits,’ who were ever denouncing French Canada’s ‘special privileges,’ was a great source of weakness to them in their own province. It was, however, the hostility of a section of the Catholic hierarchy which was most effective in keeping these agitators long in a powerless minority. In the early days of the party this hostility was not unwarranted. Many of the young crusaders had definitely left the fold of the Church to criticize it from without, to demand the abolition of the Pope’s temporal power in Europe and of the Church’s tithing privileges in Canada, and to express heterodox doubts on matters of doctrine. This period soon passed, and the radical leaders confined themselves to demanding freedom of thought and expression and political activity; but the conflict went on. Almost inevitably the conflict was waged in both the political and the religious field. Where the chief question at issue was the relation of church and state, it was difficult to keep politics out of religion or religion out of politics. It was to be one of the signal services of Wilfrid Laurier, in his speech on Political Liberalism, to make clear the dividing line.

The conflict in Canada was in large part an echo of European struggles. In the past Canada had taken little notice of world-movements. The Reform agitation in Upper Canada had been, indeed, influenced by the struggle for parliamentary reform in Great Britain; but the French-speaking half of Canada, carefully sheltered in the quiet St Lawrence valley, a bit of seventeenth-century Normandy and Brittany preserved to the nineteenth, had known little and cared less for the storms without. But now questions were raised which were world-questions, and in the endeavour to adjust satisfactorily the relations of church and state both ultramontanes and liberals became involved in the quarrels which were rending France and Italy, and Canada felt the influence of the European stream of thought or passion. When in 1868 five hundred young Canadians, enrolled as Papal Zouaves, sailed from Quebec to Rome, to support with their bayonets the tottering temporal power of the Pope, it was made clear that the moving forces of Europe had taken firm hold on the mind and heart of Quebec.

In Old France there had been much strife of Pope and King. The Pope had claimed authority over the Church in France, and the right to intervene in all state matters which touched morals or religion. King after king had sought to build up a national or Gallican Church, with the king at its head, controlled by its own bishops or by royal or parliamentary authority. Then had come the Revolution, making war on all privilege, overturning at once king and noble and prelate who had proved faithless to their high tasks. But in the nineteenth century, after the storm had spent itself, the Church, purified of internal enemies, had risen to her former position.

Within the Church itself widely different views were urged as to the attitude to be taken towards the new world that was rising on the ruins of the old order, towards the Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity and other ideas of ’89. One wing called for relentless hostility, for an alliance of altar and throne to set up authority once more on its pedestal and to oppose at once the anarchy of democratic rule and the scepticism of free-thought. This ultramontane attitude this looking ‘beyond the mountains’ to a supreme authority in Rome to give stability in a shifting world found able and aggressive exponents. De Maistre denied the right of individual judgment in politics any more than in religion, insisting on the divine source of kingly power and the duty of the Pope to oversee the exercise of this power. Lamennais brought De Maistre’s opinions into practical politics, and insisted with burning eloquence on the need for the submission of all mankind to the Pope, the ‘living tradition of mankind,’ through whom alone individual reason receives the truth. Veuillot continued the crusade with unpitying logic and unquenchable zeal. In this era the disputes turned most significantly on control of press and school, for, as the revolution progressed, it gave the masses political power and made control of the means of shaping popular opinion as important as control of feudal fiefs or episcopal allegiance had been in earlier days. Opposed to this school stood men like Montalembert, Lacordaire, and Bishop Dupanloup men who clung to the old Gallican liberties, or who wished to make peace with liberalism, to set up a Catholic liberalism, frankly accepting the new order, the right of the people to rule themselves, and seeking to show that by liberty of thought and discussion the true interests of the Church would be advanced and its power be broadest based. Now one wing, now the other won, but in the main the current flowed strongly towards ultramontanism. Pius IX, liberal in sympathies up to 1848, completely reversed his position after that date. In the Syllabus which he issued in 1864 he gave no quarter to modern tendencies. The doctrines that ’every man is free to embrace the religion which his reason assures him to be true,’ that ’in certain Catholic countries immigrant non-Catholics should have the free exercise of their religion,’ and that ’the Roman Pontiff can and ought to be reconciled with progress, liberalism, and modern civism,’ he explicitly condemned as false and heretical.

In Canada these successive conflicts had found many echoes. During the French regime Gallican principles of the power of the king over the Church had been frequently asserted; governor or intendant had, in a few notable instances, endeavoured to bridle the Church authorities. When the English came, the Church lost its place as the state church, but it consolidated its power, and soon was freer from intervention than it had been under the Most Christian King of France. During the French Revolution Canada was kept isolated from contact with France, but after the Restoration, with ultramontanism in the ascendant, intercourse was favoured; and the most thoroughgoing principles of clerical supremacy, with the most militant methods of controversy, found lodgment here. In both private and public life, among clergy as well as laity, each of the opposing tendencies was stoutly championed.

When Wilfrid Laurier went to Montreal in 1861, the leaders of the Liberal or Rouge party had sobered down from the fiery radicalism of their youth, and were content to leave the authorities of the Church alone. But leading authorities of the Church remained suspicious of that party. Bishop Bourget of Montreal, one of the most pious and energetic of ecclesiastics, firm to the point of obstinacy, seemed determined to crush it out. And though many eminent churchmen held out for a broader and more tolerant policy, the ultramontanes, by reason of their crusading zeal, steadily gained the ascendancy.

The issues raised in Quebec were manifold. Among them were the right of private judgment, the authority of canon law in the province, civil or ecclesiastical control over marriage, clerical immunity from the jurisdiction of civil courts, and the degree of intervention which was permissible to the clergy in elections.

The first question, that of the right of private judgment, concerned the future leader of Canadian Liberalism and became acute in connection with the Institut Canadien of Montreal. This was a literary and scientific society, founded in 1844 by some members of the same group who later organized the Rouge party. It supplied the want of a public library and reading-room in Montreal, and a hundred branches sprang up throughout the province. The Institut soon fell under the suspicion of a section of the clergy. It was declared by Bishop Bourget that immoral or heretical books which had been put on the Index were contained in the library. Rival societies were founded under the auspices of the Church and many of the members of the Institut were induced to secede.

Nevertheless young Laurier joined the Institut shortly after coming to Montreal. In 1863 he was one of a committee of four who endeavoured in vain to induce Bishop Bourget to specify what books were under the ban, and in 1865 and 1866 he was a vice-president of the society. Like his associates, he was placed in a difficult position by the bishop’s unyielding attitude, for he did not wish to quarrel with his Church. So far as he was concerned, however, his removal to Arthabaskaville in 1866 ended the episode.

The remaining members of the Institut struggled on until 1868, when they published a Year-Book containing an address by Mr L. A. Dessaules, president of the Institut, commending toleration. A nice question of interpretation followed. Mr Dessaules asserted that he meant to urge personal toleration and good-will. Bishop Bourget contended that the address meant dogmatic toleration or indifference, the attitude that one creed was as good as another. In spite of an appeal to Rome by Joseph Doutre the work was placed on the Index, and the announcement followed that members who persisted in adhering to the Institut would be refused the sacraments of the Church. After this blow the Institut dwindled away and in time disappeared entirely.

Meanwhile Mr Laurier’s weekly newspaper at Arthabaskaville, Le Defricheur, had come under the ban of Bishop Lafleche of Three Rivers, in whose diocese the little village lay. Subscribers refused to take their copies from the postmaster, or quietly called at the office to announce that, in spite of their personal sympathy, they were too much afraid of the cures or of their own wives to continue their subscriptions. The editor warmly protested against the arbitrary action, which threatened at once to throttle his freedom of speech and to wipe out his saved and borrowed capital. But the forces arrayed against him were too strong, and some six months after the first number under his management appeared, Le Defricheur went the way of many other Liberal journals in Quebec. It was not likely that Mr Laurier’s growing law practice would have long permitted him to edit the paper, but at the moment the blow was none the less felt.