Saturday, December 28, 2019

A French Catholic State in North America? Rescuing Tardivel

“La Vérité,” the organ of the Ultramontane Party, says that confederation is merely a half-way house for the French Canadians; their goal is “the complete autonomy of the French Canadian nationality, and the foundation of a French Canadian and Catholic state, having for its mission to continue in America the glorious work of our ancestors." 
Thus wrote W. Blackburn Harte in a November 1890 issue of a U.S. news magazine called The Forum. Harte's quotation in this passage is a not inaccurate translation from a piece that had appeared in La Vérité, a Québec newspaper, the previous year.1 

La Vérité was frequently cited in both the U.S. and Canada as a source for the notion that the 19th c. French-Canadian Catholics were engaged, in Harte’s phrase, in “open sedition.” Supposedly, they were plotting to separate Québec from its rightful sovereign in Great Britain, perhaps taking part or all of New England with them

An Immigrant Becomes an Advocate

Jules-Paul Tardivel, the founder and editor of La Vérité, was an immigrant to Québec. He was not Québécois de souche. Born in Covington, Kentucky in 1851, Tardivel’s father was French (of France), while his mother was English (of England). His parents were immigrants in the United States. The future Jules-Paul grew up calling himself Julius Tardeville. 

Right across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Covington emerged as an industrial center in the 19th century. Like its neighbor in Ohio, Covington attracted immigrants from Europe, Catholics in particular.

After his mother died, Julius and his sister lived first with an aunt and then with an uncle, a Catholic priest in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Influenced by priests from 
Québec who had come to the Midwest to counter the anti-Catholic agitation of Charles Chiniquy, Tardivel’s uncle sent him to Canada to receive a classical education. He matriculated at the Collège de Saint-Hyacinthe, an ultramontane stronghold. Tardivel did not speak a word of French before he was 18 years old and entered Québec to pursue his studies at the famed seminary. 

Upon completing his education, he made a brief, disappointing reappearance in the U.S. and then returned to 
Québec. He became a French-Canadian by adoption. Like the religious convert who is a more fervent believer than the lifelong adherent, Tardivel became more Canadien-français than the Canadiens-français. He was an outspoken advocate for a conservative, ultra-Catholic strain of Québec nationalism. 

When Tardivel founded the newspaper La Vérité in 1881, after an apprenticeship as a journalist and a literary critic, he intended to remain independent of party politics. Like Saint-Jean Baptiste himself, Tardivel would be a voice crying in the wilderness in the service of a vision of the Canadiens-français as a Catholic nation. This new nation would, proclaimed Tardivel, continue the work of 17th-18th c. France in catholicizing and “civilizing” the continent. 

Jules-Paul Tardivel (1851-1910)
In his long career as the gadfly of Québec, Tardivel took issue with nearly everyone of importance in the province, including members of his own ultramontane set. He stood fiercely alone, inhabiting his own ideological space. 

Yet writers like Harte and the editors of the Toronto Mail made this odd-man-out represent the views of the Québec elite at large. They took a fringe figure – with quite an unusual background by Québec lights – and made him represent the mainstream of French-Canadian opinion. 

Much if not all of La Vérité is available online. The first thing a modern reader notices is that the utterances and writings of the Pope were front-page news. If the paper had a dominant theme it was opposition to Freemasonry. I intuit that a closer scrutiny would reveal the influence of U.S. anti-masonic literature on Tardivel.

There’s much in Tardivel that is bizarre, often objectionable from many of our modern viewpoints. He had a colonialist turn of mind, seeing himself as the possessor of an allegedly superior civilization with expansionist proclivities. Although he hearkens back to the days of Nouvelle-France, his talk of “civilizing” has more the flavor of 19th c. European French imperialism.

I have no intention of defending Tardivel in toto. But the implication that his views on 
Québec's future amounted to “open sedition” was false. Elements of the English-language press misrepresented Tardivel's stance, tearing his statements out of context. 

Tardivel’s Vision

Harte’s quotation from 
La Vérité in his 1890 piece in The Forum appeared in Tardivel's October 12, 1889 issue under the headline “Un pas en avant” (“A step forward”). The subject at hand was Wilfrid Laurier's address to a Liberal group in Toronto. Tardivel shares with Laurier the view that the “current Confederation is not the last word on our national destiny.” But Tardivel differed with Laurier in having a specific post-Confederation future in mind for his people. 

Writes Tardivel,

But we know and we loudly proclaim what we want, the future that we dream of, that we foresee for the French-Canadian race if it remains faithful to its providential mission. Why not say frankly what every patriot wishes from the bottom of his heart? For us, ‘the step forward,’ that we would only wish to take at the hour marked by God, is a more complete autonomy for the French-Canadian nationality, towards which it must lead[:] to the foundation of a French-Canadian and Catholic state having for its mission to continue in America the glorious work of the country of our ancestors.2
However, the “realization of the project” of “a French-Canadian and Catholic state,” continues Tardivel,
…does not suppose the least infringement of the rights of other races which have established themselves on the soil that our fathers conquered for civilization. We desire that the change [in Québec's political status] should be done naturally, peacefully, without shock, without upheaval, by mutual consent; but at last we want French Canada to be a country absolutely autonomous, living its own life, having its distinct place among the nations of the earth. There’s space enough on this continent for us, having our place in the sun, without inconveniencing the other peoples in the process of its formation. We threaten no one; we ask only for our national existence.
Tardivel’s vision is clear. He wishes only that the French-Canadian people will continue to exist, and he imagines that a day will come when a peaceful political change will result in an independent Québec. On that day, “marked by God,” a new French-Canadian nation will emerge that will in no way infringe upon the rights of minorities living in Québec

“We threaten no one; we ask only for our national existence.” But the mere wish for the continued existence of the Canadien-francais, in some post-colonial future, was threatening to Harte and his ilk, despite Tardivel's reassurances. 

New England and the Providential Mission

Did Tardivel’s support for the “providential mission” of the French-Canadians in catholicizing the U.S. mean that he advocated the overthrow of New England by a revived New France?

As early as 1881, Tardivel addressed the question of emigration to New England.3  Far from supporting the New England Canadiens as an advance-guard of Catholic missionary activity in North America, Tardivel sought a means to discourage emigration. He believed that the solution to the population drain was to return to the land, to the rural identity which he assumes is essential to French-Canadian nationhood.  

Tardivel believes that his people must learn to love agriculture once again. They must see in it their best chance for well-being and independence, thought Tardivel. Only the “colonization” of the hinterlands of Québec will discourage the outflow toward New England mills and factories. 

Tardivel's views on this particular subject were, for once, not contrarian. In advocating agriculturalism and the "colonization" of Quebec, Tardivel embraced the conventional wisdom of French-Canadian Catholicism in his day (see the famous work of Fr. Antoine Labelle).

In an 1885 piece, Tardivel explained what he called “our program” regarding emigration.4  This definitive statement shows how Tardivel’s talk of a “providential mission” implied neither an aggressive expansion southward, nor a deliberate subversion of U.S. political institutions. Writes 
We do not deny the providential mission of the French-Canadians who emigrate to the United States. If they preserve the Faith…they will certainly contribute, in a large measure, to the conversion of the United States…but beside that beautiful role there is a very real danger, it is the loss, for a great number, of the inestimable gift of that same Faith. 
Tardivel’s recommendation for avoiding this “danger” was to “colonize the province of Québec; we are the true masters here, but it’s necessary to become still more so. Here is our program for the moment.” Tardivel’s “program” did not include the conquest of New England. He sought rather the concentration of French-Canadian forces within Québec, and the consolidation of the province as a Canadien homeland. 

Tardivel calls again for a renewal of agriculture that will serve to fill the crown lands, create new parishes, and put an end to mass emigration. He would direct those who must leave 
Québec toward Manitoba or the Canadian Northwest, reinforcing the “French element” in these regions.

When the notion of a French-Canadian takeover of New England arose, Tardivel rejected it. In an 1881 issue of 
La Vérité, Tardivel discusses the insightful observations of a Frenchman (of France) named Jannet, who commented on the French-Canadians of Québec and New England.5  Jannet noted that some “Canadien enthusiasts” spoke of “Frenchifying” (franciser) New England. For Jannet, such talk was delusional. The vast majority of the emigrants were working class. These poor workers were unable to impose their mores “on a powerful American civilization,” Jannet reasoned. Tardivel found this argument “persuasive.” 

Commenting on Jannet's observations, Tardivel acknowledges that a small number of French-Canadians in the U.S. had acquired political office. But the Kentucky-born journalist thought that the French-Canadians of New England did not understand the U.S. political system. He concurred with Jannet that they did not have the capacity to subvert U.S. institutions even if they wished to do so.

Hopes and Dreams Are Not Sedition

Tardivel hoped for nothing more than the continued existence of the French-Canadian people. He also speculated that if they should survive, one day they would establish an independent francophone Catholic state in North America. 

Recognizing that such pronouncements have led to misunderstandings, Tardivel emphasized that he imagined a peaceful political transition to an independent Québec, but only by the hand of le bon Dieu, and such that the rights of other peoples were respected. Mere hopes and dreams for independence, at some indefinite point in the future, hardly constitute the “open sedition” of which Harte wrote. 

Although Tardivel recognized that the French-Canadians in the U.S. had some role to play in catholicizing the States, he preferred that they “colonize” the hinterlands of 
Québec. This was his “program” in 1885 and he never rescinded it. He remained a lifelong opponent of emigration to New England.

Harte and other anglophones who mined La Vérité tended to distort Tardivel’s views in order to agitate their readers and to stigmatize French-Canadians as disloyal citizens and political subversives. 

Political discourse in this period dwelt much more on the U.S. annexing Canada than on Québec annexing bits of the U.S. I’m turning my attention next to this annexation question, that loomed large from about 1890 until the First World War.

More about the "providential mission" of the French-Canadians in my book
A Distinct Alien Race



1. "'Un Pas en Avant,'" La Vérité, October 12, 1889, 12:90.

2. All translations from La Vérité are my own.

3. "Les Canadiens emigres," La Vérité, August 4, 1881, 2:2.

4. "Emigration et Colonisation," La Vérité, January 24, 1885, 27:2.

5. "Le Canada en France," La Vérité, August 11, 1881, 3:2.


  1. Cher Monsieur Vermette,
    I am a French Quebecois who grew up in Nova Scotia and lives in Montreal. I have read your extremely well-written book with the greatest interest and passion. There are so many of us in Quebec who have no knowledge of what you present to us, but that would love to find out. On ancestry sites, I have traced hundreds of 2nd-5th cousins who are in New England and I plan to go to those towns to find out more.

    Have you translated your book to French and sold in Quebec? I think that it would find its way in the hands of many readers.

    François Tardy