Thursday, December 19, 2019

An “Impending Race War” in Canada? Victorian Englishman “Explains” Québec to the U.S.

In a previous post I mentioned The Forum, an eminent U.S. magazine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This monthly periodical, covering current events and culture, had a point/counterpoint approach. A writer would take a stand and defend a position, to be contradicted by some other author in a later issue. The second writer would often cite the earlier piece and its author by name. Notables of the period such as Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton authored articles in The Forum.

In the two decades before 1900, the emigration from Québec to the U.S., especially to New England, was national news. There was ongoing coverage in The New York Times, and pieces in The Nation and Harper’s for starters. The pages of The Forum saw a number of articles that covered the Canadien influx, either as a story in its own right or as part of a national issue such as labor, immigration, or the U.S. annexation of Canada. Annexation was a hot topic in this era that I plan to explore at length another day.

Among these offerings in The Forum was one titled “French Canada and the Dominion” by W. Blackburn Harte, appearing in the November 1890 issue.1  Harte mentions the French-Canadians of New England as a subtopic in an article attempting to explain Qu
ébec to a U.S. audience. His piece countered an article by journalist and former Montréal mayor Honoré Beaugrand that had appeared in the July 1889 edition.2  Beaugrand sought to rebut the negative portrayal in the U.S. press of the French-Canadians and their compatriots in New England. He claimed to be telling his U.S. audience the truth about political attitudes in Québec. Harte thinks he knows better and his article purports to set the record straight.

An Englishman Becomes An Expert on Canada

Harte was born in London, England in 1868. He was still a teenager when he set out for Canada around 1887. After mercifully brief and luckless stints in the Québec countryside and in New York City, Harte became a writer for Montréal papers, notably for The Gazette, while living in anglophone circles in the city. After a brief return to New York, Harte relocated to Boston in 1890 where he settled and established himself as an American writer specializing in Canadian subjects.3

Let's break this down: A Victorian Englishman living in Boston, with a couple of years of experience as a journalist in Québec, dwelling in an anglophone
milieu, while writing for the notoriously anti “French” Gazette, became the interpreter of the French-Canadian soul for U.S. readers of The Forum. In doing so, he casts aside with condescension the views previously expressed in that publication by the well-traveled, experienced journalist Beaugrand, Canadien born and bred. 

Anti-clerical, republican and a Freemason, the bilingual Beaugrand was an idiosyncratic spokesman for his people perhaps. But he had lived among them, and plied his trade as a journalist throughout the United States as well as in Québec. He had far more experience living and working in both Canada and the U.S. than did Harte. 

Then as today, U.S. press reports about Québec often derive from, and closely mirror, anglophone Canadian perspectives – views Harte imbibed from The Gazette. Typically, the U.S. press doesn't trust the Québécois to account for themselves.

Predicts "Impending Race War"

Harte begins his piece in The Forum by highlighting U.S. ignorance about its northeastern neighbors:
American people, we may safely affirm, know little or nothing of the French Canadians and of the part they play in the national concerns…of Canada….An occasional reference to the unprogressive character of the French Canadian people has been made in American magazines, usually when the question of annexation has been under discussion; but the writers, if Canadians, have usually been reticent for political reasons, and if foreign observers, have been unaware of the real state of affairs.
After dismissing Beaugrand’s article, Harte predicts nothing less than an “impending race war” between French- and English-speakers in Canada. Harte declares that “a collision between the two peoples is imminent and inevitable.”

Historically, the English and the English-Canadians had been conciliatory to a fault toward the conquered French-Canadians, believes Harte. "The English," in Harte's world, were never the aggressors and have allowed "the French" to dominate Canada. French-Canadian institutions, writes Harte,
…are obstacles in the way of all progress in Canada to-day, and…they are, in fact, weapons in the hands of the enemies of the federal system of government. The French Canadian masses, ground under the heel of political Romanism as they are, are emphatically not fit for manhood suffrage. It is necessary to remark here that the racial struggle and the religious struggle are really identical, as the French Canadian leaders have espoused the crusade of the Ultramontane Party, and now preach open sedition in Quebec.
"French Canada and the Dominion"
by W. Blackburn Harte
November 1890
Harte does not say that he would take away votes from “the French Canadian masses” but he finds them unfit to have them. He saw these "masses" as “ignorant," "superstitious” and utterly in the thrall of “political Romanism.” They voted the way their priests commanded them, claimed Harte, holding the rest of Canada hostage to the Church. 

The Church, alleges Harte, “skillfully” directs “French Canadian emigration,” “gerrymandering the electoral districts,” to turn “the public schools of Ontario and Manitoba into French Roman Catholic schools.” He believes that French-language schools in those provinces are illegal incursions into "English" territory.

Harte claims that the French-Canadian masses are illiterate, and that even their own poets and litterateurs are unknown to them. One wonders why they would struggle for French-language schools in Canada or New England if they had so little interest in education, so little care for reading and literate culture.

An Alleged French-Canadian Plot

Eventually, Harte reaches for a trope familiar to readers of that era’s U.S. news: the specter of a French-Canadian Catholic plot to subvert New England. Harte introduces the topic in his polemics against Honoré Mercier’s Parti National, a short-lived coalition that developed in the wake of the furor over Louis Riel's execution in 1885. Mercier’s first priority was a greater degree of provincial autonomy for Québec vis-à-vis the federal government in Ottawa. Harte's article is a response to Mercier's rise, but the young journalist sees an ominous agenda behind the new political movement:
The avowed object of Le Parti National is the establishment of a French papal state on the banks of the lower St. Lawrence, and, if possible, the wresting of the Dominion of Canada entirely out of the hands of the conquering Saxons. The press, the clergy, and the leaders of the French Canadian phalanx in the Dominion House of Commons are very honest about their program. Some go even further than this; they include the New England States in their dream of conquest, hoping to gain them by sheer force of numbers and by insidious undermining of American institutions.
Harte attributes to a French-Canadian speaker at “a recent national celebration” the claim that “in less than fifty years the French Canadians would be able to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the St. Jean Baptiste Society in Boston, which would then be French Canadian, and in the heart of a French Canadian nation. New England would then have become New France, and puritan Boston would be only a memory.”

However, in another sharp contradiction, Harte claims elsewhere in his piece that the “clerical party” of 
Québec “does its best to stem the tide of emigration into the New England States.” Which is it? Does the French-Canadian clerical leadership wish to make Boston an outpost of New France, or do they oppose emigration to New England? Harte saves the truth by a thread by stating that only “some” of the French-Canadian leaders dream of the conquest of New England. The truth is that the preponderance of Québec's leadership sought to prevent rather than to encourage emigration. 

The charge that "some" French-Canadian leaders conspired in an “insidious undermining of American institutions” was intended to sound alarm bells and to ratchet up the fear of the French-Canadian immigrant in Harte’s U.S. audience. His rhetoric is intended to depict a collection of poor workers, looking for a regular payday, as a menace to the Union.

La Vérité 

Continues Harte, warming to his theme:
The French Canadian papers of all political shades are very frank about the aims of the new revolutionary party. “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.”
La Vérité was an ultra-Catholic paper edited by the notorious Jules-Paul Tardivel, who was outspoken in this era's debates over Québec’s future. Harte seems to appreciate that there was a distinction between more liberal, secular nationalists and what he calls "the Ultramontane Party," but his genre of article isn't always clear about the different factions in Québec. Tardivel and Beaugrand, to name two, represented sharply opposing views, and Mercier was frequently opposed to both. 

Tardivel's La Vérité was often cited as a source for the view that the French-Canadian Catholics conspired to revive New France. But Tardivel’s views, as expressed in La Vérité, were more measured and far less sinister than accounts like Harte’s suggested. In my next post I will discuss Tardivel's viewpoint, but, in short, what he asked for was little more than the continued existence of the French-Canadian people. But repeated affirmations of survival, even as a mere enclave in North America, were threatening to the “Saxon conquerers.” 

In another contradiction, those pleased to refer to "Saxon conquerers" also wished to portray themselves as victims of alleged French-Canadian aggression. And "Saxons" of the period never doubted, modern revisionists notwithstanding, that there had been a ConquestOr that the French-Canadians should have been happy to stay good and conquered.   

Have you read my book
A Distinct Alien Race?



W. Blackburn Harte, "French Canada and the Dominion," The Forum 10 (November 1890): 323-334.

2. Honoré Beaugrand, "The Attitude of the French-Canadians," The Forum 7 (July 1889): 521-530.

3. James Doyle, The Fin de Siècle Spirit : Walter Blackburn Harte and the American/Canadian Literary Milieu of the 1890s (Toronto: ECW Press, 1995).
Doyle does not cite Harte's "French Canada and the Dominion" among the latter's "selected writings" while he does cite other articles by Harte in The Forum. I did not see any mention in Doyle's book of Harte's views on the French-Canadians, although it's hard to imagine that his anti-Catholic opinions did not find their way into his other writings.

No comments:

Post a Comment