An attack on Abbé Lionel Groulx is an attack on leading post-war political figures in Quebec, says one researcher of Catholic history. Photo from Wikipedia

Peter Stockland: Catholic identity and a Metro station

By 
  • September 18, 2020

The contested renaming of Montreal’s Lionel Groulx Metro station testifies to the power of Catholic history to shape our politics even as Catholic cultural memory dims.

A poll released Sept. 11 showed only 20 per cent of Quebecers overall support the push by Montrealer Naveed Hussain to have the busy transit hub re-christened to celebrate musician extraordinaire Oscar Peterson. The change would mean dropping the ultramontane, uber nationalist and infamously anti-Semitic Abbé Groulx. In Montreal, a 43-per-cent majority actively opposes the name change (31 per cent have no opinion on it). Even in the English-speaking minority only half support it.

The last figure would normally be credited to the time-honoured “push me/pull you” of Quebec’s French-English language divide. But in this case, Hussain has made abundantly clear his 26,000-name petition is about local geography and racial equality rather ancient linguistic enmities.

Peterson, he stresses, grew up in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood where Lionel Groulx Metro sits. The actual Abbé had negligible association with the area. More, despite its substantial cultural contributions to Quebec, Montreal’s Black population ranks marginally above invisible in terms of formal recognition.

As the Association for Canadian Studies-Léger poll reveals, however, such appeals to homeboy fairness fall on deaf ears. Despite 51 per cent answering that they don’t really know who Abbé Groulx is, a third consider him a hero.

Hussain gets it: “I think most Quebecers will always support one of their own, especially someone who had an impact on Quebec identity,” he told the Montreal Gazette.

Given Abbé Groulx’s contribution to Quebec history, warts and all, the consideration of him as “heroic” by 33 per cent of the population is evidence of how much Catholic identity still forms the larger understanding of the national character. Even those who no longer know him hear in his name something that connects them in their bones.

It’s a cautionary identification, though. This is, after all, the second time in 50 years that the historian, editorialist and advocate of boycotting Jewish businesses has been forgotten, then revived by controversy. Abbé Groulx died in 1967, the year the Metro system to which his name would be affixed officially opened.

While his writings from earlier in the century shaped the consciousness of independantistes, to the larger world he was reduced to the status of historical phantom. It wasn’t until 25 years later that a doctoral dissertation by Esther Delise, and controversialist clamour raised by Mordecai Richler in TheNew Yorker magazine as well as his book Oh Canada, Oh Quebec!, resurrected Abbé Groulx.

He returned as an eponymous Metro station metaphor for all the purported bigotries of la belle province. Richler adroitly rode the wave of outrage generated when he compared contemporary French-language laws and the push for sovereignty to the long-dead cleric’s claim the “Jewish problem would be solved if Quebecers boycotted their businesses.” 

Jean-François Garneau, a professor of management in the distance learning section of the Université du Québec and an independent researcher in Catholic history and thought, says both the Groulx-generated uproar of the 1990s and the current debate over whether his name should live in infamy or a Metro station wall miss the real point.

“He should be discredited not so much for his views on anti-Semitism, which were unacceptable but of his times, but for his central influence on youth movements that all did horrible things with his ideas, and on whom he had lead influence,” Garneau told me in an e-mail exchange.

He identifies six significant events between 1933 and 1944 — including an arson attack on the synagogue in Quebec City and a murder plot organized by a secret youth society — driven by Abbé Groulx’s ideas and writings. Yet the Abbé could “hide behind” his clerical position and disavow groups that kept acting on his urgings, even to the extent of staging a “Kristallnacht-like” anti-conscription protest on St. Laurent Boulevard, Montreal’s east-west dividing line.

Why? How?

Because, Garneau says, those movements produced many leading post-war political figures in Quebec and Canada, Pierre Trudeau and former Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau among them.

“Attacking Groulx is attacking them all. He is defended because the reckoning is just too big to handle. We prefer to limit ourselves to saying Groulx thought and said things that are not particularly nice but are part of history.”

The same can be said for Catholic history writ large, of course. We must face its faults as much as celebrate its glory for we love truth even as cultural memory dims.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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