The Strange Anglo Fascination with Québécois Anti-Semitism

December 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am a reader.  I read pretty much anything, fiction and non-fiction.  As I have argued for approximately forever, reading, and especially, literature, is what keeps me sane.  So I read.  It’s also the end of the semester, so what I read devolves in many ways from lofty literature to murder-mysteries.  I would argue, though, that a good murder-mystery is full of the basic questions of humanity, right down to the endless push/pull of good v. evil.  I came to this conclusion when someone once tried to convince me that Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment was, at the core, a murder-mystery.

So, it is that I came to find myself reading the third in John Farrow’s so-far excellent series of murder mysteries set in my home town, Montréal, and featuring the crusty old detective, Émile Cinq-Mars.  The third novel, however, centres around Cinq-Mars’ early career in the late 60s/early 70s.  And Farrow, who is really the esteemed Canadian novelist, Trevor Ferguson, took the opportunity to write an epic, historical novel.  It’s also massively overambitious and falls under its own weight oftentimes in the first half of the book.  The novel opens on the night of the Richard Riot in Montréal, 17 March 1955, with the theft of the Cartier Dagger, a relic of Jacques Cartier’s arrival at Hochelaga in the 16th century.  The dagger, made of stone and gifted to Cartier by Donnacona, the chief of Stadacona, which is today’s Québec City, has been central to the development of Canada.  It has ended up in the hands of Samuel de Champlain, Étienne Brulé, Paul de Chomedy, sieur de Maisonneuve, Dollard des Ormeux, Médard Chouart des Groselliers, Pierre Esprit Radisson, and so on.  But it has ended up in the hands of the Sun Life Assurance Company, the very simple of les maudits Anglais in mid-20th century Montréal.  Worse for the québécois, Sun Life has lent it to that mandarin of ‘les maudits anglais,” Clarence Campbell, president of the National Hockey League, and the man responsible for the lengthy suspension to Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Clearly, Farrow subscribes to the theory that the Quiet Revolution really began in March 1955 (I do not agree with this one bit, thank you very much).

Farrow then takes us through the history of the dagger, from Cartier until it ends up in the hands of  Campbell, to its theft on St. Patrick’s Day 1955.  And from there, we move through the next sixteen years, through the Quiet Revolution, Trudeaumania, and the FLQ, as Cinq-Mars finally solves the mystery of the theft of the Cartier Dagger in 1971 (which was also the year that an unknown goalie came out of nowhere to backstop the Habs to the Stanley Cup).

All throughout the story, Farrow, in true Anglo-Montréal style, is obsessed with franco-québécois anti-semitism.  This is especially the case from the late 19th century onwards.  We are brought into the shadowy underworld of the Order of Jacques Cartier, a secret society hell-bent on defending French, Catholic Québec against les Anglais and the Jews.  Characters real and fictive are in the Order, including legendary Montréal Mayor Camillien Houde, and Camille Laurin, the father of Bill 101, and others.  And then there’s the Nazi on the run after the Second World War, Jacques Dugé de Bernonville.  We also meet Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his nemesis, René Levésque.

Outed as anti-semites are the usual characters: Maurice Duplessis, Abbé Lionel Groulx, Houde, Laurin, and, obviously, de Bernonville.  Also, Henri Bourassa and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine.  And so on and so forth.  And, ok, fair enough, they WERE anti-semites (though I’m not sure you can call Bourassa and Lafontaine that).  Québec, and Montréal in particular, was the home of Adrien Arcand, the self-proclaimed fuhrer of Canada.  These are disgusting, dirty men.

But all throughout the novel, only French Canadian anti-semitism matters.  This reminds me of a listserv of policy wonks, academics, and journalists I’ve been a member of for a decade-and-a-half.  Years ago, we had one member who liked to rail against the sovereigntists in Québec, accusing them of being vile anti-semites (sometimes he was right).  But, whenever evidence of wider Canadian anti-semitism was pointed out, he dismissed it out of hand.  In his mind, only the French are anti-semites (to the point where he often pointed to the Affair Dreyfus in late 19th century France as proof the québécois are anti-semites to the core).

I am not suggesting that anti-semitism should not be called out for what it is: racism.  It must and should be.  But whenever we get this reactionary Anglophone obsession with Franco-québécois anti-semitism, I get uncomfortable.  This is a bad case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Anti-semitism has been prevalent in Canada since the get go, in both official languages.  The first Jew to be elected to public office in the entire British Empire was Ezekiel Hart, elected to the Lower Canadian legislature in 1807.  But he was ejected from the House almost immediately upon taking his seat because he was Jewish.  The objections to Hart taking his oath of office on the Jewish Bible (which was standard practice in the court system for Jews) were led the Attorney-General, Jonathan Sewell.  But the people of Trois-Rivières returned him to office nonetheless.  He was again refused his seat. Opposition came from both sides of the linguistic divide in Lower Canada, and you will surely note Sewell is not a French name.  Lower Canada, however, was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to emancipate Jews, in 1833.  The leader of the House, and the Parti patriote? Louis-Joseph Papineau.

At any rate, this isn’t a defence of the franco-québécois record on anti-semitism. It’s not good.  But it is to point out that Anglo Canada isn’t exactly pristine.  Irving Abella and and Harold Troper’s book, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 makes that point clear.  Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s immigration chief, Frederick Blair, made sure that Jews fleeing Nazi Germany weren’t allowed into Canada.  Jews had been coming to Canada since the late 19th century, and there, they met an anti-semitic response, whether it was Montréal, Toronto, or Winnipeg. Even one of our great Canadian heroes, Lester Bowles Pearson, Nobel Prize-winner for inventing UN Peacekeepers and Prime Minister from 1965-7, was an anti-semite, at least as a young man before the Second World War.

And anti-semitism has remained a problem in Canada ever since.  While anti-semitism is relatively rare in Canada, B’Nai Brith estimates that, in 2010, upwards of 475 incidents of anti-semitism happened in Toronto alone.

So clearly Canadian anti-semitism isn’t a uniquely franco-québécois matter.  Indeed, one of the few Anglos to feature in Farrow’s book, Sir Herbert Holt, was himself somewhat of an anti-semite himself.  And I am left feeling rather uncomfortable with this strange Anglo Québec fascination with the anti-semitism of francophone québécois, especially when it’s presented out of the context of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  This was a period of pretty much worldwide anti-semitism.  It was “in fashion,” so to speak, in the Euro-North American world, from actual pogroms in Russia to the Affaire Dreyfus, to the US and Canada refusing to accept refugees from Nazi Germany thirty years later.

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