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Exclusive to this site, February 22, 1997

Fascism and the "Distinct Society" in Québec
Pierre Lemieux

The view of Québec as a "distinct society" is not only a leitmotiv of the separatist movement, but also a fixture of conventional wisdom among the establishment in the province.

Québec's distinct culture is often identified with the heavier hand of government intervention (the "visible fist of the state," as the late Murray Rothbard put it). Indeed, mainstream nationalists view a powerful state as constitutive of the distinct society. The 1995 electoral program of the Parti Québécois (the now governing separatist party) defined Quebec society with words like tolerance, peacefulness, social solidarity, all identified with the Welfare State and opposed to North American individualism and "blind capitalism."

In a 1993 book[1], Dr. Esther Delisle, a Québec historian, argued that some leading French Canadian figures and organizations of the 30s and 40s, forerunners of the actual nationalist movement, were openly racist and anti-Semite, if not fascist. She produces hundreds of quotations from nationalist historian Canon Lionel Groulx, Montréal daily Le Devoir, nationalist review L'Action nationale, and the Jeune-Canada association.

Ms. Delisle, herself a French Canadian, has been shunned by the intellectual establishment for her views. Their espousal by Jewish novelist Mordecai Richler, a controversial figure here, did not exactly help her. Now, the latest issue (March 1, 1997) of newsmagazine L'Actualité takes a strong stance against Delisle's interpretation, seen as Québec bashing. The magazine's attack is much weakened by Claude Ryan, editor of Le Devoir in the 70s, declaring that he has changed his mind and come close to Delisle's interpretation after reading her book.

The significance of Ms. Delisle's research must be neither overlooked nor exaggerated. Before the second world war, anti-Semite, racist or fascist sympathies were also rampant in other Western countries, including English Canada. L'Actualité quotes Mackenzie King, Canadian prime minister between 1935 and 1948, as praising Hitler and Mussolini for helping the masses. Ms. Delisle does not deny this, but simply notes that her research only dealt with the Québec case. She also explains that not all intellectuals followed Groulx or Le Devoir, and that the general population remained immune to their influence.

It remains that Québec's contemporary nationalist movement, born in the 30s and 40s, was heavily influenced by the Catholic right, which shared fascism's hatred of individualism and capitalism. In the 60s, the movement swerved to the left, which professes a similar distrust for individual liberty. Both ideologies are only different brands of statism. What obviously bothers today's nationalist intellectuals is how their statist imagery resembles their forerunners'.

Statism being the trademark of the 20th century, this does not make Québec much of a distinct society. To use Alexis de Tocqueville's terminology, today's Québec is nothing but an "administrative tyranny" similar to the rest of Europe and North America. Collective choices, government intervention and taxes are often heavier in Québec than in English Canada or America, but not always, and it is only a matter of degree anyway.

One has to look elsewhere for distinctive political features of Québec society. On the positive side, French Canadian Quebecers have kept some of their French ancestors' individualist spirit. It doesn't show much in formal political institutions or intellectual trends, but it does mean that stupid laws are, in practice, more difficult to enforce here.

The development of the underground economy (including smuggling) is a case in point, but many other examples can be observed. Laws against sexual harassment writ large, which Québec politicos and bureaucrats have imported from the U.S. and English Canada, are (thus far) more laughed at than seriously enforced. Another example: there are doubts as to whether the most extreme antismoking regulations that are spreading like wildfire all over the continent could be enforced here.

On the negative side, French Canadian Québec was, and still is, a small society, partially isolated from the rest of North America by language and history. The intellectual establishment here is more homogeneous and powerful. Formal expression of dissent is perilous, as Ms. Delisle has learned. Before the 60s, the intellectual establishment oppressed those who disagreed with the Catholic right. Now, it takes aim at those who would challenge the social-democrat reigning powers.

This relates to a distinctive feature of Québec's intellectual history, i.e., the absence of individual liberty on the ideological spectrum. With a few exceptions (including young people who are now roaming the Web), a French Canadian could live his whole life without being aware that there was any intellectual alternative to statism of the right or of the left. Nowhere in schools, universities, newspapers or widely distributed books, could he learn about the modern, revolutionary ideal of individual liberty. No wonder that French Canadian intellectuals became easy preys for the fascists of the right or of the left.

Québec is a distinct society in the sense that all societies are different in some respects -- indeed, all individuals are. But, more often than not, this society is, politically, distressingly similar to other Western societies -- with, sometimes, a few exaggerated traits.

[1] Esther Delisle,The Traitor and the Jew: Anti-Semitism and the extermist right-wing nationalism in French Canada from 1929 to 1939 (Montreal and Toronto: Robert Davis Publishing, 1993).

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