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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Whatever the Cost May Be

Preparing for the fight of our life

Quiet, and Not Entirely a Revolution

Claude Ryan and Quebec Catholicism’s last stand

Graham Fraser

The Hand of God: Claude Ryan and the Fate of Canadian Liberalism, 1925-1971

Michael Gauvreau

McGill-Queen’s University Press

704 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780773551299

Claude Ryan is a complex figure in a number of ways. A devout Catholic who briefly attended a monastery and worked for Church organizations for years, he never became a priest. Never having been a reporter or columnist, he became an editor and then publisher—and a confidant to those in power. Despite his personal individualism, he fought for a more hierarchical interpretation of the relationship between Catholics and their Church. And, as Quebec went through its rapid transformation to becoming a deeply secular society, he remained a profoundly Catholic figure. Stubborn and at times abrasive, he was an unlikely politician, becoming the leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec in 1978, two years after he endorsed the Parti Québécois. Three years younger than René Lévesque and six years younger than Pierre Elliott Trudeau, he seemed somehow a generation older. Quebec’s most pungent critic of the Parti Québécois language law when it was tabled, he later became the minister responsible for the law, and changed little in it.

Claude Ryan was one of the major voices engaged in explaining Quebec to the rest of Canada during the 1960s, in part as the editor and publisher of Le Devoir, the newspaper that was inevitably described in the English press as “small but influential.” For three years, from 1978 until 1981, it seemed as if he would be a transformative figure in Quebec and Canadian political life. As leader of the Quebec Liberals he produced a constitutional proposal in 1980, the beige paper, that provided a blueprint for a more decentralized federalism; he led the No forces to victory in the referendum that year, and seemed fated to be the next premier of Quebec. But Lévesque’s PQ won the 1981 election, and Ryan’s leadership was doomed. When reporters cornered him to ask about caucus unrest, he rhymed off the dozen consecutive by-election victories his party had seen, and the referendum success, when a bulky radio reporter cut him off. “Yeah, Mr. Ryan, but you blew the big one.” Seizing the moment, Trudeau brushed aside the beige paper and succeeded in patriating the Constitution with a Charter of Rights over the objections of Lévesque, Ryan, and all but a cluster of Quebec Liberals.

Now a massive biography studies Ryan’s place in the currents of Catholic thought in Quebec from the mid-1940s until 1971. Hand of God is part of a recent historical literature in the province that is delving into the strains of religious, social, and political thought that preceded the Quiet Revolution, challenging in some cases the conventional view that the death of Maurice Duplessis in 1959 followed by the election of Jean Lesage’s Liberals marked a critical turning point. If, for years, it seemed as if history began with the Quiet Revolution, Gauvreau is one of those suggesting that the revolution was quieter, and shorter, than has been commonly suggested.

Ryan did not have a comfortable start in life. Born in 1925, he grew up as the middle son of Blandine Dorion and Henri-Albert Ryan, who abandoned his wife with three small children and never returned. Blandine, a vigorous woman determined to make sure her sons would succeed despite the absence of their father, instilled the need for personal discipline, the importance of having principles, and respect for different languages and backgrounds. His stubbornness was clear early on: after a series of arguments with the priests at Collège Sainte-Croix, a classical college in the east end of Montreal, he refused to compete for the provincial academic prize for graduating students. “If you think I’m going to win that for you after all the problems you’ve given me, you’re mistaken!” he told his teachers.

Similarly, after spending two weeks at the monastery at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, he decided not to enter the priesthood. “I was too hard-headed and stiff-necked to accept the vow of obedience,” he told journalist Benoît Aubin years later. And the same streak of intellectual arrogance that had him refusing to compete for an academic prize led him to decline to take his exams at the school of industrial relations at the Université de Montréal; he felt the standards were too low and the degree was an intellectual fraud.

Ryan joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF, the social democratic predecessor to the New Democratic Party) in 1944, a decision that Gauvreau writes “bordered on the outrageous because, since the inception of the CCF, Catholics had been warned by their bishops against its tendency towards doctrines of ‘materialist’ socialism, which were contrary to Catholic teaching.” He severed the connection the next year when he went to work for l’Action catholique canadienne, a lay Catholic movement that included a number of youth groups. As secretary-general, he was part grassroots organizer, part adult educator, part intellectual, part lay religious leader. With the exception of a single break, from 1951 to 1952, when he spent a year in Rome studying Church history, he stayed for 17 years, working with many people who went on to shape political life in Quebec and Canada, such as Gérard Pelletier and Marc Lalonde (later to become federal ministers), Pierre Juneau (a future CRTC chair), and Fernand Dumont and Guy Rocher (distinguished academics). During those years, Ryan developed his intellectual rigour, his style of work, and his sense of the country.

For Ryan was not simply a lay bureaucrat in a religious organization. He read widely, and produced a series of booklets in the 1950s that were intended as tools for activists. While in Rome, he met Pierre Trudeau, who was on his way to Asia. Sensing that Trudeau was trying to find a purpose in life, he gave him some advice. “You’re in Rome,” he said. “There is something you are missing, perhaps, in order to be happy. You are a rich young man.” Quoting scripture, he urged him to give away his wealth. “The thing that distinguishes you from the rest of us is that you have no problem of security. This would be the place, in Rome, to take a decision like that.” Trudeau was sufficiently shaken by the advice to consult friends, who urged him to use his financial security and freedom to do political work.

In 1962, Le Devoir, then a nationalist, federalist, Catholic paper, was facing a number of crises. Its publisher, Gérard Filion, was leaving. Its editor-in-chief, André Laurendeau, had outraged Church authorities by publishing scathing criticisms of Quebec’s Church-run education system. And the paper had a $200,000 deficit. Ryan was, like Filion, a federalist and traditional nationalist; he was a rigorous intellectual, and a frugal administrator. “We will try to educate you about Quebec, and you can educate us about religion,” he told Ryan as he hired him to join the editorial team. As Gauvreau writes, “Ryan would leave the direct service of the institutional Church to serve the wider cause of Catholicism as a public intellectual engaged in interpreting temporal reality.”

By 1964, Ryan had emerged as Filion’s natural successor as publisher. He was viewed with some suspicion by nationalists but held the position until 1978, when he became the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party. After the 1980 referendum and his loss to Lévesque’s Parti Québécois in 1981, Ryan remained in politics, becoming minister of education, with responsibilities for Quebec’s language legislation, after the Liberals returned to power under Robert Bourassa in 1985. He left politics in 1994, and died a decade later, in 2004.

The title of this biography, which is a reminder of Ryan’s controversial comment as a politician that he was guided by the hand of God, is misleading; the book ends seven years before Ryan’s entry into politics. The subtitle claims it is about Claude Ryan and the fate of Canadian Liberalism; in fact, it is much more about Claude Ryan and the fate of Quebec Catholicism. Gauvreau, whose previous book is The Catholic Origins of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, plunges into the finely drawn details of theological debate in Quebec, tracing the differences between the traditionalists, the modernists, and Ryan’s attempt to navigate between them. Some of those tensions and rivalries—particularly between Ryan and Trudeau—spill into politics.

There was a period when major biographies of Quebec politicians were almost exclusively the domain of English-Canadian authors. Louis St. Laurent, Maurice Duplessis, Jean Lesage, Pierre Trudeau, and René Lévesque were all subjected to the serious gaze of English-speaking authors first. Then Quebec journalists discovered that there actually was a market for biography in Quebec—and Pierre Godin’s two-volume biography of Daniel Johnson followed by his four volumes on Lévesque, Jean-François Lisée’s two-volume diatribe on Robert Bourassa, Pierre Duchesne’s three volumes on Jacques Parizeau, and Jean-Claude Picard’s more modest biography of Camille Laurin have balanced the scales—if only for nationalist politicians.

Now it is Ryan’s turn for a massive study, albeit in English. Michael Gauvreau, a historian at McMaster University, has specialized in Catholic thought in Quebec, and this work focusses on Ryan’s place in the turbulent debates within Quebec Catholicism in the 1940s and 1950s and their impact on Ryan’s views in the 1960s.

In his 2012 study of Ryan as an editorial writer, Claude Ryan: Un éditorialiste dans le débat social, Pierre Pagé suggested that Ryan’s life could be divided into five parts: his work in adult education with l’Action catholique; his time at Le Devoir; his short career as leader of the Liberal party; his longer tenure as a Liberal minister (for education and higher education, public security, and municipal affairs) and managing the Charte de la langue française (Bill 101); and finally his decade as a speaker, teacher, and active Christian—Gauvreau, in 550 pages of text, deals with the first of these, and part of the second.

By the late 1970s, Ryan was impatient with the view that the years before 1960 and the dawn of the Quiet Revolution were le grand noirceur (the great darkness). “I’ve read all kinds of silly things…[that are] all part of that false dogma of the great darkness which is supposed to have reigned over Quebec until the blessed year of God 1960, as if we had all been a bunch of fools before 1960 and the light had appeared after Mr. Lesage took power,” he told me in 1978, when I was a reporter writing about Quebec politics. “That’s a completely distorted view of history. You had a lot of intelligent, free-minded people working seriously, before 1960, and you’ve had a lot of foolish people after 1960 proclaiming themselves apostles of enlightenment, who are the stupidest minds that I’ve seen at work.” Gauvreau’s book is a detailed recounting and analysis of the positions, arguments, and disagreements of many of those intelligent free-minded people.

Those positions and arguments presaged debates that flared onto the political stage in the 1960s and beyond. Gauvreau describes Ryan’s personal response to growing up fatherless, and his development of a “masculinist” theory—that the Catholic literature that appealed to him was “a powerful source of masculine values,” and his concern that the neglect of young men would make Catholicism a religion of women, “neither virile nor adult.” He feared that the predominance of the “female element” would drive religion from public life, and stressed the need for a more “virile” religious literature as opposed to more “feminized” values.

Gauvreau traces the fundamental disagreement between Ryan and the rising elite in Quebec to the tensions between those like Ryan, involved in the umbrella organization l’Action catholique, and those involved in the Jeunesse étudiante catholique. He attributes part of the tension to snobbishness: “These jécistes resented the formation of a new central body and having to account to an unknown young man, who had not attended one of the ‘good’ boarding-schools, in a supervisory capacity above them,” he writes. That tension was reinforced by an ideological disagreement: whether Quebec’s youth should be seen as a citizen-in-training, guided by adults, as Ryan argued, or as an “intellectual worker,” as defined by the European idea of student syndicalism, embraced by Pelletier, Juneau, and Rocher.

This became part of a disagreement that was not only theological, but also political: as the community of Quebec Catholic intellectuals splintered, Ryan worked to maintain connections with the more traditional, hierarchical views of Quebec Catholic nationalists. Gauvreau writes:

Although considerable fragmentation had occurred by 1955 among intellectuals over the question of nationalism, Ryan could assert a kind of ‘impartial’ position above the fray, because he had cultivated and maintained friendly relationships among the ‘neo-nationalists’ clustered around Le Devoir, their citélibriste critics, and even the ‘traditional’ nationalists both groups scorned.”

Gauvreau meticulously traces Ryan’s religious influences: Quebec nationalist historian and priest Lionel Groulx, the British Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, and European novelists and theologians. Over the years, Ryan’s political self-definition shifted: a decade after joining the CCF, following his year in Rome, he called himself “a conservative” and in 2002 wrote, “I consider myself neither a libertarian liberal nor a communitarian liberal, but my bias inclines me to the latter category.”

One constant, throughout Ryan’s life, however, was his disagreement with Pierre Trudeau. Uncomfortable with the personalism of French theologian Emmanuel Mounier, which was a strong influence on Trudeau, ill at ease with the polemics of Cité Libre, which Trudeau founded, Ryan—who was austerely traditional in his personal life—was deeply opposed to what Gauvreau calls “Trudeau’s radically secularist system of political reason” and a private life that Gauvreau compares to that of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner’s. “It was this permissive liberalism that stood, in Ryan’s view, as the greatest of the modern ‘devils’ Christians were called upon to confront.” Later, Ryan attacked Trudeau’s candidacy for the leadership of the Liberal party and was appalled by his use of the War Measures Act in response to the October Crisis in 1970.

It was the October Crisis that drew Ryan into his most controversial conflict with Trudeau, when Trudeau’s allies—Pelletier and Lalonde privately and Peter C. Newman on the front page of the Toronto Star—accused him of being part of an attempt to create a provisional government.

“One nagging question remains about these bizarre allegations,” writes Gauvreau. “Was there something in Claude Ryan’s hitherto easy navigation between the figure of the realistic journalist, the stern, unbending public moralist, and the confidant of political leaders, ministers and public servants, that lent itself to allegations of plotting during French Canada’s most signal moment of crisis?”

Gauvreau’s answer is a qualified yes: it was “the beginning of a subtle sea change, an impatience with the public intellectual’s assertion of independence from the conventions of mere professional journalism.” He describes the October Crisis as a turning point for Ryan and Quebec society. “Ryan’s position as a public intellectual depended on his ability to deploy the moral insight and passion of Christianity, which in the late 1960s still aroused a response in wide segments of Quebec society, and through this establish a direct link between liberal politics and social conscience…But what if the October Crisis was in fact demonstrating that these common values were wearing thin, with social liberalism itself caught between extremist violence and an aggressive, intolerant version of the liberal creed?”

There are times when Gauvreau’s high-mindedness leads him into some odd assertions, often about journalism, for which he has a thinly veiled contempt. Thus, Pierre Trudeau “adopted the posture of the turn-of-the-century ‘maverick’ journalists and social critics in order to secure a public”—as if Cité Libre were a mass-circulation publication! And “Claude Ryan’s entry to Le Devoir was not on the ground floor, as a lowly news reporter scuffling for stories,” as if any of the journalists at Le Devoir scuffled for stories. That lofty view means that he has avoided quoting Ryan’s comments to journalists—like Aubin—which were often blunter and feistier than his written prose.

Claude Ryan was an important intellectual figure both before and after 1960, and Gauvreau picks apart the closely woven threads of his thinking and writing as he seeks social consensus as, in Gauvreau’s phrase, “a mediating public intellectual.” Ryan was a dense and rigorous writer, and this is a dense and rigorous book.

There is no indication that a second volume will follow, and little explanation of why this one ends when it does—except for a brief reference to the fact that Ryan played a crucial role in persuading Robert Bourassa to reject the Victoria Charter in 1971. A book on the last three decades of Ryan’s life, and his career in politics, would really address Ryan’s place in the fate of Canadian liberalism with the detail with which Gauvreau delineates the threads and strains of Quebec Catholicism.

Graham Fraser is the author of Sorry, I Don’t Speak French and other books.