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His Duty

One man’s fight against militarism

Mathilde Montpetit

Duty to Dissent: Henri Bourassa and the First World War

Geoff Keelan

UBC Press

284 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

Several years ago, Montreal’s city council announced that it would rename Outremont’s Vimy Park for Jacques Parizeau, the separatist premier who led Quebec before the 1995 referendum. The backlash was swift. What could be more outrageous, during the centenary of the First World War, than to rechristen a public space honouring Canada’s nation-building battle after a man who had tried to destroy the country?

What was remarkable, then as now, was how little officials had anticipated the reaction. The council seemed genuinely surprised by the uproar. Why would anyone care about the name of a tiny park, named for a three-day engagement in a war so long ago? But Anglo Montrealers and Anglo Canadians outside the province did care — about the defining 1917 battle in France and about its commemoration at home.

As compensation, the following year, the city renamed a corner of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Park, in an anglophone-heavy area, Vimy Place. My sister lives in that part of town, and until I asked her about it, she had no idea of the name change. When it comes to the importance of military history in Canadian national identity, the two solitudes are as far apart as ever.

The ambiguity and ambivalence of French Canadian memory of the First World War can be laid, in part, at the feet of Henri Bourassa, whose wartime writings are the subject of Geoff Keelan’s Duty to Dissent: Henri Bourassa and the First World War. Born in 1868, the politician and newspaper owner was practically Canada’s only major anti-war voice. He wrote from his pulpit in the pages of Le Devoir, until he acceded to censorship in 1918. For his views, he was declared a public enemy by the anglophone press, with the Kingston Standard calling for his arrest as a traitor. Yet for Bourassa, opposition to the war — a British war, by his estimation — was inseparable from his loyalty to the Canadian nation.

Quebec’s anti-war voice, Henri Bourassa.

Joseph Alphonse De Guire, 1910; British Library

Bourassa is perhaps best known, especially in English Canada, for his turn-of-the-century political career as the protege of the newly ascendant Liberal prime minister Wilfrid Laurier. Though their relationship was never without stumbling blocks, it was the Second Boer War that would ultimately sour it. Bourassa strenuously opposed the commitment of any Canadian resources, even volunteers, to defend British imperial interests; the prime minister did not. The difference of opinion ultimately led Bourassa to leave the Liberal Party and, in 1903, help form the Ligue nationaliste, which would stake a claim to defending Canadian national interests against the encroachments of British imperialism.

The First World War saw the apogee of Bourassa’s resistance, as editor of Le Devoir, the nationaliste-associated daily broadsheet he had founded in 1910. Keelan’s book diligently tracks him as he takes on topics both international and domestic with an enthusiasm bordering on fervency. Bourassa was a man on a mission. He started his paper, he explained at the time, “to awake in the people, and above all in the ruling classes, a sense of public duty in all its forms: religious duty, national duty, civic duty.” Notably absent from that list was military duty.

Keelan’s book is wide-ranging and meticulous in its explanations, taking in the whole gamut of issues that Bourassa discussed in his editorials, as well as the philosophies and principles that influenced him: ultramontane Catholicism, British socialism, the intricacies of diplomatic communication. But, more than anything, Bourassa’s work in the First World War was an attempt to prick holes in the ballooning culture of militarism that he saw taking over Canadian public life. His tools were analysis and debate, and he doggedly tried to unearth the cynical reasoning behind the high-minded rhetoric being used to justify escalating involvement — sometimes to the point where he made allegations of conspiracy. Unlike Major General Sir William Dillon Otter, the army’s chief of staff, who proclaimed that “the public mind should not be allowed to dwell too much upon what is going on in Europe,” Bourassa insisted on dissecting the conflict for his readers. He hoped they would then approach the situation with an open-eyed seriousness that would preclude blind commitment to the war machine.

Bourassa was not opposed to war in itself, but he was opposed to militarism — to fighting for its own sake. For him, militarism was embodied by Prussia, whose undemocratic, un-liberal, un-Catholic culture ran counter to everything he stood for. Sending troops overseas, ostensibly to defend British liberal values, was ethically fraught. “There is, for all true Canadians,” he wrote, “a danger to be more dreaded than the expansion of German militarism in Europe: it is the moral conquest of Canada by Prussianism under false British colours.”

This charge would become one of his favourites throughout the war, sometimes ad absurdum. His tirades against the “Toronto Huns”— his collective term for pro-war boosters, inside and outside the government — can elicit a chuckle, though it is clear that his stance was more than purely rhetorical; he was truly worried about the ways in which glorification of the military was infiltrating the society he had been helping to build. (Despite the disparaging ethnic inflection, Bourassa was one of the few dissenting voices when the government stripped the vote from recently nationalized German and Austrian immigrants.)

During a speech in Ottawa in 1914 — even before he completely opposed the war — soldiers stormed the stage and attempted to force him to wave a Union Jack. He refused. And later, despite opposition, he remained a staunch defender of liberal values, even as these were repressed in the name of the war effort. Perhaps my perspective is coloured by my own lily-livered Québécois sensibilities, but it is hard, watching the war through Bourassa’s eyes, not to cheer him on.

Prussian militarism held as axiomatic truth that only those willing to fight had the right to full citizenship. Bourassa — who believed in the essential public duties of religion, journalism, and government — resented this claim both personally and philosophically. Consider the 1917 War‑time Elections Act, which historians sometimes present as a simple extension of the franchise, temporarily granting the vote to women. In truth, the act gave the vote only to relatives of soldiers — so long as they were not Indigenous. Bourassa was among those who saw the legislation as a craven attempt to stack the deck in favour of Robert Borden’s conservative Unionists in that year’s federal election, which was essentially a referendum on conscription, and to create an overclass of military families. What could be more Prussian than the granting of outsized political power to service members, the creation of a new set of Junker aristocrats? Laurier, Bourassa’s erstwhile mentor, agreed. His Liberal Party, what was left of it anyway, described the law as “oligarchic Kaiserism,” the final stage of Canada’s Prussification.

Bourassa believed that Prussian-style militarism was a menace not because Prussia was the enemy in the war, but because a Canada in thrall to militarism was no Canada at all. An illiberal, homogeneous country would be one that had abandoned the alliance between its two “races”— an alliance possible only because of liberal values like free speech and free association. At a time when Anglo Canadian commentators called Canada a “mongrel land,” imputing to this mongrelism a lack of military discipline, it was clear to him that the very idea of Canada was at stake.

War is often depicted as tough but morally clarifying — perhaps especially the world wars. Bourassa’s distant cousin, the lawyer and soldier Talbot Papineau, wrote to him in praise of the “unity of purpose” that fighting gave both French and English Canadians. Bourassa saw the ways in which that unifying “clarification” might instead stifle debate and ram through unpopular political decisions unthinkable under true democratic governance. In the high-minded rhetoric of the time, the First World War was, in part, about protecting linguistic and cultural minorities against Prussian and Austrian aggression. Ironically, Canadian politicians took advantage of the moment to strip away the hard-won rights of minorities here. One concomitant battle took place in Ontario, as the government passed Regulation 17, which restricted the rights of Franco Ontarians to school their children in French. Even more galling, of course, was the national battle over conscription. What could be more illiberal, Bourassa wondered, than forcing someone to sacrifice his life against his will?

Le Devoir’s readership was not particularly large: it actually dropped by 20 percent during the war, reaching 15,000 in 1918, compared with over 100,000 each for Montreal’s two major dailies, the Star and La Presse. It is unclear how many French Canadians were actually persuaded by Bourassa’s words. He was certainly blamed for low French Canadian enlistment and, later, for inciting anti-conscription riots. (Keelan, perhaps wisely, stays out of cause-and-effect arguments.) It seems impossible to know whether Bourassa stoked the fires of Quebec anti-militarism or simply broadcast ideas that were already there. What’s important is that French Canadians, unlike Anglo Canadians, had a dissenting voice they could listen to: a liberal, near-socialist, anti-militarist voice that insisted, vociferously, that fighting was neither inevitable nor without alternatives.

That sense of ambivalence — an ironic detachment from the total commitment required by total war — pervaded French Canada for at least another generation and fundamentally changed its relationship to military myth-making. For French Canadians, the First World War is often seen not as a moment of terrible but glorious nation building but as a painful event or, more likely, one that’s barely thought of. In my family, the war is merely the setting for comedies of errors about relatives hiding in closets or forests, avoiding conscription. There’s a certain cheeky pride in “cowardice” among many francophones: it means you’re smart enough to not get wrapped up in military nonsense.

But Bourassa was no prophet. Even by the standards of his era, his views on women, his adoration of the Pope, and his wishes for society were conservative; his writing can be jarringly old-fashioned (Keelan calls him “anti-modern”). Still, he is an important, even useful voice, especially as the memory of the First World War has become instrumentalized by right-wing figures in Canada and elsewhere. By translating Bourassa and introducing him to a new generation of readers, Keelan, an access archivist with Library and Archives Canada, has done us a great service.

Bourassa predicted that militarism would be a defining issue of the twentieth century, and, indeed, we are still feeling its effects. His intellectual successors are writers like Gwynne Dyer who insist on complicating our views of Canada’s involvement in the world. Even a century later, Bourassa reminds us that, in a democratic society, our duty to the polity is not always to fight. Sometimes, it is to refuse to — both because death and war are awful and because fighting changes who we are in ways we cannot anticipate. Democracy, he cautions us still, should not be abandoned at the sound of a bugle call.

I thought often, while reading this book, about Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute, which seems to echo Bourassa. Sad, but not sentimental, the 1945 novel reckons with the ambivalence that defined the Québécois relationship to the military almost thirty years after the Treaty of Versailles. Despite arguments for why war may sometimes be worth fighting, men in the book eventually enlist for prosaic, financial reasons — because they have no other options. Azarius does not board the train with a sense of noble purpose; he leaves his wife behind to bury one child and raise another because of a hare-brained money-making scheme.

We can see the conflicted legacy of the First World War in Quebec through Bourassa’s writing, with Roy’s novel, and even in Montreal’s cityscape — which is why the conflict’s memory alone can’t keep Canada bound together. It is little surprise that the separatist movement took off in earnest after 1919. It is not just that French Canada considered itself lied to, that promises were broken; it is that this part of the country never participated in the myth-making in the first place.

Mathilde Montpetit is earning a master’s in history at Aix-Marseille Université, in France. She has previously written for Harvard Magazine.

Related Letters and Responses

James Brierley Westmount, Quebec

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