The Trio from Laval

A clash of the historians

Let’s start with a pop quiz. Choose one of the following: A) The British defeat of the French in 1759 was calamitous for Quebec, resulting in an exodus of the bourgeoisie, the imposition of British rule, and decades of subordination. B) The change of colonial administrations after 1759 meant very little for the vast majority of French Canadians. The overall effect was positive, with the economic inferiority that persisted being the result of cultural and psychological factors.

If you picked option A, you agree with the so‑called Montreal school of Quebec historians, including Marcel Séguin, Michel Brunet, and Guy Frégault. If you instead picked option B, you favour the Quebec school of Marcel Trudel, Fernand Ouellet, and Jean Hamelin.

The Montreal school dominated Quebec historical thinking for several decades. Thirty years ago, it was the subject of a book by Jean Lamarre: Le devenir de la nation québécoise selon Maurice Séguin, Guy Frégault et Michel Brunet (1944-1969). Now François-Olivier Dorais, a historian at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, has put together a detailed portrait of the Université Laval historians who became known — somewhat to their discomfort — as the école historique de Québec. All three men were connected to and influenced by the Annales school of French historians and pored over economic data to extrapolate trends and challenge the more romantic views of past struggles. In doing so, they were dissident voices in a public and academic arena that was predominantly nationalist and committed to a narrative of English dominance and exploitation.

The contrasting interpretations of the past flowed, in part, from very different experiences. Historians in Montreal during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s were living through an era of English ascendancy. As I discovered in the mid-’60s, it was sometimes impossible to order food in a restaurant or give a destination to a taxi driver in French. Signs, streetscapes, and public spaces were in English; French was a private, not public, language. (It is hardly a coincidence that the birth of the independence movement in the ’60s and the election of the first Parti Québécois members of the Assemblée nationale in the ’70s occurred in Montreal.)

In Quebec City, where the English presence had shrunk to the point of being almost negligible, the academics at Laval lived in tension with the Catholic Church, which still played an important role at the university, and with the premier, Maurice Duplessis. “They had the domination of Duplessis and the domination of the priests,” as Michel Brunet put it. Neither was as great a presence in Montreal.

English Canadian scholars have often been more comfortable with the Laval historians than with the indépendantiste Montreal school. “This contrast in reaction,” Dorais writes, “speaks to the greater difference in cultural and ideological sensibility between Quebec and English Canada.”

After describing the roots and development of the study of history at Laval, Dorais focuses on the first, and oldest, of his trio of scholars, Marcel Trudel, who recoiled from the idea that he and his colleagues constituted a school: “I hesitate to say Quebec school; I would prefer, rather, Quebec group.” In 1971, Trudel argued that Laval’s department fostered a climate of freedom of interpretation, while in Montreal “there was a doctrine to listen to, to assimilate without transformation, and to be reconstituted unchanged in exams.” Trudel believed his Montreal counterparts were closed to Europe, closed to the Quebec historians, closed to English-speaking historians, and had developed an autonomous nationalist way of thinking. “The history of Canada crystallized around the same overall explanation: the Conquest,” he explained. By contrast, he and his colleagues at Laval saw more complexity.

In the twentieth century, the gap between Quebec and the rest of Canada resulted from a combination of cultural factors (the survivalist ideology and the role of the Church) and psychological ones (the stubborn mentality of the ancien régime and its resistance to capitalism). Hoping to close that gap, the Quebec school argued in favour of the modernization of the state, removal of the role of the Church, and the democratization of institutions.

Trudel was an iconoclast in a number of ways. For one thing, he did not believe in a sweeping view of history with a capital H: “The great philosophy of history doesn’t interest me.” Rather, he focused on what emerged from an exhaustive examination of details. The result was a series of books that confronted the conventional wisdom. He wrote about slavery in the colony, identifying 1,500 slave owners, including 815 in the French regime. He argued that, far from being the idyllic society imagined by Quebec nationalists, the colony had a pretty poor intellectual and artistic life with “scarcely any originality.” Population growth had failed to meet expectations, and the seigneurial class became “an obstacle to general progress.” The average habitant in New France was “poor” and lived in “mediocre lodgings, with little furniture, subsisting from one year to the next at the mercy of the natural calamities that frequently reduced him to scarcity.” The integration of the colony into the British empire, far from being a catastrophe, allowed those settlers “to achieve a normal level of real ease.”

There was a personal factor in Trudel’s sometimes angry prose. His “demystification process,” Dorais explains, was “also a function of his insubordination to the Catholic intellectual authority.” The Laval historian’s description of New France was rooted in a profound rejection of the idea that the colony was blessed by divine providence — an idea that underpinned the writings of Abbé Lionel Groulx, another important figure for the Montreal school.

Trudel grew increasingly uncomfortable at Laval, and in 1965 he moved to the University of Ottawa. There he collaborated with English-speaking colleagues and undertook research for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, on the contrast between the history textbooks used in Quebec and those found elsewhere in Canada. As far as his nationalist historian contemporaries were concerned, he might as well have moved to Australia.

Nine years younger than Trudel, Fernand Ouellet shared his colleague’s contrarian, argumentative nature. “If you eliminate discussion, what do you have?” he once wrote to a friend. “You arrive at the problem of Quebec society before 1950, unanimity. Perhaps the ideology is not the same, but we have the same unanimity.” Like Trudel, Ouellet took aim at the theory, dear to the Montreal school, that the Conquest had decapitated the colony’s bourgeoisie. No such thing had happened, he argued; the weaknesses of French Canadian society were due to its “very conditions of existence” before the Conquest rather than to an illusory disaster caused by the change in colonial metropolis.

Ouellet became intrigued by psychological examinations of historical figures and applied such analysis to Louis-Joseph Papineau and his wife, Julie. He challenged the prevalent view of Papineau — a seigneur and one of the leaders of the 1837 Rebellion — as a tragic hero. “There was nothing heroic about the man. He had accepted a task that was too heavy for his real ability. He was believed to be energetic and he was hesitant and weak,” Ouellet argued. “In reality, he had not succeeded in liberating himself from the fears of his childhood, fears of the state and the clergy.” Julie Papineau’s descendants were not amused by Ouellet’s 1961 book about her and sued — a legal action that lasted ten years and was appealed (unsuccessfully) all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada.* The result was a symbolic penalty of $400, but, as Dorais notes, even this small amount gave a certain weight to the accusation of defamation. It effectively killed the book and profoundly demoralized Ouellet.

Plunging into economic history, Ouellet produced Histoire économique et sociale du Québec, 1760–1850: Structures et conjoncture. This monumental work from 1966 won four literary and historical prizes. In it, Ouellet argued that the Conquest was anything but a catastrophe: “The only difference that exists between the mercantilism of the French era and the one that followed was that the latter was more positive than the former.”

Like Trudel, Ouellet moved to Ottawa, to teach at Carleton University. Nationalist historians were again unimpressed. Denis Vaugeois — later a Parti Québécois cabinet minister — noted Ouellet’s combativeness and lack of respect for previous and contemporary historians; Michel Brunet accused him of blaming the victims of the Conquest; and the left-wing critics Gilles Bourque and Luc Racine called him “the perfect example of the colonized historian.”

Dorais points out that Trudel’s move to Ottawa in 1965 and Ouellet’s move in 1966 roughly corresponded to the entry into federal politics of the labour leader Jean Marchand, the journalist Gérard Pelletier, and the law professor Pierre Trudeau. In other words, they were part of the profound schism between federalists and indépendantistes that defined much of Quebec’s political and intellectual life for half a century.

Dorais’s third historian, Jean Hamelin, was five years younger than Ouellet and almost fifteen years younger than Trudel; he stayed at Laval and did not leave papers, a decision Dorais ascribes to his modesty and discretion. Less controversial, anti-clerical, and polemical than his two Laval colleagues, he made a point of never responding to criticism. Yet he too challenged the Montreal consensus. Dorais describes how, rather than presenting New France as a mature community whose growth was broken by the change of regime in 1760, Hamelin “set out to show that this society never really existed or, at least, that some of the essential elements for its true existence were never able to be developed.”

Ultimately, the conflict between the two schools was overtaken by other debates and disagreements. In 1975, Ouellet himself recognized that “the frontier between Quebec and Montreal” had gradually disappeared with the emergence of socialist and Marxist camps. L’école historique de Québec helps capture the intellectual fervour of an earlier era, as Quebecers wrestled with the existential question of whether their future — like their past — was connected to the rest of Canada.


* Due to an editing error, the print version of this review incorrectly stated the legal action “ended up before the Quebec Supreme Court.” The magazine regrets the error.