The Mythical Quest for Independence

Michael A Rizzotti

When I switched my major from economics to theology at Loyola College in the fall of 1970, the province of Quebec was in the midst of a political turmoil. During what is now known as the October Crisis, British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte were both kidnapped by the Front de Liberation du Quebec (F.L.Q.). James Cross was later released, but Pierre Laporte was found strangled in the trunk of an abandoned car on the eastern outskirts of Montreal. The “Crisis” triggered the adoption by the Liberal Government of Canada of the War Measures Act and the army was sent into the province.

The circumstances that led to this dramatic turn of events could be traced back to the British invasion of a small but growing French colony of Nouvelle-France in 1760. The “Conquest” was to be the beginning of a people’s ongoing struggle for survival.

In order to maintain peace in the newly conquered colony, the English undertook a policy of laissez faire toward the Catholic Church. As the new spiritual leader, the Church promoted in the minds of the people a “distinct” vision of its own identity and destiny. Looking back, hardly any political party could have inspired such a collective will to overcome the unforeseeable obstacles of history.

From the time I first left Italy to immigrate to Montreal. I witnessed enormous changes in the “people” of Quebec in the sixties. The Catholic Church was omnipresent when we first arrived, and had been for at least three centuries. All aspects of “French Canadian” life was imprinted with the Church’s authority.

In the early nineteen-sixties, two major events were to change the Church’s hold over the people: Vatican II in Rome, and the emergence of the Quiet Revolution –La Révolution Tranquille– in Quebec. In a matter of years, the Church’s power rapidly eroded. In less than a decade, the priests and nuns who dominated schools and hospitals were replaced by lay people. The Church was losing an increasing number of its believers. Those who lost their “faith” embraced the growing nationalist fervor. And as the québecois progressively abandoned the Church, they joined the ranks of the emerging political quest for independence.

It is this “quest” that is the subject of this chapter. We will try to explain how a desire for spiritual salvation was transformed into a movement for political liberation. As Claude Levi-Strauss observed, nothing in today’s society is more mythical than political ideology. He wrote:

But what gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless; it explains the present and the past as well as the future. This can be made clear through a comparison between myth and what appears to have largely replaced it in modern societies, namely, politics.1

This “quest” for independence focused on a message of mythical proportions.

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Ironically, myth and history appear today as conflicting in meaning as in function. They are both stories, yes, but each relates to different aspects of events that are recounted. Both are equally considered to be true stories by those who relate their content. Yet myth is primarily concerned with accounts of the origins taking place in a primordial time, a so called time beyond the realm of history. History, on the other hand, is a chronological compendium of historical data.

One can best differentiate myth from history as two distinct forms of language. Foremost, history is the realm of the historian and his work, whereas myth reaches out to all men, women, and children regardless of class, position, and age. All are captivated by myth. Everybody is enchanted by the mythical stories, fairy tales, and legends that have been generated by different cultures.

Myth is concise, symbolic, meaningful, and efficient. Its stories relate to events and heroes beyond the ordinary human sphere. These stories are concerned with god(s), super-heroes, and heroic deeds. What separates myth from history is its description of a special class of beings and their activities. They deal mostly with the powers that rule the world: wherein God or the gods are metaphors for the unfathomable powers -as yet inconceivable hierarchies- that rule the world. For the most part, these stories have an enduring quality that reflects the intrinsic and significant aspects of a mentality derived from the different cultures they emerged from.

Myth relates how a new reality came into being, how a new “world” was created. It describes the actions of the super-heroes or the god(s) in their creative endeavor. Why are certain things forbidden? What legitimates a particular authority? Why does human misery exist? Why do people suffer and die? To sum it up, myth decodes the meaningful events of the world. These events evolved in a time beyond history; ie, in illo tempore.2 Thus, this ethereal dimension in time and space is the primary gap that separates myth from history. It is the “fuzzy” boundary between history and myth.

History is foremost an exhaustive and detailed account of all significant events that occurred in the past. With the scientific application of historiography, history has been stripped of any mythical content. It was not the case of the history books of several decades ago. One look at older history books reveals how they were filled with heroic embellishment which have nothing to do with historical truth. The interpretation of the events surrounding General Custer’s battle at Little Bighorn, for instance, has varied tremendously over time. Some of the earlier versions were, to say the least, mythical, and particularly unfavorable toward the “Indians”.

The above comparison between myth and history is well illustrated in the example of the discovery of Nouvelle-France (New-France). According to Mircea Eliade, myth is essentially an account that describes the events that are at the origin of a new reality founded and created by civilizing heroes or god(s) in the beginning of time. The discovery of New-France, for example, has been inscribed in history as the legitimate origins of a “new” national reality. The new beginnings inaugurate the grounds of mythical significance. The “ancestral” heroes are the founders of a “new” national entity at the beginning of a new history. The founders’ identities are celebrated as heroic and are separated from the mass of historical events. In the U.S., for instance, Columbus day is a national holiday.3 The national event celebrates the hero as the prototype of a new cultural and national reality. The pioneer is not so much famed as a person but as a symbol of a new cultural reality. As history shows, because of Amerigo Vespucci, the New World became known as America on maps as early as 1507.

Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492

Jacques Cartier discovered New-France in 1594

These national heroes were the first to inaugurate a new historical and national reality. They were elevated above ordinary human beings and other historical characters. As a result, society will commemorate these super-heroes by erecting monuments in their honor. These monuments consecrate the significant part they played in the foundation and creation of a new national entity and identity.4

There is an inherent contradiction in the concept of the “discovery”, however. How could the New World be discovered when it was already inhabited by native cultures? To validate the Christian “discovery”, these natives had to be dismissed as having no cultural and moral value of their own. Being labeled as heathen and pagan justified their need for “civilization”. Therefore, the “discovery” was strictly an European colonialist imposition upon the native cultures to justify the taking of the biggest piece of free real estate ever “discovered”. Today, such historical value given to the discovery is debatable, since it is more mythical than anything else. But it shows how the mythical process is a propaganda tool for the justification of any form of colonialism and imperialism.

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The chronicle of the origin of a new reality has an important mythological significance in history, yet the struggle for the nation’s identity is also essential.5

sacred   vs  profane
the colonialists   vs  the natives
the Christians   vs  the pagans

The opposition establishes the sacredness of the colonial endeavor, especially in respect to the belief of the mission to “civilize” and to convert the savage heathen who represented an obstacle to the development of the new nation. We have typified elsewhere the Zuni as the heathen reality to be converted. As a profane reality, they were seen as an obstacle to the development of the New World.

Christian civilization  vs  the heathen
British civilization  vs  the pagan
French civilization  vs  the savage

New-France will evolve dramatically from the time of its foundation. Its historical discovery allowed the  consecration of its origin as a legitimate nation regardless of the fate of the aboriginal cultures who lived in their ancestral lands.

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The discovery of New-France that fills the first pages of history books of that nation was to be undermined by a tragic turn of events. In 1760, the colony was conquered by the British army and abandoned by France. In the process, the conquerors set their own political rules while recognizing the authority of the Catholic Church so as to appease the population.

The defeat and the abrupt change in the political allegiance left a deep scar in the collective memory of the French people. The result was to imprint ambivalent feelings of being a nation of colonized-colonialists, and to mark a Lord-victim approach in regards to their history and their fate. The people were in political exile in their own land. The French, who were originally the Lords and colonialists in the New World, had become themselves the victims of colonialism imposed by the British. This turn of events will have enduring effects in the development of their destiny and history. It will set off the beginning of a peoples’ struggle for survival.

The British conquest of New-France also reinstated the old rivalry between England and France and exported to North America the ancestral antagonism between Protestantism and Catholicism that had endured in Europe for several centuries.

The political struggle that emerged because of the conquest clearly outlined two distinct and rival cultural entities.

English   vs   French
Protestants   vs   Catholics

Abandoned by France, the people congregated under the leadership of the Catholic Church. From then on the French mentality would be shaped into a Catholic mold. With her new found authority the Church became preoccupied with the redemption of its people. The hierarchy promoted the principles of obedience to the Church as the only visible sign of salvation: extra ecclesiam nulla salus; ie, there is no salvation outside the Church. The Church encouraged students to shun the evils of business and commerce and to embrace liberal professions such as law, medicine, and the priesthood. The clerics preached to the population the benefits of agriculture as a privileged way of salvation. They urged women to marry young and have numerous children.

Meanwhile, by the end of the XVIIIth century, signs of the Industrial Revolution were visible all over England. The Kingdom was in a rapid transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. The roots of the cultural and economic development of capitalism had Protestant ethical overtones. Individual responsibility, freedom, industry, and success were believed to be visible signs of salvation. Max Weber described the ethic in terms of a “secular asceticism”.6 This spirit of capitalism would soon spread to all the British colonies of North America.

Suddenly, Canada became a battleground for two rival cultures, two languages and two religions originating from two rival European colonial powers. On one hand, we have the French culture led by the Catholic Church whose authority lay in the hierarchy and in the assembly of believers as a visible sign of its invested power, described in terms of collective asceticism. This belief implied a faithful obedience to the principle of the Church as the only way toward salvation.
On the other hand, we have the English culture influenced by the Protestant ethic, described in terms of secular asceticism. The ethic favored individual initiative, industry (hard work), responsibility, and financial success as a sign of election.

Hence, two cultures and two visions of the world  inspired an antagonism that put the two collective entities against each other. Each was living in their world of sacred beliefs, opposing the other as a profane reality.

French Catholics  vs  English Protestants
collective asceticism  vs  secular asceticism
other-worldly  vs  this-worldly

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Not until the first half of the 18th century did the French-Canadian people begin to challenge the political rules set by the English and the Church.

During 1837-38, a movement emerged that began to question the authority of the Church and the political advantage of the English. A growing number of people from the French middle-class, as well as intellectuals, expressed their unhappiness with their share of political power. Louis-Joseph Papineau, the leader of the Parti Canadien, succeeded in rallying a majority of French people against the Catholic Church and the English. The nationalist outburst was brief. In 1838 the English crushed an armed insurrection and dispelled the leader and its followers.

As a result, the people were left in a political limbo. In time, the French-Canadians rallied back to the Church for guidance. The majority of the people who were tempted by the political solutions proposed by the nationalists returned to the Church’s promise of collective salvation. Redemption would not be won through political means, but through obedience to the Church and through faith.

By the end of the XIXth century, the rapid changes brought by industrialization and urbanization began to undermine the Church’s control over the faithful. Priests began to preach to people to have large families in order to overcome the English by number.7 The policy of la revenge des berceaux -the revenge of the cradle- worked. As the population grew rapidly, people left the farm for the city. The cities were unable to handle the increasing number of people moving in. And because of the high level of urban unemployment a great deal of the people emigrated to the U.S. In order to limit the exodus, the Catholic hierarchy pioneered the development of agricultural lands in the northern parts of Quebec. These policies were devised to keep the people away from the evils of industrial cities controlled by the English. But despite the courage and endurance of the inhabitants, the harsh climate and poor economical benefits failed to keep the people on their farms.

Urbanization was seen by the clerical elite as a threat to their authority. They had complete control over the farmer who lived in relative autonomy and isolation on his land. Not so for the people living in the cities who were being hired by the English industrialists and traders.

The rapid industrial development, which was out of the Church’s control, was perceived as threatening the integrity of their flock. The economic power of the English was seen as an incursion in their clerical jurisdiction. Especially in light of the overwhelming presence of the Anglo-Saxon culture of Canada and the U.S.

Even though the French-Canadians renewed their allegiance to the Church in the years following the rebellious outburst, their vision of salvation underwent some fundamental changes. Out of the defeat arose a new kind of collective mysticism, more patriotic in tone. A “national messianism” began to take shape.8

Between the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, a new form of collective mysticism with messianic overtones  emerged among the clerical elite. Mgr. Laflèche and later to a lesser extent, Canon Lionel Groulx, prophesied a messianic role for the French Catholic people of North America. They proclaimed that the French-Canadians were destined to be the chosen people of God. They exhorted the population to obedience to the Church in return for a glorious call to the promised land. Mgr. Laflèche compared the plight of the French-Canadian people to Israel. For him “American France…is nothing other than the New Israel of God since it is the heir of the Old France and therefore the heir to the promises made to the Church, and the promise made before that to Israel.”9

As we have seen already, colonialism has broad and sometimes ill effects on the culture it is imposed upon. Extensive ethnological studies show that when cultures are oppressed by a foreign power they instigate movements of messianic salvation, some with revolutionary goals.10 In some cases, the revolt takes the guise of a religious movement but ends in violent outbursts. The conquest and later the defeat of the Rebellion of 1837-38 inhibited the “normal” evolution of the national identity. The strong sense of religious conviction inspired by the Church led the people to shift their desire for national freedom into a mystic vision upheld as a “national messianism”.

As a result, the ideological boundaries that usually exist between what is believed to be strictly nationalistic and religious fade. National aspirations become intertwined with deep expressions of collective mysticism. The messianic movement described above reinforces the “distinct” calling of its people and polarizes even further the gap between the French and the English mold of cultural differences and divisions.

collective asceticism  vs  secular asceticism
French language  vs  English language
Catholics  vs  Protestants
farmers  vs  merchants
labor  vs  industrialist

At this point, it is crucial to stress the importance of the dynamic of opposition in the development of a national identity. The antagonism separates and reinforces the cultural differences. As we have explained already, the stronger the opposition, the greater the belief in its sacred identity.

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Although the Catholic Church imposed on its believers a stoic acceptance of the political reality of the British rule, it nevertheless fought any form of assimilation. While the Church was preaching a passive submission to the English rule, it maintained a strong sense of cultural identity. Since the Conquest of 1760, the Church had promoted among its faithful the urgency of its collective survival. Under its guidance the people were kept together by two things: la langue et la foi; eg, the French language and faith. Both were instruments of social unity and a barrier against foreign intrusion. They became the two main vehicles for social integration. They were the two major components of contemporary nationalism.

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Language and a desire for emancipation have been vital forces behind the renewal of nationalism that began in the nineteen sixties. As the nationalist movement began to spread, the Quebec society underwent rapid cultural changes. The Quebec people perceived themselves as “other” and “apart” from the rest of Canada. It is this perceived sense of distinctness that allowed the “separatists” to make political headway among le peuple québécois.

As the “Spirit” of renewal and openness swept Vatican II, Quebec society as a whole was undergoing its own “Quiet Revolution”. In less than a decade, the power of the Church eroded. Meanwhile, political changes were spreading throughout society. The educational system, formally the stronghold of the Church, was rapidly becoming secularized. The medical system, under the control of the clerical hierarchy, was nationalized. Little by little, Quebec society became more secular. Secularization was undertaken so swiftly that it appeared as if the people wanted to be rid of the heavy moral burden the Church had imposed on them during the last two centuries.

Simultaneously, from the late fifties and throughout the sixties, television took center stage in a majority of  homes. People indiscriminately plugged into the power of its message. TV began to shatter the mold of the insular mind as it opened a window to the outside world. Inadvertently, this medium began to challenge the old religious and cultural models by the power of its images. Its mass appeal precipitated even further the secularization of society. The images presented on TV eventually supplanted the ethical models preached by the Church. The Chapel was no longer the center for the “Word”.

Until the 1960s, business signs in Montreal were predominantly in English, reflecting the Anglo-Saxon economic control over the city. It revealed the disproportionate supremacy of the minority over the French majority. Things would rapidly change.

As the desire for emancipation grew, a new wave of radical nationalism arose. The new breed of nationalists demanded more control of their political and economical destinies. They felt, with reason, that their language and culture were threatened by the overwhelming Anglo-Saxon presence in North-America.

An alarming decrease in the French birthrate and a dramatic increase in the immigration of people who would rather learn English sparked fears of assimilation. Quebec, the only bastion of French language and culture in America, was threatened. In the late sixties and early seventies, radical movements like the F.L.Q. -Front de Liberation du Quebec- undertook to promote social awareness about such threats. The radical movement advocated complete political control over the province’s destiny. Among their demands was the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. To show that they were serious, they planted bombs in the mail boxes -a symbol of the Federal Government- of the affluent English section of Montreal.

From the more radical Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (R.I.N.), emerged a moderate indépendantiste party under the leadership of René Lévesque, a former Liberal provincial cabinet member.11 The movement appealed to the masses as it revived memories of broken dreams and shattered hopes. The promise of independence rang out as a clear message of liberation. To implement these goals, the Parti Québécois (P.Q.) proposed the option of “sovereignty-association” with the “rest” of Canada.

Quebec  vs  Canada
Parti Québécois vs  Liberal Party of Canada
French  vs  English

The idea of independence rekindled memories of lost aspirations. It captured the hearts of the people who longed to transcend their past. It allowed them to hail their own future. As such, the movement inspired what the more radical nationalist detractors derisively called “the religion of René”.12

To promote the idea of independence, the P.Q. used metaphors like “paradise” and warned against “old demons” and “abortionists” that opposed their goal.13 People who were close to Rene Levesque were called the “evangelists”. One of his closest ministers was even described as “the disciple that Rene Levesque loved”. These quasi-messianic references consecrated even further the cause in which they believed. The leader himself became the embodiment of a sacred mission of “quasi-religious” proportion.14 The collective passion among its members became vivid and intense as the nationalists became spirited by its crusade. The quest for independence became more and more mythical in meaning and function as the movement grew more popular among a greater segment of the population.

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The historical development of nationalism outlines the desire to be “distinct”. It prompted opposition to whoever challenged this assumption. The dynamic opposition to the other cultural entity reinforced the Quebecers’ sense of conviction in their own “separate” identity. What existed outside the periphery of the linguistic and religious boundaries –la langue et la foi– was considered a threat to the social makeup. As we have already explained in previous chapters, the stronger the antagonism to the outer cultural reality, the greater the inner identity. This opposition first began with the profane reality of the heathen, which was an obstacle to colonization, and eventually, it was transposed into the struggle against the English adversary.15

The French language became the main bond among the people. It also became a communication barrier against les anglais. Religion, on the other hand, further consolidated the conviction of “distinct” identity as Catholics. The mythical quest for independence became the noetic integrator of the Quebecers. These thematic symbols captured the core of the “historical” experience of the people. It originated from a legitimate desire to recreate a golden age, a “Paradise Lost”, if you will, that was denied to them by history. Independence became the rallying icon of that legitimate desire.

It is one of history’s paradox that as soon as the secularization took hold in Quebec, nationalistic concerns arose. What was unique about the people of Quebec prior to the nineteen sixties was the strength of their separate religious identity as well as their language. The province was the only bastion of French Catholicism in North America. The ensuing spiritual vacuum that came as a result of people leaving the Church propelled the faithful quest to be “distinct” in a secularized world. As a consequence, the collective mentality was politicized. Yet the advent of the political and cultural emancipation of French society also increased the danger of assimilation into the greater North American melting pot. As a remedy, a dose of nationalism was embodied by the quest for independence.

As we have tried to show above, the mythical aspect of history thrives in the minds of the people who are deeply affected by its significance. The quest for independence embodies the collective spirit of the people in search of their own integrity and identity.

There is yet another paradox. The very essence of the québécois‘ identity was instigated by the antagonism toward the “other” cultural entities: first, versus the natives, and then, the English. In other words, the essence of Quebec’s distinctiveness stems from the opposition to English Canada. Without it, the core of its identity might be unpredictably altered.
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1. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, New York, Basic Books Inc., 1963, 209.
2. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, New York, Harper & Row, 1963.
3. Although it was soon found out that Columbus did not find his way to India, the inhabitants he met on the continent are still referred to by the wrongful appellation of “Indians”.
4. My work on the inauguration of monuments shows that the fine line between historical figures and mythical heros disappears at the dedication; L’Interpretation Religieuse de l’Origine Mythique de la Nationalite, Montreal, UQAM, 1978. More on the subject in the next chapter.
5. The connection between nationalism and the principle of opposition was first proposed by Maurice Lemire, Les Grands Themes Nationalistes du Roman Historique Canadien-Francais, Québec, PUQ, 1970.
6. Of course, when Max Weber talks about capitalism it is in terms of the “spirit” of capitalism, which implies an ethical and spiritual dimension to it. Not to be confused with the capitalistic anomalies of greed, speculation, and corruption we have witnessed. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York, Scribner, 1958.
7. From a mere sixty thousand French-Canadians in 1760, their number grew to six million in 2000.
8. Gabriel Dussault, L’Eglise A-t-Elle “Oublie” ses Promesses?, in, Relations, 386, 1973, 264-267.
9. G. Dussault, Ibid. 266.
10. See reference on messianism and bibliography, p.78.
11. Under the leadership of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Lesage.
12. See Peter Desbarats’, René, Toronto, Seal Books, 1977, 192.
13. Political Pamphlet, Quand Nous Serons Vraiment Chez-Nous.
14. Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, New York, Columbia University Press, 1963.
15. Ironically, at the time of this writing, Quebec with only a quarter of the country’s population turns out 40% of the business school graduates of Canada. In 1988, the province yielded half of the 50 fastest growing, publicly-held companies in the nation. It is a characteristic of antagonist acculturation for cultures to finally embrace whole heartidly the cultural principles that they opposed at the outset. See George Devereux on “antagonist acculturation” in, Ethnopsychanalyse Complementariste, Paris, Flamarion, 1972, 201-231.

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