Henri Bourassa

Henri Bourassa, politician, journalist (born at Montréal 1 Sept 1868; d there 31 Aug 1952). His family was one of the most prominent in the province; his father was a well-known painter, and his grandfather, Louis-Joseph Papineau, was a celebrated folk hero of the Rebellions of 1837.

henri bourassa, publisher
Founder of Le Devoir and opponent of Canadian involvement in foreign military adventures, Bourassa inspired the growth of a vigorous nationalism in Québec (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-27360/Henri Bourassa Coll).
Henri Bourassa, 1917

Henri Bourassa, politician, journalist (born at Montréal 1 Sept 1868; d there 31 Aug 1952). His family was one of the most prominent in the province; his father was a well-known painter, and his grandfather, Louis-Joseph Papineau, was a celebrated folk hero of the Rebellions of 1837. Bourassa got an early start in politics when he was elected mayor of the town of Montebello at age 22. Six years later, in 1896, he entered federal politics, where he stayed until 1907. He resigned his seat to enter provincial politics.

Bourassa was elected to the Québec Assembly in 1908 and served until 1912. Meanwhile, in 1910 he founded Le Devoir, one of the great and influential Canadian newspapers, and remained its editor until 1932. In 1925 he was again elected from his old federal constituency of Labelle and remained a member until defeated in 1935.

Because of his sensitivity to long-term issues fundamental to French Canadian society, his ability to articulate them and his courage in speaking on them, Henri Bourassa inspired the growth of a vigorous nationalist movement in French Canada around 3 main themes: Canada's relationship with Great Britain, the relationship of French to English culture, and the values that should guide economic life.

Bourassa's career coincided with a time when most Anglo-Canadians were strongly emphasizing the British nature of the country (see Imperialism). But did this mean that Canada was automatically at war when Great Britain went to war? It was over this issue that Bourassa, a young and promising Liberal MP, came to prominence in October 1899 when he resigned his seat to protest the Liberal Cabinet's decision to send Canadian troops to aid the British in the South African War without consulting Parliament.

By 1900 he was back in the House, having won his by-election by acclamation. There he tried to establish that Parliament was the only authority that could declare war on behalf of Canada. Although his resolution was voted down, the question at issue would be fundamental to Canadian politics for the next 40 years.

In 1910 Bourassa opposed the government's naval bill because it allowed the Cabinet to turn over its proposed Canadian Navy to the British Admiralty without the permission of Parliament. Over this issue he succeeded in the federal election of 1911 in organizing an anti-Liberal campaign effective enough to lead to a considerable depletion of Laurier's electoral strength in Québec.

After some hesitation, Bourassa came to oppose Canadian participation in WWI because the Conservative government under Prime Minister Robert Borden had announced the Dominion's entry without consulting Parliament. Such action, he feared, would strengthen the claim of both Canadian and British imperialists that Canada should automatically take part in all British wars.

Bourassa became notorious in 1917 because both major parties used him as a symbol of extreme French Canadian nationalism for their own political purposes. Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier was unwilling to agree to conscription because he was afraid of handing over Québec to Bourassa.

Later in their victorious election campaign of that year, Borden's Union Government warned that if the Liberals led by Laurier were elected, Bourassa would be the real ruler and would take Canada out of the war. But this was the last time that Bourassa would be a serious factor in Canadian politics. Mackenzie King, who replaced Laurier as leader of the Liberal Party in 1919 and dominated the era between the wars, took up Bourassa's idea that the Canadian Parliament alone could declare war. He kept Canada legally neutral for 7 days after the British went to war against Germany in 1939, thus fulfilling the program first set out by Bourassa at the turn of the century.

Another side of Bourassa's nationalist program was his insistence that Canada ought to be an Anglo-French country. French culture must resist assimilation and have equal rights throughout the country. In 1905 he became publicly identified with what came to be called biculturalism in the 1960s through his unsuccessful campaign for Catholics to control their own schools in the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. He warned that the equality of cultures was an absolute condition for French Canadians to continue to accept Confederation.

Later, after Ontario issued Regulation 17 in 1912 severely limiting the use of French as a language of instruction in elementary schools, Bourassa opposed the measure before English audiences as well as French (see Ontario Schools Question). He only called off his campaign in September 1916 when the pope counselled moderation in the struggle for Franco-Ontarian rights. But it was not until the late 1920s that this offensive regulation was repealed.

In the early 1920s Bourassa found his conception of a Canadian nation, one that would be Anglo-French in nature, under attack by Québec nationalists led by Abbé Groulx. In 1922 Groulx raised, in a tentative and theoretical way, the idea of a separate Laurentian state as a desirable goal for French-speaking Quebeckers. Bourassa vehemently opposed even this vague ideal of a separate state, and his prestige was such that he was virtually able to deny it respectability.

Although his nationalist program had the greatest political impact, Bourassa believed that his most important work was to help his people be a beacon of light for Catholicism in North America. His greatest ambition was to prevent the Americanization of Canada and resist placing the accumulation of wealth above the worship of God as the dominant value of Canadian society. Although he accepted private property as essential to man's liberty, he believed that in economic matters the public good should prevail.

He was much troubled by the coming of big industry. He believed that the profit of a large enterprise was immoral but that of a small firm, comprising perhaps 5 or 10 people, was legitimate. He always considered small businessmen as the social class that by instinct and interest was best prepared to conserve Catholic values. He seems to have thought that the growth of big business was due not to economic efficiency but to greed, and that if Catholic teachings were accepted, this trend might be halted or reversed.

Occasionally, he dreamed that society would revert back to one in which the rural sector was all important and the economy was one of small firms. This viewpoint was an important reason for his inability to develop a realistic program to regulate the powerful influence of big business in economic life.

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