French Canada's New Voice
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French Canada's New Voice
Outspoken politician Henri Bourassa helps shape a new French Canadian nationalism
In the early 1900s, Henri Bourassa was the voice of a French Canadian nationalism emerging in the country.
In the early 1900s, prominent French Canada politician Henri Bourassa insisted that Canada should distance itself politically from the British mother country. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
In the early 1900s, prominent French Canada politician Henri Bourassa insisted that Canada should distance itself politically from the British mother country. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Bourassa's nationalism was based on ensuring French Canadian culture was on equal footing with English culture throughout the Dominion. It was also grounded in the belief that Canada should distance itself politically from the British mother country.

In 1910, he attended the 21st Eucharistic Congress in Montreal, the most important Roman Catholic gathering outside the Vatican. His historic speech there embodied the new French nationalism.

"But, it is said, you are only a handful; you are fatally destined to disappear; why persevere in the struggle? We are only a handful; it is true ... but we count for what we are; and we have the right to live!"

Bourassa was the grandson of Louis-Joseph Papineau, the leader of the failed 1837 Rebellion in Lower Canada. An uncompromising politician, Bourassa had the eloquence and courage to speak out for French Canada.

He first ascended to the national political scene when Wilfrid Laurier recruited Bourassa to run in Quebec in the 1896 election.

"I am ready to accept it," Bourassa said when asked if he would be a Liberal candidate, "but for two conditions. I retain the right to vote for or against my party according to my convictions. And to be free to act accordingly, I don't want a single penny of the election fund to enter my riding."

Bourassa was a rising star in the Liberal government when Laurier's politics came into direct conflict Bourassa's vision of Canada. In 1899, Laurier agreed to send Canadian volunteers to help the British fight the Boer War in South Africa. To Bourassa and the rest of French Canada, the Dominion should have no part in Britain's imperial conflicts.

Bourassa spoke out against the decision then quit the party, choosing to sit as an independent in Parliament.

"The question is whether Canada is ready to ... return to the primitive state of a crown colony," he wrote to Laurier.

The incident was one of many times the two men would clash politically.

Laurier once complained that Bourassa "fights his friends with the same violence as his enemies; he becomes intoxicated with his own words ... Bourassa is a man of great ability, but his ability is negative and destructive ... His aim was to isolate the French population from the rest of the community and make them a separate body."

In the first decade of the century, Bourassa blamed Laurier for the erosion of the French language through unrestricted immigration. He argued that the prairies needed a greater French Canadian presence:

"Transplant in the west a branch of the old French-Canadian trunk and surround it with an atmosphere that will preserve its native sap and its original qualities."

His vision of an equal Anglo-Franco Canada was shaken when he realized the west was flooded with non-French immigrants.

"I regret ... to find developing that feeling that Canada is not Canada for all Canadians. We are bound to come to the conclusion that Quebec is our only country."

A disillusioned Bourassa left federal politics in 1907. Three years later he founded Le Devoir, one of the most influential newspapers in Quebec and the voice of the new French nationalism.

The same year, Bourassa attended the 21st Eucharistic Congress in Montreal.

Bourassa, a devout Catholic, was shocked when Archbishop Francis Bourne of Westminster stood up and delivered an unanticipated speech advocating English as the primary language of the Catholic Church in North America.

Bourassa was scheduled to speak but abandoned his prepared text to deliver what became an historic speech challenging Bourne's views.

"Among three million Catholics," Bourassa said, "descendants of the first apostles of Christianity in America, the best safeguard of the Faith is the conservation of the language in which, during three hundred years, they have adored Christ. Let one beware, let one be carefully aware, of extinguishing this fire, with its intense light which has illuminated a whole continent for three centuries."

Bourassa would continue promoting French Canadian nationalism for years to come. But that one event transformed the admired politician from a protector of French rights into a cultural icon.

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