Happy Changes in Quebec
THE warm, sunny days were crackling with French-Canadian enthusiasm as crowds of Jehovah’s witnesses in the province of Quebec met in their Christian “Divine Purpose” assemblies during August 1974. The Montreal assembly had an attendance of 5,785, while 2,505 gathered in Quebec City. French enthusiasm and joie de vivre (joy of living) added a little extra to the interesting Bible dramas presented there.
The Quebec assemblies were also remarkable for the broad and sympathetic coverage provided by the French-language press and other news media. They seemed fascinated by the involvement and progress of Jehovah’s witnesses, a striking contrast with the decline of the Roman Catholic Church, which for so long dominated every facet of Quebec life.
Both in Montreal and Quebec City municipally owned arenas were used for the assemblies of Jehovah’s witnesses. Very fine cooperation was received from the police and public officials in both cities.
But is this remarkable? Is it not normal for these Christian assemblies to be held in peace and with cooperation from the authorities? Should it be any different in Montreal and Quebec City?
An Amazing Reversal
For those familiar with the background, these peaceful assemblies and the fine cooperation of the authorities represent a well-nigh incredible change. Events in Quebec have so turned around in the past thirty years that they have the earmarks of a revolution! A revolution without violence, with ideas and faith as weaponry instead of guns!
During the 1940’s and 1950’s Jehovah’s witnesses were virtually outlawed in Quebec. Arrests and prosecutions took place by the hundreds—in fact, a total of 1,775 prosecutions were instituted—the biggest volume of litigation on any one subject in the history of the British Empire! It was a reign of terror. Mobs, beatings, violence, discrimination, loss of jobs—the whole gamut of official and private harassment of a minority was brought to play.
This was a deliberate attempt to destroy the peaceful Christian witnesses of Jehovah, who dared to preach the good news of God’s kingdom and open the Bible to the people of Catholic Quebec. This persecution was so extreme that a well-known Quebec writer, Leslie Roberts, said of this period: “To many outside Quebec, that province had become the home of religious persecution reminiscent of the days of the Inquisition.”
But how could such a thing happen? Is Canada not a free country with a democratic constitution? This is, after all, the 20th century.
A Pocket of 18th-Century Catholicism
In Quebec prior to 1960, it was only in a limited sense that the 20th century had arrived. The province had, for over three hundred years, been under the almost total domination of the Church of Rome.
Quebec was originally settled in 1608 as New France, part of the French colonial empire. The French rulers from Paris were not very interested in Canada, a land that Voltaire called “a few acres of snow.” The first governor, Samuel de Champlain, “wanted only Roman Catholics in his new world. Those who came with him . . . were determined to extend the Church . . . in the process the Church became the state. It remained so till relatively recently,” said a sociological study of Quebec problems called Canada 70.
Roman Catholic domination was prominent in the life of Quebec from the beginning of European settlement. The oppressions of the 18th-century French system, a union of Church and State, that drove the people to the French Revolution of 1789 were all introduced to Quebec. France got rid of these medieval anachronisms during the 1789 Revolution. Quebec did not, because it was no longer part of the French Empire; before the French Revolution the British conquest of Canada in 1759 had transferred the province to the British Crown.
Foreseeing the coming American Revolution, which actually arrived in 1776, the British government wanted a tranquil Quebec. Therefore Britain struck a bargain with the Catholic Church, which in effect was: ‘You support Britain; we will leave you in control of Quebec.’
The Canada 70 study explains: “In the view of many historians and writers the Conquest resulted in an unholy alliance between the Roman Catholic Church and the British Rulers. . . . Before he became Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau wrote, ‘Loyalty was bartered for religious freedom.’”
The British government really handed over the rulership of Quebec to the Catholic Church and “the Church became the State.”
Church Use of Power
And what did the Catholic Church do with its immense power? The Canada 70 study explains: “There is little need to document the control—political and spiritual—of the Roman Catholic Church over the French-Canadian population of Quebec during the first half of this century. The Church’s control was virtually absolute. . . . It reached also with its determined clergy, into the offices of government, into institutions of learning, into the bank vaults of business and into the homes of the people. . . .
“Throughout the nineteenth century, the Church fought its determined battle on every front against any liberal or anticlerical ideas that might have found their way into Quebec.”
By reason of these peculiarities of history, Quebec missed the effects of the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the industrial revolution. The province came into the mid-20th century as a pocket of 18th-century agrarian society cut off by language from mainstream North America.
The church-controlled backwardness of Quebec made it a fertile field for exploitation by unscrupulous men.
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