Church and State Unite to Prevent Progress
MAURICE Duplessis became premier of Quebec in 1936. With the exception of one term (1939-1944), he continued in office till his death in 1959. Historian Leslie Roberts has described him as a “ruthless demagogue ruling his Union Nationale party and the entire province of Quebec with an iron will; rabble-rouser and dictator; grand seigneur and tyrant.”
The Duplessis rule has been described in the Toronto Star as “the most openly corrupt the province ever had.”
Support by Church
And where did one find support for this evil? In “rural Quebec . . . where the Church was all powerful. It was from there that the party’s first leader, Maurice Duplessis, drew his strength,” says Canada 70.
The Duplessis system depended on the Roman Catholic Church to keep it in power. Responsibility for the damage his administration brought to the province and its people has to come back on the clergy of Rome.
What advantage did the clergy derive from this alliance? The Canada 70 study explains: “The right of assembly and freedom of speech were denied Jehovah’s Witnesses because they questioned the gospel according to le Chef (Duplessis), and the Roman Catholic Church. He maintained his power through his alliance with the Church, the farmers, and the reactionary English-speaking business elite. Through it all, he was aided by a docile press.”
The freedom-hating Duplessis perfectly suited the purposes of the Catholic Church. The clergy wanted to dedicate the people of Quebec to the Church. Bishops proclaimed that the French-Canadian nation had a messianic mission—“to make the province of Quebec the Christian nation replacing faltering France in the role of the eldest daughter of the Church.”
Duplessis and the Church worked together to stifle the education and progress that would free les Québecois from the medieval grip in which they were held. In large measure this combination succeeded in preventing advancement and in keeping the people of Quebec subject to their oppressive church-state rule.
But not everyone bowed to the system! There was one glimmer of freedom that this local dictatorship could not stamp out!
Jehovah’s Witnesses Fight for Religious Liberty
The Lord Jesus had said of this “time of the end” where we have been since 1914: “This good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations.” (Matt. 24:14) The Christian witnesses of Jehovah accept this mandate. Part of the “inhabited earth” is the province of Quebec. There Jehovah’s witnesses began to enlarge their missionary evangelical activity in 1924.
The problems appeared mountainous. The people were friendly enough if left alone; but priestly influence led to violence and arrests as a standard part of missionary experience. Many Catholic judges, educated by priests, had a somewhat myopic view of the legal rights of any who dared to disagree with the Church. Legal battles in the courts of Quebec began in 1924 and continued until 1964.
Jehovah’s witnesses were seeking to exercise the legally guaranteed right of freedom of worship by peaceably preaching to the people the encouraging message of God’s kingdom under Christ Jesus. But in Quebec, the attempt to exercise these modern-day liberties encountered a Roman Catholic-controlled system that had never really come out of the Dark Ages. To them Jehovah’s witnesses (or any non-Catholics) were heretics who had no rights.
It was a classic confrontation similar to that encountered by the apostles when they sought to preach the message of God’s kingdom in the face of Roman power during the days of Nero. Jehovah’s witnesses faced a powerful, rich and politically entrenched Catholic Church. From a human standpoint it was no contest; the Catholic Church seemingly had all the advantages. The humble witnesses of Jehovah were without influence or support from earthly authorities, but they were extremely strong in faith and in the spirit of Jehovah.
The activity of Jehovah’s witnesses in Quebec prior to World War II was limited and under constant harassment from priests, mobs and government prosecutors. But in the mid-1940’s the struggle for liberty to preach there came to a head. By this time the Church had its tool, Duplessis, in the political saddle. Could he stop the preaching of the Christian witnesses of Jehovah? Could he keep the open Bible out of the hands of the Catholic population of Quebec?
“War Without Mercy”
In 1944 the evangelical activity of Jehovah’s witnesses began to be expanded in the province of Quebec. The same old pattern of petty prosecutions resumed, charges of distributing circulars, peddling or ringing doorbells were laid in Montreal, Verdun, Lachine and Quebec City.
Jehovah’s witnesses were not easily turned aside from their God-given duty to preach “this good news of the kingdom.” Cases were defended and their preaching continued. The battle was stepped up during 1945 by a series of riots inspired by the Catholic clergy. These riots arose primarily at Châteauguay and Lachine. Resultant countrywide publicity focused attention on the growing religious conflict in Quebec.
By the end of 1945 there were 400 cases pending in the courts. The authorities hoped by delays and harassment to stop the activity of Jehovah’s people and prevent a clear legal decision that would open the way to appeal.
In the autumn of 1946 there were 800 charges dragging through the courts. There were so many cases against Jehovah’s witnesses that the police, judges and courts could not handle them all. The situation was becoming critical.
The public had the right to know about the Duplessis reign of terror. In November 1946 Jehovah’s witnesses released a fiery tract denouncing their persecution by the church-state powers in Quebec.
The distribution of this indictment and a follow-up tract was a bitter blow to Duplessis. Threats, fulminations and pronouncement of “war without mercy on Jehovah’s witnesses” were his reaction. To the 800 pending cases, 843 more charges were added in four months. However, the prosecutors now switched from simple bylaw charges to serious criminal indictments for seditious libel and conspiracy. No effort was made by the authorities to deny the facts outlined in the leaflets. They said in effect: ‘It is seditious for you to tell even the truth about how bad this situation really is.’
Continuing with their Christian commission, Jehovah’s witnesses found pressures intensified. Mobs formed in the streets against Witnesses calling at the doors.
Because of their faith, children were expelled from school or dragged into court as juvenile delinquents. Family men lost their jobs, business licenses were canceled. Police and mobs invaded places of worship and broke up meetings.
Respectable Christian girls were arrested, stripped and held in filthy jails with prostitutes, thieves and dope fiends. Some were arrested while merely walking along the street or going shopping. Many leaflets had to be distributed at night to avoid false arrests for exercising this constitutional right.
Janet MacDonald, a faithful missionary who shared in this work, says: “Daytime and nighttime the leaflets were distributed. We flew around the countryside over the cold winter snows, often with the police in hot pursuit. In the middle of the night a carload of Witnesses would dash into a village with a supply of leaflets. Each of us would run to the assigned houses, deliver the leaflets, dash back to the car and away we went! While the police were searching that village, we would be on to another.”
In his book The Chief, Leslie Roberts said of Duplessis’ war: “Provincial police squads brought in Witnesses literally by the hundreds as they stood quietly on street corners handing out their fiery tracts. In the city of Quebec, a man named Laurier Saumur became the star ‘repeater’ . . . arrested and charged on one hundred and three separate occasions during the ‘war.’”