Defeat of Oppression
THE extreme measures adopted by Duplessis, and the intemperate remarks of some lower-court judges, caused a backlash from liberty-loving elements among the Canadian people.
In a case at Quebec City, Judge Jean Mercier unleashed a bitter attack on one of Jehovah’s witnesses who was on trial for a simple bylaw charge. The Globe and Mail, an influential Toronto newspaper, commented about this editorially on December 19, 1946. Under the heading “Return of the Inquisition,” it said:
“The persecution of the religious sect known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, now going on in Quebec Province with enthusiastic official and judicial sanction, has taken a turn which suggests that the Inquisition has returned to French Canada. Judge Jean Mercier of the recorder’s court at Quebec City, is reported to have said that the Quebec police are now instructed to ‘arrest on sight every known or suspected Witness.’ If this is true, Quebec’s police power is being used to lock up men and women for holding a religious opinion.
“This is a monstrous outrage on civil liberties. It was the theory of the Inquisition that one function of the courts was to rid the community of heretics. The Inquisition put heretics to death, while Quebec only puts them in jail; but Judge Mercier would apparently not be averse to a revival of the severer penalty. He would award every Jehovah’s Witness ‘at least life imprisonment’ if that were possible, he is reported to have said.”
Many Canadians Shocked
The information respecting the persecution of Jehovah’s witnesses was a shock to many Canadians. The faith and tenacity of this minority in the face of overwhelming opposition earned them much respect.
One well-known newsman, Jack Karr, reported in the Toronto Star of December 26, 1946:
“It takes courage to be a Jehovah’s Witness in the province of Quebec today—courage and a thing known earthily as guts. For the Witnesses are the object of hatred, suspicion and contempt of the rank and file of the population. Few Quebeckers, however, seem to be quite sure why they hate and despise the Witnesses, except that they have been told by their government to beware of them.
“But if it is difficult for non-Quebeckers to be Witnesses in the province, it must be many times harder for those Quebeckers who have renounced their faith and joined the movement. They have lost friends and are, in effect, socially ostracized in their neighborhoods. People who were once their friends now spy on them, they claim, and report on their activities, and when meetings are held, the immediate neighborhoods are tense with antagonism and undisguised spying.
“For this reason, it is sometimes a little difficult for an outsider to grasp the significance of the situation and to understand fully that these things are actually happening in Canada. An onlooker may not be in total accord with either the Witness’ doctrines nor with their methods of attaining their ends, but at least he will emerge from the experience of associating with them with a tremendous respect for their courage and their doggedness in asserting their rights. . ..
“In short, the Witnesses of Jehovah, a small group of 200, have created quite a flurry in old Quebec. And in a city composed of a population 90 per cent French-speaking and 95 per cent Roman Catholic, their meetings are beginning to resemble the meetings of the early Christians in Nero’s Rome.”
And what did all this suffering lead to?
Jehovah’s witnesses fought their way to five key victories in the Supreme Court of Canada between 1949 and 1959 and thus blunted the vicious church-state attack. These test cases in the Supreme Court laid down governing principles that successfully disposed of the many hundreds of other cases.
The last two major cases were won in 1959. One was a personal action brought against Maurice Duplessis by one of Jehovah’s witnesses who had operated a restaurant in Montreal. His liquor license was canceled because he provided bail for many accused witnesses of Jehovah. The Supreme Court of Canada made Duplessis personally liable for the damages. Three months after the judgment was paid, Duplessis was dead.
Value of Decisions Recognized
The value of these decisions and of the courageous stand of Jehovah’s witnesses has been warmly recognized by leading constitutional authorities in Canada. In his book on Federalism and the French Canadian, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, now Prime Minister of Canada, stated: “In the province of Quebec Jehovah’s witnesses . . . have been mocked, persecuted, and hated by our entire society; but they have managed by legal means to fight church, government, nation, police and public opinion.”
Professor Frank Scott of McGill University, in his book Civil Liberty and Canadian Federalism, discusses the case of Lamb v. Benoit: “The Lamb case is merely another example of police illegality, but it is part of the dismal picture that has too often been exposed in Quebec in recent years. Miss Lamb, another Jehovah’s witness, was illegally arrested, held over the weekend without any charge being laid against her, not allowed to telephone a lawyer, and then offered her freedom on condition she sign a document releasing the police from all responsibility for the way they had treated her. When reading such a story one wonders how many other innocent victims have been similarly treated by the police but have not had the courage and the backing to push the matter through to final victory—in this instance 12 1⁄2 years after the arrest had taken place. We should be grateful that we have in this country some victims of state oppression who stand up for their rights. Their victory is the victory of us all.”