Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 47: Canada: Our Oldest Good Neighbor (1946)

Canada’s conscious and successful striving after unity should be borne in mind as we examine another great and permanent problem of the country: preserving and encouraging harmonious relations between French Canada and English Canada. In this connection “English” Canada means all the population, whether of British or other origin, that speaks English.

Though it is focused in Quebec and Ontario, the problem is Dominion-wide. A considerable minority in Quebec, nearly 20 percent of the 3.3 million in that province, are English Canadians. French Canadians form considerable minorities in every other province except British Columbia. French is the native tongue of three out of every ten Canadians.

Many Americans wonder why the French in Canada have not been assimilated—swallowed up in the English majority. But assimilation was out of the question. The French did not go to Canada to be Anglicized. They went there to live as French men under the French flag. The history of Canada as a French colony is almost as long as that of the United States as republic.

After the British conquest of this French colony in 1760, a quarter of a century elapsed before any real English-speaking population settled on the soil of old Canada (Quebec and Ontario). And three-quarters of a century passed before the English-speaking population was as numerous as the French. There was little assimilation, and that little was mostly of English-speaking people by the French.

There was no lack of attempts at assimilation the other way round, but they defeated their own end. The attempts promoted bitter racial strife, and only hardened the determination of the French to retain their separate identity.

The strife did not end until the middle of the nineteenth century. What stopped it was the establishment of colonial self-government on a basis of equality for French and English. That was an object lesson for all time to come.

Nationality backgrounds

British Isles: 49.68 (English 25.80, Scotch 12.20, Irish 11.02, Others .66)

French: 30.27

Other European: 17.76 (German 4.04, Ukrainian 2.66, Scandinavian 2.13, Netherlands 1.85, Jewish 1.48, Polish 1.45, Italian .98, Russian .73, Hungarian .47, Others 1.97)

Asiatic: 64

Indian, Eskimo, Negro, Others: 1.65

Occupations of Canadians over 14

Agriculture: 1,083,816

Trade: 355,079

Logging, Trapping & Fishing: 131,700

Finance & Industry: 31,392

Clerical: 338,031

Mining & Quarrying: 71,886

Service: 734,424

Manufacturing: 703,162

Laborers: 263,544

Construction: 202,848

Not stated: 11,413

Transportation: 268,656

Total: 4,195,951

In Armed Forces on December 31, 1944: 759,879

Casualties to May 31, 1945: 102,954

How deep is the division?

Canada is like a double-yolked egg. French Canada and English Canada each form, as it were, a nation within a nation. The Dominion is a country with a dual nationality. Double nationality is very foreign to American ways of thinking, but it has to he recognized before one can begin to understand Canada. There are few countries in the world—and not another in this hemisphere—where such complete duality prevails. It dominates Canadian politics, for almost every public question must be viewed with a French eye and an English eye, or it will be seen out of focus.

Canada’s dual nationality is published on every postage stamp and on the paper currency issued by the Dominion government, for they are printed in both French and English. It is echoed in the Supreme Court of Canada and in the houses of Parliament, where, according to the constitution, French stands on a par with English as an official language. Every motion in Parliament has to be put in both French and English, members may deliver their speeches in either tongue, and all federal publications—the Dominion laws, the debates in Parliament, and government reports—appear in two editions, one French and the other English.

Both languages are official in the province of Quebec, too, but not in any other province—and naturally the French do not like this. They insist that they should have in the other provinces the same rights as English Canadians have in Quebec.

The difference in nationality, moreover, has endowed religion with special rights unknown in our country, for the French Canadians are solidly Roman Catholic. In the middle of the 1800’s, when a public-school system was established in old Canada, the English-speaking Protestant minority in Canada East, formerly Lower Canada and now Quebec, insisted on having their own separate system of tax-supported schools. Otherwise they would have had to send their children to French Roman Catholic schools, a prospect that seemed intolerable to them.

The French Canadians granted the demand, but at a price. This was that the Roman Catholic minority in Canada West, now Ontario, should have the same privilege. This bargain was written into the constitution when the Dominion was formed a few years later.

In Quebec, also, the Roman Catholic church is supported by a tax called the tithe. The law by which this tax is levied was continued from the French regime with an amendment exempting Protestants from having to pay tithes to the Roman Catholic church.

Why the trouble over conscription?

The most serious difficulty that has arisen between English Canada and French Canada in our own day has been over conscription. It flared up in World War I and again in World War II.

Voluntary military service is an old British tradition. Britain did not abandon it until 1916, in the midst of World War I, and Canada was the only British dominion to follow suit. That was because casualties in the Canadian army in 1917 were greater than the voluntary system could replace:

Voluntary recruiting in French Canada had not kept pace with recruiting in English Canada for a number of reasons. The French were naturally more isolationist because they had lived in Canada for many more generations. Practically every French Canadian had to go back nearly two centuries and a half to find an ancestor who lived on the other side of the Atlantic. Another reason for their isolationism was their non-British origin. It inclined them to see the war as a British war in which Canada had no business to be fighting. Moreover they married younger and had larger families, so that a smaller percentage of their young men were free of the ties of wife and children. Their religion also held them back because of two peculiar circumstances of the time, one in France and the other in Ottawa.

In France the government of the Third Republic had turned on the church and driven out many of the antirepublican clergy. Some of these exiles found a refuge in Canada. From them and from their own priests as well, the French Canadians had been hearing bitter denunciations of the French government. Therefore when Germany invaded France in 1914, French Canada was disposed to regard the attack as a judgment of God; upon what was to them the wicked and irreligious republic.

The other peculiar circumstance was that the Canadian minister of militia, the cabinet member responsible for raising and training the Canadian army in 1914, was the outstanding Orangeman in the country. This means much to Canadians but little to Americans, few of whom have ever heard of the Orange Order.

This secret order arose in Ulster, now Northern Ireland, where it stood for Protestant supremacy and is still a great power. More than a century ago it entered Canada, and there it throve mightily on the anti-Catholic and anti-French prejudices that have been so marked in Ontario. It was nothing short of tragic that a well-known Orangeman held such a key position during the war.

The opening chasm

English Canada did not understand the situation in French Canada and impatiently cried out for conscription in order to draft the French. There was a general election on the issue: English Canada imposed its will on French Canada—contrary to assurances given when the Dominion was formed that the French Canadians could trust the English-speaking and Protestant majority never to run a steam roller over them.

The French Canadians were crushed. They had horrid visions of being crushed again in the dark, uncertain future. Conscription came to have a strange and terrible meaning for them. It implied the ultimate loss of the liberty they cherished above all else: the liberty to be themselves.

The French Canadians received such a jolt that in later years, even after World War II began, both major political parties pledged themselves, as the only way to win votes in Quebec, never to conscript men for overseas service.

At the time France fell in 1940, the Canadian government rushed through Parliament, with almost no opposition, a law giving the government nearly unlimited power over persons and property. Compulsory military training was then adopted, but the Prime Minister said he would not abandon the voluntary system for service overseas. The Canadian expeditionary army was built entirely of volunteers.

Still the French Canadians were nervous and their fears were roused by English Canadians who began to raise the old cry again. Some of them did it honestly, some in order to bait French Canada and embarrass the government. To clear the air, a national plebiscite was held in the spring of 1942, when the people were asked if they would release. the government from its pledge. English Canada voted “Yes,” French Canada “No.”

The result was more tension, which the government relieved by getting Parliament to legalize the draft for overseas and promising not to apply it until absolutely necessary . It. was not necessary until the autumn of 1944, when the Canadian army battering its way into Germany had suffered heavy casualties. The government then extended the draft from home to foreign service.

Meanwhile hot words flew back and forth between the two peoples of the country. English-speaking Canadians attacked the government for coddling Quebec. But the dual nationality of Canada makes it a hard country to govern, particularly in wartime.

Next section: How Does Canada Govern Itself, Or Does Britain Do It?