Humphrey, Quebec and Canada

By Napoleon Bergeron

On Sunday, November 29th, 1942, John Humphrey took part in a conversation on the topic of Canadian unity that was broadcast live by the young CBC to the relatively young nation of Canada. The discussion was part of a series that was hosted in a different province every Sunday. On that particular Sunday evening, Humphrey was co-hosting the episode from Quebec. Humphrey, along with Emile Vaillancourt and Hugh Maclennan, was facing a very real question; is Canada a nation? In the months leading up to their conversation Canada had, for the second time in less than thirty years, been divided along linguistic lines over the issue of overseas conscription, begging the question of whether or not there had ever been such a thing as Canadian unity. Tensions that hung over Canadian politics in the decades before, and since, were thick in the air on that November evening, and speaking to a national audience from the very heart of the linguistic divide, the timing of Humphrey’s conversation could not have been more significant.

Humphrey succinctly captured the tension in his introduction; “if three men from the province of Quebec try to [talk to the rest of Canada] – especially at the present time – it pretty well puts them on the spot.” The ‘present time’ was the aftermath of a plebiscite that had been held in April of 1942, asking the Canadian public “Are you in favour of releasing the Government from any obligations arising out of any past commitments restricting the methods of raising men for military service?” At its core, the question was a yes/no referendum on conscription, as the ‘obligation’ in question was a promise made by the government in 1940, very shortly after the war began, that there would be no draft for overseas service. The promise had been made to pre-emptively ease the fears of French Canada in light of the riots in opposition to conscription in 1917 during the First World War. But in the aftermath of the Fall of France and the expansion of the War to the Pacific Theatre with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December of 1941, there was a growing realization among politicians that a draft would be necessary in order to contribute to a global war that looked set to continue for years.

The results of the plebiscite vindicated the original reasoning behind the 1940 promise. 65% of Canadian voters answered ‘yes’. Among English speaking Canadians that number was 83%. But, as feared, 80% of French Canadians answered ‘no’.[1] As the hosts opened the program, Vaillancourt noted “I’m a native French speaking citizen of Quebec – and of Canada. So being put on the spot by the other provinces is hardly a new experience for me.” Vaillancourt was speaking to the linguistic and cultural tensions that had existed in Quebec since the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763 and the introduction of British – English – rule. Yet this centuries-old conflict wasn’t the only factor to consider when discussing the question of Canadian unity. Maclennan noted that he grew up in Nova Scotia so “perhaps I can understand how you feel,” to which Vaillancourt responded “perhaps you understand a little.” Not only was there cultural dissonance in Canada, there were layers of it. From this point the conversation turned to broader problems of sectionalism in Canada, and the physical and cultural divide between provinces. Humphrey highlighted the root cause of all these symptoms: “I’m afraid we’ve got to admit that no one has a clear picture in his mind when he uses the term ‘Canadian’. And because there is no clear picture – because to date Canadians have never seen themselves clearly in the glass- our country lacks a clear cut personality.” There was a great deal of discussion and dissension on matters like the definition of a nation, or what could be done to alleviate the situation, but every speaker agreed that there was no singular vision with which to divide the disparate communities that comprised Canada.

The issues that Humphrey, along with Maclennan and Vaillancourt, addressed were never truly resolved. The far-reaching implications of the plebiscite bore fruit when, in 1944, drafted men became eligible to be sent overseas to the fighting. There was disruption and there were riots, and while it did not tear the fabric of Canadian unity it did show that any unity was slowly bursting the seams. The linguistic and cultural divide between provinces continues to be an issue to this day. Though Humphrey and his co-speakers wished for a future in which discussions such as theirs were unnecessary, they were ultimately merely observers of a centuries long trend that began well before and continued long after their lives.


[1]  MacFarlane, John. Ernest Lapointe and Quebec’s Infuence on Canadian Foreign Policy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 190-191

 

 

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