Quebec, Nationalists, Nazis and Adrien Arcand
The great novelist Mordecai Richler forever associated the cause of Québec’s independence to proto-fascist ideology in English-reading minds when he wrote in a series of articles in the New Yorker, later published as Oh Canada! Oh Québec! Requiem for a Divided Country, that:
« From the beginning, French-Canadian nationalism has been badly tainted by racism. The patron saint of the independantists, the Abbé Lionel Groulx was not only a virulent anti-Semite but also a nascent fascist, an unabashed admirer in the thirties of Mussolini, Dollfuss and Salazar. »
Although absolutely true, Richler’s diatribe obscured the fact that Mussolini had many admirers in the 1930’s, from industrialist Henry Ford to presidents and Prime ministers.
One of the most vocal and successful proponents of North American fascism was indeed a French-Canadian, but he was not a nationalist. From his early days as a reporter at the daily La Presse, through his internment during the war and well after the Allied victory, Adrien Arcand remained an admirer of the British Empire and a fierce opponent of an independent Québec that would have been, in his words, « at the mercy of the Jews. »
The AngryFrenchGuy spoke with Jean-François Nadeau, the author of Le Führer Canadien, the first biography of Adrien Arcand.
On the AngryFrenchGuy website the fascist past of Québec society, and the supposed roots of the nationalist movement in that past, are regularly brought up by some people. Just how big was the fascist movement in Québec in the 1930’s?
This idea of a movement essentially concentrated in Québec is bullshit. A thesis upheld by ignorants. In that period, it’s everywhere. There are movements like this in Brazil, Mexico and many in the United States. As a matter of fact, Arcand will experience a triumph of sorts in New York where there are gatherings at the Madison Square Garden—today known for hockey—and the New York hippodrome of tens of thousands members of organized groups who welcome him with the fascist salute. This is before 1939.
We tried to forget this, but in the 1920’s and 30’s, even people like Gandhi and president Roosevelt were very open to some aspects of Italian fascism.
In the case of Québec, some have tried in recent years to correlate that past with the national affirmation and indépendantiste movements. It doesn’t hold water. Those people hate the very idea of Québec’s national affirmation. They are the most fierce opponents of that idea. They dream about an imperial system—French or English style—but in the name of a very very strong, authoritarian and structured Canada.
Because Arcand is quite the anglophile, isn’t he?
His troops are commanded in English. He speaks English fluently. There are other groups like his in French-Canadian society, but he is the one who succeeded in federating other groups in English-Canada, in the West and the East. He speaks in meetings in the Atlantic provinces and in Toronto. He travels a lot in Canada, with the objective of founding a far right party, which he will achieve in 1938: the National Unity Party of Canada.
You’ve written that Canadian Prime Ministers encouraged his movement, at least in a underhanded way.
Prime Minister Bennett financed Adrien Arcand’s first antisemitic and virulently racist newspapers in the hope that Arcand, who is a brilliant marketer, would support him and help him elect enough Conservative candidates in Québec for him to form the government in Ottawa. It worked.
Even after the war, after 1945, there are many federal conservative MP’s who are very close to Arcand, who go to him for counsel and try, in one way or the other, to support some aspects of his doctrine.
Québec Conservatives or Canadian Conservatives?
Mostly French-Canadian, but also English-Canadian. He always said that the Anglo-Saxon world paid more attention to him than his own Latin world. In fact his own models are not so much Hitler or Mussolini as they are British Lords who are proponents of a British Imperial Fascism. People like Mosley who inspire him, and with whom he corresponds.
His is a racist, antisemitic, very Hitlerian approach to the far right, but English-style. That’s peculiar. For him, the New World will come about through the British Empire, the defence of a King and of the British monarchy. That’s why French-Canadian nationalists hate him so much, even if they defend ideas that aren’t far from his. They reject him because he is an imperialist.
It’s fascinating to read in your book that Arcand was one of the first Holocaust deniers.
After the war, even if his newspapers have lead him into a detention camp, Arcand doesn’t change his mind.
He can’t accept the idea that there had been a massacre of Jews and of political opponents. He doesn’t need any proof of a Jewish conspiracy, he’s already convinced. He will be one of the first to deny, on the basis of faith in the irrational that supports all his thought, that death and concentration camps could have existed.
He will be one of the first in 1946-47 to develop those ideas, which he will maintain, to the point of enriching the thinking of those we consider today to be the pioneers of Holocaust denial—that’s not a very appropriate name, we should call them falsificators of History. He is the one at the root of many of their ideas. In temporal terms, I see that he is writing these sorts of things before the leading theorists of denial even started to write.
One very surprising revelation in your book is that Pierre Elliot Trudeau defended Arcand. In what way? Was it a purely legal exercise?
When he was a student in London—but let’s be clear, when I say a young student, I mean a man of almost thirty years, with all his head and able to make a judgment—he wrote in a very conservative newspaper called Notre Temps that what was done to Adrien Arcand was horrible. He will write that a regime that claims to be democratic but is not able to support the opposition and freedom of speech of Arcand is denying itself.
That’s a little bit odd because he will himself use that very law, the very exceptional and contested War Measures Act, in 1970, to contain the supposed insurection of the Front de Libération du Québec. Yet we could very well take everything he writes in the case of Arcand and transpose it very exactly to the situation in 1970.
It’s very peculiar because people from the far right like Arcand, who are likely to have contacts with the enemy, are a real menace to the Canadian State. The country is at war against a formidable force. It’s not an apprehended insurrection like in 1970, it’s a real war with real tanks and aeroplanes and a real man called Adolf Hitler. And we have people here who wear uniforms with the swastika and are likely to help the enemy from the inside.
It’s not a coincidence if in May 1940, in England and South Africa and all over the world members of these groups are arrested on the exact same day. In 1970 we suppose there is a menace, but there is no proof. In 1939-40 we know that Poland has fallen, that France will be hit, that Belgium was hit, that Danzig is done and Czechoslovakia too. It’s not an apprehended menace. It’s a real physical menace.
So Trudeau’s point of view is a little bit peculiar…
Now, in all fairness, fascist movements in that period weren’t all as anglophile as Arcand’s. There are also nationalist French-Canadian factions with fascistic tendencies, right?
Yes, and they weren’t quite as important.
A few years ago we decided to do an ideological trial of the work of Lionel Groulx, and it is impossible to deny that there is an antisemitic variable in his thought and his brand of French-Canadian nationalism of the 1930’s. There is some very antisemitic prose published under his name or his pseudonyms.
But there is a great difference between this thinking and that of Adrien Arcand. First of all, it’s very latent and there isn’t much of it. More importantly, it doesn’t support the architecture of the thought. To use architectural language, if you remove the antisemitic variable from the discourse of people like Lionel Groulx, everything still holds. If you remove it from Arcand’s movement, everything collapses. The foundation of his ideology is that there is a Jewish project of world domination and that it is imperative that they be eliminated. That’s not the issue in right wing nationalist movements.
There is also Paul Bouchard’s La Nation group from Québec City, which is very strongly for independence and very antisemitic. They will strongly oppose Arcand’s ideas, even though they essentially are the same as their own: coporatism, against democracy, against representation, against traditional political systems.
But it’s Arcand who succeeded, in those networks, to structure the far right. Not that he was that successful. In the 1930’s, he wasn’t on his way to become Prime Minister of Canada, far from it. He was probably 3 or 4 years too late.