Throughout the 20th Century in Canada there have been large amounts of tension and hostility between two of the largest ethnic groups, French and English Canadians. Both groups have attempted to gain the upper hand in battles over politics, language, religion, and culture. It is unfortunate that this bitter battle between Canadians is still taking place today. It is worth noting that the French make up 24% of Canada’s population, about 6. 5 million, 6. 2 million are living in Quebec.
The three main historical events that have pushed relationships between French and English Canadians to the breaking point that ultimately led to violence and the threat of separation are the Manitoba School Question, Conscription in World War I, and the October Crisis. The Manitoba Schools Question began in 1890 with the abolishment of public funding to Catholic Schools, and ended with the Laurier-Greenway compromise in late 1896. “The 1870 Manitoba Act established a dual system of Protestant and Roman Catholic Schools” (Crunican, Paul E. Pg. 1).
This meant that The Board of Education used public funding for both Protestant and Catholic Schools. In later years the French Roman Catholic population decreased rapidly as the English Protestant population increased, and became a large majority in Manitoba. Liberal Premier of Manitoba, Tomas Greenway abolished the Board of Education and public funding to Catholic schools in 1890 and erected a Department of Education under ministerial leadership. “Two Privy Council decisions, 1892 and early 1895, upheld the validity of the Manitoba law but affirmed the federal government’s power to restore the lost school privileges” (Crunican, Paul E. Pg 1).
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The Federal election of 1896 was fought primarily on the issue of the Manitoba School Question and was won by Liberal leader Wilfred Laurier. He promised less abrasive and more effective “sunny ways” to approach the province. “The Laurier-Greenway Compromise of late 1896, promoting an amendment to the Schools Act in 1897, did not restore separate schools, but it did allow Catholic teachers to be employed in certain circumstances and it did give some religious-instruction privileges within public schools” (Crunican, Paul E. Pg 1).
This ended the Manitoba Schools Question and was a large cause of tension between both French and English Canadians. To this day it is seen as Canada’s most significant loss of French and Catholic rights outside of the province of Quebec. During World War I Canada contributed to the war effort by supplying ammunitions, war vehicles, and soldiers. Many French Canadians did not concern themselves with the war since Prime Minister Robert Borden had promised there would be no conscription.
Three years into the war after the Battle of the Somme the number of casualties started to mount up and number of new recruits dwindled. “On May 18, 1917, Prime Minister Borden rescinded his earlier promise and introduced the Military Service Act, a conscription bill that would require all males between the ages of twenty and thirty-five be drafted” (Conscription Crisis of Canada 1917 pg 1).
Citizens in Quebec were outraged as well as Henri Bourassa a well known French Canadian politician who actively opposed anything but voluntary service into the Canadian army.
In an already fragile nation many believed this would tear the country in two and cause irreparable damage. The bill became law on August 29, 1917; it was met with two days of rioting and violence on the streets on Montreal. This left one citizen dead and dozens more wounded. “The worst incident occurred during Easter weekend in 1918” (Conscription Crisis of Canada 1917 pg 2).
It broke out when a French Canadian young man failed to produce his conscription exemption papers to police.
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The riots were extremely violent and over 6,000 English speaking soldiers were deployed to Quebec, still the riots caused important destruction of property and resulted in over 150 civilian and military casualties” (Auger, Martin F. Pg 1).
Despite conscription there was no significant increase in the number of troops in the Canadian army. The main reason for this was that many exemptions were being made on the grounds of religious and personal beliefs as well as men holding essential jobs.
This further distanced Quebec from the rest of Canada and ushered in political efforts to try and separate the province and establish an independent state of Quebec. The October Crisis of 1970 again was the cause of major tensions and violence between French and English Canadians. Leading up to the October Crisis was the Quiet Revolution (1960) in Quebec. It had a profound effect on Quebec and helped to create Provincial funded education, healthcare, and a pension plan. There was also an emergence of minority movements such as gay rights, feminism, environmental awareness, public sector unions, and aboriginal rights. Some Quebec nationalists, however, eschewed the political movement and favoured a radical course of action” (Clement, Dominique pg1).
The Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) terrorist organization emerged. The FLQ attempted to gain Quebec independence from the rest of Canada through violent acts of terrorism. “The conflict between the police and the FLQ, and the radicalism of the 1960s, set the context for the October Crisis” (Clement, Dominique pg 3).
The FLQ’s attacks reached its climax on October 5, 1970 when they kidnapped James Cross a member of the British consulate in Montreal.
One of the largest manhunts in Canadian history was organized, police conducted raids, arrests, and questionings. When the government refused to comply with the FLQ’s demands Pierre Laporte the provincial minister of labour was kidnapped. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau reacted by enacting the War Measures Act which relieved all Canadian citizens of their civil rights. “The next day, Pierre Laporte was found in the trunk of his car, murdered by the FLQ” (Clement, Dominique pg 5).
Many Quebeckers were outraged by the government’s choice and the number of federal troops called into Quebec, while many outside Quebec supported the government’s decision. Around 500 civilians were arrested without warrant that had connections with Quebec nationalism, and anger and bitterness remains with them as they were wrongfully persecuted and oppressed. The crisis lasted around two months. “Cross was released on 3 December and his kidnappers were flown to Cuba, while Laporte’s killers were captured on 27 December and sent to jail” (Clement, Dominique pg 9).
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The October Crisis was Canada’s most heinous acts of terrorism and was critical to the degrading relationships between French and English Canadians. The 20th century is filled with conflicts between both French and English Canadian’s. The three key events that drove them apart were the Manitoba School Question, World War I Conscription, and the October Crisis. The most defining moment in history being the October Crisis. The extent to which was taken by the FLQ as well as the government continues to be remembered by Canadians and remains a sensitive topic for many.
Whether or not this event will be the catalyst for future violence and the separation of Quebec is not known. But Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier understood the sensitive dynamic between French and English Canadian and continued to hope for a better future which is expressed in this quote “Two races share today the soil of Canada…. These people had not always been friends. But I hasten to say it…. There is no longer any family here but the human family. It matters not the language people speak, or the altars at which they kneel” (Laurier, Wilfrid).