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Vancouver 2008

“Plus que jamais nécessaires”: Cultural Relations, Nationalism and the State in the Canada-Québec-France Triangle, 1945–1960 [1]

  • David Meren

Article body

A furor arose in 1946 over what French-Canadian nationalists charged was the corrupting influence on Québec’s education system of two French-sponsored colleges in Montréal. From its editorial pages, Le Devoir urged French Canada to defend itself against what it characterized as a fifth column of foreign secularism and Masonic elements. [2] Just two decades later, however, the newspaper’s reaction to French cultural influence had shifted; it reported approvingly in 1965 on the visit to Paris of Paul Gérin-Lajoie, Québec’s Minister of Education, to sign an agreement with the French government establishing a vast programme of cooperation touching on every aspect of Québec’s education system. [3]

In addition to demonstrating Québec’s broader evolution, not least in terms of attitudes in the province regarding contacts with France, the contrast between these two episodes draws attention to the growing state involvement in cultural affairs in the Canada-Québec-France triangle after World War II. Intersecting nationalist reactions to American cultural power and worries over the socio-economic consequences of “Americanization” led to pressure on both sides of the Atlantic for a greater governmental role in culture, so that cultural relations in the triangle shifted increasingly from the private to the public sphere. More broadly, the acceleration of transnational exchanges and interdependence after 1945 that coincided with preponderant American power and heralding what is now referred to as globalization called into question the fundamental unit of the international system — the state — and the bases of ethnic, religious, and national identity. Governments in Ottawa, Québec City, and Paris were compelled to contend with this challenge of mediating between the local and the global, the particular and the common, the parochial and the cosmopolitan, so that the protection and promotion of a certain conceptualization of national identity took on heightened resonance in their relations with the outside world.

As the twentieth century unfolded and French-Canadian nationalism grappled with the challenges accompanying Québec’s industrialization and urbanization, anxieties grew over the spread of “Anglo-Saxon,” notably American, cultural influence, perceived as a threat to French Canada’s cultural survival. The traditionalist variant of French-Canadian nationalism, with its emphasis on a more conservative brand of Catholicism, ambivalence for liberalism, and hostility to left-wing ideas was increasingly in eclipse after World War II. The shift toward a more Québec-centric “neo-nationalism,” combined with proliferating calls for a more activist Québec state that would safeguard and nurture the province’s majority francophone identity, led to increasing interest in cultural relations with France as a necessary and effective inoculation against American influences. [4] Interest in forging links with postwar France was especially pronounced among the more progressive, reform-minded elements of the rising generation of Québec neo-nationalists, who took the government of Maurice Duplessis and the Church to task for failing to respond effectively to the challenges of modernization. They also decried what they viewed as traditional nationalists’ enabling of this situation. [5]

The evolving Québec nationalist interest in France coincided with Paris’ efforts to cultivate relations to ensure the rayonnement of French culture in the face of American cultural power, including in Canada, and Québec especially. An anti-Americanism that crossed France’s deep political divides was evident well before World War II as the protection and promotion of the fait français in the Hexagon and beyond became a priority for the French political class and intelligentsia. The growth of the French state’s involvement in culture after 1945 was intended to ensure not only that this could serve as a vehicle to compensate for France’s diminished international stature, but to safeguard in the face of preponderant American power a certain conceptualization of France and “Frenchness” that was presented as antonymous to the “American Way of Life.” [6]

To these nationalist concerns in France and Québec about Americanization were added a growing English-Canadian preoccupation with American cultural influence. Already apparent in the interwar period, this nationalist reaction with its roots in the traditional Tory Canadian hostility toward the United States intensified after World War II. English-Canadian nationalist sentiment, exacerbated by multiplying questions about the country’s identity as Canada shifted definitively from the British to the American sphere of influence, pushed Ottawa to increase its activity in the cultural sphere after 1945; beyond a general concern to facilitate Canadian cultural development and promote national unity, this comprised a growing appreciation of Canada’s francophone population as a point of differentiation from the United States that resulted in a trend toward federal efforts to inculcate and project internationally a biculturalism that was perceived as the best available bulwark against Americanization. [7]

Exploring the evolution of cultural relations in the Canada-Québec-France triangle in the 15 years preceding the Quiet Revolution is useful for a number of reasons. First, it brings greater light to bear on a dimension of the triangular relationship that has tended to be neglected in the historiography relative to the geo-political and economic aspect of events, but that is nevertheless intrinsic to understanding the evolving relationship. [8] Indeed, if official Canada-France relations were generally anaemic and even deteriorated in the 15 years after World War II, the cultural dimension of the triangular relationship underwent much more substantive development. [9] Second, given the fact Charles de Gaulle was not in office during these years, it permits a widening of the frame of analysis beyond the “de Gaulle-centric” approach that has marked the historiography, tending to obscure the broader trends at play, and giving rise to the erroneous impression that the triangular tensions erupted almost spontaneously in the 1960s. [10] Expanding the period under examination is also consistent with recent trends in Québec historiography questioning the orthodox narrative of the Quiet Revolution and introducing greater nuance into the decades leading up to this tumultuous period. [11] Pre-1960 Québec was far more complex than it often has been portrayed in accounts of the Canada-Québec-France triangle, not least in terms of attitudes in the province toward France. External influences, not least those of France, presaged the Quiet Revolution and were instrumental in Québec’s development, and thus are critical to understanding the evolving triangular dynamic. [12]

The growing pressure for and examples of government involvement in cultural affairs sowed the seeds for conflict on the Canadian side of the Atlantic, aggravating latent constitutional tensions and the relationship between the country’s two principal linguistic communities. The growth of federal cultural activity in the 1950s provoked jurisdictional conflict between Ottawa and Québec City, as Québec nationalists interpreted the federal government’s cultural initiatives as an encroachment on provincial jurisdiction that constituted a serious threat to Québec’s autonomy and thus French Canada’s survival. The result was nationalist calls from across the political and ideological spectrum for the Duplessis Government to take a more active approach to counter the federal initiatives. This rivalry over cultural affairs, with France implicated increasingly in the inter-governmental dispute, would prove to be a crucial contributing factor to the emergence of the Canada-Québec-France triangular tensions of the 1960s. These were manifested most dramatically by de Gaulle’s visit in 1967 and his cry of “Vive le Québec libre” from the balcony of Montréal’s Hôtel de Ville. As such, these triangular tensions can be understood as the result of a clash of nationalist responses that were shaped by domestic circumstances intersecting with postwar international realities, notably the preponderance of American influence — geo-political, economic, and cultural — and more broadly, the proliferation of transnational exchanges and interdependence that were the antecedents of globalization. All three nationalist reactions shared a preoccupation about Americanization, but this led to conflict as much as it did cooperation.


The late nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of “cultural internationalism,” predicated on a belief that cultural exchanges would create a solid foundation for international peace and prosperity. Private philanthropic organizations, such as the Carnegie Foundation, to name only one example, strove to realize this vision. Although the carnage of World War I stood as a bloody rejoinder to the idealism underpinning cultural internationalism, the enhanced prominence of cultural diplomacy in the wake of the conflict was evident in the establishment of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation as part of the League of Nations. The interwar crises and World War II accelerated states’ appropriation of cultural activities, so that cultural diplomacy took on even greater importance, as the founding in 1945 of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) underscored. [13]

France was a pioneer of cultural diplomacy, employing it to maximize its international influence. The quasi-private efforts in the years following the Franco-Prussian War, such as Alliance Française and the Comité Amérique-France, presaged the gradual incorporation of culture into French foreign policy in the interwar period. [14] Paris attached even greater importance to cultural diplomacy after 1945 as a means to compensate for its diminished geo-political stature and to raise a French voice in a world dominated by superpowers. This strategy was reflected in the establishment of a distinct cultural relations division in the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères (MAE). Whereas France signed 11 “intellectual cooperation” agreements in the interwar period, it concluded 75 cultural relations agreements between 1945 and 1960, a number only slightly second to that of the United States. [15]

The increased stature of culture in French foreign policy was reflected in Paris’ innovation of appointing “cultural counsellors” to 14 of its diplomatic posts, including its Ottawa embassy. Not surprisingly, French Canada was accorded a high priority, with the ambassador, Jean de Hauteclocque, asserting that the survival in the Americas of a hardy, prolific, faithful, and influential “élément français” was an extremely useful advantage for France. At the Quai d’Orsay, the view was that Québec and France should cooperate for the rayonnement of French culture in North America by virtue of their common language, as well as shared religious and intellectual traditions. [16]

French efforts were by no means limited to Québec. The MAE acknowledged the value of targeting francophones outside Québec, notably the Acadian community, and English Canada was considered especially promising since it did not harbour the complex and often ambivalent feelings for France present among Québec francophones. [17] France’s ambassador, Hubert Guérin, welcomed the release in 1951 of the Massey Report on Canada’s cultural life as an opportunity for Paris to adapt its efforts to Canadian objectives and enhance links that would prove useful when Canada emerged as one of the great Western powers. [18] His reaction reflected Paris’ desire for a Canadian interlocutor with which it could realize expanded cultural exchanges, and a readiness to engage with Ottawa in this regard. [19]

However, French cultural action faced a number of official obstacles across the Atlantic. Whereas Paris was a leader in cultural diplomacy, Ottawa was much slower to act. Part of the explanation for the lag was constitutional: pursuing a Canadian cultural diplomacy was complicated by the fact that many aspects of cultural affairs fell under exclusively provincial or shared jurisdiction. This constitutional conundrum became especially problematic after a Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruling in 1937 effectively restricted Ottawa’s treaty-implementing power to those matters under exclusive federal jurisdiction. [20]

Added to these constitutional considerations was an institutional impediment. In the case of Canada-France relations at least, this arose partly from a federal awareness of the ambivalence for modern France in traditional French-Canadian nationalist circles. The more immediate reason, however, was that cultural diplomacy was generally under-appreciated in an Ottawa that had only recently developed the bureaucratic machinery for foreign affairs. The dynamic was reflected in the marked lack of enthusiasm in the Department of External Affairs (DEA) in 1944 when Jean Désy, Ottawa’s ambassador to Brazil and a foremost advocate of cultural diplomacy throughout his career, negotiated Canada’s first-ever cultural relations agreement without prior authorization. The treaty was ratified due only to the advanced state of the talks and a fear that backing out would offend Rio de Janeiro. When the DEA’s Information Division was established that same year, it was given no mandate to promote cultural relations. [21] This institutional bias was also evident in the federal response to claims Paul Gouin, Québec’s Minister of Trade and Commerce, made about the province’s duty to promote cultural and commercial relations with Latin America. Lester Pearson, then Minister-Counsellor at Canada’s Washington legation, conceded that Gouin’s remarks revealed a sense in Québec that Canada’s foreign policy did not reflect French Canada’s cultural affinities with Latin America, but he nevertheless maintained that it was premature to set up a cultural relations division in the DEA. The departmental Under-Secretary, Norman Robertson, was even doubtful about Pearson’s suggestion that as an alternative an official could be tasked to coordinate cultural activities with the United States, United Kingdom, and Latin America. Robertson claimed it would be difficult to convince Parliament of the value of cultural diplomacy. [22]

Although Ottawa added a cultural and press attaché to its Paris embassy after the war, this innovation had more to do with questions of reciprocity given the equivalent French appointment than it did with any significant policy shift. [23] Indeed, in 1946 Paul Beaulieu, Second Secretary at the Canadian Embassy, voiced frustration that he had neither the time nor resources to develop cultural exchanges with France, in spite of the DEA having told him that cultural relations would be his main task. Beaulieu decried the paucity of Ottawa’s effort and urged that additional personnel be posted to Paris to pursue a more effective cultural diplomacy. He warned that Canada’s unprecedented popularity in France as a result of the war was fleeting and would be difficult to regain. [24]

Matters improved somewhat over the course of the 1950s. Ottawa employed the monies that France owed it for Canadian wartime material assistance to establish in 1952 the Canadian Government Overseas Awards. These facilitated year-long sojourns in France for approximately 30 Canadian students and artists annually. [25] René Garneau, the embassy’s First Secretary, who had responsibility for cultural and press affairs, was active in and enjoyed considerable prestige among Paris intellectual circles. [26] If cultural diplomacy remained a secondary consideration in the Massey Report, it nonetheless referred to “the promotion abroad of a knowledge of Canada” as “not a luxury but an obligation.” [27] When Ottawa subsequently acted on the Report’s recommendation to establish the Canada Council for the Arts, Letters, Humanities, and Social Sciences, the federal government equipped itself with a means to pursue cultural diplomacy indirectly: beyond the organization’s domestic mandate, it was also tasked with promoting Canadian culture abroad. In addition to funding Canadian students in France, the Canada Council awarded fellowships for French students and academics to study in Canada, and established a programme for Canadian universities to host foreign professors. [28]

The overall reality, however, was that cultural diplomacy was still accorded little official priority in Ottawa. The six years that elapsed between the Massey Report and the establishment of the Canada Council and the fact that its initial endowment came from private sources underscored the institutional reticence that continued to exist regarding state involvement in cultural affairs. The relative indifference in the DEA to cultural diplomacy was reflected in the fact that Jean Désy, by the mid-1950s Canada’s ambassador to France, appears to have acted largely on his own initiative in expanding cultural links between France and French Canada, and had to do so with limited budgetary resources. [29] The embassy complained to the DEA about the funds it was allocated for forging cultural links, emphasizing the political significance of culture in “this country which was once very rightly described as ‘La République des Professeurs’.” [30] By the early 1960s, 39 percent or $71,000,000 of France’s foreign affairs budget was directed to cultural and technical cooperation, whereas the cultural element of the DEA budget was a meagre $8,000, the majority of this in the form of book presentations. [31]

In addition to the general lack of interest in cultural relations encountered in federal circles, Paris also had to contend with an official ambivalence in Québec City toward state involvement in cultural affairs, not least when it came to exchanges with France. Examples of the Duplessis government’s efforts to develop cultural links with France were conspicuous by their rarity. They included a contribution to the postwar reconstruction of the university in Caen. [32] Although after a wartime suspension Québec City resumed its annual $5,000 subsidy to the Maison des étudiants canadiens, a student residence at Paris’ Cité universitaire, this support occurred more out of a sense of tradition than any real interest in forging educational links. [33]

More typical was the failure of the Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des sciences to convince Québec City to establish bursaries to enable French students to pursue their doctoral studies in Quebec. Similarly, the Institut scientifique Franco-Canadien’s (ISFC) lobbying for an increased subsidy fell on deaf ears, so that this remained at pre-war levels. [34] Although after a wartime interruption the Duplessis government resumed a programme established in the 1920s to grant bursaries to students interested in studying in Europe, minimal sums were allocated so that the programme stagnated. Further complicating matters was the intense politicization of the system by which bursaries were allocated, the principal criteria being friendliness to the Duplessis government and “ideological suitability.” [35] A consequence of this bias was that a decreasing proportion of the bursaries awarded were for studies in France. [36]

Notwithstanding this set of official obstacles, cultural exchanges between Canada and France did in fact grow after World War II, a trend consistent with the larger global phenomenon of increasing transnational exchanges. The proliferation — and evolution — of the cultural exchanges also reflected Québec’s socio-cultural transformation, which becomes apparent when cultural contacts in the private and semi-public spheres are examined. [37]

Cultural contacts between France and French Canada had never been completely severed after the Conquest and reflected a spectrum of political and ideological positions. Québec’s traditionalist nationalist élites tended to distinguish between France éternelle and France moderne, favouring the former, pre-1789 incarnation as an ally in maintaining French Canada’s linguistic and religious heritage. Conversely, they condemned France moderne as a Trojan horse for liberal and secular influences that ultimately would undermine and destroy French-Canadian civilization. [38] After 1945, however, such traditionalist links were increasingly overshadowed by more progressive, liberal contacts between France moderne and French Canada. [39] French Catholic personalist thought, for example, with its concern to establish social and political institutions to permit individuals to realize their spiritual and material potential, inspired both the neo-nationalist and rival citélibriste challenges to the Duplessis government, and to the traditionalist variant of French-Canadian nationalism that both condemned as dépassé in its efforts to respond to the challenges accompanying Québec’s modernization. [40] Indeed, personalism may be described as having served as a crucial bridge between two generations and variants of Québec nationalism, and as a key part of the intellectual foundation of the Québec that emerged from the Quiet Revolution. [41]

Notwithstanding the postwar controversy over the French-sponsored colleges in Montréal, by the late 1940s, Paris’ representatives in Canada were remarking on the large number of French professors the francophone universities were requesting, the numerous applicants for scholarships to study in France, and the fact that it was in Canada (and Québec especially) that French speakers touring North America drew the largest audiences. [42] In 1953, France’s embassy boasted that the French contribution to Canadian university life had never been so significant. In addition to academic exchanges, French professors occupied permanent posts at Laval, Université de Montréal, McGill, Dalhousie, Queen’s, and the University of Toronto. [43]

Exchanges proliferated across the artistic spectrum. These, it should be added, were not without controversy since Québec’s cultural épanouissement was accompanied by a shift in how francophone Québec perceived its cultural relationship to France. There was a growing chorus in Québec for French Canada’s unique contribution to francophone culture to be acknowledged, and for Québec to be recognized as an equal and independent cultural producer, in partnership with France and the broader international francophone community. [44] The fact that such frictions existed at all, however, underscores the growth and evolution of cultural relations after 1945.

An array of associations — private and semi-public — were established to promote transatlantic links between France and Canada, especially with French Canada. In addition to the long-established Alliance française, which saw the number of its branches in Canada grow after the war, was the Union Culturelle Française (UCF), which originated in Québec in 1954 to promote the international defence of the French language and culture and sought to involve all groups and territories in which French was the principal or secondary language. The UCF, spearheaded by neo-nationalist personality Jean-Marc Léger, was born out of growing concern about the international status of the French language and culture in the face of American cultural influence, coupled with a belief that these could be used to connect populations. [45]

The growth of tourism facilitated cultural contacts. In 1963, 100,000 Canadians visited France, representing an annual growth rate since 1950 of 12 percent, with half this number from Québec, often French Canadians tracing their ancestral roots. [46] Even more significant, however, was the expansion of the mass media; indépendantiste André d’Allemagne claimed that for all of its “refrancisation” campaigns, the Société Saint-Jean Baptiste’s efforts paled in comparison to the impact of the postwar influx of French-language detective novels, films, and magazines. [47]

A result of the increasing cultural contacts was the emergence in Québec of an expanding community interested in establishing a more substantive cultural cooperation with France. Paradoxically, the global trend toward increased transnational flows that was producing this outcome carried with it a more defensive impetus that reinforced the drive to develop links. The growth of transnational influences provoked worries that these threatened national cultures and identities, and fed a determination to preserve cultural specificity in a period of profound change. Since the United States constituted the foremost cultural power by virtue of its enhanced geo-political and economic strength, its role as the centre of the mass media-driven popular culture, and Washington’s own cultural diplomacy, it was the object of particular nationalist anxiety as reactions against Americanization that were already apparent in the interwar period intensified after 1945. [48] For the sake of the present discussion, Americanization may be understood as the advent of a consumer society in the image of the United States, entailing the influx of American cultural products from jazz to rock music and Hollywood films. The phenomenon was especially pronounced among the younger generations and the popular classes, making the corollary of Americanization — anti-Americanism — the purview predominantly of socio-economic and cultural élites. The nationalist reactions on both sides of the Atlantic were thus partly a response to what today is referred to as globalization, what international relations scholar Peter J. Taylor has described as the “final expression” of the “American century,” and a barometer of the United States’ hegemonic cycle, the cultural attributes of which were inseparable from its geo-political and economic components. [49]

Such nationalist preoccupations were on display at the time of the centenary of the 1855 visit to British North America of the French ship, La Capricieuse, commemorating what is remembered as the resumption of official contact between France and its former colony. [50] During the celebrations Québec’s Solicitor-General, Antoine Rivard, compared Québec’s cultural survival to that of the French Resistance in World War II. He went on to warn that French culture in Québec was at risk due to French Canadians’ “promiscuité” with the United States. Rivard argued that contacts with France were, consequently, “plus que jamais nécessaires” to ensuring the survival of French Canada as a population that maintained French cultural traditions. The French diplomat attending the event found Rivard’s remarks particularly significant as they represented a rare public affirmation by a senior member of the Duplessis government, known in French official circles for its antipathy for France moderne, of the need to maintain relations with France as a means to counter American influence. [51]

The French diplomat’s surprise over Rivard’s remarks underscores their exceptional nature and, more broadly, the Duplessis government’s preference for passivity. Calls came from across the nationalist spectrum for Québec City to abandon its laisser-faire approach and become more active in cultural affairs to ensure French Canada’s cultural survival. [52] The report of the Tremblay Commission, described as the most succinct response of traditionalist French-Canadian nationalism to Québec’s post-war socio-economic challenges in its analysis of the province’s position in Confederation, called upon the Duplessis government that had appointed it to take a more activist approach in cultural affairs. [53] Léopold Richer, editor of the journal Notre Temps, called in 1953 for a government agency that would promote the use of French in Québec, anticipating the Office de la langue française established eight years later, as did the urgings of Paul Gouin, the former Québec Liberal cabinet minister, for the Duplessis government to set up an Office de linguistique et de refrancisation. In a similar vein, the “Ministère de l’Information” that the journal Tradition et Progrès proposed in 1959 found its echo in the Lesage government’s Ministère des Affaires culturelles[54]

Surveying the growth of nationalist apprehensions about Québec’s Americanization, Gérard Bouchard and Yvan Lamonde have noted how the war years and the post-1945 period saw a widening of a cleavage that had existed since the late eighteenth century between a bourgeois nationalist élite more culturally-oriented toward France, and the popular classes, oriented toward the United States. The preoccupation with the threat of Americanization transcended divisions within the nationalist ranks, so that Abbé Lionel Groulx’s claim in 1941 that one day history would recognize the accomplishment of French Canada’s resisting “le continentalisme américain,” found its echo a decade later in André Laurendeau’s warning of the “danger mortel” of the United States’ “influence uniformisante,” and in the leftist radicalism of Parti pris in the 1960s. [55]

Where differences among Québec nationalists arose was the question of which incarnation of France might assist the preservation of French Canada’s cultural specificity in the face of Americanization. Traditionalists such as Groulx evinced a deep suspicion of France moderne, seeing in its secular liberalism a threat as great as that of English Canada and the United States. Québec neo-nationalists, however, encouraged by ideological affinities and the postwar proliferation of cultural links, were more open to France moderne, seeing in it a useful and necessary ally as Québec adapted to its increasingly urbanized, industrialized reality and contended with transnational influences. The francophone urban proletariat was to be protected from Americanization and assimilation into the North American anglophone majority by a greater communion between Québec moderne and its French counterpart. Even before the war, neo-nationalist historian Guy Frégault, who would serve as the first deputy minister of Québec’s fledgling Ministère des Affaires culturelles, expressed a desire to see restored to French-Canadians “‘le sentiment de contact intime, de vibration fraternelle avec le reste de la nation française,” and condemned traditional nationalists for failing to recognize the necessity of cooperation between Québec and France. [56] In this sense, the neo-nationalist embrace of France moderne mirrored that of the traditional nationalist turn to France éternelle: both entailed a nationalist élite pursuing its self-appointed mission of preserving the integrity of Québec’s francophone culture. [57]

France’s ambassador, Francis Lacoste, suggested that the Congrès de la Refrancisation in 1957, convened by the Conseil de la Vie française to discuss the status of French in North America and, more specifically, increase its stature in Québec, was a barometer of the evolution of Québec attitudes toward France, given that at the height of the traditional nationalist order, French Canadians frequently affirmed that the quality of French spoken in Québec was purer than its Parisian equivalent. Lacoste suggested that for Québec’s intelligentsia at least, concern to preserve the French language was inspiring calls for a greater cultural rapprochement. [58] Similarly indicative of the mounting nationalist pressure on the Duplessis government to develop cultural exchanges with France were the calls for a Québec office in Paris. Amid a public debate over low levels of francophone immigration to Canada in the early 1950s, Le Devoir and the Fédération des Sociétés Saint-Jean Baptiste du Québec urged the establishment of a Paris office to inter alia encourage francophone immigration to Québec. [59] Paul Gouin prevailed on Québec City to take responsibility for promoting French-Canadian culture overseas by appointing an agent to the French capital, arguing that although Ottawa had appointed a French-Canadian cultural attaché to its embassy and planned to do the same in Brussels, these individuals were, by virtue of their appointment, “fédéralistes” who represented an attack on Québec’s autonomy. [60] There were also repeated calls in the Québec legislature, not least from the Francophile leader of the opposition, Georges-Émile Lapalme, who argued for increased cultural links with France as a means to strengthen Québec’s majority francophone culture. [61]

The growth of Québec nationalist sentiment favouring a more activist Québec state that would forge a stronger cooperation with France as part of its broader cultural vocation to protect and promote North America’s fait français set the stage for a conflict between Ottawa and Québec City that, ultimately, would involve Paris. This arose from the fact that Canadian nationalist worries over Americanization were pushing Ottawa to adopt a more activist position in the cultural sphere. Although “high culture” flowered in Canada after 1945, American popular culture gained a “veritable stranglehold,” as new technologies, a weakening British cultural presence, and the English-Canadian cultural élite’s dismissal of popular culture meant Canadians were exposed to (and embraced) American cultural influences as never before. This fuelled English-Canadian nationalist apprehension about the survival of a Canadian identity distinct from that of the United States. [62]

Such nationalist concern, visible in the first half of the twentieth century in response to the influx of American periodicals, radio, and film, had prompted Ottawa to establish the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. [63] After the war, the Massey Report reflected this nationalism and a cultural anti-Americanism in warning of “the onset of a purely ‘materialistic society,’ the rise of ‘mass’ man, and the decline of the West into a debased state of passivity and conformity.” [64] Paul Rutherford has described the idealized vision that continued to exist among the English-Canadian intelligentsia of the British cultural metropole, which was held up as the means to combat American popular culture, as evidenced by the British ties to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Stratford Festival, and the fact that the Massey Commission (with its eponymous anglophile co-chair) was inspired by the example of the British Arts Council in recommending that Ottawa establish the Canada Council. Mirroring the dynamic evident among the various nationalist communities in Québec, there was a convergence of nationalist opinion in English Canada regarding the American challenge. Aspects of the conservative nationalism oriented towards Britain that figures such as George Grant espoused served as a crucial part of the foundation for the left-nationalism that emerged in the 1950s and beyond and which decried American “cultural imperialism.” [65]

Just as the more traditional variant of French-Canadian nationalism was increasingly overshadowed by its more progressive rivals, so too was its English-Canadian counterpart. Inspired not least by the growth of American cultural influence, there was after World War II an increasing English-Canadian appreciation of French Canada as a point of differentiation for Canada’s identity and a shield against Americanization. The Toronto Daily Star referred in 1951 to an emerging distinct Canadian way of life that drew on characteristics of “our two great races, the English and French.” [66] Similarly, Vincent Massey considered Canada’s bicultural dimension a source of strength distinguishing the country from the United States. [67] The result was an enhanced prominence in English-Canadian nationalist thinking of the view that an activist federal government was necessary to promote Canada’s two founding cultures, since a dynamic biculturalism offered the best defence against American influences, the greatest prospect for a distinctly Canadian cultural life, and more generally a vehicle for the promotion of national unity.

Some in Québec, such as Father Georges-Henri Lévesque, the de facto co-chair of the Massey Commission and the Dean of Université Laval’s Faculty of Social Sciences, advocated this position, arguing that Québec and French Canada were not synonymous, so that Ottawa had an obligation to foster Canada’s bicultural reality. [68] But this view of the federal government’s role in Canada’s cultural life remained hotly contested in Québec. The increase in Ottawa’s cultural action in response to the Massey Report and the growth of English-Canadian nationalist sentiment, such as its decision to provide funding to Canadian universities, provoked a strong resistance, with Québec nationalists viewing it as a dangerous encroachment on provincial jurisdiction. The conflict arose from the nebulous treatment accorded culture under the British North America Act. The responsibility for culture as such was not assigned to any one level of government, although the provinces were given exclusive jurisdiction over education. The outcome of the Radio Reference (1932) established a federal competence in communications and, after the war, Ottawa acted on the Massey Report’s recommendation that it use the constitution’s residual powers clause (assigned to the federal government) to justify further cultural action. Québec nationalists of all stripes considered federal cultural activities and the justification offered for them to be illegitimate, regardless of whether they took place in Canada or abroad. This view was founded on their belief that the spirit, if not the very text of Canada’s constitution, made culture an exclusive provincial jurisdiction. As Michael Behiels has observed, the crux of the issue was a dispute over which level of government could best ensure the survival and well-being of French and English Canada in the face of the American challenge. [69]

Québec nationalists rejected Georges-Henri Lévesque’s position in favour of federal cultural activism on behalf of biculturalism as naïve; although quite ready to acknowledge that Americanization presented a serious challenge to French Canada’s cultural specificity, nationalists of all stripes argued that it by no means justified ceding any Québec autonomy. To the contrary, notwithstanding a growing English-Canadian appreciation for Canada’s fait français, it was unthinkable for nationalists that Québec should turn over even the smallest measure of its cultural development to federal institutions controlled by the anglophone majority; French Canadians had no choice but to confide the maintenance, defence, and expansion of their culture to their national government located in Québec City, not Ottawa. Canada’s two nationalist reactions to Americanization, and the two levels of government under pressure to take a more activist approach to combat this phenomenon, were on a collision course. [70]

Accordingly, nationalist calls for the Duplessis government to take a more activist role in cultural affairs were inspired to a significant extent out of a concern to assert Québec’s autonomy in the face of federal initiatives and thereby safeguard the province’s majority francophone identity. Consistent with its origins as the Duplessis government’s rejoinder to the centralizing tendencies of the federally-appointed Rowell-Sirois and Massey Commissions, the report of the Tremblay Commission, mandated to produce Québec’s position on the appropriate division of fiscal resources and constitutional powers in Canada, urged Québec City to act in the cultural sphere in order to combat federal encroachments. [71] Paul Gouin warned the Duplessis government that Ottawa was going to award monies to Québec cultural and artistic societies, making it essential to establish a Québec Cultural Council that could respond to the federal intervention. [72]

These competing Québec and Canadian nationalist responses, and the increasingly rancorous intergovernmental rivalry they fuelled, possessed serious implications as they intersected with the French nationalist response to Americanization. French concerns about the rising American power had been evident in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and transcended the country’s political and ideological cleavages; Philippe Roger has described anti-Americanism as a rare unifying force in French political and intellectual life. The weakened position in which France found itself during the interwar period relative to the rising United States exacerbated the situation so that French cultural nationalism shifted from a sense of superiority to take on an increasingly defensive hue. [73]

This French antipathy for American cultural influences grew after 1945 in the face of preponderant American power, so that the interest in cultivating cultural relations emanating from the Canadian side of the Atlantic met with a sympathetic response. Paris was, as observed above, expanding its cultural diplomacy as a means to preserve what was perceived as France’s role as a cultural leader and model and, through its rayonnement, to compensate for the country’s weakened geo-political and economic position relative to the United States. Beyond this, however, was a broader cultural anti-Americanism among the French intelligentsia, political class, and even public opinion. [74] As the 1950s progressed and the reality of France’s Americanization was increasingly apparent, a debate about the socio-cultural impact suffused the country’s intellectual and political life. Across the political spectrum, the question was whether France’s national identity could survive Americanization. Works such as Cyrille Arnavon’s Américanisme et nous warned against the colonizing aspects of American culture, and even an avowed Atlanticist and champion of modernization such as Raymond Aron expressed strong misgivings about France’s ability to maintain its cultural specificity. [75] With the French Right in eclipse as a result of the war, it was the Left that became heir to the anti-American tradition, recalling the dynamic present among the nationalist communities in Canada. What was at stake was “Frenchness,” an idealized France that stood in stark contrast and radical opposition to the “American Way of Life.” Even those aspects of American culture embraced enthusiastically in France, such as jazz, “rock n’ roll,” westerns, even Jerry Lewis, were manifestations of a concern about Americanization as they appeared at the time, dissident or subversive within American culture — that is, un-American. [76]

Paris’ disquiet about American cultural influence in Canada and its interest in the opportunities this presented for the development of Canada-France relations were evident shortly after the war, and were by no means restricted to French Canada. The embassy reported on growing English-Canadian interest in Western Europe as a response to the challenge of Americanization. [77] France’s diplomats similarly remarked that with the traditional nationalist antipathy toward France increasingly in eclipse, there was emerging a shared desire among the élites of both of Canada’s linguistic communities for stronger cooperation with France, reinforced by a mutual concern to defend against American cultural influence. [78] The embassy warned, however, of a growing disconnect between Canada’s intellectual élite, francophone and anglophone, and a general population affected profoundly by American culture. [79]

French officials evinced specific concern about Québec’s Americanization. The MAE, which had deemed it essential for cultural and economic reasons that French films regain and develop the market position they had lost to the United States’ film industry during the war, was concerned at the end of the 1940s as Québec audiences continued to prefer American films. Similarly troubling for French representatives in Canada was the influence of the United States’ intellectual life in the Québec university community, the prolific flow of American books into the province, and the fact that an increasing number of Québec students were opting for studies south of the border. [80] France’s embassy feared that in many respects, the general French-Canadian population was even more susceptible to American influences than its anglophone counterpart given that the former did not possess the British and Irish connections through which American cultural influence was refracted in English Canada. [81]

By the mid-1950s, the French embassy’s cultural service could remark on French Canada’s “rapide évolution de la mentalité,” as earlier debates in Québec over the desirability of intellectual ties with France that marked traditionalist nationalist ambivalence for France moderne had been overtaken by an almost total acceptance of French intellectual life and of cultural contacts as an invaluable source of support for French Canada. Paris was told that the foremost debate in Quebec cultural life arose from the efforts among French Canada’s élites to reconcile traditional and modern Québec, with the intellectual élite displaying a marked preference for French culture over Americanization. French diplomats emphasized, however, that this growing avant-garde, wishing to purify French-Canadian culture through more intense contact with France was increasingly alienated from the wider population that accepted its Americanization. [82]


In 1959, an official of Canada’s embassy in Lima encountered France’s new Minister of Culture, the famed intellectual André Malraux, at a dinner held in his honour in the Peruvian capital. Malraux spoke to the official of France’s deep interest in Canada and desire to expand cultural relations; the Canadian came away from the conversation with the impression that France was undertaking a “vast cultural offensive” of which Canada would be a significant part. [83] The following year, during his 1960 visit to Canada, de Gaulle praised French-Canadian survival and success as a cultural entity. The General, reflecting the French cultural nationalist preoccupations about American cultural power that had been growing in the aftermath of World War II, emphasized in Montréal the significance he attached to French Canada’s will to survive:

[c]e que vous êtes est très important, pour le Canada bien entendu, pour la France aussi … et j’ajoute, pour le Monde, car il est essentiel, vous le sentez tous, qu’il y eût, sur cet immense continent Américain, une entité Française vivante. Une pensée Française, qui dure, qui est indispensable pour que tout ne se confonde pas dans une sorte d’uniformité .… [La France] a besoin de sentir et de savoir que son rayonnement s’étend, qu’elle trouve des échos, des appuis partout et qu’elle en trouve principalement chez ceux qui viennent d’elle-même. [84] (emphasis added)

These senior French personalities’ remarks were consistent with Paris’ abiding and growing interest in Canada, especially French Canada and its survival as a cultural entity. This interest was symptomatic of a broader French concern about American cultural strength; if increased transnational exchanges had led to increased cultural contacts, they had also fuelled nationalist concern about the implications for the rayonnement of French culture at home and abroad. Two years before de Gaulle had even returned to power in 1958, the MAE had been reorganized to give greater prominence and resources to France’s cultural diplomatic efforts. By the late 1950s, Paris found itself faced with two interested (and increasingly competing) interlocutors, one in Ottawa and the other in Québec City. While this certainly held out the prospect of expanded cultural relations, French diplomacy had to determine how it was to conduct its cultural activity in Canada. The nationalist sentiment surrounding cultural affairs and encouraging more substantive intergovernmental relations meant that such exchanges, and the manner by which they were to be conducted, were poised to became a source of dispute, and ultimately, of triangular tensions as the Quiet Revolution unfolded. Indeed, de Gaulle came away from his 1960 visit determined to expand cultural relations with French Canada. [85] Indicative of the presidential interest and anticipating the subsequent triangular tensions, the MAE accordingly reorganized France’s cultural representation in Canada in a manner weighted more heavily toward Québec. [86]

French nationalists were by no means alone in their preoccupations about Uncle Sam. Concern about Americanization was a transatlantic phenomenon as nationalist preoccupations among both Canada’s francophone and anglophone populations about American cultural influence encouraged interest in cultivating links with France. This was especially the case among Québec neo-nationalists, more inclined to see such links as essential to Québec maintaining its majority francophone identity amid its socio-cultural transformation.

A consequence of these three growing — and interacting — nationalist reactions was an increasing governmental involvement in cultural affairs. Malraux’s appointment as France’s first Minister of Culture reflected the trend, as did the centrality of culture in French diplomacy after World War II. Even in Canada, where constitutional and institutional obstacles meant the trend was somewhat delayed, there was growing pressure on governments to act in the cultural sphere. Notwithstanding the discourse of the “two solitudes” of the period, elements in English and French Canada both harboured nationalist concerns about Americanization, and a desire to see the state take steps to counteract American cultural influence.

If Canada’s parallel nationalist anxieties could find some common ground regarding the challenge that American cultural power posed, they quickly parted company when it came to solutions over exactly which state they wanted to see act. Individuals such as Georges-Henri Lévesque, who called for a federal activism in Canadian cultural life, were a small, embattled minority in a Québec in which neo-nationalism was in the ascendant. Ottawa’s increasing cultural activity in the postwar period had proved not only a source of conflict with the Duplessis government; it had fuelled nationalist calls for Québec City to pursue a more activist policy to safeguard Québec’s autonomy in cultural affairs and, by implication, French Canada’s survival.

The efforts to equip the Québec government as French Canada’s “national” state, to protect and promote North America’s fait français in an increasingly interdependent world, would find an enthusiastic partner in Paris in the 1960s. Gaullist France was preoccupied with contesting American power on all fronts, not least in the cultural domain, and, consistent with this, was concerned that Québec should maintain its majority francophone cultural identity as it modernized. When such concerns combined with a growing French belief that Québec was evolving toward a new political status, the result would be a series of cultural relations agreements between Paris and Québec City that were of expanding scope and an increasingly official nature. Determined to safeguard its prerogative over the conduct of foreign affairs and to assert its role in cultural diplomacy, Ottawa would strive to ensure that France-Québec cultural cooperation was carried out in a manner respecting federal authority. The rivalry between Ottawa and Québec City in cultural affairs — and between English-Canadian nationalism and Québec nationalism — already apparent in the 1950s would thus be internationalized as Paris was increasingly drawn into (and joined) the fray, and Gaullist nationalism and Québec neo-nationalism cooperated to realize their respective agendas. Cultural relations would become a driving force of the triangular tensions that were a crucial precursor to de Gaulle’s 1967 visit, during which he called for transatlantic francophone solidarity in the face of American cultural power, thereby setting off a new nationalist furor over French influence in Canada.

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