Thus nationalism was born, the child of liberal
democracy and the mystique of equality. Alas,
this nationalism, by a singular paradox, was soon
to depart from the ideas that presided at its birth.
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––Pierre Elliot Trudeau
The interwar years (1918-1939) were marked by a worldwide disillusionment with democracy, facilitated by the spread of fascism and the Great Depression. Depression-era Canada was no exception. As the Canadian population was struggling to make ends meet, this rhetoric appealed to many. Hitler’s fascism attracted many followers with its strongest weapons: anti-Semitism and nationalism. However, the economic crisis would bring a new kind of anti-Semitism, fueled by nationalism and Christianism. Among the anti-Semites and right-wing nationalists in French Canada in the 1930s, the National Social Christian Party (NSCP) was founded. Its founder, Adrien Arcand, would be known as the “Canadian Führer.” Considering the role of nationalism in Canada, this article argues that Adrien Arcand and his Nazi-style party matters in Canadian history because it represents a forgotten facet of Canadian nationalism. It is a hidden narrative, characterized by the instrumentalization of religion and anti-Semitism for political purposes, in the name of nationalism. Even though fascist movements emerged across all of Canada, this article will focus primarily on Quebec, from the Great Depression to the Second World War (1939-1945).
Quebec’s extreme-right nationalists in the 1930s
To better understand the emergence of Adrien Arcand’s fascist political party, a survey of key events, actors, and ideologies surrounding its creation is necessary. As previously mentioned, European influence, anti-Semitism, Christianism, and the Great Depression all played an important role in the expansion of extremist right-wing nationalism in Quebec. There were two main groups among the nationalists of the extreme right in the 1930s: the separatist group of Abbé Lionel Groulx, and the federalist group of Adrien Arcand.
Groulx was an historian and a teacher at the University of Montreal. Pro-separatist, Catholic, racist, and anti-democracy, he was very influential among his fellow ultranationalists. Groulx was the mentor of the radical nationalist group Les Jeune Canada (“The Young Canadians”). Also linked to his circle was the magazine L’Action Nationale and intellectual newspaper Le Devoir, which published anti-Semitic articles.
Adrien Arcand was a professional journalist. In 1929, he and his friend Joseph Ménard started Le Goglu, a satirical review. Later on, they added Le Miroir and Le Chameau. The three weekly newspapers served as a platform for hate propaganda. When the economic crisis started to strongly affect Quebec, they announced the creation of a “proto-fascist” movement called the Ordre Patriotique des Goglus. The Order held mass meetings promoting racism and proudly wore blue shirts with swastika logos.
The Jewish School Commission Act in 1930 was a turning point for Arcand, because it was when he began his massive anti-Semitic campaign. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Arcand and Ménard announced that the Ordre Patriotique des Goglus would be transformed into an official fascist political party: Le Parti National Social Chrétien. By that time, according to scholar Lita-Rose Betcherman, Arcand was “unquestionably in touch with the Nazis in Germany.” Thus, in Quebec, the stage was set for Arcand’s new political party to blossom.
Adrien Arcand on the political stage
Arcand officially founded his National Social Christian Party (NSCP) in 1934. In her book The Swastika and the Maple Leaf, Betcherman describes the party’s emblem as “a swastika wreathed in maple leaves and surmounted by a beaver”, which “graphically suggested that Nazism could become Canadianized.” In the name of Christian values, Arcand’s Nazi-style party had named its enemies: “liberalism, communism, socialism, bolshevism – and behind all these, the Jew.” At the Monument National in February 1934, the party held its first meeting, with the hall full of swastika flags. Arcand delivered a long speech, presenting the party’s principles as well as its program: when the new party would come to power, it would establish a corporate state, and alleviate the economic problems of the Depression. The “unassimilable and anti-Christian Jews” would lose all of their civil rights, to make place for the true citizens of Canada, the “deux races mères [the two mother races].” Hundreds of people showed up to listen to Adrien Arcand, who was proudly wearing his Hitler moustache; meanwhile, party members in blue shirts added to the paramilitary atmosphere.
When Maurice Duplessis became premier of Quebec in 1936, he showed tolerance towards Arcand. The Duplessis government and the Church would soon be too preoccupied with the Red Scare and the Padlock Act (1937) to try to counter fascism in the province. Meanwhile, the Nazi propaganda could circulate freely. By 1937, as the NSCP was gaining members, Arcand was invited to a rally in the New York Hippodrome with other fascist leaders from around North America. When he returned home he declared proudly that this event had “marked the official beginning of fascism in America.”
In the summer of 1937, Arcand moved to Toronto, where he was received warmly. He was introduced in The Globe and Mail, which gave him positive publicity across Canada. He seized the opportunity to announce that his party would merge with other Anglo-Canadian fascist groups and run for office in the next federal election. Unfortunately for him, the 1938 annexation of Austria happened before he could execute his plan. Canadians realized that Hitler was an international menace. Back in Quebec, with the papacy denouncing Hitler, the clergy adopted an anti-Nazi stance, making Arcand lose much of his Catholic support. He tried to save his party by removing the swastika, assigning it a new name, and camouflaging their discourse. Still, Arcand was rapidly discarded as a “national figure” and retreated to Quebec.
However, Arcand could still take advantage of isolationist sentiment, since French Canada was strongly against participating in the war effort. In addition, the fact that the population did not want to accept the Jewish refugees fleeing Europe helped him retain some followers. However, when Canada joined the Allies in the Second World War in 1939, anti-Nazi sentiment was increasing and Arcand’s group started to be regarded with suspicion. His party was banned and he was ordered to cease his activities, an order that he only obeyed partially. Arcand and other fascists would eventually be arrested and accused of being “Nazi sympathizers” and a “national threat.” He remained imprisoned until the end of the war, in July 1945. Until his death in 1967, Arcand would continue to perpetuate his anti-Semitic discourse while denying that the Holocaust had ever happened.
A hidden narrative that matters
To a major extent, this moment is unknown in the grand narrative of Canadian history. How can we understand the history of Canada and the way it shaped our country if we don’t learn the whole story? When we learn about fascism and Nazism in Europe, we should acknowledge that it happened here too and was not only a European matter, even if it did not have the same impact it had abroad. It is important because in times of crises, we have a tendency to pass off particular issues as the problem of other nations only. Slavery, colonialism and Nazism are concepts that we usually associate with Europe. Yet, it all happened here too. In Canada, there was the New France African slave trade, mass colonization of Indigenous peoples, and a Nazi party, as well as many fascist organizations and movements. It is important to know about these moments because it helps us to understand that Canada is no stranger to such violence and extremism.
Additionally, this narrative is important because it highlights the hidden side of Canadian nationalism. In Canada, particularly in Quebec, nationalist sentiment was and is still a strong force. It is important to see how dangerous and powerful it can become when combined with religion and racism, like it did all over the world, including in Canada with Adrien Arcand. Pierre Elliott Trudeau argued that nationalism is the cause of all civil and inter-state wars; although he made that argument to dismiss Quebec’s grievances, he was absolutely right in the case of Nazism.
To summarize, this article has argued that Adrien Arcand and his fascist political party represented a hidden facet of nationalism in Quebec, characterized by the instrumentalization of religious values and anti-Semitism to gain political power. It also argued that it is a narrative that was lost amidst the larger narratives in Canadian history. Furthermore, this article has analyzed the atmosphere in which the National Social Christian Party was born, as well as the trajectory of Arcand’s political career. All things considered, this narrative deserves its place in Canadian history. More importantly, as Esther Delisle writes in The Traitor and the Jew, “this moment and the context in which it was born are of tremendous significance because it reminds us that our past ‘was less than perfect’; a claim that is bound to disturb those whose ideology is founded on selective memory.”