A historian who believes French Quebec’s attitude toward Jews is more nuanced than you think

Antisemitism was not endemic among francophone Quebecers in the period before the Second World War, Pierre Anctil argues in his newly translated History of the Jews in Quebec, taking issue with other historians’ depictions.

“Contrary to the position articulated by Irving Abella and Harold Troper in None is Too Many, it would not be accurate to assume that Quebec society was unanimous in its hatred of Jews and negative reaction to their presence,” Anctil writes referring to the Toronto academics’ still widely cited 1983 exploration of Canada’s restriction of Jewish immigration in the 1930s and ‘40s.

According to Anctil, antisemitism among French Canadians was “mainly expressed by the educated classes. It was also primarily confined to public discourse and articulated in written texts or in speeches made before religious audiences.” Violence or other overt acts of antisemitism were rare, he observes, and that was due to the powerful influence of the Catholic Church.

Although Catholic doctrine at the time disparaged Judaism, the Church “formally condemned” hostility toward Jewish people, contends Anctil, a Canadian history professor at the University of Ottawa.

Originally published in 2017 as Histoire des Juifs du Québec (Les Éditions du Boréal.), the English version is published by the University of Ottawa Press and translated by Concordia University professor Judith Weisz Woodsworth.

This sweeping survey of the Jewish experience in the province from the 18th century to modern times is set against the massive social, political and economic changes Quebec underwent. It is a unique story, unlike that of any other Jewish community in North America, Anctil says, yet is generally neglected by his fellow francophone scholars and not fully comprehended by their anglophone counterparts.

Running close to 500 pages, History of the Jews in Quebec is the culmination of the nearly 40 years Anctil has spent researching and dialoguing with the Jewish community. It’s a journey that led him to become fluent in Yiddish, which enabled him to delve into the trove of prewar journalistic sources in that language that he frequently refers to.

Originally from Quebec City and holding a PhD in social anthropology, Anctil was fascinated by the Jews of Montreal, the first non-Christian immigrant group and, up to the war, the third-largest community after the French and English.

Anctil has done extensive research into Le Devoir, the highbrow daily founded in 1910 whose editors openly espoused common prejudices and continued to rail against Jewish immigration to Canada, even as the situation grew dire in Europe.

But the author cautions against exaggerating how preoccupied the newspaper was with Jews. “Throughout the 1930s and up until the Second World War, Le Devoir published around 60 editorials that were negative toward the Jews of Quebec, amounting to about two per cent of the total.

“When challenged by Canadian Jewish Congress activists, a number of the authors of these antisemitic harangues were actually astonished that they were being accused of intolerance when they were merely expressing what the Church had been preaching for a long time.”

The almost total lack of contact between Jews and French Quebecers is a theme throughout History of the Jews in Quebec, which Anctil laments as a rendez-vous manqué, a missed opportunity, because the francophone majority shunned Jews, and other immigrants, while at the same time deploring their supposed inability to integrate.

Anctil lays much of the blame on Quebec’s denominational public school system. While the anglophone minority was hardly welcoming to Jews, the Protestant school board in Montreal was charged with their education. The Catholic schools would not admit them.

Thus, Jews were “anglicized” and became so readily in Anctil’s estimation because the newcomers soon recognized that acculturation into English was the key to social advancement.

Anctil provides statistics showing how right that calculation was: by 1960, Jews had far higher education and income levels than the French and even those of British ancestry, the dominant class, despite the obstacles they had to overcome.

By the 1960s, the estrangement between Jewish and French Quebecers began to heal, according to Anctil, due to coinciding transformations in both communities. Quebec was entering the Quiet Revolution, a modernization that saw Catholicism’s omnipresence recede. The more confident Quebecers felt less threatened by minorities.

At the same time, Jewish immigrants from Morocco were flooding into the province. These were the first French-speaking Jews most Quebecers had ever met and relationships unknown with the earlier immigrant Ashkenazim were quickly forged. The Anglo-centred Jewish community was forever changed.

Despite the growing nationalism and political upheavals since then, resulting in an exodus of many Jews, Anctil concludes that the remaining community is increasingly at home in Quebec’s majority culture. Its members are bilingual and present in all fields, and its institutions enjoy government funding unparalleled by any other Jewish community on the continent.

And Quebec has been radically changed for the better by Jews, Anctil maintains, shifting the historic French vs. English narrative to an awareness of pluralism. “Jews have thus set an example for the rest of society, paving the way for a deeper appreciation of cultural expression and diversity in all its forms.”