Anti-Semitism and Holocaust

The Lonely Passion of Esther Delisle

When a Quebec author and historian chooses to tell a forbidden tale of fascism and anti-Semitism in her province, she pays a stiff penalty.

by Sarah Scott, Elm Street, April 1998

Esther Delisle, 43,... doesn't fit the image most people would conjure for a serious scholar and author of two books about fascism and anti-Semitism in Quebec's history. (The latest, Myths, Lies and False Memory, will be released this spring)...

She was savaged by most of Quebec's French-speaking intellectual class in the early Nineties when she exposed any ugly, 50-year-old legacy of anti-Semitism in the province. In the doctoral thesis that became her first book, The Traitor and the Jew, Delisle's prime target was the cleric and historian Abbé Lionel Groulx, one of Quebec nationalism's most revered icons, for whom streets, lakes, schools, a chain of mountains and even a Metro station in Montreal are named. She could hardly have chosen a more prominent target. Groulx was a celebrated historian who tried to instill pride in ordinary French Canadians by inventing heroic myths of their past. And she didn't stop there. She broke a cardinal rule of political correctness in Quebec by daring to suggest that traces of racism and xenophobia might still exist in today's sovereignty movement. Worse, she got a big boost from novelist Mordecai Richler, who said her work was a godsend during research for his book Oh Canada, Oh Quebec, a scathing attack on Quebec nationalism. Praise from him was like being "embraced by the Devil," Delisle says, adding that she still appreciated the plug. "We became the odd couple: the Traitor and the Jew."

But many leading Quebecers insist Delisle's research lacks scholarly rigour and fairness. By focusing on French-speaking nationalists of the Thirties, she did not deal with the deep anti-Semitism of English Quebec. During that time, McGill University imposed special admission requirements and quotas to keep down the number of Jewish students. "Francophones spoke loudly but did nothing," says Pierre Anctil, an expert on Jewish history in Quebec, "while anglophones said nothing but excluded Jews from McGill and from businesses." Nor did Delisle's book examine the anti-Semitism that was alive and well across the rest of Canada. Mackenzie King, prime minister for much of the interwar and postwar periods, expressed his own prejudice against Jews and, in his diaries, his admiration for Hitler, notes York University historian Irving Abella, co-author of None Is Too Many, a book on wartime anti-Semitism in Canada. In the Thirties, "banks, insurance companies, department stores and large industrial and commercial interests did not hire Jews," Abella told a audience of lawyers at a conference in Cambridge, England, in 1989. "Jewish doctors could not get hospital appointments. There was not one Jewish judge in the entire country. Law firms rarely hired Jews. Not only did university and professional schools devise quotas against Jewish students, they did not hire Jewish faculty." So it is unfair to single out French nationalists, says Michel C. Auger, who writes for Le Journal de Montréal and is one of the most widely read columnists in Quebec. If the rest of Canada were held to the same standard, he argues, "half the public places in this country would have to change names."

Auger may be right, but it does not explain why Esther Delisle has been shunned by her fellow francophone Quebecers. To many of them, a traitor is indeed what Delisle has become. She had grown up in Quebec City, a full-blooded member of the tribe, and she had revealed family secrets. Her critics couldn't dismiss her as one of those strident English-speaking federalists who routinely complain that Quebec's sovereignty movement is ethnically based. So they excommunicated her. One of her harshest critics was Gary Caldwell, one of the few anglophones in Quebec whose sympathies lie with the sovereignty movement. he even accused Laval University of disloyalty to French Quebec for awarding her a doctorate. The Traitor and the Jew was called poorly researched and lacking in context (by historian René Durocher), politically motivated (by political scientist Josée Legault) and anti-French-Canadian (by Groulx Centre director Jean-Marc Léger).

The criticism was heated and threatening, and came from more than just well-known members of the intelligentsia. At a shopping mall, the manager was so incensed that Delisle was signing books that he turned off the lights in the bookstore. "For one hour I sat in the darkness while the bookstore employees carried flashlight around," says Delisle, still amused. If Delisle had been an American in a similarly high-profile ideological battle, all the criticism and controversy surrounding her and her book might have landed her five-figure speaking tours. But not in Quebec. Inmost universities, she is persona non grata. She has been excluded from academic conferences. She expects never to get a job at a French-Canadian university...

After Delisle submitted her doctoral thesis at Laval in 1990, she had to wait two years to defend it, an unusually long time, and excruciating for Delisle, since by then she was practically penniless. While she was waiting, a 1991 article in L'actualité turned her case into a cause célèbre. Her notoriety was entrenched when Richler learned about her work and praised it openly. Dozens turned out to watch her defend her thesis, and when the panel rule 3-2 in her favour, Delisle slammed the desk with joy. "It was one of the greatest moments of my life."...

Yet even some of her supporters say that Quebec is no more racist or anti-Semitic than any other province in Canada. The Jewish community service organization B'nai Brith reported only 30 incidents of anti-Semitism in Quebec in 1996, compared with 157 in Ontario, including 98 in Toronto alone. Those figures suggest that "many of the concerns about an outbreak of anti-Semitism as a result of nationalism are exaggerated," says B'nai Brith's Quebec regional director, Robert Libman. He can vouch for it; as leader of the English-rights Equality Party, Libman was elected to the National Assembly in 1989. At the time, he was the lone Jewish member, and yet he felt virtually no discrimination. "Comparing Quebec 50 years ago with what it is now is comparing night and day," he says.

So why is it, asks political scientist Josée Legault, that "in English Canada and some English circles [in Quebec], a book that smears nationalism automatically becomes a best-seller?" Why, she asks, do so many English-speaking Canadians believe it's true? Her answer: "It's an old political strategy to discredit the nationalist movement."

Those sharp words don't bother Delisle. She enjoys driving her nationalist opponents crazy. In her new book, Delisle is challenging conventional Quebec wisdom that during the time of the Second World War, Quebec was an inward-looking place that didn't think much about the fascist regimes in Europe. That is a "big lie," Delisle says in her typically pointed way. In fact, she says, Quebec's priests, lawyers and academics were well aware of European-style fascism, and some of them liked it. Not surprisingly, most Quebec academics prefer to ignore that chapter of Quebec history, says John Hellman, a history professor at McGill, where Delisle did her postdoctoral research. Quebec academics don't want to dredge up memories of how the elite supported fascist regimes, he says. "It's terribly embarrassing."

Delisle can't wait to make them blush. She has spent the last few years coming archives in Canada, the united States and France, tracking down more than a dozen Nazi collaborators who came to Quebec after the war, as well as the prominent Quebecers who helped them. As we known now, many other nazi collaborators were also welcomed by sympathizers in many other parts of Canada, but so far, few historians have chased after them in the way Delisle is doing in her home province. She tells the story of Jacques de Bernonville, a senior police officer in Vichy France who hunted down resistance fighters during the war. Condemned to death in France, he came to Quebec under an assumed name in 1946. When immigration authorities discovered who he was in 1948 and ordered him out of the country, 143 Quebec notables signed a petition defending him. De Bernonville's supporters included the secretary general of the Université de Montréal and Camille Laurin, a student who would later (in 1976) become a senior Parti Québécois cabinet minister. Another collaborator, French Nazi propagandist Paul Reifenrath, came to Quebec under an assumed name and was sent by Union Nationale premier Maurice Duplessis to the Vatican in 1949 as his unofficial envoy.

Even the mayor of Montreal through the Thirties, Camillien Houde, supported fascist leaders like Italy's Mussolini. Henri Bourassa, the founder and former editor of Le Devoir, praised European fascist regimes as late as the summer of 1943. Polls showed the majority of Quebecers supported the Pétain regime in France, even in 1943, when it was increasingly clear that Pétain was collaborating with the Nazis.

The new book may only entrench Delisle's reputation as an enemy of Quebec in the minds of many francophones. Last march, L'actualité challenged Delisle in a cover story that was called "The Myth of a Fascist Quebec." The magazine downplayed the importance of fascism in the interwar years, and suggested that even though Groulx was an anti-Semite, he didn't deserve to be relegated to the trashcan of history. In a stinging editorial, editor Jean Paré, a staunch federalist, complained that Quebec has been unfairly smeared as racist with the help of a new industry dedicated to unearthing phrases and books "that no one has read in 50 years."

That editorial angered Delisle and because she does want to get a real job at a university, she figures it could mean leaving Quebec. But she's not quite ready to leave just yet.

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