The Swastika Before the Fleur de Lys: Quebec’s Hidden History

The interwar years (1918-1939) were marked by a world-wide 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, “the ‘isms’ appealed to many.” [1] 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, fuelled by nationalism and Christianism.[2] 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.”[3] Considering the important 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 extreme right-wing nationalism in Quebec.[4] There were two main groups among the nationalists of the extreme right in the 1930s: the separatist one of Abbé Lionel Groulx and the federalist one of Adrien Arcand.[5] 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”).[6] Also in his circle was the magazine L’Action Nationale and intellectual newspaper Le Devoir, which published anti-Semitic articles.[7]

Adrien Arcand was a professional journalist.[8] 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.[9] When the economic crisis started to strongly affect Quebec, they announced the creation of a “proto-fascist” movement called the Ordre Patriotique des Goglus.[10] The Order held mass meetings promoting racism and proudly wore blue shirts with swastika logos.[11] The Jewish School Commission Act in 1930 was a turning point for Arcand. That is 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.[12] By that time, Arcand was “unquestionably in touch with the Nazis in Germany.”[13] Therefore, 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. The emblem of the party was “a swastika wreathed in maple leaves and surmounted by a beaver”, which “graphically suggested that Nazism could become Canadianized.”[14] 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.”[15] At the Monument National in February 1934, the party held its first meeting, with the hall full of swastika flags.[16] 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 people’s precarious economic situation. 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].”[17] Hundreds of people showed up to listen to a screaming Adrien Arcand, who was proudly wearing his Hitler moustache; meanwhile, the parading party members in blue shirts added to the paramilitary atmosphere.[18]



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 worry about the spread of fascism. Meanwhile, the Nazi propaganda could circulate freely.[19] 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.” [20]

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 had become very anti-Nazi,”[21]  which made Arcand lose much of his Catholic supporters. He tried to save his party by removing the swastika logo, assigning it a new name, and camouflaging their discourse. Still, Arcand was rapidly discarded as a “national figure” and had to retreat to Quebec.[22]

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. When Canada joined the Allies in the Second World War in 1939, however, the “feeling against the Nazis was running high” and Arcand’s group started to look suspicious. His party was banned and he was ordered to completely cease his activities, which he only did 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.[23] Until his death in 1967, Arcand would continue to perpetuate his anti-Semitic discourse while denying that the Holocaust had ever happened.[24]                    

A hidden history that matters

To a major extent, this moment is unknown in the grand narrative of Canadian history. This moment is not just significant because of what it is and what it represents, it is significant because it shows how little we know when we don’t go beyond what is presented to us. How can we understand the history of Canada and the way it shaped the country if we don’t learn the whole story? When we learn about fascism and Nazism in Europe, we should also learn about the fact that it happened here too, that it was not only a European matter, even if it did not have the same impact it had abroad. It is important because we, humans, have a tendency to point fingers at other nations. Slavery, colonialism and Nazism are concepts that we usually associate with Europe. Yet, it all happened here too.

In Canada, there was the African slave trade in New France,[25] mass colonization/genocide of Indigenous peoples, 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. Canada also “got its hands dirty.” Not to make us feel guilty, but to acknowledge the events that made us what we are today and how we think as a society. 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.

Conclusion

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. But more importantly, “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.” [26]


[1]. Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties, (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975), 1-5.
[2]. Ibid.
[3]. Jean-François Nadeau, Adrien Arcand, Führer Canadien, (Montréal: Lux Éditeur, 2010), 1.
[4]. Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties, (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975), 2-5.
[5]. Jean-François Nadeau, Adrien Arcand, Führer Canadien, (Montréal: Lux Éditeur, 2010), 36.
[6]. Esther Delisle, The Traitor and the Jew: Anti-Semitism and extreme right-wing nationalism in Quebec from 1929 to 1939, trans. Madeleine Hébert (Montreal: Robert Davies Publishing, 1993), 12-33.
[7]. Ibid., 34-44.
[8]. Jean-François Nadeau, Adrien Arcand, Führer Canadien, (Montréal: Lux Éditeur, 2010), 44.
[9]. Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties, (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975), 5-7.
[10]. Jean-François Nadeau, Adrien Arcand, Führer Canadien, (Montréal: Lux Éditeur, 2010), 56.
[11]. Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties, (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975), 11.
[12]. Jean-François Nadeau, Adrien Arcand, Führer Canadien, (Montréal: Lux Éditeur, 2010), 56.
[13]. Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties, (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975), 27.
[14]. Ibid., 89.
[15]. Pierre Trépanier, “La religion dans la pensée d’Adrien Arcand,” Les Cahiers des dix, 46 (1991): 207, accessed February 20, 2018, doi:10.7202/1015587ar.
[16]. Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties, (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975), 38.
[17]. Adrien Arcand. Exposé des principes et du programme du Parti National Social Chrétien (Montreal: Le Patriote, 1934), 11-16.
[18]. Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf: Fascist Movements in Canada in the Thirties, (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975), 89.
[19]. Ibid., 86-93.
[20]. Ibid., 97.
[21]. Ibid., 99-121.
[22]. Ibid.
[23]. Ibid., 125-147.
[24]. Jean-François Nadeau, Adrien Arcand, Führer Canadien, (Montréal: Lux Éditeur, 2010), 327.
[25]. Esther Delisle, The Traitor and the Jew: Anti-Semitism and extreme right-wing nationalism in Quebec from 1929 to 1939, trans. Madeleine Hébert (Montreal: Robert Davies Publishing, 1993), 12-33.
[26]. Ibid., 13.

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