Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

Interesting times for Quebec families

[ Promenade en charrette, Inconnu, Album-souvenir 100e anniversaire de la paroisse Sainte-Philomène de Fortierville, 1882-1982  ]By Peter Gossage

‘‘May you live in interesting times.’’ Curse attributed to the ancient Chinese, apparently incorrectly, by Robert F. Kennedy, 1966.

By any standard, the years around 1920 were interesting times for the family in Canada, and perhaps especially in francophone Quebec. Like the turn of the 21st century, this was a time when an enormous amount of concern was expressed about the perceived danger to the social fabric associated with a decline in ‘traditional’ family behaviours. You can find this anxiety in contemporary debates on the status of women and especially on women’s suffrage; in conservative pronouncements about the indissoluble ties of marriage in a context where some Canadians were promoting a liberalization of divorce laws; in worried discussions of moral decay in the cities, where prostitution, alcohol, crime, and poverty stood among the most feared threats to the family; and in the speeches and articles written by those worried about French Canadian birth rates that had already begun to decline from their legendary heights.

Anxiety about falling birth rates was probably the most important component of the discussion around Quebec families at this time. Traditionally, large families had been a source of pride to French Canadians and in particular to conservative, nationalist intellectuals. But by the second decade of the twentieth century, census figures had begun to show quite clearly that birth rates, although still well above levels for English Canada, had begun to fall. This was especially true in the cities where women’s work outside the home was more common and where new ideas circulated more freely. As a result, Catholic opinion leaders like the journalist Henri Bourassa and the Jesuit Louis Lalande began to exhort Quebec women to do their patriotic and religious duty and resist the temptation to limit family size for what they would have considered the ‘selfish’ reasons — things like personal autonomy, economic advantages for their families, and freedom from the health risks associated with repeated pregnancies.

It was Lalande who provided the slogan for this kind of pro-natalist exhortation, in a speech entitled ‘‘La revanche des berceaux’’ (‘‘The Revenge of the Cradles’’), given before the Knights of Columbus in February 1918 and subsequently published in L’Action française. In part, Lalande’s speech was in the celebratory tradition, but there was also a strong note of exhortation. In one passage in particular, he projected a population of 15 million French Canadians by the end of the 20th century should fertility levels remain at their traditional levels. ‘Let us hope,’ he wrote, ‘that this will be the case and that, to continue the glories of our cradles and of their revenge, we will maintain, intact, active, unalloyed, pure, that great religious and national strength: our fertility.’

Concern over falling birth rates, however, was just one dimension of what was widely perceived as a family ‘in crisis’ as a result of the corrosive influences of modernity, liberalism, urban life, and materialism. A key moment in this discussion came in August 1923 when a major annual conference run by the Jesuits called the Semaines sociales du Canada met in Montreal to think and talk about ‘The Family’. To put it mildly, the speakers at this five-day conference were anxious about the state of the French-Canadian family. Divorce, universal suffrage, prostitution, women’s rights, crime, state-run education, individualism, infant mortality, yellow journalism – these and other contemporary dangers were held up by speaker after speaker as mortal threats to the family. After all, intoned Father Rodrigue Villeneuve, whose lecture was an extended metaphor with cellular biology, the family, not the individual, was the basic unit of society. ‘As society’s basic cell, if the family is vigorous, active, healthy, then the organism will be healthy, lively, fertile...’ But should the Christian family perish – and most speakers seemed worried that it might — ‘human society itself would crumble on its foundations,’ as Cardinal Gasparri wrote in a letter from Rome conveying the Pope’s best wishes for the event.

Interestingly, remarriage, step-relationships, and domestic violence were not at all singled out at this conference as a cause for concern, even though the awful story of Aurore Gagnon and her cruel stepmother was by this time one of the most widely circulated and sensational tales in the province. The Gagnon case, rather, was widely seen as an isolated incident and not as further evidence of an underlying malaise within the French-Canadian family. Of course, widowhood and – after a decent interval — remarriage had been an accepted part of familial culture in the province since its origins as a French colony in the 17th century. As in other Western societies, widowers were about twice as likely to remarry as widows, and they generally did so much more quickly. Although conflicts over issues like inheritance sometimes arose and although some stepchildren did report strong negative feelings about authoritarian stepparents (stepmothers in particular), remarriage and the formation of ‘stepfamilies’ was an accepted part of what many historians call the model of social or familial reproduction in the province. Remarriage was probably the most desirable outcome, for example, for a farmer in his twenties or thirties whose wife had died — perhaps in childbirth — while there were still young children in the household.

Although there was tremendous concern about the state of the family in the early 1920s, then, there was no perception that stepfamilies, which in demographic terms were quite prevalent, were part of the problem. Nor were domestic violence or child abuse (the terms had yet to be coined) singled out as important issues. On the contrary, speakers at the 1923 conference on the family were more likely to complain about parental indulgence than to worry about corporal punishment crossing the line into child abuse, as it had so tragically in the Gagnon case. ‘Certainly, one must use prudence and good sense when punishing children,’ proclaimed one speaker, ‘but one must also avoid softness and excessive indulgence, which are nonetheless so much in fashion in too many households: there the child is almost an idol that is worshipped at every opportunity. Let us repeat with all the great educators: those who are blinded by false affection, who leave children to all their whims, and who are unable to straighten them out in a timely way — those people betray their divine mission.’

The only speaker who made anything that might be construed as a reference to the Gagnon affair was Henri Bourassa. His topic was ‘La famille canadienne, ses perils, son salut’ (The Canadian Family: Its Perils, Its Salvation) and he spent a great deal more time on the perils than on the means of salvation. The dangers he enumerated included individualism, communism, Statism (as regards education, social services, income tax, and conscription), industrial capitalism, democracy, feminism, urbanization (he thought the best thing for Montreal would be if about 200,000 of its inhabitants would just leave), and the rising tide of criminality and the yellow journalism it inspired. It is on this last point that he makes what might be a veiled reference to the Gagnon affair, one of the most sensational murder trials of this period: ‘The elders will recall a time when murder was an appalling thing about which one could only speak with horror. Do you think that murder and other crimes can inspire the same, salutary horror when entire pages of your favourite newspapers report these crimes in the most minute detail, and when your children read these accounts voraciously?’

We are not that far here, it seems to me, from violence on TV and in movies and video games as a source of poorly socialized and potentially sociopathic kids — one of the many features of today’s widely diffused discourse of anxiety around the family and the dangers it faces. But any sense that the Gagnon story might serve as an object lesson for prospective stepmothers who might contemplate abusing their stepchildren, or even for widowers who might be tempted to remarry quickly and unwisely is absent from the anxious Catholic discourse of the early 1920s, as reflected in the August 1923 conference at Montreal.

Interesting times indeed!

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Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History