BORN: Montreal, Quebec • 1 September 1868
DIED: Montreal, Quebec • 31 August 1952
Le Canada pour les Canadiens.” Today, in any language, these words seem absurdly self-evident.In 1900, however, Henri Bourassa’s exhortation in the House of Commons was radical and, to many, even dangerous.
Here was a politician advocating a considerable change in the way Canadians looked at themselves: no longer, Bourassa believed, should Canada turn to Britain to define itself. Much of English Canada viewed this suggestion as nearly traitorous. After all, Canada’s historically intimate ties to England were a vital part of what stamped Canadians as distinct in North America.
This was the age of empire: of past military conquest behind the British flag, and future security under it. Bourassa resisted this imperial ideal. In so doing he became an influential politician and commentator, and, ultimately, a prophet of a new age of national maturity.
Bourassa’s speech in Parliament was typical: here was a man who said what he believed and eschewed the tradi¬ tional Canadian art of political compromise. This aplomb was perhaps the result of a childhood of privilege, for Bourassa’s family was among the most prominent and respected in Quebec.
The almost sacred legacy of his grandfather, Louis-Joseph Papineau, the hero of the Lower Canadian rebellion in 1837—38, did not hurt his reputation, and he was lured by Wilfrid Laurier to run as a Liberal in the federal election of 1896. Though still only twenty-eight, Bourassa won easily, and quickly became a confidant of the newly elected prime minister.
The young politician’s rise through the ranks of the government ended abruptly in 1899. Britain’s military adventures in South Africa fanned the fires of imperial nationalism in Canada, and Laurier reluctantly agreed to send a modest volunteer force in support.
Bourassa was righteously indignant: here was a war that, even if justified, had nothing at all to do with Canada. He shocked the prime minister by resigning his seat in Parliament and, when promptly returned in a by-election, he assumed the role ofgovernment critic even though he ostensibly remained a Liberal.
Bourassa’s opposition to Canadian participation in the Boer War made him known across the nation—famous in his home province, infamous outside it.A provocative speaker and a passionate essayist, his speeches and writings quickly made him a towering political figure in Quebec, and his sustained opposition to Canadian involvement in British military affairs spawned a new political movement in Quebec in 1903, La Ligue Nationaliste.
This first generation of Quebec nationalists was profoundly pan-Canadian in outlook: they sought independence from British policies as well as bilingual and bicultural government institutions.Yet in Bourassa’s mind, Laurier, the first French-Canadian prime minister, was failing to meet these expectations.
In 1910 Bourassa founded a daily newspaper, Le Devoir, to attack Laurier’s decision to build a Canadian navy designed to bolster imperial defences. The new daily rapidly became influential in Quebec, and in 1911 it was the means for Bourassa’s most enduring impact on Canadian history.
Fed up with Laurier’s cautious appeasement of Canadian imperialists, Bourassa agreed to fight Quebec Liberals in the federal election with a group of nationalist candidates working in quiet concert with the Conservative Party.
Using fears of British imperialism to sway voters, Bourassa won enough seats to help snatch victory from Laurier.The new Conservative prime minister, Robert Borden, however, was firmly committed to imperialism; indeed, in 1912 he pledged Britain $35 million to build three warships.
Perhaps the most remarkable irony in Canadian political history was concluded: Bourassa fought Laurier because of his imperialist leanings, but the goverment that replaced the Liberals was even more committed to the empire.
By the time Borden invoked conscription for the war in Europe in 1917, French-English relations in Canada had deteriorated to an unprecedented extent, and Bourassa, proven too clever by half, was again publicly supporting Laurier.
This, of course, was Bourassa’s way. Too passionate to be an effective politician, he was successful only in the short term. His ideas were fundamentally important, however.By the 1920s Bourassa’s brand of isolationism and Canadian nationalism were widely popular among the again-governing Liberals.
At the same time, the nationalist movement he founded was growing, but also changing. A new generation of Quebecois, frustrated with its diminishing voice in Confederation, was promoting a more insular Quebec nationalism, and occasionally even separation, as the solution to Quebec’s problems.
Late in life Bourassa often disavowed this new, radical strain of political philosophy and its chief proponents—people like Lionel Groulx. But his legacy, as both a pioneer of pan-Canadian nationalism and an insti¬ gator of narrower Quebec nationalism, was secure.