Étienne Parent



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The Conquest of 1760 raised problems of coexistence between the Canadiens and the British, two peoples who differed in language, religion, and legal codes as well as in attitudes and customs. The Constitution Act [1791] attempted to provide a solution by splitting the colony into two parts, Upper Canada for the Loyalists (which became Ontario) and Lower Canada (which became Québec) for the Canadiens, allowing the two peoples to develop through representative institutions. Introduction of the parliamentary system also forced politicians and intellectuals to defend their ideas, resulting in a sudden growth in political eloquence and journalism. In the early 19th century, Étienne Parent became the first journalist to muse on the survival of the Canadien people and to enlighten their great orators, Louis-Joseph Papineau and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine.

Parent was born in 1802 on his father's farm in Beauport, near Québec City. His parents sent him to study at Nicolet College at the age of 12, and then to the seminary in Québec City. His career in journalism began when he left school. He was soon asked to contribute to Le Canadien, the official newspaper of the Parti Canadien, and became its editor in 1822, at 20 years of age.

The times were threatening for francophones in Lower Canada: a proposal for the union of the two Canadas jeopardized the rights acquired in 1791 as well as the use of French in the legislature. An admirer of the Constitution, Parent used his pen to demand respect for the Constitution and denounce a "fixed" political system. The parliamentary system in Lower Canada allowed the Canadiens, who formed the majority, to pass laws in the Assembly, but the Governor, as head of the executive branch, had the power to veto legislation. Without a legislature accountable to the House, the Canadiens in Lower Canada inherited diminished power and lacked control over the colony's finances.

In 1830, the Parti Canadien began to adopt a more radical approach and became the Parti Patriote, under the strong leadership of Louis-Joseph Papineau. After several years in the shadow of La Gazette de Québec, Parent revived Le Canadien under the motto "Our institutions, our language and our laws," the national objectives he would pursue throughout his career. In an early article, he issued his credo: "It is the fate of the Canadien people not only to have to preserve its civil liberties but also to have to fight for its existence as a people..." On a daily basis, he commented on political events in a dialectic style, cultivated national awareness, and demanded justice in the name of order and in the spirit of the Constitution. During this period, he was the éminence grise of the Parti Patriote, Papineau's advisor and a member of the non-responsible Assembly. At his suggestion, Ludger Duvernay founded the Association patriotique de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste, still active today.

The economic depression between 1833 and 1836 exacerbated the positions of the Patriotes, and soon resulted in clashes between radicals and moderates. To avoid the worst, Parent published a long list of resolutions in his newspaper, summarizing the Assembly's grievances and the proposed reforms. Most were tabled by Patriote members in the 1834 session, in part to denounce the legislative council's abuses of power and the favouring of the British minority in Lower Canada. In 1835, England's response was to order a commission of inquiry into the situation in Lower Canada, which resulted in the inflexible recommendations of Lord Russell. Under Papineau's impassioned cries, popular protest movements proliferated and led to the riots of 1837 and 1838.

During these troubled years, though outpaced on the left, Parent continued to advocate non-violent resistance: "We are not ready for independence; we must be patient, prove ourselves, and the legislation will resume its course...." Since he refused to endorse the excesses of the independence-minded Patriotes as well as those of the government side, Parent earned everyone's contempt. In Le Canadien, he still argued in favour of his rebel compatriots and urged the government to institute a "responsible" executive. He was outraged, however, by Colborne's unrelenting oppression during the 1838 uprisings and the sentences that followed. His virulent writings reflected the full measure of his bitterness and he was imprisoned for several months for "seditious schemings." In the Québec City prison, he continued to write articles which he cleverly spirited out in special pies brought to him by an accomplice.

The Durham report, anticipated with hope by the Canadiens, and the Act of Union of the Canadas, proclaimed in 1841, marked the end of the French Canadiens' dream of political autonomy. For a few months, a shaken Étienne Parent took a fatalistic tone while categorically rejecting the assimilation of his people. Writing about the French language in Le Canadien, he declared: "We demand that the new majority in the united legislature treat the French language in the same way as the French majority in the House of Assembly of Lower Canada under the former constitution treated the English language." He gradually regained some measure of confidence and invited his compatriots to make the best they could of this "political marriage." He called for social and economic activism in the French Canadian middle class and for intellectual progress among the new generations, who would be the key to effective French Canadian participation in the new constitutional system.

At the urging of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, Parent left Le Canadien in 1842, at the age of 40, to begin a career as a senior public servant in the Canadian government. As a speaker and writer, he pursued his nationalist vision. The titles of his addresses to the Institute canadien in Montréal clearly reflected his goals: "Industry as a Means of Preserving our Nationality"; "Thoughts on our Popular Education System..."; "On the Importance of Trade"; "The Fate of the Working Classes."

Étienne Parent astounds us with the intensity and persistence of his thought. His character is virtually unknown today, but his writings still find relevance and remain a solid benchmark of a crucial stage in the history of Québec.

Heritage Minute Cast
Parent   Daniel Gadouas
Patriot   Marc André Piché
Soldier   Bruce Dinsmore
Additional Cast   Patrick Labbe