Psychoanalysis in Quebec

By Panaccio, Monique | UNESCO Courier, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Psychoanalysis in Quebec

Panaccio, Monique, UNESCO Courier

The problem of identity runs through the history of Quebec from the earliest colonial times up to the present day, when one of the main issues involved in the integration of Quebec into the Canadian constitution is the recognition of its status as a distinctive society. How was Quebec's identity forged, and how can psychoanalysis contribute to an understanding of its unique history and play its role in the emergence of the individual?


In the seventeenth century the first colonists of this French outpost whose mission was to spread civilization and the Gospel were themselves for the most part poor and ignorant. They had to survive as best they could in an apparently boundless land plunged in interminable winter. France's hopes of its colony on the banks of the St. Lawrence were soon disappointed. There was no gold and there were no diamonds. All that was left was morality. The Catholic congregations that then proliferated in Europe founded communities in New France, where they could pursue their mission in complete freedom.

Over the ensuing centuries, Quebec was, for better or for worse, to remain Catholic and French. Conquest by the English in 1760; the failure of the republican uprising of 1837, which saw the increasingly influential French-Canadian clergy make common cause with the English to protect their divinely-sanctioned powers; even the union of Upper and Lower Canada in a single province whose official language was English--all of these failed to put an end to French culture in America.

Until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, political and economic power was in the hands of English-speakers, while French-speakers dominated social and religious life. The Church established a monopoly over moral suffering. The religious communities took care of the mentally ill, and as private corporations received in return a daily per-capita sum from the state. It was thus in the Church's interest to maximize the number of inmates and economize on their care. Vast asylums were constructed, self-contained communities that had the legal status of municipalities and Catholic parishes. It was in this field that a conflict of values took place between French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants. The former had a privileged status in charitable work through their hold over healthcare institutions; the latter pressed their claims in the name of progress. In education, two parallel systems were also set up.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when Freud's birth in the Moravian town of Freiberg fore-shadowed a fundamental break in the continuum of human thought, Quebec's French-speakers were developing a national mystique under the eye of the Catholic Church, which saw itself as the guarantor of its people's survival.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the clerical elite based its temporal power on anti-semitism, anti-Bolshevism and xenophobia. The religious communities joined forces with the state to promote traditional rural values in face of industrialization, urbanization and social change. Yet it was from within their ranks that the "plague", as Freud himself once described psychoanalysis, began to spread. The first journal to address the subject was La Revue Dominicaine ("The Dominican Review"), when it published extracts from a doctoral thesis on The Bases of Freudianism. It was the Dominicans too who in 1942 founded the Institute of Psychology at the University of Montreal, which included in its syllabus "the psychological system of Freud".

The religious establishment of the time saw in psychoanalysis a new argument in favour of its cause. If Freudianism teaches that human beings are ruled by impulses that are beyond them, then this is all the more reason why they should turn to God. But a new generation was coming to the fore in Quebec, one whose members were no longer prepared to put up with economic stagnation, with the introversion and the sense of shame they had inherited from their forebears, with their situation as a submissive colonized people. …

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