Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Henri Bourassa's Career in the Quebec Legislative Assembly

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Henri Bourassa's Career in the Quebec Legislative Assembly

Article excerpt

Henri Bourassa's career as a Quebec legislator was as brief as it was spectacular. Elected in 1908, he sat for only four sessions and withdrew from parliamentary life in 1912. In the eyes of his contemporaries, however, those four years were a major episode in the political life of French Canada. He had an acute sense of certain problems still current in political life today, he understood the mainsprings of Quebecers' existence as a nation, yet he continued to cling to certain outdated ideological notions. Henri Bourassa remains a pivotal figure in Quebec's political and intellectual history. His name resounds like a clarion call, and he has stood as an example for generations of Quebecers. This article examines the life of a man who, in his own words, preferred the triumph of his ideals over the trappings of power.

In 1908, at age of 40, Henri Bourassa had for many years been a major political figure. Born in Montreal on September 1, 1868, he was the son of Napoleon Bourassa, an artist and man of letters, and Azelie Papineau, daughter of Louis-Joseph Papineau. He was thus the grandson and, in a way, the spiritual heir of that famous Lower Canada patriot. After studying at the Ecole polytechnique de Montreal, the young Bourassa completed his education at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, a region where many Franco-Americans had settled.

In the Political Arena

Back in Quebec, Bourassa lost no time in demonstrating his entrepreneurial talents. He went into business, founded a model farm at Montebello, and revived a Franco-Ontarian newspaper, L'Interprete of Clarence Creek. In 1889, at the age of 21, he became the mayor of Montebello. He went into politics, which was to be his lifelong passion. In Ottawa, Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the Liberal Party, was on the verge of taking power and in the 1896 election he recruited the brilliant young Bourassa, who was elected MP for Labelle.

Laurier soon came to understand the complex personality of his protege, who was both radical in his ideas for political reform and national progress and conservative on social and religious issues. Bourassa, he wrote, was an unnatural creature: a "red beaver". The "beavers" were the ultra-conservative Tories, while the "reds" formed the radical left wing among the Grits. In his political life, Bourassa would successfully carry off this apparently paradoxical blend of ideological contradictions.

The participation of Canadian troops in the Boer War of 1899 opened a rift between Bourassa and Laurier who had made the decision to send volunteers to that war of Empire without submitting the issue to Parliament. Bourassa considered this akin to collecting a tax in blood, and considered that war, decided upon in Britain, to be a violation of the Liberal principle of "No taxation without representation." On October 26, 1899, he resigned. Re-elected as MP for Labelle, he sat as an independent.

This episode made him a national political figure. Over the next few years, he debated major issues such as immigration, French-language schools in the west, the Lord's Day Act, and British imperial policy. On this latter issue he exerted pressure on Laurier to affirm ever more clearly Canada's independence within the British Empire.

In 1903, the Catholic Association of French-Canadian Youth was formed. The Association would leave its mark on the turn-of-the-century generation in Quebec. A weekly newspaper, Le Nationaliste, was also founded. With Olivar Asselin as editor, the new newspaper railed against old politicians ensconced in power, political parties in the pocket of cartels, and corrupt governments. For the rebellious youth, Bourassa was an intellectual guide, a master philosopher, and his public appearances were always enthusiastically applauded by youthful audiences.

The agitation Bourassa stirred up was of great concern in English Canada, which saw him as an agent of dissent and an instigator of division. …

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