Fraternal Goals or Nationalist Priorities: The Ordre De Jacques Cartier's Campaign against the Knights of Columbus, 1945-1960

By Trepanier, James | Quebec Studies, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Fraternal Goals or Nationalist Priorities: The Ordre De Jacques Cartier's Campaign against the Knights of Columbus, 1945-1960


Trepanier, James, Quebec Studies


In late October of 1949, a group of French-Canadian nationalists met in Ottawa to discuss the future focus of their secret society, the Ordre de Jacques Cartier (OJC). The OJC was approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary and its Director of Orientation and future Grand Chancellor Pierre Vigeant was determined that they would finish some of the tasks that the founders had laid out as priorities. Vigeant highlighted a curious target as a priority for the coming years: the Knights of Columbus:

   Nous voulons intensifier nos efforts afin d'atteindre d'ici le
   vingt-cinquieme anniversaire de notre Ordre ces objectifs fixes par
   nos fondateurs [...]. La premiere de ces campagnes, c'est celle qui
   vise a evincer les Knights of Columbus du Canada francais. C'est
   precisement pour faire concurrence a cette societe etrangere et
   pour rendre aux Canadiens francais les memes services qu'elle rend
   aux irlandais que notre Ordre a ete fonde. (2)

Vigeant, a newcomer to the OJC leadership in Ottawa, touched on a continuing sore point for the Ottawa-based leaders of the secret society. The OJC was created by a group of French-Canadian nationalists in Ottawa in October of 1926 as a means to continue the fight against Regulation XVII, a provincial piece of legislation which had severely restricted French-language instruction in Ontario Catholic schools since 1913. These veterans of the schools crisis blamed secret societies and Anglophone Catholic associations such as the Knights of Columbus and Irish Catholic members of the Canadian Catholic hierarchy for frustrating French-Canadian efforts to protect their linguistic rights during the conflict, and were of the opinion that a new, French-Canadian secret society needed to be created in order to counter the influence of these groups. (3) Combining fraternal rituals and the secrecy of rival Protestant secret societies, the OJC expanded throughout the 1930s and 1940s and, by the 1950s, had over 400 cells (or "commanderies") connected to the central Chancellerie in Ottawa, with over 11,000 members from British Columbia to Atlantic Canada. (4)

The Knights of Columbus, founded in the late nineteenth century in Connecticut, began as an Irish-American Catholic mutual aid society, a creation which was not uncommon during a period of economic and social uncertainty in North America. It quickly became, in the words of some scholars, symbolic of the "Americanist" movement in the American Catholic Church. This movement, led by Church leaders like Cardinal James Gibbons, a key supporter of the Knights, believed that in order to be accepted by the largely Protestant American population, American Catholics had to connect their Catholicism to a more overt patriotism and unitary American identity. (5) The Knights quickly expanded beyond a base in the northeastern United States, becoming a powerful Catholic fraternal association in a number of ethnic American Catholic parishes in addition to expanding internationally, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. This expansion included a Canadian component, with the Knights establishing themselves in Quebec in 1897. By the late 1940s, the Quebec State Council of the Knights of Columbus had over 53,000 members in the province. (6) Many Francophones in Quebec saw the Knights as a parish-centered social and charitable organization, and since most chapters in Quebec operated in French, few felt any misgiving about joining the association. This demographic boom resulted in tensions between the state council for the Knights in Quebec and the Supreme Council in New Haven. The predominantly Francophone membership in Quebec demanded increased services in French from the Supreme Council. By the early 1950s, increasing neo-nationalist sentiment in the province led a group of Quebec Knights to demand more than just services in French and lead a more institutional push for financial and legal autonomy from the Supreme Council in New Haven, Connecticut. …

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