Joseph-Henri-Napoleon Bourassa

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Joseph-Henri-Napoleon Bourassa

The French-Canadian nationalist and editor Joseph-Henri-Napoleon Bourassa (1868-1952) was one of the leading political figures of Quebec, a splendid orator, and the founder and editor in chief of "Le Devoir, " a leading Montreal newspaper.

Henri Bourassa was born in Montreal on Sept. 1, 1868, and educated at schools in that city and at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. As a young man of 22, he was elected mayor of Montebello, a small town to which he had gone to recover his health. Six years later he won election to Parliament as a Liberal and as a follower of Wilfrid Laurier, the first French-Canadian prime minister. But before his first term in the House of Commons had run its course, Bourassa had broken with his chief.

The issue was Canadian participation in the South African War, to which Laurier had been forced reluctantly to concede by the demands of English Canadians. To Bourassa and to many other French Canadians, the Boers were a people very similar to the Canadiens: oppressed by the English, the Boers were a conquered people. Although Laurier maintained that sending troops to South Africa was not a precedent binding Canada to participate in every English war, to Bourassa a precedent was a precedent, and the disgruntled member of Parliament resigned his seat. Shortly thereafter his supporters returned him to Parliament in a by-election and in two general elections, in 1900 and 1904.

Nominally a Liberal, Bourassa had become wary of Laurier and wary of the English Canadians, whom he saw dominating the Prime Minister. By 1907 he had had enough and left Parliament to run for the Quebec legislature, which he, as a Québecois, felt should be his area of action. Soon Bourassa was the leader of a great nationalist movement in the province, an articulate spokesman for French-Canadian ideas and ideals, a defender of the Canadien way of life. By 1910 the nationalists could take on Laurier with some confidence, and in a crucial by-election in that year they defeated a Liberal candidate in the constituency that had once been Laurier's own. The next year, by linking with the Conservatives, Bourassa helped drive the Liberals from power nationally.

The victory turned sour, however, when the new government proved less responsive than the old, and Bourassa was soon thundering at the Tories from his organ Le Devoir. The events of World War I drove Laurier and Bourassa together once more, and in 1917 their efforts to oppose conscription foundered.

After the war Bourassa was something of a spent force, increasingly out of touch with thinking in his province. In 1925, 1926, and 1930 he was a successful Independent candidate for Parliament, and during World War II he was a frequent performer on nationalist platforms. When he died in Outremont on Aug. 31, 1952, at the age of 83, he was the grand old man of Canadien nationalism, but it had been 35 years since he had been a power in the land.

Further Reading

The only full-length biography of Bourassa is in French. Joseph Levitt in Henri Bourassa and the Golden Calf (1969) examines the social program of the Quebec nationalists, and Ramsay Cook in Canada and the French-Canadian Question (1966) discusses Bourassa at some length. See also Casey Murrow, Henri Bourassa and French-Canadian Nationalism: Opposition to Empire (1968).

Additional Sources

Levitt, Joseph., Henri Bourassa: Catholic critic, Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1976. □