Censorship, a practice from the past that has not spared Quebec
Censorship “has no place either in art or in democracy,” says a motion adopted on February 2 by the National Assembly of Quebec in support of author Élise Gravel, whose book Pink, Blue and You! was banned in some US states. However, Quebec has censored many books throughout its history, as shown by an exhibition currently being produced by its librarians.
“Dozens of books and documents have been banned by the public authorities, even here in Quebec; people have lost their jobs and a journalist has even been imprisoned because of a publication,” comments historian and librarian Carolyne Ménard, head of mediation at the Library of the National Assembly, who had the idea of put together the “dangerous books” of its collection which has more than 2.1 million documents.
Carolyne Ménard, Team Leader – Head of Mediation, Information Service, Library of the National Assembly of Québec.
Her first surprise, when she consulted with her team the lists of books “on the index”, as the works banned by the Church until 1966 were nicknamed, was to notice that the documents were numerous and diverse on the very shelves of the Library on Parliament Hill.
An anonymous text accusing the Jesuits of being responsible for the death of Henri IV, the Anticoton has been on the index since 1617 and will be the subject of an auto-da-fé in New France when the executioner is ordered to burn it on the public square in 1625. This is the first known case of censorship in New France.
“O Jesus”, says a prayer published in 1958 in Montreal's Religious Week, “deliver me from unhealthy and frivolous literature, from this epidemic of indecent illustrated books, journals, magazines, novels and serials that preach crime and immorality at will”.
Bishop of Montreal, Ignatius Bourget (1799-1885) set up a clerical censorship “organized, efficient and independent of the civil power”, according to the librarians of the National Assembly. The bishop led a veritable crusade against bad books and the Canadian Institute, which refused to comply with his directives.
This prayer was intended to protect the faithful from writings deemed subversive. It could be poetry, drama, novels and philosophical or political essays whose orientation was deemed harmful to the dominant ideology.
This type of censorship was practiced by the 'Church with state support.
Shortly before the publication of the pamphlet Les insolences du frères Untel in 1960, the identity of the author was made public. This is Jean-Paul Desbiens, a Marist Brother. The Church is furious and tries to cancel the publication of the book, without success. “Desbiens was quickly reprimanded and went into exile abroad, where he was closely watched by his superiors,” the librarians wrote.
“Since the 16th century and until 1966, the Vatican has published each year a collection of books considered problematic to varying degrees”, indicates Ms. Ménard.
It is in the Index librorum prohibitorum , published by the Vatican, that we find the list of forbidden books.
The titles that appeared there were the work of Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Baudelaire, but there were also books written in French Canada, which were studied by the Congregation of the Index. The exegetes gave the book a rating.
Agaguk, by Yves Thériault, obtained the worst evaluation (“Dangerous”) because of sexuality and violence that we find there. Some authors saw all their work prohibited (Index librorum prohibitorum) – this was the case of Émile Zola, in France – while others received the condemnation opera omnia for a single work.
The first publication printed in the colony from June 21, 1764, La Gazette de Québec was imposed by London a tax too high for its means. Publication will resume after the abolition of this stamp tax.
In the libraries of Quebec, we had to follow the directives of the authorities in the matter and remove seditious books from the shelves. But they didn't disappear completely as they took their way to a locked cupboard nicknamed “hell”.
Readers could access the books at the index, provided they had a authorization signed by a representative of the Church.
With the approach of the Second World War, it was communism that had to be censored. In 1937, the government of Maurice Duplessis adopted the law protecting the province against communist propaganda, nicknamed the padlock law. The Clarté newspaper had its offices searched and padlocked for one year on November 16, 1937.
But the censorship was not only religious. “There have been acrimonious debates around certain political writings. Some lasted for weeks, even months,” continues Ms. Ménard, giving the example of the hunt for Communists in the 1940s and 1950s.
Journalist imprisoned for “slander
In1922, a Montreal journalist,John H. Roberts, will be jailed for four months for blaming government inaction on a murder case in The Axe newspaper.
This is in the wake of the unsolved murder of Blanche Garneau, raped and murdered at the age of 21 in July 1920 in Victoria Park, in Quebec, that the journalist wrote an article pointing the finger at two deputies of the party in power. In fact, he suspects the sons of MPs Martin Madden and Arthur Paquet of having committed the crime. But it doesn't publish any names.
It's too much for the prime minister at the time, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, who is also attorney general of the province of Quebec. He summoned him to appear before the National Assembly and sentenced him to prison for having “unjustly slandered two deputies”.
The journalist will spend 115 days behind bars and will refuse to apologize to the result of this case.
The murder of Blanche Garneau is still unexplained a century later, but it was later learned that the son of Taschereau himself, a member of a secret society called the Vampire Club, made up of the sons of politicians and judges, could have been involved in the crime.
To see the exhibition Index!
▶ Laval University Library (Pavillon Jean-Charles Bonenfant), 2355, allée des Bibliothèques, Quebec. Until April 2, 2023;
▶ Maison nationale des Patriotes, 610, chemin des Patriotes, Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu. From June 15 to September 3, 2023.