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AUGUST - First World War

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This year, the month of August marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. On August 4, 1914, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, joining the concert of nations involved in a military conflict that would reach a new span. By doing so, the United Kingdom steered its colonies and its dominions in a war that lasted a little more than four years.

The automatic entry of Canada at war alongside Great Britain reopened the debate on the Canadian involvement in the wars of the Empire. During the Second Boer War, the country had already been divided over the need to send Canadian troops to fight in South Africa alongside the British. Already in 1899, Henri Bourassa had publicly opposed sending Canadian troops in South Africa and had resigned from his seat, slamming the door of the Liberal Party then led by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. In Bourassa's opinion, Canada was not required to support British imperial ambitions.

With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914, Montreal's newspapers published daily reports from the front. In the early days of the conflict, the Archbishop of Montreal, Paul Bruchési, pondered on the official position to adopt. Very early on, Montreal's Catholic Church openly supported, through various charities, European civilian populations affected by the conflict. However, the severe criticism of Henri Bourassa in the editorials of his newspaper Le Devoir troubled many. In his editorial of October 26, 1914, Bourassa firmly criticized Great Britain who, despite a major mobilization campaign had deployed only a small number of soldiers on the front to fight alongside its allies. In Bourassa's opinion, the United Kingdom had joined the war with the sole purpose of maintaining the balance of power in Europe. The objective of these editorials was clearly to discourage the voluntary enlistment of French Canadians.

Probably taken aback by the arguments of Henri Bourassa, Archbishop Bruchési sought the opinion of Rodolphe Lemieux on the issue. Rodolphe Lemieux, former journalist and former Postmaster general, then campaigned for voluntary recruitment. This Member of Parliament and close associate of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, shared the views of the former Prime Minister on many issues. The register of letters of Bishop Bruchési did not retain copy of the letter addressed by the Archbishop to the liberal MP, suggesting that it might originate from his private correspondence. Only the response of Rodolphe Lemieux remained in our Archives. It is this personal letter that we suggest you to read this month. It throws us back into a debate on the duty of Canadians in the conflict that was raging.  In his letter, Lemieux severely condemned Henri Bourassa. The MP does not hesitate to characterize it as a "tendentious campaign". Rodolphe Lemieux and Henri Bourassa were nevertheless quite acquainted, having made their entrance together in Parliament in 1896 as members of the Liberal Party.

The tension reflected in this letter already mirrors the beginning of the Conscription Crisis that will divide the country in 1917. This document also reflects the interest of the Archbishop of Montreal for the political debates of the time and his desire to form his own opinion as to the official position to be adopted by the Church.


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