“Arabs aren’t big on sensitivity; they’re more egotistical: it’s the men first, then the women, and then the children, if anyone thinks of them at all.”
In fact, it’s an observation made in 1905 by a young French-Canadian Catholic missionary to Tunisia, taken from the pages of a popular missionary magazine that reached tens of thousands of Québecers through parishes, schools and family networks across the province.
Québec’s religious amnesia
Here in Québec, we suffer from what thinker Catherine Foisy has described as “religious amnesia.” The mytho-history of the Quiet Revolution continues to structure our discussions on religion and its place in the province; the dominant narrative tells a story of a society that turned away from the church and toward secularity and the welfare state during the years of Jean Lesage’s progressive governments in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, this narrative neglects the importance of currents within the church that led to the post-1960 transformation of Québec.
One of the many phenomena hidden by this forgetfulness is the presence of thousands of French-Canadian missionaries throughout the countries of the Global South during the first half of the 20th century. At the end of the 1950s, more than 3,300 Québec missionaries were working in 68 countries around the world, including in Asia.
The first foreign missionaries from Québec included several members of the Catholic African Missionary Society, commonly known as the “White Fathers.” This group was founded in France in 1868 after the conquest of Algeria, and was designed to propagate the Christian Gospel to “those poor victims of the impostor [Islam’s prophet, Muhammad],” as young French-Canadian missionary Joseph Fillion put it in a 1905 letter.
‘Crowning Achievement of Our Small Nation’
In the days before Canada and Québec developed their own autonomous foreign policies, French-Canadian missionaries were in many ways the most important representatives of our society overseas. Lionel Groulx, a major intellectual architect of contemporary Québec neo-nationalism, in his 1962 book Le Canada français missionnaire : une autre grande aventure, went so far as to describe foreign mission work as the “crowning achievement of our small nation.”
As a result, the history of Québec before the Quiet Revolution was not one of isolation but rather of transnational connections, anchored in global power structures and inseparable from British and French imperial projects.
As British citizens who spoke French, young Québec Catholics became prominent figures in the colonizing projects of the two empires across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, where they waged a constant war against Islam. This religious struggle continued even after modernization reshaped the place of the church in Québec. In the 1970s, Québec missionaries in Indonesia were still reporting on their “concentrated efforts to fight the rise of Islam.”
In a Québec profoundly shaped and guided by religious authorities, missionary propaganda was one of the most important ways in which people learned about the broader world.
Through recruitment sessions in colleges, sermons at Mass, newspapers and at missionary exhibitions attracting thousands of participants, reductionist discourses about Islam and other non-Christian religions rooted themselves deeply in Québec’s popular culture.
« If one day [this letter] is published in the Annales of the White Fathers in Québec City, hopefully it will inspire some brave Canadians to come support the mission of their compatriots lost in the Sudanese brush, fishing the pagan fringes for souls to offer to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ ».
Muslims, we were taught, are characterized by a marked irrationality, captives of a false ideology and attached to backward, patriarchal traditions.
Taking a hard look at ourselves
If the content of this discourse has changed somewhat, the form is almost identical. Before 1960, Québecers sought to correct the “irrationality” of Muslims abroad through conversion to Catholicism. These days, we work to inculcate secular values and focus on state neutrality.
However, we continue to reserve for ourselves the position of authority, explaining to The Other how he (or more often, she, with the passage of Bill 62, Québec’s religious neutrality law,) can acquire full subject status in our society.
Often, when we talk about Islamophobia in Québec, we do so in terms of the rise of anti-Islam sentiments across the Western world following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or rely on secular frameworks transplanted from France.
But the aggressive version of this hateful ideology that we are witnessing today is unique to the Québec context.
It is only through a critical reinterpretation of our own history of participation in Western imperialism, and a reckoning with the frankly Christian nature of our society — despite our insistence on secularity — that we can begin to build a version of Québec freed from the racist patterns of the 20th century.