Loyal to a Fault

Review by Jean-Philippe Garneau
Thomas Chapais, historien. Damien-Claude Bélanger. Ottawa, Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa, 2018, 222 pp.


Originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 edition of The Dorchester Review, pp. 89-91.



NOWADAYS, FEW HISTORIANS bother to read the work of Sir Thomas Chapais (1858-1946), a lawyer-turned-politician who taught history at Université Laval at the turn of the 20th century. One of his masterpieces, the Cours d’histoire du Canada, an eight-volume constitutional history of Quebec between 1760 and 1867, has been mostly forgotten. Even his biography of the Marquis de Montcalm doesn’t merit much attention anymore. Despite being a well-researched study, his spirited plea in favour of the unfortunate French general doesn’t fit the nationalistic critique of the British Conquest that has prevailed in Quebec at least since the 1950s, if not earlier. In fact, Chapais is mostly known as the sidekick of a much more studied early 20th-century historian, abbé Lionel Groulx, one of the founders of modern Quebec historiography, as Ronald Rudin has pointed out in Making History in Twentieth Century Quebec. Then why dedicate an entire book to such an “obscure” historian? 

In two hundred (or so) elegant pages, Damien-Claude Bélanger argues that such an endeavour was much needed. For one thing, Chapais’ narrative of the French-Canadian past should be seen as a contribution in its own right to Quebec historiography, an argument that Rudin had already made. But Bélanger goes further, arguing that some of Chapais’ historical interpretations were innovative and deserve to be recognized as such. 

Even though his thought didn’t have a great influence in the long run and cannot be compared to Groulx’s legacy, Chapais did have an impact on the historical community and its development. Lacking specific training in history, he was nevertheless well aware of some of the methodological problems of the day. He made good use of first-hand documents and put forward broad interpretations of the past. Bélanger is not the first to pay attention to Chapais. But he does fill a gap in our understanding of the landscape at an earlier stage of our history — on the cusp of a more scientific approach to the French-Canadian past. 

Bélanger seeks to shed light on what he calls “French-Canadian loyalism,” a “doctrine” at the core of his larger research project at the University of Ottawa. Bélanger argues that loyalism should be understood as a distinctive feature of Quebec’s conservative tradition. Loyalism, he says, is roughly equivalent to fidelity to the British Crown or the British Empire. 

The importance of such a theme, from the American Revolution to the First World War and beyond, is a well-known feature of the English-Canadian grand narrative. It has received less attention in the French-Canadian context, although the loyal attitude of seigneurial and Catholic elites since the Conquest is a well-established trait of Quebec history. In Prejudice and Pride, his previous book, published in 2011 by U. of T. Press, Bélanger pinpointed French-Canadian loyalism as an ideological trend still flourishing in early 20th-century Quebec. 

This loyalism he calls a “unique conservative synthesis” between English-Canadian imperialism and French-Canadian nationalism. In the case of Chapais, the notion seems to fit well. Admiration for British institutions is one of its expressions, especially political institutions, as amply shown in the Cours d’histoire du Canada. Loyalism is also rooted in Chapais’ historical interpretation of some of Quebec’s turning points, such as the “providential” Conquest. 

Like the Catholic intelligentsia before him, Chapais saw the course of events between the end of New France and the time of the French Revolution as a blessing: not only did French Canadians inherit a more liberal constitution, but they were protected from the impious republicanism that severed the antique links between French Catholic clergy and Rome. 

 Bélanger accords much importance to the Catholic roots of Chapais, a man raised in a rural elite family and fed by the collège classique tradition in a time when the power of the Catholic clergy was at its height in social and cultural life. He argues that Quebec ultramontanes like Chapais were building a specific kind of French-Canadian nationalism in which British imperialism could still take a respectable place. 

Rudin, and H.V. Nelles in The Art of Nation-Building, among others, have shown how this curious blend could manifest itself in commemorative events such as the Quebec Tercentenary of 1908. But Chapais cannot be portrayed solely as an ultramontane historian like some of his predecessors (abbé Ferland, in particular), as did Serge Gagnon in Le Québec et ses historiens de 1840 à 1920. He was also a provincial Legislative Councillor and federal Senator, among other political functions, and was particularly devoted to constitutional history in the latter part of his career. Chapais believed more broadly in the benevolent attitude of British imperialism toward the French-Canadian population from the battle of the Plains of Abraham onwards.


THOMAS CHAPAIS, historien is a somewhat hybrid endeavour. On the one hand, it is a historiographical study that seeks to better understand the nature of the narrative written by this self-taught historian; how Chapais wove his story, even as history as a discipline was in its infancy, especially in Quebec. On the other hand, the book seeks to discover the ideological stance of Chapais as a French-Canadian conservative political figure at the turn of the 20th century.


Bélanger has gone through most of Chapais’ writings: historiographical studies, published political speeches, and essays, even his historical columns in newspapers like the Catholic Courrier du Canada at the beginning of his career under the pen name of “Ignotus.” He has also studied handwritten manuscripts and correspondence, though he says little about the impact of Chapais’ public life on his work or his intellectual network, apart from some insights into his relationship with Lionel Groulx.   

The first chapter is about the formation of Chapais’ “historical consciousness,” his philosophy of history, with some consideration of the historian’s craft. Bélanger examines Chapais’ ideological posture as influenced by his social origin, education, career highlights, and the like. Chapter 2, the core of the book, looks at Chapais’ contributions to history itself. Each period of the French-Canadian epic is examined beginning with first contact with the natives. The well-known theme of national “survivance” echoes the teleological approach of a story ending with the Confederation compromise between two nations. 

Above all, Bélanger emphasises the “loyalism” of this French-Canadian gentleman, a central concept of the book. The last chapter addresses the influence of Chapais’ work, in the short as well as in the long run. Taking into account the different stages of his career, Bélanger explores the scope of Chapais’ comparative success  and public appreciation of his works, especially the biographies.

Chapais’ influence was clear in the Carillon controversy, which illustrates how an established historian can have an impact on popular collective memory. Essentially he debunked the myth that an imaginary Irish battalion had secured the French victory at Carillon in 1758. 

Like the historian Benjamin Sulte (1841-1923), the subject of La marche des morts illustres by Patrice Groulx, Thomas Chapais took part in public commemorations such as the Tercentenary. But Bélanger does not deal with this aspect directly, perhaps because it was not a prominent feature of Chapais’ overall output. 

Chapais’ star, as a historian, faded after the First World War. Between the wars he was more openly criticized by right-wing Quebec nationalists who rejected the loyalism of the old “aristocrat,” his loyalist theme being more obvious than ever in his most recent publications.

Overall, Bélanger offers a well-documented study of a rather “unloved” French-Canadian historian. Chapais was overdue for a more careful and benevolent assessment of his contribution to Quebec historiography as a conservative intellectual. 

But personally, I’m not entirely convinced of the importance of his short-term impact. I am even less convinced of his relevance for present-day historians. Bélanger nevertheless rightly pinpoints the quality of Chapais’ work on constitutional and legal history, a field largely neglected by today’s historians in Quebec. To my mind, this is one of his most distinctive contributions and could have been emphasized much more. 

Closing the book, I also had the feeling that Bélanger’s device of loyalism, coupled with the second strand of Chapais’ DNA as a conservative (his ultramontane or Catholic identity), is not always enlightening enough to fully understand the man and his contribution. At the end of Chapter 2, for instance, the author addresses the problem of the “bonne-entente” mood that prevailed among many public figures during Chapais’ lifetime. Was Chapais part of this group? Bélanger answers in the negative — a contradictory stance that could be a bit surprising to some. 

He takes great care to highlight Chapais’ elitist distance from ignorant lower-class English Canadians. Does this mean that there were at least two kinds of French-Canadian loyalist, one type that took great care not to be associated with his English-Canadian counterpart, albeit overtly accepting the British flavour of Canadian institutions; and another type that took pride in celebrating the union of the races? Despite important internal subtleties like this, Bélanger seems to lump together French-Canadian loyalism. 

Other features could also be explored in a more complex ideological portrait. The relationship between loyalism and ultramontane doctrines (and, more broadly, French-Canadian nationalism) doesn’t receive enough attention, in my opinion. Before 1840, the Catholic Church in Quebec, despite being in an uneasy situation, renewed its alliance with the throne to survive under British rule. With the era of Msgr. Bourget, and the end of statutory privileges for the churches (e.g. land reserves) in Canada in 1851, the Catholic clergy became comparable to a semi-autonomous state-like power within Quebec, characterized by the ultramontane fervour at the core of “clérico-nationaliste” ideology. Thus, despite being still conservative at the turn of the 20th century, the Quebec Catholic Church was not loyal in the same way as it had been during the colonial regime. There was, in ultramontane support or compliance with the political regime, another brand of loyalism that could (and did) interfere with the British (and earlier, more traditional) loyalism. Already recognizable with Bishop Bourget (and his lukewarm adhesion to Confederation), this dual but unequal fidelity was doubtless severed at the time of abbé Groulx. Bélanger does not fully take these themes into account, nor does he go deeply enough into the tension between loyalism and Catholic-based nationalism, either in the mind of Chapais or in Quebec society in general.

Despite these reservations, Thomas Chapais, historien is undoubtedly a welcome contribution to Quebec intellectual history and to the history of conservative thought as well. 

Jean-Philippe Garneau is professor of history at UQAM (the University of Quebec in Montreal) and an expert on New France, Quebec under the British regime, and Lower Canada before Confederation.

This review was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 edition of The Dorchester Review, pp. 89-91.

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