Notes on 15th Text for Reading Field: Levitt

Canadian History, Week Three

Joseph Levitt. Henri Bourassa and the Golden Calf: The Social Program of the Nationalists of Quebec (1900-1914). Ottawa: Les Editions de l’université d’Ottawa, 1969.

The title of Joseph Levitt’s book is intriguing in that he does not explicitly refer to the golden calf anywhere else in the text, nor does he supply a reason for the reference. A  reasonable assumption would be that the golden calf references a false god.[1]

Aside from the idea that to pursue wealth is to worship the golden calf — a common homily in sermons — the reference has other implications. According to the Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion, one understanding holds that the ‘sin of the calf’ represents “the prototype of national apostasy and idolatrous worship.”[2] Catholic writers have generally accepted the view of Philo and the early Fathers, that the worship of golden calves was borrowed from the Egyptians. One of the implications of this view is that an Egyptian god brought the Israelites out of Egypt, leading some scholars to counter that Hebrew bull- worship arose out of their having been an agricultural people, for whom the bull stood as a symbol of strength and energy.[3] Jewish rabbinical interpretation of the narrative found in Exodus (32: 1–33: 23), introduces additional nuances. For example, Midrashim, in noting that the women were extremely reluctant to give their ornaments for the making of the calf, concluded that women were more steadfast in faith than men. As well, Rabbi Israel Chait taught that when Moses discovered he was leading “a nation of idolaters rather than a people committed to accept a moral law based upon their intellectual conviction,” he was faced by a transformation brought about by a fear that was ultimately attributable to a simple miscalculation.[4]

The theme of miscalculation figures in Levitt’s analysis of Bourassa. Levitt counters what he characterizes as a historiographical “common view” of Henri Bourassa. Rather than regarding Bourassa as a socially conservative adherent of agrarianism who was set on resisting modern industrial society, Levitt finds that Bourassa accepted “that the large scale industrial system was here to stay,” but was committed to making “serious efforts” at effecting its reform.[5] On  this point Levitt regards Michel Brunet’s thesis of French Canadian intellectual history as too simplistic a generalization. If there was a constellation of beliefs that “French Canada had a special cultural and moral mission to fulfill in North America, … that it should reject industrialism and concentrate on agriculture, and an antipathy against the state that prevented government action in the social field,” Levitt argues that the Nationalists diverged significantly from this intellectual pattern.[6]

Levitt describes the Nationalists — of which Bourassa was one — as a “tiny group of French Canadian politicians and journalists” (there were four other members).[7] Their aim, from 1900 to 1914 was to build an autonomous Canadian nation within the British Empire that allowed for a bicultural Quebec. Levitt admits there was a moral aspect to their mission: the Nationalists saw French culture and Catholicism as eminently fitted to encouraging a model ‘good’ society to grow, because providence was assumed to have been present throughout French Canadian history. There was a racialized aspect as well – French people were characterized as instinctively honourable, faithful, and persevering.

Bourassa championed the Church and the agricultural parish as ideological resources. These served both as a valuable mean measurement, for determining healthy attitudes and lifestyles, and as a countervailing influence against the North American tendency to individualistic materialism. However, Levitt does not agree that the leading politicians, writers, and clergy in French Canada, or the Nationalists, including Bourassa, were agriculturalists bent on refusing either industrialization or commercialization. Rather, Levitt describes them as territorialists, intent on occupying as much of the available land base as possible and following up the occupation with ‘progressive’ development in which natural resources would be exploited for the benefit of all who inhabited the territory.[8]

As for state intervention in social programming, Levitt does not find Quebec to have lagged behind Ontario – at least to 1914. If there was comparatively less state activity devoted to such projects as expanding rail lines to the north and west, in Levitt’s opinion, Quebec’s geographical position supplies ample explanation.

Thus, as Levitt sees it, the principal concern of intellectuals such as Bourassa was to safeguard a proper moral balance: material gains were not to be allowed to lead to ‘bad’ social consequences, people (particularly women), had to be dissuaded from becoming enamoured with the idea of wealth for wealth’s sake. Bourassa’s solution, which Levitt names ‘utopian corporatism,’ was to have French Canadians of all classes pool their capital in order to cooperatively and more effectively engage in the economic competition of the business world. Bourassa advocated collective investing rather than individual consumerism. Levitt finds Bourassa to have been concerned with balancing state involvement in peoples’ lives as well. On the one hand, the right to private property was to be inviolable: individual initiative was to be supported, not blocked. On the other, state services (including supervision and monitoring, but excluding excessive regulation), in areas such as energy supply and transportation, were to be deemed desirable if private enterprise (in particular that of English-speaking, and especially non-resident, capitalists), was seen to succeed at the expense of the corporate needs of the people.

Bourassa’s aim may have been admirable and his concern heartfelt, but, Levitt suggests, the failure to realize his vision (and the instances of failure are numerous), was due to a miscalculation with respect to his – and the other Nationalists’ — power of persuasion.[9] It was not enough to simply advance social criticism, or present a programme for developing an ideal society to the people they regarded as their nation. In Levitt’s opinion, Bourassa “overlooked the hard fact” that compelling assent and instituting change requires command of, or support from, political and economic power bases.[10] Because Bourassa, Olivar Asselin, Jules Fournier, Omer Huéroux and Amand Lavergne did not entirely espouse the doctrines of clergy, capitalists or politicians; did not join conservatives, liberals, socialists, collectivists, populists, agrarianists, progressivists, labour unionists, or any other larger organization; but instead formed a distinct minority grouped under a separate banner as the Nationalist League – an ‘educational association’ not a registered political party — they had no such power base to work with, or from.

Additional Resources:

Avery Plaw, “Henri Bourassa as a Neglected Father of Canadian Nationalism,” Conference Papers, Organization for the History of Canada, Google Docs, , available as a pdf.

[1] “golden calf n.”  The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd ed. Edited by Erin McKean. Oxford University Press, 2005. Oxford Reference Online <; [requires subscription].

[2] “Golden Calf”  A Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion. Edited by Louis Jacobs. Oxford University Press, 1999. Oxford Reference Online <; [requires subscription].

[3] “Golden Calf,” Catholic Encyclopedia

[4] “The Golden Calf, Rabbi Israel Chait, Transcribed by a student,”

[5] Joseph Levitt, Henri Bourassa and the Golden Calf: The Social Program of the Nationalists of Quebec (1900-1914) ( Ottawa: Les Editions de l’université d’Ottawa, 1969), vii.

[6] Levitt, Henri Bourassa, 130.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Ibid., 131-133, 137, 138, 142-143.

[9] For examples of failure see, ibid., 19, 45, 49, 54, 55, 56, 65, 77, 78, 117, 124, 126, 127, where Levitt describes Bourassa’s failure to: form a third party; suggest a workable means of exercising control over timber resources; safeguard hydro power production for the people; prevent the placing of public transportation into private hands; see preferred candidates elected, and “understand capitalism as an economic system”; counter monopolies; inspire colonization of northern Quebec; prevent French Canadian entrepreneurs from becoming materialistic and engaging in ‘boodling’; understand the market system; convince the federal government to adopt biculturalism; and, ultimately, Bourassa failed to be an effective reform force.

[10] Ibid., 127, 144.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 3 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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