HOME HEARTSTRING 19: ANTI-COMMERCIALISM

First Heartstring of the Catholic Root.

After the British took over, our economy was pretty much limited to subsistence agriculture and small businesses. French historian Edmond de Nevers was able to reduce our economic efforts from 1763 to 1863 to one sentence. “There were none.”

Blessed are the poor, for they shall see God.

We will hold this lesson in our collective heart and perpetuate a certain myth of poverty in our province. The English, those sellers in the temple and rich Protestants, will all go to hell as we head to heaven.

In 1894, a letter from archbishops and bishops of the ecclesiastical provinces of Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa, will successfully bring a few lost sheep home. “Be sure to encourage Christian parents to hand their children over to agriculture and colonization, making sure to remind them that by taking this action, they’re giving their offspring to our country, our religion, and even God.”

So be it.

It’s not the clergy itself that’s behind the times but rather a few specific French Canadian clergymen. This realization will lead us to entrust the entire field of business studies to our religious brothers who are often poorly educated in the subject and have taken a vow of poverty. (Contrary to priests who came from a variety of different Quebec regions, 79% of those who joined the brotherhood during the Golden Age of French Canadian Catholicism in 1935 came from rural areas.)

Despite the embellished version of the facts that is often suggested, the calling of New France up to the time of the conquest was not agricultural but rather commercial in nature. Our coureurs de bois were travelling salesman and thanks to their entrepreneurship more and more Quebec businesses came to be. Even back then the Church didn’t like these men who they thought were too enterprising, smoked local tobacco in long Indian pipes, wore leggings and moccasins, and travelled around in birchbark canoes like a bunch of natives. After the conquest, the Church used all of its newfound powers to promote the habitant lifestyle and bless the earth. Go into business? Never! Might as well go right ahead and sell your soul to the devil.

In the famous “Prayer Book of the French Canadian Patriot” sermon delivered on June 23, 1902, Bishop Louis-Adolphe Paquet drives the point home:


“Our mission is less to handle capital than it is to keep our people thinking. We’re not here to spark up the engines that power factories but rather to keep the spark of religion and thought alive and to help spread it across the province. Let other nations with lesser ideals contend with the vile commercialism and vulgar naturalism that bind them to material things. While our rivals fight each other greedily to gain control of industry and finance, no doubt, we’ll make upholding the honour of and reaping the rewards of our faith our top priority.”


(Roman philosopher Seneca, who also preached poverty, was as rich as he was miserly.)

These teachings will lead us to believe you should never trust Quebec businessmen because you can never tell which ones sold their soul to the English, which ones are political schemers and which ones made a profit at the expense of their workers. In Quebec, people always find out how you make your money so it’s impossible to be rich and virtuous at the same time. So be it for Quebec entrepreneurs.

This despicable Heartstring vibrates in perfect harmony with Heartstring 22, the one that believes we’re not destined for great things.

Everyone tries hard to find faults with our entrepreneurs and fix them, whether it be through scientific or other means. Not a single soul has nice things to say about our businessmen. See for yourself.

Journalist Michel Nadeau presents us with the results of two different studies on executive behaviour in Le Devoir (April 8, 1974). According to McGill Faculty of Management professor Rabi Kanungo, “French Canadian managers measure how successful they are at work through the achievement of personal and social objectives more than through financial results. While their English-speaking counterparts look for challenging tasks and ambitious responsibilities, French-speaking managers prefer a pleasant work environment, recognition and substantial fringe benefits.”

Université Laval Faculty of Administrative Science professor Gérald D’Ambroise catches the ball and runs with it. “When promoting an employee, English Canadian executives will often reward leadership skills while French Canadian businessmen, who are often self-made men, will focus on technical abilities. A French-speaking company president doesn’t see money as profit but more as a symbol of social and professional success.”

According to management professor Georges-Maurice Hénault, our businessmen suffer from the Caesar Complex, “which expresses itself through a style of charismatic leadership within a company pyramid where all the decisions are made at the top. The paternalistic approach that French-speaking executives favour in their relationships with employees and customers certainly helps to explain why French Canadian businesses are usually on the smaller side. English-speaking management is more open whereas ours is more focused on the leader’s ideas since we tend to be a bit more obliging when it comes to our superiors.”

In Le Canada vu par un Américain (Canada as Seen by an American) published in the early 1940s, journalist Henry Chamberlin writes, “The current students we find roaming the halls of our classical colleges are French Canadian gentlemen with strong religious faith and who are educated, although perhaps in a slightly old-fashioned manner, friendly, spiritual and logical (according to what they’ve been taught). It’s the perfect training for anyone aspiring to become a priest, lawyer, doctor, journalist or political leader but, with very few exceptions, it in no way prepares them for any kind of business career in this industrial age.”

Alphonse Riverin, a visiting professor at the Faculty of Administration Science of Université Laval, has a lot of issues with the behaviour of Quebec entrepreneurs.


“They tend to take on an almost dictatorial role with regard to their subordinates. They want personal control over the company (expression of their individuality and attitude towards growth) and are willing to maintain personal relationships while doing business. There is a lack of cooperation between organizations, businessmen (among themselves as well), government bodies and universities. An ideology that doesn’t look favourably on private enterprise has been emerging among unions and some of the public (negative attitude of paternalistic bosses towards unions). These businessmen don’t really like taking risks (they operate with great or moderate caution), they don’t pay much attention to the scientific method (their marketing is weak) and they don’t really like change (low growth goals, weak restructuring and overly self-focused).”


We all know the other classic scenario of the little engine that could variety. After years of hard work, a Quebec entrepreneur builds a company from the ground up. As he gets older, he’s faced with three different options. If he doesn’t have any successors (having told his sons to become men of the cloth or doctors in order to raise his status in the community), his choices are to recruit external partners and sell them a few of his shares or to go ahead and sell his business to a bigger company with deeper English roots. However, if he does have successors, the son who ends up managing the company will find himself having all sorts of issues with his siblings and will decide to sell as soon as the founder of the business passes away.

Industrialization took its time coming to Quebec, and with good reason. When we finally woke up from our very long nap, all the executive positions available were already filled. In 1961, sociologist John Porter put 51 French Canadians on his list of the country’s financial elite, or power elite, which represents a mere 6% of the total.

But we can’t always blame the Anglos for our hardships. Consider this: of the 10,304 graduates who left our classical colleges with Bachelor of Arts degrees between 1940 and 1950, 37% (close to 3500) of them became priests, 35% opted for medical careers, 15% chose engineering, 7% ended up in business and 6% settled on a future in applied science.

Bishop Briand said it was the English who kept us from building cultural and commercial relationships with France. Sir Wilfrid Laurier insisted it was the clergy, who feared some of the liberal ideas running around in Europe might end up here.

Many foreign visitors have written about us at one time or another and they’ve all noticed that intellectual work is not the biggest trend in French Canada. We’ve been repeatedly told we’re undereducated. Education, already a privilege in New France, will still be one until about 1960 when a new government slogan erupts, claiming Qui s’instruit, s’enrichit (the more you learn, the more you earn).

In 1804, composer, poet and playwright Joseph Quesnel tried to get us to change our ways.


“From Alaska to Timbuktu,

People praise genius, yes they do.

Except in Canada, where folks refuse to see

Just how talented their countrymen can be.”


We have to admit that most media haven’t exactly been knocking down doors to talk to businessmen, except for a few specialty magazines like Commerce and Les affaires. Having access to relevant high-quality information in the business section of our major papers is indeed a very recent phenomenon.

We openly accuse Quebec businessmen of laying low and not showing up for important debates. The 300 or so millionaires we have in Quebec (identified in 1960) prefer to remain silent. And our businessmen would rather not show their face in public because they almost always end up being labelled the bad guys in the panels and interviews they agree to take part in. “We go out at night,” says one of them, “and usually meet behind closed doors.”

In 1976, BCP decided to conduct an experiment in collaboration with the Télé-Métropole show La Bosse des Affaires. We interviewed Quebec businessmen, presidents of national and international companies, as well as CEOs of major Quebec businesses. One after the other they refuted all the lies we’ve been believing and spreading around since 1763. For example, these made-in-Quebec industry leaders never had to leave the province to access their positions of power. And they totally discredited the preconceived notion that you can’t be successful unless you’re a nomadic manager, adding that Quebec executives are better suited to perform at the provincial level, English Canadians at the national level and Americans at the international level.

While some of the old nonsense our priests drilled into us explained, excused and even blessed our economic inferiority, and in spite of still buying into the fatalistic concept of it takes money to make money, Quebecers in the referendum era control between 15% and 20% of the economy in their corner of the world.

In a province where the same people who started out preaching the parable of the sellers in the temple followed up with the whole buy local idea, don’t be surprised if all our businessmen, who we’ve crucified because of the teachings of our Catholic Root, end up in heaven…but only if God first forgives lawyer and economist Édouard Montpetit for saying, “We need to look into the economics issue to see whether it’s blasphemous or not.”

We will come back to Heartstring 19 at the end of this book.

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.