Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"Blasphemy Trials in Quebec, 1900-1935"

Marika Tamm, Blasphemy Trials in Quebec, 1900-1935 (unpublished student paper 1992).

This interesting paper examines five prosecutions for blasphemy in Quebec in the early third of the Twentieth Century. Four of the prosecutions discussed—Pelletier, Kinler, St. Martin, and Rahard are reported cases—but the fifth, Pilon, is an unreported case that (apart from a reference to it in Rahard) I had been unable to find any information about. Tamm’s research makes good use of French language secondary sources to add background and insight to her caselaw analysis. Some key points include:

* An argument that the fictional debate over baptism which was the subject of prosecution in Pelletier “can in fact be interpreted as an allegory about the theological schism between Catholics and Protestants” (p. 16), leading to the conclusion that “the inventor of the dialogue . . . was in fact a Protestant, and wrote the piece to stir up theological controversy within the Christian church” (p. 17) as opposed to the trial judge’s finding that the piece was an attack on Christianity altogether.

* Context for the prosecution in St. Martin. Tamm explains that Albert St. Martin was a prominent leader of the Communist Party of Canada and founded a sort of lecture/discussion series called the Université ouvrière, which was “regarded with hostility and suspicion by the Quebec authorities.” St. Martin’s prosecution as caused, at least in part, by anti-Communist sentiment in heavily Catholic Quebec is a valuable insight that one probably wouldn’t gather solely from reading the reported court opinion.

* Discussion of Pilon. Tamm explains that Gaston Pilon was St. Martin’s “right-hand man” and a popular speaker at the Université ouvrière who helped run the series when St. Martin’s health became poor. One of Pilon’s lectures led to his arrest for blasphemous libel in 1934, and Justice Wilson of Montreal’s King’s Bench found him guilty. Compared to the normal fine of around $ 100 leveled in other blasphemy cases, the sentence in Pilon is startling: “Noting that Pilon had a long series of previous criminal convictions for larceny, vagrancy and drunkenness, and possession of drugs, the judge admitted to exercising no leniency in sentencing, and committed Pilon to one year at hard labour.” (p. 29) It is not known if Pilon appealed the verdict. This was the maximum sentence available, and by far the most severe levied for blasphemy in Canada history. Tamm cites the newspaper Le Devoir for information on the Pilon case, and in the future I hope to dig into that newspaper's archives to study the case further.

As a general theme, Tamm notes that “[t]he majority of the cases—in fact all of the five Quebec cases—involved an affront not just to religious belief in general, but were prosecutions against people who spoke out specifically against Roman Catholic institutions and practices . . . [and] [t]here was an overt political dimension to some of the cases: the speakers were not only dissenting from religious orthodoxy but were also expressing viewpoints that presented a challenge to the existing political establishment of the state.” (p. 3)

My thanks to Marika Tamm for permission to cite and quote this paper, and to Susan Lewthwaite and Jim Philips for informing me about this work and helping me obtain a copy.

1 comment:

  1. I am sure that I would thoroughly enjoy being prosecuted for the crime of blasphemous libel in 21st century Québec on the dubious basis that I have made "unfounded and vicious allegations to the effect that ministers of the (Unitarian Universalist) Association engage in such despicable crimes as pedophilia and rape"; however, I expect that neither the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, nor Stikeman Elliott litigation lawyer Maitre Marc-André Coulombe, could find even an eccentric Crown prosecutor to take on their ludicrous case. . .