Lionel Groulx

Lionel-Adolphe Groulx, historian, priest, nationalist spokesman (born 13 January 1878 in Vaudreuil, QC; died 23 May 1967 in Vaudreuil).

Groulx, Lionel
Groulx kept posing the worrisome question of French and Catholic survival in an urban, industrial, Anglo-Saxon environment (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-16657).
Lionel Groulx
© Marie-Josée Hudon. All portraits reproduced are the property of the artist. Courtesy: Musée des Grands Québecois.

Lionel-Adolphe Groulx, historian, priest, nationalist spokesman (born 13 January 1878 in Vaudreuil, QC; died 23 May 1967 in Vaudreuil). Commemorated by Claude Ryan as the spiritual father of modern Québec, Groulx was French Canada's foremost historian until the 1960s and, after Henri Bourassa Québec's most prominent nationalist teacher and proponent during the same period. Through his teaching and writing, his sermons and his direction of nationalist organizations, Groulx was a controversial figure — criticizing Confederation, while inspiring thousands of young people with a pride in French Canada's past and a confidence in Québec's future.

Schooling and Ordination

Born into a rural, farming family, Groulx had rudimentary village schooling and then classical college training in the seminary in Ste-Thérèse. The intense religious atmosphere of his upbringing and school life led him towards the Roman Catholic priesthood and teaching. As a student and then ordained priest, he taught literature and history at the college in Valleyfield (now Salaberry-de-Valleyfield) from 1900 until 1915, with a three-year interruption for graduate theological and linguistic study in Europe from 1906-09.

History Teacher

During his early teaching days, Groulx developed his two lifelong passions: a commitment to young people and to the study of history. He initiated the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-française, a province-wide student body, inspiring its members to develop high religious and social ideals and to put them into practice throughout their lives. As Groulx trained himself to be an historian, he also created a course and a text in Canadian history for his students, virtually from scratch.

He developed François-Xavier Garneau's view of the Conquest as a disaster for French Canadians, and furthered Garneau's idea of history as a struggle by French Canadians for survival against Aboriginals, Anglophones and Americans. The novelty of that approach is hard to imagine today, because Groulx was so successful in undermining the then-common assumption that the British presence in Québec was beneficial, and that French Canadian subordination was natural.

In 1915 Groulx was appointed to the first chair in Canadian history at the Université de Montréal, a position he held until 1949.


Groulx saw politics through the eyes of Henri Bourassa, embittered and unhappy over the Ontario Schools Question and Canada's participation in the First World War. With friends in the Ligue des droits du français, he worried over the diminishing stature of the French language in the burgeoning world of commerce and industry. His history lectures, published annually from 1916-21, continued their assault on the unknown and the commonplace. During 1917, the year of Conscription, Groulx's history lessons threw a dash of cold water on Confederation itself.

From 1920 to 1928 he edited a monthly journal, Action française, and animated a nationalist organization of the same name. In the journal Groulx kept posing the worrisome question of French and Catholic survival in an urban, industrial Anglo-Saxon environment, and he toyed with the idea of an autonomous state for French Canada. He carefully avoided the word Separatism and denied all his life any advocacy of it. But still the thought was there. Perhaps French Canadians could organize their social, economic and political existence in their own way, drawing their inspiration and their genius from their religion, their past and their French culture.

Groulx maintained that ideal through some of the darkest periods in modern Québec history. The Great Depression of the 1930s found him involved with yet another nationalist organization, Action Nationale, which interpreted the Depression as the result of excess industrialization fostered by American capitalists and abetted by an overly generous provincial government. During the Second World War Groulx bluntly blamed English-speaking Canadians for the division over conscription.


Usually Groulx was more severe with his fellow French Canadians: they must insist on their equal place in Canada, he said. In the 1950s, as the Quiet Revolution was stirring, Groulx chastised a new generation for sloughing off their Roman Catholic heritage.

In an increasingly secular society, Groulx emphasized Québec's religious heritage in his major work, Histoire du Canada français (1950-51), and in the historical journal he founded in 1947 and edited for 20 years: Revue d'histoire de l'Amerique française. What he did share with the younger generation was a distaste for Maurice Duplessis and great excitement over the beginnings of the Quiet Revolution – at least for its political if not its anti-Catholic sentiments. Indeed Groulx cast off his clerical prudence to vote in the election of 1962 when nationalization of the province's private hydro companies was at stake. Finally, the petit peuple were taking part of their destiny into their own hands.

Groulx maintained his nationalist ardour to the day he died. Just two weeks before, he was discussing history at the Youth Pavilion at Expo 67, and on the very last day of his life the last of his more than 30 books was launched, significantly entitled Constantes de vie.

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Further Reading

  • Lionel Groulx, Mes mémoires (1970-74), and Abbé Groulx: Variations on a Nationalist Theme, ed Susan Mann Trofimenkoff (1973); Susan Mann Trofimenkoff, Action française: French Canadian Nationalism in the 1920s (1975), and Dream of Nation: A Social and Intellectual History of Québec (1982).