Saturday, 11 January 2014

Honoré Mercier

Honoré Mercier (1840-1894), Canadian politician and premier of the province of Québec from 1887 to 1891. A French Canadian nationalist, Mercier affirmed Québec's French and Catholic character and fought for the province’s autonomy within the Canadian Confederation.
Born in Saint-Athanase, Lower Canada (now Québec), Mercier absorbed French Canadian nationalism from his father, a farmer and patriot. Mercier gained his conviction that Roman Catholicism must be a central part of French Canadian identity from his Jesuit teachers at Montréal's Collège Sainte-Marie. He left college in 1862 and worked as editor of Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, a Conservative Party newspaper. However, Mercier resigned in 1864 when the Conservatives supported a plan for confederation of British North America, a plan that Mercier feared would harm French Canada. (see Confederation of Canada)
Mercier opened a law practice in 1865, but he was still drawn to politics. Although Mercier was unhappy with the Conservatives, he was reluctant to align himself with the Liberal Party, which included radicals (nicknamed the Rouges) condemned by the Catholic clergy. This condemnation made the Liberals unpopular with voters. In an attempt to distance themselves from the Rouges, Mercier and others formed what they called a parti national (National party), although it was really just a group of Liberals under another name. In 1872 Mercier was elected to the Canadian Parliament, but Liberal leaders disliked his passionate defense of Catholic interests and withdrew their support. Without the Liberal Party’s backing, Mercier did not seek reelection in 1874.
The Québec Liberals were friendlier to the Church, and Mercier won election to the province’s assembly as a Liberal in 1879. He rose quickly and became leader of the Liberals in the assembly in 1883. Two years later Québec politics were shaken by the execution of Louis Riel, a French Métis who had led the Northwest Rebellion in western Canada. French Canadians believed Riel had suffered mental problems and that there were mitigating circumstances in his case. They concluded that he had only been hanged because he was French Catholic, and they viewed his execution as an attack on them—“a blow struck at the heart of our race,” as Mercier told a Montréal protest rally. Mercier argued that French Canadians should unite and form a single party, the parti national, and work to fortify French Canada in the one province it could control, Québec. Mercier was still Liberal leader when he was reelected in 1886. When a number of Conservatives left their party to back him in 1887, he had the support of a majority in the Québec assembly. Mercier became premier of what he called the “national government” of Québec.
As premier, Mercier appointed a Catholic priest to his administration; passed laws that seemed to promote clerical influence in provincial affairs; and demanded that the federal government surrender powers to the provinces. He also made much-publicized trips to other countries where he seemed to behave, and to be received, as the head of an independent state. All this pleased voters, who returned him to office in 1890, but the lieutenant governor of Québec removed Mercier from the premiership the following year, when the Conservatives accused the Liberals of taking money from contractors seeking government subsidies. Mercier attempted a comeback in the 1892 election but was defeated. He then had to face a charge of misappropriation of public funds. He was acquitted in late 1892, but the trial ruined him both financially and physically.
Mercier's French Canadian nationalism angered Anglophone Canadians, who feared it might tear Canada apart. As a result, French language and Catholic school rights came under attack in other provinces. But Québec Francophones continued to prize Mercier’s insistence on their distinctiveness and on Québec's need for autonomy—ideas still prominent in Québec today.

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