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The French-Canadian Catholic clergy remained in the background for much of the debate leading to Confederation in 1867. This was despite the fact that Confederation was an important issue for the Conservative Party, which received clergy support.
Monsignor Laflèche, Bishop of Trois-Rivières, and Monsignor Bourget, Bishop of Montréal, were among the most influential of the clergy. Mgr. Laflèche made his views on Confederation known in 1864. He wrote that it was essential to find a solution to the political instability in United Canada, but that a simple repeal of Union would favour Upper Canada in any new legislative arrangement, denying French Canadians their institutions and their cultural identity. Confederation, Laflèche argued, was the only viable solution.
Monsignor Bourget's attitude toward Confederation was more difficult to discern. The bishop of Montréal remained quiet, a silence apparently motivated by his fear for the survival of certain French-Canadian institutions under the new constitution. Once Confederation became a reality, however, Mgr. Bourget broke his silence and encouraged his flock to accept the new political arrangement.
This detachment on the part of the French-Canadian Catholic clergy encouraged both supporters and opponents of Confederation to lobby for Church support. On February 7, 1865, George-Étienne Cartier made a speech in the Legislative Assembly in which he stated that both the Catholic and Protestant clergies were in favour of Confederation because it would guarantee security for their cherished institutions:
"Eh bien! je dirai que l'opinion du clergé est favorable à la Confédération. Ceux qui sont élevés en dignités, comme ceux qui occupent des positions humbles sont en faveur de la Confédération, non seulement parce qu'ils voient dans ce projet toute la sécurité possible pour les institutions qu'ils chérissent, mais aussi parce que leurs concitoyens protestants y trouveront des garanties comme eux."1
Wilfrid Laurier, a young journalist and future prime minister of Canada, was against Confederation. Writing for the newspaper Le Défricheur in 1867, he stated that if the clergy were really in favour of Confederation, it would have openly supported the project, and that its silence could only be interpreted as tacit disapproval. He wrote:
"Or, si la Confédération était bonne, si elle protégeait les intérêts de la religion, ils [les évêques et le clergé] interviendraient en faveur du projet pour le faire réussir. Et à notre tour nous concluons : Le silence de nos évêques et du clergé en général ne peut donc signifier rien autre chose qu'une désapprobation tacite du projet de Confédération."2
Pouliot, Léon, S. J. -- "Monseigneur Bourget et la Confédération". -- Rapport. La Société canadienne d'histoire de l'Église catholique. -- 1959. -- P. 31-41.
Ullman, Walter. -- "The Québec bishops and Confederation". -- Canadian Historical Review. -- Vol. XLIV, No. 3 (September 1963). -- P. 213-234.