Healing Quebec’s fractures: Fr. Julien Harvey, SJ

December 6, 2019 – Fr. Julien Harvey, SJ, was a great Jesuit intellectual from Quebec. Though he passed away in 1998, his ideas and ways of proceeding — refusing simplification, listening, dialoguing and concrete proposals — have proven to be prophetic. He spent his whole life trying to bridge the gaps between faith and social justice, national issues and an openness to others and a concern for the fragility of the Quebec nation and the need for solidarity with newcomers, whether refugees or immigrants. While born out of a specific context, these preoccupations still resonate today.   

So where did these preoccupations come from? Before he was named as Provincial Father of the Jesuits of French Canada (1974-1980), Julien Harvey was a professor of theology and a biblical scholar. Then, in 1975, came the turning point in his life: the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. First and foremost, this occasion proved important because of the degree issued by the Congregation which suggested that “the mission of today’s Society of Jesus is service to the faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.” Then, Harvey was further touched by the words of Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General of the Society, who told him: “Julien, after your provincial mandate, you should go and live with ordinary people. You don’t need a car or a vacation overseas. You could stop smoking and join a small community… Your experience with immigrants is going to be very useful.” Following the advice of Arrupe, Harvey did not return to university life after his provincial mandate. Instead, he moved to a working-class neighbourhood, began working with the magazine “Relations” and became one of the founding members and the first director of the Centre for Justice and Faith. Through this work, he thus began a long reflection on the connections between poverty, social exclusion, the place of immigrants and the cultural communities in Montreal and across Quebec. All this while a pastor in a parish, close to other people.  

Social justice  

While studying the demographic composition of Quebec, Harvey realized that the society was profoundly inegalitarian. Only 54% of Quebeckers lived in growing areas, leading to social disintegration in many regions across the province. In 1988, Harvey and the team from “Relations” hence published a powerful article, entitled “A Quebec Split in Two,” which struck out against regional underdevelopment in the province. This article was the beginning of a longer reflection on the economic and social divides evident between the province’s thriving urban centres and the more peripheral regions, which had been devitalized and abandoned by the state and subjected to the whims of the market and neoliberal capitalism. Harvey wanted the government to recognize this divide and work toward fixing it. In many other articles, he thus campaigned for a responsible society, the redistribution of wealth and more inclusion for the weakest members of society (the poor, the excluded and the generally marginalized). 

Openness to cultural and religious diversity 

In 1992, Harvey published an article in “Relations” magazine entitled “Secular Schooling for Quebec.” Opposing, among others, several Quebec bishops, in this article he argued that the majority of teachers and students were non-believers and that confessional schools therefore marginalized religious minorities. Secularism, he wrote, did not mean hatred of religion. On the contrary, he suggested that non-confessional schools should encourage their students to learn about the diverse religious traditions at the heart of Quebec society. Such a sensitivity towards other cultures was part of Harvey’s wider thinking on this subject. 

Indeed, Harvey had already realized the importance of welcoming people of all origins to Quebec and building a friendly society with them. Even more importantly, however, he understood that he would need to engage with the population of Quebec to make them understand this reality. But how to go about this? The answer was to work together to develop a “communal public culture.” This concept, first put forward by Gary Cadwell, emerged during the 1990s. This communal public culture sought to ground itself in the heritage of Quebec’s people, while paying attention to the new demographic composition of the province and the contributions made by newcomers. Such a culture would allow everyone to identify with Quebec, without erasing the cultural traditions of minorities.  


Finally, the third theme close to Harvey’s heart was nationalism — here meaning the desire for an independent Quebec. This nationalism, however, was not one based on exclusion, as is the case for many modern-day groups. Rather, this version sought to welcome newcomers warmly, since they were now themselves also Quebeckers. To achieve his vision of nationalism, Harvey put the protection of the French language at the forefront, created a new sector of the Centre for Justice and Faith (today called "Vivre ensemble"), denounced the exclusion of immigrants and proposed a communal public culture as a form of social connection.  

Harvey’s openness and reflections on the poor and excluded still resonate today, especially in light of the economic injustice, insularity and mistrust of the other which exist among a large part of the population today. His hope that a social and political struggle could make our society fairer continues to be inspiring. Not only did he denounce injustices, but he also offered concrete solutions which, though not always perfect, were made with a real desire to change things. 

To find out more about the work of Julien Harvey, you can read “Social Justices, Openness and Nationalism in Quebec. Reflections from Julien Harvey” published under the direction of Elizabeth Garant at Éditions Novalis.  


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