By Frédéric Barriault
photos: The Archive of the Jesuits of Canada
Last fall, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States published Contemplation and Political Action: An Ignatian Guide to Civic Engagement, which opens with a challenge from Pope Francis: A “good Catholic” cannot be indifferent to social and political struggles. Given that I come from a Social Gospel background, I have always resisted the idea that faith is a purely private matter. Ethics, mysticism, and politics can—and should—go hand in hand.
The life of Jacques Couture is eloquent in this regard. It is also typical of the Jesuits of the generation of Father General Pedro Arrupe (1907–1991), concerned with being men for others who are engaged in the pursuit of justice in order to transform oppressive structures that dehumanize and crush the marginalized. This commitment, rooted in Ignatian spirituality, was made in the name of what would soon be called the preferential option for the poor.
His life is an example of the integration of ethics, mysticism, and politics, as well as of contemplation in action in order to find God in all things, through putting himself at the service of others.
The son of a nobleman
Born in 1929 in la bonne bourgeoisie of Quebec’s Haute-Ville, Jacques Couture initially studied law. As a young idealist attentive to the suffering of others, he discovered with horror the misery of the working-class neighbourhoods of the Basse-Ville. He moved on from law to study social work, even as he discerned a religious vocation. At the age of 18, he joined the Jesuits and began his formation. Sent to Taiwan to study the Chinese language, he returned to Montreal in 1964, shortly before his ordination to the priesthood.
Worker-priest and progressive activist
That same year, he wrote an article for the journal Relations in which he pleaded for a church of the poor, thus echoing the call of Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. He then settled in the working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri in Montreal with his companions Julien Harvey and Rosaire Tremblay. A worker-priest and social organizer, he worked in a factory and animated the Groupement Familial Ouvrier, whose pedagogy was inspired by that of “See-Judge-Act” and by Ignatian discernment: “to organize meetings with the people, to study the problems of the local community, to unite the different social classes, to engage in lobbying, to pursue a series of activities with the same focus.” To this end, he co-founded and co-led, with citizens of Saint-Henri, a political action committee, which published the newspaper L’Opinion ouvrière of which he was the editor in chief.
Initially confined to Saint-Henri, his involvement soon expanded to the southwest in various citizens’ committees and finally to the city of Montreal, where he helped found the Rassemblement des citoyens de Montréal, a left-wing municipal party opposed to the authoritarian leadership of Mayor Jean Drapeau. This attracted the attention of René Lévesque, who suggested that he enter provincial politics as a Parti Québécois candidate.
On November 15, 1976, he was elected Member of the National Assembly (MNA) for the riding of Saint-Henri. As required by canon law, he was then released from his religious vows.
From priestly ministry to the Ministry of Immigration
First appointed as Minister of Labour, Jacques Couture was then entrusted with the immigration portfolio, during the time of a massive exodus of boat people from Southeast Asia and thousands of Latin Americans who were fleeing the military juntas. It was in this turbulent context that the Society of Jesus created the Jesuit Refugee Service and that Jacques Couture became the very first Minister of Immigration in Quebec, where he contributed to the normalization of the status of a large number of Haitian asylum seekers fleeing the violence of the Duvalier regime.
He also facilitated the arrival of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chilean, and Salvadoran refugees and set up the first sponsorship and francization programs for immigrants.
Missionary and social mobilizer in… Madagascar
Once an idealist, always an idealist. Jacques Couture entered poli francization tics out of concern for the common good and resigned in 1980 with a sense of duty accomplished.
A Jesuit at heart, he returned to the Society of Jesus, still motivated by the desire to serve, to evangelize, and to incarnate in word and deed the preferential option for the poor.
Shortly afterwards, he became a missionary in the Andohatapenaka district, one of the poorest in Tananarive, the capital of Madagascar. His second time in a working-class environment, Jacques Couture was both a pastor and a social worker, involved in community development, until his untimely death in 1995 at the age of 66. His authenticity, his dynamism, and his commitment have left a lasting impression in the hearts and minds of the Malagasy people.
This heritage is also alive and well in La Belle Province. Many historians have studied his legacy and his contribution to coexistence in today’s Quebec. In fact, a research institute that bears his name, founded in 2017 at Teluq University, awards an annual Jacques-Couture prize that highlights “the exceptional contribution of a Quebecer who, through his or her work, commitment, or publications, has made it possible for newcomers to become better acquainted with Quebec or for people here to better understand the world in which they live.”