The Life and Works of Éva Circé-Côté

Reviewed by Ryan O’Connor

Posted August 1, 2018

Much has been written about the Quiet Revolution, the period of wide-scale and rapid change that transformed Quebec society from a conservative Catholic bastion to the secular liberal stronghold it is today. According to the standard narrative, the Quiet Revolution was kick-started by the 1960 election of Premier Jean Lesage, which brought an end to the long-entrenched alliance of the Church and the local political elite.

According to Andrée Lévesque, historians’ focus on traditional Quebec society’s conservatism has “constructed a past that leaves little room for entire generations of progressives.” Those who have been overshadowed — the intellectual predecessors to the Quiet Revolution — include Éva Circé-Côté, the subject of Lévesque’s 2010 book that has now been translated into English.

Circé-Côté (1871–1949) lived a rich and varied life. The first librarian to work within Montreal’s nascent public library system, she was also a poet and a journalist. At rest and at work, her life revolved around words and the powers contained within them. Her inspiration came from the Patriotes of the 1837 rebellion, with their values of liberalism, secularism, republicanism, and inclusiveness. For Circé-Côté, one did not have to be pure laine Québécois in order to be a patriot, as she believed that “heroes belong to all races and to all religions.”

She was deeply concerned about the survival of her people’s language and culture, but this did not make her a separatist, as she felt Confederation granted sufficient powers to safeguard the province’s unique character. Furthermore, she feared an even greater concentration of power in the hands of the clergy should Quebec leave Canada.

Despite sharing republican ideals with the United States, Circé-Côté worried that Quebec’s southern neighbours posed too great a risk of cultural assimilation. She was no fan of being dragged into global conflicts but nonetheless remained an adamant supporter of Quebec’s place within the British Empire, saying it provided cultural safeguards that afforded “a life as pleasant as any we could imagine, making us the envy of the entire world.”

Circé-Côté was a prolific writer, having released her work under aliases that include Julien Saint-Michel, Colombine, Musette, and Arthur Maheu. These pen names allowed Circé-Côté to write about such frowned-upon subjects as women’s suffrage, wage parity, and the toleration of regulated prostitution.

As it turns out, it was her writing under the masculine identity of Saint-Michel that first brought her biographer Lévesque to the topic.

Having long wondered who this progressive journalist was — possibly a Belgian trade unionist, she reasoned at one point, due to the unique intellectual current — two decades passed before she found his answer. Had this connection not been made, it is unlikely that a book of this sort could have been written, given the lack of personal accounts of Circé-Côté’s life.

Circé-Côté was “an original, a rebel, an avant-garde woman,” according to Lévesque. However, she did not operate in isolation. With further study of this pre-Quiet Revolution period, Lévesque believes historians will uncover “a Quebec that is less bleak than the usual representations of it, less submissive, less monolithic, more complex and more open to influences from abroad.” Circé-Côté and her fellow progressives — including the likes of Robertine Barry, Anne-Marie Gleason-Huguenin, and Louvigny de Montigny — may be largely unknown in their home province today, but this does not reflect their contributions.

I credit the publisher for releasing this translated edition of Freethinker, because the vast majority of Quebec’s historiography will never see an English-language release. As a historian and a Canadian interested in breaking down the two solitudes, I hope we see more of this.

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This article originally appeared in the August-September 2018 issue of Canada’s History magazine. 

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