Ron Carelli and the Duplessis Affair

Reuel S. Amdur March/April 2015

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been victims of persecution in many countries, Canada and the United States among them. In the United States the persecution has often been a reaction, especially during wartime, to their lack of adherence to expected standards of patriotism. They do not vote, they refuse to salute the flag, and they will not serve in the country’s military. During World War I their opposition to the war led to their leaders in the U.S. being charged, convicted, and imprisoned under the Espionage Act; but the convictions were overturned. Between the wars, American Witnesses’ vigorous attacks on other religions, especially Roman Catholicism, led to a number of state and local governments passing legislation designed to put a damper on their activities. During World War II, Witnesses were even the object of mob violence in the U.S. because of their anti-war views and preaching.

Before looking at the Witnesses and their Canadian experience, it is necessary to take note of a major difference between civil liberties in Canada and the United States. In the United States, the Bill of Rights has served as an important protector. The Canadian experience is quite different. In Canada a Bill of Rights, effective only at the federal level, was enacted under the initiative of Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker in 1960. The more broadly applicable Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted only in 1982, as part of the new Constitution Act. The Constitution Act also contains what has been termed the “notwithstanding” clause. That clause allows a federal, provincial, or territorial government to override a provision of the charter on a particular piece of legislation for a period of time, subject to renewal. The clause has rarely been used, except in Quebec, where a secessionist Parti Québécois government during its period of power, till it was defeated in a 1987 election, tacked a notwithstanding clause onto every law adopted. All this rights legislation was adopted after the successful struggles of Jehovah’s Witnesses for their rights.

In the United States, cases in which Witnesses sought to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, press, and religion have had a major impact on American First Amendment jurisprudence, a fact long acknowledged by legal scholars. A long list of such cases have made their way to the Supreme Court. Among the decisions, the Court found that a permit could not be required for Witnesses canvassing door to door, nor could they be charged for distributing literature. They were also found to have the right to use loudspeakers in parks. Among cases that they lost, the Court held that calling a sheriff “a damned Fascist” is not protected under the guarantee of freedom of speech. As well, the Court held that Massachusetts could prohibit minors from selling religious literature. The Court also upheld legislation requiring a permit for a parade.

As in the United States, the perception that Jehovah’s Witnesses were unpatriotic during wartime was a major element in their persecution in Canada. In 1940 they were banned under the War Measures Act. Some of their children were expelled for failing to take part in opening exercises, and in a few cases the children were put in foster care or juvenile detention. Some Witnesses were victims of mob violence. Those refusing military service were sent to forced labor. The ban was seldom enforced after 1940; was partially limited in 1943; and finally repealed in 1945. That was the story for most of Canada, where matters were largely uneventful. However, the Quebec picture was very different.

Maurice Duplessis was premier in Quebec from 1936 to 1939 and again from 1944 to 1959. His party, the Union Nationale, was formed by an amalgamation of the Conservative Party and a breakaway fraction of Liberals. His period in power is today known as the Grande Noirceur, or the Great Darkness. A devout Catholic, he acted to advance the interests of his church. He fought unions, Communists, and progressives, unashamedly using his power to thwart them. His period in power was characterized by social conservatism and disregard of human rights. In spite of this repressive situation, the Witnesses undertook a militant proselytizing campaign. Few in number, they produced and distributed virulently anti-Catholic literature. In this very Catholic province, they went door to door with their message, often using portable phonographs. They also drove along the streets with loudspeakers playing their message. To say that the Catholic Church, Duplessis, and Quebeckers in general (85 percent Catholic at the time, and many quite devout) were bothered would be a gross understatement.

The main way in which Witnesses were restricted was through local bylaws limiting their activities. Laurier Saumur was arrested more than 100 times in Quebec City for distributing literature without a permit. Canada’s Supreme Court ruled for him, finding speech and religion to be matters of federal jurisdiction: local and provincial governments could not legislate in these areas. Aimé Boucher, a farmer, was convicted of distributing seditious literature—Quebec’s Burning Hate—but the Court found that the pamphlet was not seditious. Two cases recognized that Witnesses had the right to sue police for their actions. Esymier Chaput sued because police invaded a worship service in his home and seized literature, without a warrant. Louise Lamb was arrested on a charge of distributing seditious pamphlets. She was acquitted, the and Supreme Court found she also could sue.

As in the U.S., the Jehovah’s Witness cases helped to give a legal definition to religious freedom and freedom of expression. The Roncarelli case was the most monumental. So who was Roncarelli, and how did he earn Duplessis’ wrath?

Frank (Franco) Roncarelli was born in Italy in 1904 and immigrated to Canada with his family as a child. His father opened the Quaff Café in 1912, one of Montreal’s trendy eateries. Frank studied engineering, but eventually took over the restaurant trade from his father. He also returned to Italy for a time, where he saw the closeness of the Catholic Church to Benito Mussolini. That experience soured him on Catholicism, and in 1935 he became a Witness and dedicated himself to promoting their cause. With his sons, he managed, as part of a group of Witnesses, to escape from a mob intent on harming them in Châteaugay in 1945.

Because of his affluence—in addition to the restaurant, he owned properties in Montreal and elsewhere—he was able to serve as surety for Witnesses arrested for their missionary work. Police even called him to get him to bail them out, when they found themselves overwhelmed by the number of arrests. He acted this role for almost 400 cases.

To punish Roncarelli, Duplessis arranged to have Quaff Café’s liquor license pulled. On December 4, 1946, Quebec Liquor Police descended on the restaurant—it was full of diners at the time—and seized all the liquor. The same day, Duplessis held a press conference in Quebec City to say that he had ordered the cancellation of the license because of Roncarelli’s support of the Witnesses, especially for going bail for them. Roncarelli reacted by seeking legal assistance from Albert-Louis Stein, a Jewish lawyer concerned with civil liberties. Stein sought co-counsel among French Canadian lawyers, but none came forward to take on Duplessis and the Catholic Church. He ended up enlisting Frank Scott, a renaissance man who was a law professor and a distinguished poet, as well as a socialist. One handicap: Scott had no courtroom experience.

Efforts to sue the Liquor Commission and its manager, Edouard Archambault, were rebuffed. Such a suit would require the permission of the attorney general. As well as being premier, Duplessis also held that post. Roncarelli’s only recourse was to sue Duplessis himself.

Judge Gordon MacKinnon heard the suit in Superior Court in May 1950 and delivered his decision a year later, finding that Duplessis acted beyond his authority by intervening in the jurisdiction of the Liquor Commission. Duplessis appealed, and Roncarelli cross-appealed, seeking to increase the award of $8,123.53 plus interest that MacKinnon had determined.

The Appeal Section of the Court of Queen’s Bench reversed MacKinnon, finding that there was a lack of evidence that the Liquor Commission did not act independently. One judge dissented, finding with MacKinnon. And so it was off to the Supreme Court. Thirteen years after the case began, the Court rendered its decision in 1959, siding with Roncarelli by six to three. Three of the six argued that Duplessis acted ultra vires—beyond his authority. Two said he acted in bad faith, and the other one concluded that he was not immune to suit. They also increased the settlement to $33,123.53 plus costs, still leaving Roncarelli financially ruined.

Almost all opinion on the case on the part of citizens, judges, and the press divided on language; French for Duplessis and English for Roncarelli. Duplessis’ “war without mercy” benefited him considerably at the polls in this heavily French-speaking Catholic province. Yet the case had an impact for change. It was one element in bringing about the Quiet Revolution, drastically limiting the power of the Catholic Church and moving the province toward modernity. The church lost control of public education. Most Quebeckers are still Catholic, but often little more than nominally. Quebeckers used to talk about the revenge of the cradle, by which they would conquer. On the contrary, in 2011 among the 10 provinces and three territories, the fertility rate for women from 15 to 49 stood seventh, with a rate of 1.69 children per woman. The bare replacement rate is 2.1. Almost a third of all couples in Quebec are common-law. In effect, Duplessis lost more than the Roncarelli case. He lost the Catholic soul of the province.

One important difference between the U.S. and Quebec persecution of the Witnesses was in the official reaction. Eleanor Roosevelt took to the airways to condemn the persecution and then-attorney general Francis Biddle ordered an investigation of the violence. In Quebec, Duplessis encouraged the persecution. In later years Witnesses turned down the tone of their propaganda. Yet it was the virulence of it that brought the repression, without which Canada and Quebec might not have had the benefit of the legal precedents limiting the arbitrary exercise of power by officials.

As for Roncarelli, he was unable to find a future in the province, and headed for the States. For a while he had a restaurant in Watertown, New York, on the border. Then he worked as an engineer with the St. Laurence Seaway Authority, later on road construction in Connecticut. He died there in 1981, but his legacy is Canada’s. Every Canadian law student knows of him and his legal battles. 

Article Author: Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.