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Religion and Politics

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Channel Islanders/Yves Frenette

The Protestant entrepreneurs from the Channel Islands were aware of the power of the Roman Catholic Church and maintained cordial relations with members of the clergy. They participated generously in the construction and ornamentation of Catholic churches and opened their wallets for parish bazaars. The entrepreneurs did not look kindly on the Papists, however, with whom they lived and did business. When possible, Charles Robin and Company did not hire Catholics except as fishers. As late as the 1940s, a Channel Island employee who married a Catholic woman had to leave the company and risked being held in contempt by his family. Even members of the Robin family itself had to conform to this practice. While other companies did hire Catholics, the Fruings would send people from Jersey back to their native island if they were suspected of being attracted to Roman Catholicism.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as lay and religious elites made their influence felt at the local and regional levels, relations between the Channel Island companies and those elites soured. Some merchants took a very dim view of the Catholic clergy, with its promotion of temperance, agriculture, education, and cooperatives. The growth in the number of priests and the intensification of their zeal increased the church’s control. The large Jersey companies even gradually stopped selling alcohol in their stores.

Along with the great economic power they enjoyed, the Jersey entrepreneurs also wielded power in the political and social spheres. The LeMesuriers were one of the most prominent families in Newfoundland, and members of the family occupied a number of political and administrative posts. The Bourinots held a similar position in Cape Breton. Isaac LeVesconte launched a career in Nova Scotia and federal politics from his base in Isle Madame. Charles Robin used his influence with political authorities and had no difficulty putting pressure on successive lieutenant-governors of the Gaspé. At the turn of the nineteenth century he was one of the most powerful figures in Atlantic Canada. His grandnephew John Gosset, the chief manager of the Robin company in Canada, was a member of the legislature, as were David and John LeBoutillier. John LeBoutillier also became a member of the legislative council of Canada in 1867. Joshua Alexandre, the manager of the Fruing company in Shippagan, held a seat in New Brunswick’s provincial assembly from 1842 to 1846. To elect “their” candidates, the companies put pressure on the dealers and fishers, sometimes resorting to threats and violence.

People from Jersey and Guernsey also dominated local political life, where their influence far surpassed their meagre numbers but was an accurate representation of their social position. They were mayors, town councillors, sheriffs, customs agents, justices of the peace, school commissioners, secretaries of municipal councils and school boards, postmasters, and telegraph operators. In addition, they were frequently chosen as jurors. Living among largely illiterate populations, the Channel Islanders appear to have benefited from their few years of education.

The years after 1870, however, saw the rise in Atlantic Canada of a regional and local petty bourgeoisie that used politics to weaken the influence of the companies, which slowly lost their social and political ascendancy. However, they continued to have ways of resisting. The Fruing company could still secure the arrest for debt of a Grande-Grave resident who had encouraged his neighbours to vote for the opponent of the company candidate. Robin, Jones and Whitman, along with some small Channel Island entrepreneurs who had managed to survive, was able to weaken substantially the first fishing cooperatives in the Gaspé after World War I.