Skip navigation

Tuesday September 29, 2009

Trudeau-era philosopher helped liberate Quebec education from church dogma

Deeply religious himself, he recognized that Catholic control was causing the province to fall behind

Special to The Globe and Mail

Vianney Décarie was a a deeply religious Christian who helped to take the province of Quebec in a more secular direction.

He opened its education system to the world through his work as a teacher, university administrator and essayist. He was an international authority on Aristotle, a friend to some of the century's biggest French philosophers, a friend who helped Pierre Trudeau get his first teaching job and an occasional writer for the influential political magazine Cité Libre.

Having studied at both Harvard and La Sorbonne, Dr. Décarie recognized that French-speaking Quebec was lagging behind in university teaching and research. In the early 60s, he and others called for teachers to be better trained; up until then they had been receiving Church-sanctioned instruction. He felt that all the new university buildings and programs being developed at the time would mean nothing if professors did not broaden their approach. The government listened and established the University of Montreal's École normale supérieure, which he headed. It offered a much higher standard for teaching both university and high school instructors, and would eventually become the university's faculty of education.

He not only raised the bar for higher education instruction but, along with other foot soldiers in Quebec's Quiet Revolution, helped free his province's francophone Catholics from both the Church's political influence and their own insularity. His work charting changes for a more robust postsecondary system included a call for a research council, better peer review and a body to implement best practices for university administrators. It preceded the Parent Commission, which took these ideas further and resulted in a mass modernization of Quebec education.

As the head of the university's department of philosophy at the end of the decade, he invited renowned French philosophers to give lectures, inspiring many young scholars.

"He opened his students to the world," said Jean Grondin, a long-time University of Montreal philosophy professor and one of Dr. Décarie's former students.

Vianney Décarie was a descendant of one of the original Quebec families.

His grandfather, Barthélémy Thélesphore Décarie, was a major landowner, whose farms stretched through most of what is now the west end of Montreal and what was originally the village of Notre Dame de Grace. (Today, the 7.4 km Décarie Expressway bears the family's name).

Academic success came early for Vianney. At 17, he won the Prix Colin de Rhétorique, scoring the best marks in the province among attendees of the collèges classiques, the religious-run preparatory schools in Quebec.

He would spend the next decade and a half in his studies, a far different vocation from the rest of his six siblings, who all chose more mundane careers. But at the 30-person Sunday family dinners, there was no lack of pride for the family philosopher.

He continued his academic work at the University of Montreal in their medieval studies institute, with a six-month sojourn to Harvard University in the mid-40s and, in the latter part of the decade, at three different institutions in France, including La Sorbonne, where he would begin meeting important French philosophers. His fascination with Aristotle culminated in a long commentary on Book 1 of Aristotle's Metaphysics in 1949.

It was during those years in Boston and Paris that he met a young Pierre Trudeau, the beginning of a friendship that would continue until Mr. Trudeau's death in 2000. Mr. Trudeau remained friends, as well, with Thérèse Gouin Décarie. Before she met her husband, she and Mr. Trudeau were engaged to be married. After they broke up, she and Dr. Décarie became acquainted at the University of Montreal.

One day in the fall of 1947, Dr. Décarie offered Ms. Gouin a book on Saint Augustine. By Christmas, 1948, they had married in a small French chapel attached to the grand cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.

By 1950, Dr. Décarie had earned his doctorate and, in 1954, he scored a Guggenheim. For the U.S. fellowship, he pored through all of St. Thomas Aquinas's writing on Aristotle at the prodigious Widener Library at Harvard.

In 1961, after being named director of the Ecole normale supérieure, he published L'object de la métaphysique selon Aristotle, today one of the most important books on the Greek philosopher. That same year, he obtained the prestigious Doctorat d'État from La Sorbonne and his picture made it into the pages of Paris Match. The long caption in the two-page photo spread talked breathlessly of the intellectual curiosity and freedom of spirit that was awaiting his Montreal school's 350 students.

While there seemed to be an open-mindedness growing in Quebec, there were still pockets of resistance among the clergy who ran the university. In 1960, Mr. Trudeau had been turned down four times for a posting.

He was known for making enemies with his strong political writing and a life of exploration, and word got out of this situation at the university. A Le Devoir editorial criticized the university for not recognizing Mr. Trudeau's value, and Dr. Décarie complained in a letter to the rector of the university. Mr. Trudeau did finally get hired.

"Pierre always appreciated that," Mrs. Gouin Décarie said of her husband's efforts.

Dr. Décarie also played an important role in the early career of Charles Taylor, whom he hired as a professor in the early 60s. Mr. Taylor went on to become one of the most eminent philosophers in Canada. He says Dr. Décarie, through the lecturers he attracted, helped widen the standard of thought in a very narrow time. "He made more valuable teachers by bringing in international scholars."

Philosopher rock stars such as Paul Ricoeur, Paul Vignaux and Henri-Irénée Marrou would regularly speak to the students of Dr. Décarie, who shared with those three the distinction of being seen as one of the avant-garde Christians in 1960s philosophical circles.

Throughout the 1970s, he continued to teach, research and sit on the university senate. His wife, a pioneering researcher on early childhood development, also sat on the senate - but never next to him, she noted.

Her husband's love of language was passionate, she remembers. He would talk to her about the construction of an ancient Greek word as if it was a beautiful painting. His children remember that passion for language spilling over into a short-wave radio obsession, as he gathered them around the radio to hear languages they could not understand.

His children never remember him raising his voice and being so civilized that his son Jean-Claude recalls him eating a pear with a knife and fork. Despite going to church every Sunday, he respected his children's religious choices.

He took mandatory retirement at 65 but continued to take on lecturing contracts, including a few stints at McGill University. He worked on his research until two years before his death when he began to suffer symptoms of vascular dementia.

In his later life, he was awarded both the Orders of Canada and Quebec, the latter which named him a Grand Officer, recognizing his work promoting secular education during a time when it was not always appreciated.


Joseph Fernand Lionel Vianney Décarie was born on Nov. 28, 1917, in Montreal, where he died on Sept 6, 2009, of pneumonia. He was 91. He leaves his wife, Thérèse Gouin Décarie, and his children, Pascale, Dominique, Jean-Claude and Emmanuel, as well as grandchildren, Étienne and Clara.

Back to top