Penalty for expression
By: Janice Burdon
I was so distressed about the Charter of Values after hearing about it that I couldn’t sleep one night. How could it have come to this? How can people be so intolerant of one another? How far does one have to go to protect the right of religious expression, whether verbal or symbolic? It brought to mind a book I read. It was about a man, who against all odds, suffered greatly, even going to prison to express his beliefs in a province desperate to hear words of love and tolerance. Here is his story:
Man with a mission:
Murray Heron grew up during the time of the Great Depression in the small town of Pickering near Toronto. Life with eight siblings on a farm was a challenge to say the least. Labour began at 5:30 in the morning milking cows and feeding the animals. His home was a Christian one where the Bible was taught, memorized and practised. “I found church boring,” said Heron who had little concern for spiritual matters. Leaving his rural town, Heron struck out for business school in Toronto where he met Tom Delaney who invited him to a church meeting. Heron’s heart was stirred as he found a new faith in God he never discovered in his younger years. He would later find out how his mother had been praying faithfully that he would become a preacher. Although Heron’s faith was strong, he had his hesitations about public speaking and lost his breath on many occasions when it came to sharing his faith. Would he continue working at General Motors with a guarantee of a good salary or would he do the unthinkable and become a preacher? He felt such a strong pull to go to seminary school, where he finally made the decision to become a preacher.
His mission was to share his faith in Quebec where people were hungry to hear about the love of God. His opportunity came when he was asked to preach in the small rural mining town of Rouyn-Noranda, 430 miles from Toronto. Here he was shocked to learn that many French Canadians had never heard of the New Testament. His burden began to grow. It grew to the point where he held open-air meetings proclaiming the love of God by performing skits, songs and giving a message. Hundreds of willing people who wanted to listen, flocked to these meetings eager to hear the message this man and his helpers had to communicate. The message was about grace and not fear. Heron along with his friends were stopped on many occasions because they had not received a permit to speak. Receiving permission was almost next to impossible but they kept preaching regardless. People had the right to hear and Heron had the right of expression.
‘In the spring of 1947, the Quebec political scene was dominated by the firmly entrenched Union National party led by the strong-willed Maurice Duplessis. The Duplessis years were a dark, repressive period. Violent opposition to the gospel in Quebec was nothing new.’(1) Mobs broke into church buildings, tearing up Bibles and hymn-books. It was at this time that Heron’s faith would be tested. One Saturday night while they were congregating with over 100 people present, two police cars arrived with six police officers. The police told them to step down, telling them they were not permitted to hold meetings and that the penalty would be two months in jail! The crowd waited with baited breath to see what Heron would do. He knew that the mayor of Rouyn would refuse a permit even though many people enjoyed hearing the message. Being a law-abiding citizen, Heron had to make a difficult choice but felt strongly that he should continue to preach, regardless of the consequences. Sure enough, the cops cuffed him and threw him into a filthy prison with the others where all they had to eat were pig’s feet and grey porridge.
This event brought immediate nation-wide media attention from the Canadian Press. Rouyn’s bylaw clearly stated that they were forbidden to hand out pamphlets of any religious nature pertaining to what Heron preached, which I might add was about the same God the Catholics preached. The editor of the local newspaper caught wind of this and stated, “This means the law is violated every time one of my newspaper boys sells a copy of my paper.”(2) Heron and his fellow believers’ freedom of speech had been violated but they had not broken any law. Press coverage and the pressure of public opinion worked in Heron’s favour. Time and time again, through numerous jail sentences, beatings, harassment like being spit on and being set on fire, Heron and his group persisted in sharing their faith, yet without violence. They became so popular that they had a regular radio broadcast, entitled ‘Sur les ailes de la foi’, where Heron preached his message of God’s love. ‘Heron and his group went from being the despised Protestants, who deserved to go to jail for their beliefs, to T.V. personalities with a message of hope and life.’(3) Why even Sister Superior at the convent in Rouyn invited them for lunch! Murray Heron had become a pioneer missionary in Quebec where people today can go and worship God freely without penalty. His example of bravery and attitude of not backing down serve as a challenge to our government. Freedom of religious expression is a gift. A gift, that once given, should never be taken away and must always be respected.
Heron’s story took place during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s and I can’t help but wonder if our province since then has progressed in the area of accepting different religious backgrounds. Judging by the incident at the Hammam Andalusi Spa in LaSalle and other incidents since, I must assume that intolerance is still alive. Mr. Bernard Drainville states that his Charter of Values will bring social peace, equality, openness and diversity to Quebec but instead it seems to instigate intolerance, hatred and prejudice.
Murray Heron, 89, still wears his cross with pride. Pride in a belief, which encourages ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’. Jesus himself associated with people of cultures different from himself and set an example of tolerance, love and peace. Is this not the same Jesus that has been a part of Quebec religious culture since its founding some 400 odd years ago? Perhaps it’s time to imitate his teaching.
(1,2,3) Footprints across Quebec, 1999