Fragments of a Revolution, Part II: Conservation and Contestation

In Part I, we examined the incomplete British conquest of New France and its implications for Quebec’s nascent identity. In Part II, we jump ahead to a postwar Quebec where elites continued to resist assimilation even as the order they governed transformed it into an economic colony of its English-speaking neighbours. 

Part II: Conservation and Contestation

The Quebec of the 1930s and 40s remained insular and inward looking. Just as it had been immediately after the conquest, a small cabal of Anglophone elites (now supplemented by a handful of American corporations) continued to run its urban centers and to control its commerce and natural resources[1]. Though some industrialization had occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century, Quebec society did not live “by the socio-economic dictates of the capitalist universe”[2]. The immense social and political power of the clergy, still the self-conscious guardians of its distinctness and particularity, persisted[3]. Popular democracy was spurned in favour of institutionalized cronyism, paternalism, and patronage.[4] In the words of Pierre Vadeboncouer, the government of Premier Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale party pursued a conscious policy of “resisting assimilation from without” by “resisting emancipation from within”[5]. The first of these objectives involved equating the provincial economy with cultural survival, while an alliance between the conservative elements in Quebec and the Anglophone business community achieved the second[6]. A radio broadcast read on June 20, 1956 – the eve of Duplessis’ final electoral victory – is a remarkable insight into the politics and ideology of Quebec’s ruling class before the Quiet Revolution.

Sovereign authority, by whatever government it is exercised, is derived solely from God, the supreme and eternal principle of all power…It is therefore an absolute error to believe that authority comes from the multitudes, from the masses, from the people, to pretend that authority does not properly belong to those who exercise it, but that they have only a simple mandate revocable at any time by the people. This error, which dates from the Reformation, rests on the false principle that man has no other master than his own reason…All this explanation about the origin, the basis, and the composition of this alleged sovereignty of the people is purely arbitrary. Moreover, if it is admitted, it will have as a consequence the weakening of authority, making it a myth, giving it an unstable and changeable basis, stimulating popular passions and encouraging sedition.[7]


In spite of the iron grip of the Duplessis regime – which held power from 1936 until 1959, with one interlude between 1939-1944 [8] – economic, technological, and material changes gradually began to alter Quebec’s rural and conservative character. Growing industry prompted increasing urban migration and Montreal’s metropolitan population expanded from 1.1 million in 1941 to 1.6 million in 1956[9]. The proportion of Quebec homes with televisions grew from 9.7 percent in 1953 to 38.6 percent in 1955, and 88 percent by 1960[10]. An influx of consumer goods flowed into the burgeoning metropolitan areas on a newly constructed highway system[11].

As more francophones left the countryside to work in urban factories, the ethnic schisms in Quebec society became increasingly apparent. In an influential study of the industrial transformation of the 1940s, Everett Hughes observed that the typical plant consisted of unilingual francophones working in menial positions and unilingual anglophones in those of seniority, with a bilingual foreman usually serving as the “go between in the two worlds of labour and management”. Francophones earned lower wages than their English-speaking bosses and lived predominantly as tenants under anglophone landlords.[12] This socioeconomic configuration had a distinctly colonial flavor.

Some elements, particularly those in the trade union movement, began to challenge it. A new generation of Quebecois were ascending to positions of civic and cultural leadership, often having studied or travelled abroad. Pierre Trudeau, who had received a traditional Catholic education at the (appropriately named) Bréubeuf College[13], returned to Montreal in 1949 having been immersed in liberal democratic theory and Keynesian economics at Harvard and experiencing the intellectual and political ferment of postwar Paris[14]. Soon after, he was invited by his friend Gérard Pelletier to participate in a strike of asbestos workers that was paralyzing Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Launched illegally by Jean Marchand, secretary of the Catholic Workers Confederation of Canada, the industrial action was a radical challenge to the province’s existing economic model. Foreign-owned companies oversaw most of the asbestos extraction, while local workers merely took it from the ground and loaded it onto freight cars. Less than five percent was even processed in Canada, and the company managers were all unilingual anglophones. A postwar boom in asbestos mining had brought about only meager wage increases for the miners, whose lungs suffered damage on a daily basis from exposure to the toxic substance[15]. It was a microcosm of Quebec society at large and remains today a fabled moment in the national imaginary[16]. Trudeau was profoundly influenced by his experiences during the strike, later writing that…

…[what he found there was] a Quebec I did not really know, that of workers exploited by management, denounced by government, clubbed by police, and yet burning with fervent militancy…[The strike] was significant because it occurred at a time when we were witnessing the passing of a world, precisely at a moment when our social framework – the worm-eaten remnants of a bygone age – were ready to come apart.[17]


Similar themes – opposition to Quebec’s traditionally clerical nationalism and its socioeconomic reality – came to be emphasized on the pages of Cite Libre, a journal pioneered by Pelletier that sought to “link progressive Catholic faith with analyses of contemporary political and social issues”[18] and which published articles by Trudeau, Pelletier, Charles Taylor[19], and René Lévesque[20] throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In words that strongly echoed Trudeau’s, another founder of the journal, literary critic Maurice Blain, wrote “This generation without masters is seeking a humanism, and is anxiously asking on what kind of spiritual foundation this humanism should be based.” [21] Significantly, Cite Libre’s most prominent contributors were drawn from the same generation of postwar Catholics, exposed to democratic liberalism and humanism while studying abroad. The result was that, for the first time, the links between the Catholic faith and clerical authoritarianism were being challenged by leading figures in the province’s intellectual elite.

The extent to which Cite Libre was actually the centre of opposition to the Duplessis government is contested by historians but it was in any case a powerful register of opinion for Quebec’s rising intellectual class and “a major gathering place and channel of expression for reform liberals”[22]. Alongside the increasingly militant trade union movement which had reared its head during the asbestos strike, the Cite Libre contributors were spreading a more liberal nationalism which drew both on the egalitarian elements of Catholicism and the radical currents of reformism many of them had been exposed to abroad.

Quebec’s lopsided socioeconomic arrangements had reduced its increasingly urban francophone population to the status of tenants in cities where they were overwhelmingly the majority. Its poorly paid workers laboured under the management of bosses who did not speak their language. Its natural resources were the property of foreign corporations. What was more, its ruling clerical and political elite had, under the very auspices of nationalism, conspired to preserve the existing arrangements. The stage had been set for a sweeping cultural and political revolution.

In Part III: The Quiet Revolution, Rattrapage and Epanouissement


[1] Ibid. 179.

[2] Ibid. 173.

[3] English, John. Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007. Print. 247.

[4] Wiseman. 173.

[5] Saywell, John T. Introduction: Federalism and the French Canadians. By Pierre E. Trudeau. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. viii.

[6] Ibid. viii.

[7] Trudeau, Pierre E. “Some Obstacles to Democracy in Quebec.” 1958. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 110-111.

[8] Lévesque, René. My Québec. Toronto: Methuen, 1979. Print. 9.

[9] English. 279.

[10] Ibid. 256.

[11] Ibid. 251.

[12] Wiseman. 179.

[13] English. 112.

[14] Ibid. 125, 145.

[15] Ibid. 199.

[16] Ibid. 199.

[17] Ibid. 202.

[18] Ibid. 238.

[19] Cook, Ramsay. “I Never Thought I Could Be as Proud…: The Trudeau- Lévesque Debate.” Watching Quebec: Selected Essays. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005. Print. 209.

[20] Redhead, Mark. Charles Taylor: Thinking and Living Deep Diversity. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub. 2002. Print. 48.

[21] English. 238.

[22] Ibid. 245.


2 thoughts on “Fragments of a Revolution, Part II: Conservation and Contestation

  1. Pingback: Fragments of a Revolution, Part IV: Federalism, French power, and Canadian nationalism | LukewSavage

  2. Pingback: Fragments of a Revolution, Part V: Francization, Quebec Nationalism, and Sovereignty-Association | LukewSavage

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