Fragments of a Revolution, Part III: The Quiet Revolution

Part III: The Quiet Revolution, Rattrapage and Epanouissement

The death of Maurice Duplessis in September of 1959[1] was followed by the election of Jean Lesage’s Liberals and the ouster of the Union Nationale on June 22 1960.[2] Re-elected two years later on the nationalist slogan “Maitres chez nous” (“Masters in our own house”) the new government implemented a radical program of economic and social reforms with the nationalization of hydroelectricity at the centre of its agenda. The Quebec Liberal Party’s 1962 manifesto argued…

 [the] unification of Quebec’s hydro networks – the key to the industrialization of every region of the country – is essential as the first condition for economic liberation [emphasis added] and a policy of full employment.[3]

René Lévesque, who served as a minister in both of Lesage’s governments and oversaw the nationalization of hydroelectricity, later wrote that the Liberal Party’s program was “necessary to make up the time Quebec had lost”. Its victory in 1960 symbolized “the moment when the development of the province could open the way for a real awakening of the conscience of the Quebec people”.[4]

At the heart of the Quiet Revolution, then, were the themes of rattrapage (catching up) and epanouissement (blooming). While the first of these belonged to liberalism, the second belonged to socialism.[5] The nationalism of Lesage, Lévesque, and the Liberals understood Quebecois society to have been held back from modernity, in a long slumber of conservatism and colonization from which it had to “awaken”. It was thus necessary to “make up the time Quebec had lost” through a program which, among other things, placed the production of energy under public ownership. By “catching up” – a phrase which suggests the realization of something hitherto repressed or constrained – it could “bloom” – a word which implies actualization and coming into one’s own.

The strong sense of particularity that had been a feature of Quebec’s distinct society since the conquest was thus far from absent during the Quiet Revolution. Instead, its alliance with a conservative clerical authority was swiftly replaced by a new and modernist ideology of nationalism in which the principle icon of cultural identification was no longer the church, but rather an activist and expansionary democratic state. The insular social solidarity around which the partially defeated society of New France had rallied and which Duplessis had sought to preserve now reasserted itself under the banner of economic development, modernization, and democratic socialism. While the influx of liberalism in the postwar period had been a catalyst for this change, the residual social collectivism of the Canadiens averted the atomized individualism of traditional liberal societies. As Nelson Wiseman observes, “After 1960, Quebec’s collectivist communitarianism – now welded with liberalism – persisted in a transmuted, sublimated, semi-socialist form.”[6]

Sociologist Marcel Rioux distinguishes between three ideological eras in postwar Quebec history: the era of Duplessis, which was characterized by “the ideology of conservation”, of conservatism and insularity; the liberally-oriented “ideology of contestation and recoupment”, which emerged in the late 40s and came to power through the Quiet Revolution; and “the ideology of development and participation” which began in the 1960s and identified with global socialist movements for decolonization and national liberation. As Wiseman observes, the third synthesizes, “in Hegelian dialectical fashion”, elements of the other two, preserving their essential contours but also radicalizing them.[7] In this way, the nationalism of the Quiet Revolution represented continuity as well as change.

But Quebec’s reconfigured nationalist consensus – built around rattrapage and epanouissement – was not to last for long, as its principle intellectual and political architects soon radically diverged on the true meaning of their new identity. Should French Canada’s “blooming” lead it towards a new and more assertive role within the federation, or was the inevitable outcome of its modernization the building of an independent sovereign state? Did its distinct society require a new relationship with Ottawa in order to thrive? What was required for its decolonization to really be complete? The remainder of these posts will explore three competing answers to this series of questions, all of which crystallized into constitutional visions that would shape the political debate in Canada for the next three decades and ultimately represent three distinct theories of democratic politics and the modern state.

Part I:

Part II:


[1] Lévesque (1979). 9.

[2] English. 337.

[3] Lévesque, René. Memoirs. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1986. Print. 179.

[4] Lévesque (1979). 9.

[5] Wiseman. 174.

[6] Ibid. 170.

[7] Ibid. 173-174.


2 thoughts on “Fragments of a Revolution, Part III: The Quiet Revolution

  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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