Notes on 16th Text for Reading Field: Behiels

Canadian History, Week Three

Michael D. Behiels, ed. Quebec since 1945: Selected Readings. Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987.

Michael D. Behiels supplies a collection of essays that interrogate the nature and progression of the ‘Quebec question’ after the Second World War. Within Quebec during this period — one which promised relative prosperity — perceptions that greater economic opportunities were available and achievable led to dissatisfaction with the status quo. A point of division, regarding what sort of new social vision to embrace, arose over the respective weight politics, economics, and culture should carry for Quebec society. Attempts to promote contending visions for change included ‘blame-laying’ contests, in which contemporary problems were sometimes ascribed to either internal or external factors, and at other times to both. Proposed solutions, however, uniformly tended to champion internal cohesion in the face of external threats. Canada — popularly conceived as a forceful, monolithic, and English entity, which enjoyed a political-economic advantage of a suspect, but not uniformly specified, origin — was regarded as embodying the most concentrated and persistent threat. The essays in Behiels’ volume are intended to shed light on the ethos that underlay the emergence of Québécois sentiment and the transformation of social and political institutions in the province/nation. The pieces are divided into seven sections, each devoted to a specific topic, but overlapping in content and viewpoint. Much of what is presented in earlier essays reappears as content in the later ones.

Analyses of Maurice Duplessis as Prime Minister of Quebec from 1936-1939 and 1944-1959, his Union Nationale Party, and his critics, constitute the first topic. Richard Jones finds Duplessis to have been enigmatic: admired and despised, generous and vicious, a loner in a crowd. He was committed to Quebec autonomy, protective of educational direction, and assertive regarding fiscal authority in such areas as taxation and social welfare. He supported programs to assist farmers and was largely sympathetic to the Church. Nevertheless, according to Jones, industrial development and urbanization did increase – rapidly – during Duplessis’ time in office. Be that as it may, after the fact, largely on the basis of comparison with Ontario’s economic development, Duplessis was judged by most analysts to be a traditionalist wed to agrarianism, and one who held the province back. Jones is of the opinion that a thorough, less partisan evaluation remains to be made.

Behiels agrees with Jones that the idea that Quebec was a preponderantly agrarian society to 1940 is a myth. Neo-nationalist critics of Duplessis, in Behiels’ view, were nouveau Francophone intelligentsia (young, from a variety of economically comfortable backgrounds, and often university educated in a style that owed much to Duplessis’ efforts). They were interested in establishing themselves in positions of prestige and power. He notes that their reaction against Duplessis and the Union Nationale was not absolute – Pierre Trudeau, for example, supported some policies. Though not explicitly stated, the implication of Behiels’ analysis is that dissatisfaction with Duplessis had a generational basis [which would not be a surprising surmise: the ‘quiet revolution’ coincided with the North American socio-cultural ‘revolution(s)’ that marked the youth-oriented protest movement(s) of the 1960s].

The origins, promises, and limitations of the Quiet Revolution are further explored in the second section of articles. Like Behiels, Marc Renaud notes that although the pace of social change appeared particularly dramatic in Quebec (because of the Catholic Church’s loss of position in the socio-political hierarchy), the polity’s change in attitude and consequent move away from the Union Nationale to the Parti Québéçois was in fact gradual and in many respects mirrored changes elsewhere. He argues that the bases for change included enthusiasm for increased technological change, and the expansion of an economically comfortable ‘middle class’ that had “a definite stake in the expansion of the state apparatus,” and its legitimacy.[1] In addition, members of this class were dependent on the state for access to the world’s industrial-capitalist, corporate, ‘technocratic elite’ positions, entities, and arenas.

Kenneth McRoberts is of the opinion that class was evident in the ‘persistent cultural division of labour’ within Quebec from 1760, and that it was a point of dissatisfaction. He describes how, by the 1960s, new social conditions combined with the economic aspirations of the new [and apparently relatively ubiquitous] educated and economically comfortable middle class to lend a new appearance and renewed impetus to “longstanding traditions of nationalist aspiration,” which had historically promoted and maintained a pronounced ethnic identity.[2] The old appellation Canadien thus lost favour to Québéçois to make a historical point more pointedly.

Labour relations and trade unionism are discussed in more detail in Section 3. Jacques Rouillard traces the history of the Confédération des travailleurs catholiques du Canada [CTCC], arguing that, from 1945 through the 1960s, while the union itself underwent change (the abandonment of corporatism and denominationalism, and increased militancy towards management and government), it was a significant force in shaping ideological and political attitudes and reinforcing calls for change in Quebec. However, he notes that the CTCC did not become involved in political partisanship.

Carla Lipsig-Mummé ascribes the roots of trade unionism decline and crisis in the 1980s to a failure of Quebec unions to engage more directly in politics, but avers that, because of inter-union competition and disagreement, organizations such as the Quebec Federation of Labour did not have the “financial resources, structural freedom or moral authority” to challenge a nationalist political party, such as the Parti Québécois, which was bent on consolidating its own position.[3]

For her part, Mona-José Gagnon studies the role played by women in the trade-union movement to find that, if their role was negligible, it was not the fault of women, but was because women were purposefully “pathetically underrepresented in the union structures.”[4]

Intergovernmental relations between Quebec and Ottawa are addressed by Gérard Bergeron, Claude Morin, and Gil Rémillard. Bergeron describes how Quebec’s desire to achieve political ‘equality’ within Canada (meaning, apparently, a ‘positive autonomy,’ and parity with whatever the English ‘founding nation’ had secured), was undermined by the self-interested stances of Ottawa and the other provinces. Morin describes Quebec’s position within Canada and the world economic system up to 1980 as dependent (which, as in Bergeron’s piece, is equated with political-economic, and national immaturity), and therefore not conducive to self-determination. Rémillard’s essay supplies a guess about what might have been, but fails to predict the 1987 meeting of Canada and the provinces at Meech Lake, the ratification of the accord by the National Assembly, or the lapse of the agreement and subsequent years of uncertainty.

To some extent, excepting the discussions of Richard Jones and William Coleman on language as a political site, the final three sections of the book are largely predictive as well. Jones reviews debates, from just prior to the Royal Commission of Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963, and subsequent reactions to language legislation, to arrive at the conclusion that legislation alone cannot promote language use sufficient to ensure its viability. Coleman demonstrates that the Parti Québécois in effect ‘straddled fences’; “adopting a fairly coercive approach to the use of language in the public sector” in 1977 with Bill 101, while bowing to private sector pressure for latitude to a much greater extent that Bill 22 (introduced three years earlier by the Parti libéral du Québec), had done.[5]

The nature of the Parti Québécois, its vision, and prospects for its future are evaluated by René Lévesque, Raymond Hudon, Guy Rocher, and Jean-Louis Roy in the last two sections. Though they adopt slightly different perspectives regarding the effectiveness and representativeness of the Parti Québécois within Quebec (Lévesque is understandably positive, while Hudon and Rocher are more reserved, and Roy is critical), all agree that the ‘new era’ facing Quebec nationalism is beset by ever increasing obstacles as populations within and without its borders become more diversified and less easily classified either ethnically or nationally. Somewhat ironically, as of the time the various predictions were penned, it appears Quebec was regarded as facing an immanent ‘identity crisis’ which earlier proponents of English Canadian nationalism had found equally confounding.


[1] Marc Renaud, “Quebec’s new middle class in search of social hegemony: Causes and political consequences,” in Michael D. Behiels, ed., Quebec since 1945: Selected Readings (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1987), 52.

[2] Kenneth McRoberts, “The Sources of Neo-Nationalism in Quebec,” in Quebec since 1945, 80.

[3] Carla Lipsig-Mummé, “The Web of Dependence: Quebec Unions in Politics before 1976,” in Quebec since 1945, 154.

[4] Mona-José Gagnon, “Women in the Trade-Union Movement in Quebec,” in Quebec since 1945, 172.

[5] William Coleman, “From Bill 22 to Bill 101: The Politics of Language Under the Parti Québécois,” in Quebec Since 1945, 222.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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