The Duplessis Era

Some possible questions to ask yourself:

How does nationalism shape identity?
What was (and is!) the role of the state in Quebec society?
Modern times or Conservative times are these?

What you will be able to do:

Describe the economic policies of the Duplessis government.

Describe the social policies of the Duplessis government.

Explain the consequences of the policies of the Duplessis government on rural society.

Explain the opposition to the Duplessis government.

Overview of Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959)

Maurice Duplessis was Premier of Quebec from 1936 to 1939 and from 1944 to 1959. In all, he served as an MP for nine mandates and prime minister for five mandates. He was first elected in 1927 as a Conservative Party MP for Trois-Rivières. He was elected as head of this party in 1933, and in 1935, he created an alliance with the National Liberal Action Party to form a new party known as the Union National Party. It was as head of the Union National Party that he served as Premier of Quebec for 20 years.

Conservatism: Maurice Duplessis defended conservative ideas. He promoted political values that were very close to those of the Church. For example, he opposed the right of women to vote. He defended what was known as provincial autonomy, meaning the interests of Quebec to the federal government. Duplessis was also an advocate of economic liberalism, that is to say, he wanted to promote the establishment of businesses in Quebec and he opposed anything that might harm businesses, including workers’ demands and the right to strike.

The “Great Darkness”: Duplessis’ time in power is often referred to as a time of great darkness. This was because he was opposed to new ideas and challenges. For example, in 1937, he passed the Act against communist propaganda which prohibited any group from promoting communist ideas. Unions were also included in this group which he felt made excessive demands. In short, Duplessis tried to eliminate any ideas that were opposed to his. This is why the years of Maurice Duplessis in power are known as the “Great Darkness”.

Accomplishments: Maurice Duplessis made his mark on Quebec through his ideas and accomplishments. Included in his accomplishments were the creation of the Quebec flag in 1948 and the creation of provincial income tax that allowed the Quebec government to have more revenue. He also began the construction of major hydroelectric dams like the one in Bersimis. In addition, he promoted the electrification of rural areas."

Source: Alexandre Lanoix via LEARN's Maurice Duplessis page on the S and T site, under BY-NC-SA 2.5 CA.

Maurice Duplessis, Premier of Quebec from 1936 to 1940 and from 1944 to 1959 © Author unknown/ Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / PA-115821

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Laissez-faire Economics and Liberalism's "Invisible Hand"

"Laissez-faire, (French: “allow to do”) policy of minimum governmental interference in the economic affairs of individuals and society. [ ... ] Belief in laissez-faire was a popular view during the 19th century. Its proponents cited the assumption in classical economics of a natural economic order as support for their faith in unregulated individual activity. The British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill was responsible for bringing this philosophy into popular economic usage" (1). "Laissez-faire economics is a theory that restricts government intervention in the economy. It holds that the economy is strongest when all the government does is protect individuals' rights. In other words, let the market do its own thing. If left alone, the laws of supply and demand will efficiently direct the production of goods and services."

Sources (1 Laissez-faireeconomics https://www.britannica.com/topic/laissez-faire) (2 Laissez-faire Economics Depends on Three Components. https://www.thebalance.com/laissez-faire-definition-4159781 )

Economic policies of the Duplessis government

“The party of a generation, the Union Nationale defended provincial autonomy, conservatism, economic liberalism and rural life. [...] From an economic and social standpoint, Duplessis’ Union Nationale implemented laissez-faire policies, especially on natural resource development and hydroelectricity. However, his government invested in regional development by focusing on roads and highways, hospitals, schools, and especially rural electrification. Duplessis was frequently accused of patronage because he gave preference to entrepreneurs and businesspeople close to the party for construction work, which was mostly done in Union Nationale ridings.” (1)

"In fact, the Union nationale [...] entrusts economic development to private companies and investors, often foreign. Prosperity and progress ... occur through a system of laissez-faire, with freedom for business, but that which does not exclude [help] from the State: i.e. low fees for companies exploiting natural resources, numerous tax exemptions and privileges, no concessions for trade unions [...] “ (2)

"Employers, on the other hand, were opposed to the growth of trade unionism and benefited from strong support from the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959). To attract foreign companies to Québec, Duplessis wanted to ensure potential investors that they could count on a favourable, stable social environment, in addition to inexpensive natural resources and labour. " (3)

Sources: (1 Lemieux, Vincent and Nicolas Harvey. "Union Nationale". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 04 October 2018, Historica Canada. thecanadianencyclopedia.ca). (2 Translation of Fernande Roy, Histoire des idéologies au Québec aux XIXe et XXe siècles, Montréal, Éditions du Boréal, 1993, p. 95-96) (3 Québec trade unionism in the 20th century www.collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/ )

Post-Duplessis 1966 Union Nationale poster

“advertising aimed at attacking the Liberals, denouncing the explosion of government spending under Lesage. This ad also suggests the double talk of the Union Nationale. On the one hand it presents a program in favour of government spending, while on the other hand it accuses the Liberals of putting Quebec in debt." Advertisement: Québec en marche... vers la faillite," Le Soleil, June 3, 1966, p.22. Image Source: Banq.

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Social policies of the Duplessis government

"Maurice Duplessis, who headed the provincial government from 1936 to 1939 and from 1945 to 1959, opposed greater state intervention in social affairs. ...] Overall in Quebec, despite spectacular growth in infrastructure, equipment and personnel, the general organization of the hospital system has undergone little change... The question of financing health care and other services is the subject of particularly lively debate." (1)

"As premier, Duplessis ensured that the church kept a tight grip on education and social services throughout the province. One of his most notorious abuses involved transferring orphans to psychiatric hospitals to secure federal funding, which was more generous for hospitals than for orphanages. Healthy children were diagnosed as mentally unfit and sent to mental hospitals." (2)

""While Duplessis sustained the ultramontanist elements within Quebec society and relied heavily on clergy support in rural areas, he also launched initiatives that gradually reduced Church control over education while increasing state involvement. It has been argued that shrinkage in the number of active clergy made this shift necessary, but it marks a sea change nevertheless."

Sources: (1 François Guérard, Histoire de la santé au Québec, Montréal, Éditions du Boréal, 1996, p. 73-77.) (2 Maurice Duplessis ~ Canada's Human Rights History) (3 9.9 Cold War Quebec – Canadian History: Post-Confederation)

Image source: Conrad Poirier, Appareil respiratoire (avril 1946), Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, P48,S1,P13748. Public Domain

Image source: Élèves de la classe de français au Collège Villa-Maria (vers 1955), Archives de la Congrégation Notre-Dame, Montréal. Educational Use only license.

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Rural Society: Effects and Reactions

"the Union nationale initiated a series of reforms, the most important being the creation of the Office du crédit agricole (farm credit board) in 1936 that allowed many farmers to save their farms from bankruptcy during these years of serious economic crisis. Other measures announced during the election campaign, such as the nationalization of electricity." (1)

"1955, the report of the Héon Committee, commissioned by Duplessis, reminded us that agriculture should remain in the hands of the individuals who wanted to practice it, but that the number of farms should be reduced by two-thirds in order to move from 140,000 farms to some 44,000 more specialized and more productive farms [...] a dual objective: land occupation and food self-sufficiency." (2)

"On May 24 (1945), under Premier Maurice Duplessis, the Rural Electrification Act was passed. Less interventionist than his predecessor, Adélard Godbout, who had entrusted electrification to Hydro-Québec, Duplessis preferred to leave it up to the local communities to bring electric power to Québec’s less densely populated region. [...] Opposed to any form of government intervention in the economy, Maurice Duplessis had taken a stand against the nationalization of Montreal Light, Heat and Power. Elected premier in June 1944, just a few weeks after Hydro-Québec’s inception, he was duty bound to complete the task undertaken by his predecessor, Adélard Godbout. To remain on a good footing with his electoral base in rural Québec, Duplessis created the Rural Electrification Agency. He also reassured the private power companies that under his government, there would be no further nationalization of electricity in Québec. This did not prevent the wily Duplessis from calling on Hydro-Québec to supply power to regions that were of little interest to private enterprise but had a pressing need for electricity to develop their timber and mineral resources.”

Sources: (1 123 The Long Reign of the Union Nationale at http://larevolutiontranquille.ca/en/the-long-reign-of-the-national-union.php). (2 Brève histoire de l'agriculture au Québec by Jean-François Veilleux) (3 1945-1959 – Hydro-Québec's First Triumphs | History of Electricity in Québec )

Photo source unknown. Retrieved via Canada A Country by Consent: The Quiet Revolution: Duplessis and the Union Nationale (listed as an online, public domain site)

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Opposition to Duplessis


"Duplessis was responsible for some of the most infamous acts of state abuse of civil liberties in Canada’s history. His actions generated intense criticism and contributed to the creation of the first civil liberties groups in the country. [...] In 1937, Duplessis’s government passed An Act Respecting Workmen’s Wages and the Fair Wage Act. The legislation allowed the government to intervene in the internal affairs of unions—including the collective bargaining process and the rights of workers to choose their own unions. This permitted Duplessis to destabilize non-Catholic unions."

Source: Canada's Human Rights History - Maurice Duplessis https://historyofrights.ca/encyclopaedia/biographies/maurice-duplessis-2/


Murdochville miners… QFL turning point (1957) “On 10 March 1957, the 1,000 workers of Gaspé Copper Mines in Murdochville, Québec, struck for the right to unionize. The conflict lasted 7 months and ended in defeat for the miners. [...] The company refused to recognize the miners' union (Métallos were affiliated with the Québec Federation of Labour, est February 1957) and used strikebreakers, along with provincial police dispatched by Premier Maurice Duplessis, to subdue the strikers. [...] The strike has often been called a turning point in QFL history; in fact it was the most dramatic episode in 12 years of effort leading to the 1965 unionization of Murdochville miners.”


Source: Bélanger, Guy. "Murdochville Strike". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 28 October 2019, Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/


“As for labour relations, many strikes occurred during the Union Nationale’s years in power. Among these were the Asbestos strike (1949) and strikes by Louiseville textile workers (1952–53), Murdochville miners (1957), and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producers (1959). The government handled these conflicts with a firm hand and relied heavily on the provincial police to counter the strikers. The fight against socialism was another feature of the Duplessis platform, and it found expression in the Act Respecting Communistic Propaganda, which was passed in 1937. Better known as the Padlock Act, this piece of legislation empowered the authorities to close buildings or residences that were being used to propagate Communism or Bolshevism.”

Source: Lemieux, Vincent and Nicolas Harvey. "Union Nationale". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 04 October 2018, Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/union-nationale

Police, acting on orders from Premier Maurice Duplessis, padlock a building housing the United Jewish People's Order on Esplanade Ave. in Montreal in January 1950. Source: Montreal Gazette archives via https://theprovince.com/

Asbestos Strike (1949) footage from British Pathé https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiTOT-tsShI

Canada History Week 2019: The Asbestos Strike, by Historical Canada https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCiVWhWIQ0k

Main Document Collection:

All the documents we are curating, collecting and curating for this section are located in our main document collection here!

Other Tasks available for this time period:

Role of the state in Quebec society during the Duplessis era?
Go to History Community entry. (Student workbook only)

The intervention of the Quebec State.
Go to History Community entry (Student workbook only)

Duplessis - Modernism or Conservatism ? C2 - Question demonstrating rigour of interpretation.
Go to History Community entry (Student workbook only)