As the Canadian Confederation (under the British North America Act in 1867) expanded, it experienced growing pains that were parallel to those of the British conquest and early administration of French Canada in 1763. Adding Manitoba and the Northwest Territory in the 1870s brought up two paramount issues to the survival of this union. First, the question of whether French Canadians would flock to newly opened territories and establish French satellite settlements far from Quebec was to be answered over the next three decades. The other question, which pointed out the significant cultural differences between the French community and the rest of Canada, was the Manitoba school crisis of 1890. The answer to these questions would show the mettle of the French Canadian community but also the overwhelming odds that the French identity faced in the 19th century.
The newly opened western lands of Canada had been explored sparsely by the first French settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries, but French colonialism was centered on establishing bases of operation around natural resource centers. The St. Lawrence River and its outlet to the Atlantic was too tempting a resource to leave with minimal support. As the British took Quebec and the French land rights to the rest of modern Canada, they saw a wide expanse of untapped raw materials that could be used to keep the Empire prosperous. The French Canadian identity became tied to their ethnic center, Quebec and the St. Lawrence, making resettlement outside of Montreal and Quebec City almost traitorous to the community and painful for the individual. This contributed to the general lack of interest in expansion to the new territories.
Despite the overwhelming numbers of English migrants to take advantage of the frontier lands, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories accepted both English and French cultures and adopted policies of bilingualism. The Manitoba Act of 1870 made it illegal for the provincial legislature to take any stance or adopt any policy in favor of either French or English. This was meant to not only placate the French Canadians concerned over English dominance in the western provinces, but also to attract settlers from Quebec. Equal linguistic rights and the ability to attend schools of their choice was not sufficient incentive for many French Canadians because they could get the same rights and privileges in Quebec with the comforts of home.
In 1890, however, the French community in Canada was mobilized to political action in regards to the West. English Protestant settlers were disturbed by the influence of French Catholics on the process of education, especially considering the small amounts of French Canadians living in Manitoba. Based on this, representatives from the province presented a revision to the Manitoba Act in 1890 that would limit Catholic education and limit French language rights in settlement communities. The protests of Catholics in Quebec as well as Manitoba allowed the issue to explode in the province and throughout Canada.
In 1896, as the Conservative party was removed from power, Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier worked to reform the new Manitoba Act of 1890 instead of having the law repealed. In short, the reformed act would allow proportional representation by Catholics and Protestants in administration of schools, as well as more reasonable limits to where French was taught and revising the new Department of Education to be more sympathetic to both French and English students and teachers. The Manitoba school issue showed the accommodations that the English and pro-English Quebeckers were willing to give to French Catholics. It was also a sign of the Canadian unity that the British North America Act had intended for, with the recognition by provinces of each other’s distinct provincial cultures but also cognizant of a Canadian identity. The Manitoba Act was not the first such accommodation and recognition of Canadian identity, but it was the first such issue outside of the Quebec-Ontario duality.
Significant political changes occurred in Quebec in 1896, allowing the rise of an industrial state and wholesale acceptance of British capitalist structures. The Liberal Party defeated the Conservative Party in provincial elections, sweeping away what many thought was a stagnating political ideal of the countryside and the Catholic Church as the keys to the province. The Liberal Party would rule for forty years and opened the way for the opening of Quebec’s economy to foreign influence and to secularization of the economy at home. This was truly the distinction between Liberals and Conservatives in Quebec and in Canada general; the Liberals were the party of industrialists and the Conservatives were the party of the farmer and the laborer.
The Liberal party became synonymous in the 1920s with L.A. Taschereau’s administration, which saw the finalization of a great deal of industrial works. In 1900, the number of people who lived in the cities numbered less than 40 percent. In contrast, 1930 showed a majority of people living in the cities, numbering somewhere around 61 percent. Taschereau’s Liberal agenda was three fold: first, the administration focused on private business and the monopolization of public utilities; second, continued urbanization was saw as key to the economy, considering the factories and businesses were taken from small rural communities; and finally, the exploitation of resources by both domestic and foreign powers was seen as vital to Quebec’s survival. This proved to be a fatal campaign for Liberals, whose program failed to remedy problems in the Depression and also sold many of the ideals of French Canadians down the St. Lawrence River.
The main opposition to the Liberal Party in Quebec was Action Francaise, an organization largely fighting to return to the French Canadian ideal of Quebec as rural Catholic in nature. Social activist Lionel Groulx was the organizer of this group, galvanizing Quebecois around the ideas of anti-industrialism and anti-Americanism, complimenting the constant nationalist feeling of French Canadians. Formed in 1920, it faded into the new group Action Nationale in 1929 and promoted the ideals of French nationalism in Canada by pushing against conscription during WWI. The agenda of this group in its different incarnations was to restore French Canadian traditions like the role of Catholic clergy in government, the return to the rural landscape, and closing the borders to outsiders except those of French descent.
This frustration threatened to foment more fears after the worldwide depression of 1929 until a new government was elected in the midst of catastrophe in the economy. Maurice Duplessis rose through the ranks of Quebec politics, first as a parliamentarian and then as the two-time premier of the province. In 1935, Maurice Duplessis banded together with members of the Action Nationale and members of the Conservative party to form the Union Nationale. The Union was to be an opposition party to the Liberals as well as the Conservatives and provide the people of Quebec the ability to exercise political inclinations that Duplessis felt were prevalent at the time. Duplessis shared creation of the party with Paul Gouin, leader of the Action Nationale and grandson of former Premier Gouin of Quebec. The two agreed to an agenda for the Union Nationale that would include reforms in agriculture, labor, industry, and governmental responsibility for elections. This agenda would differ vastly from the widely known complacency and rampant corruption of the Taschereau government and force the Conservative Party to step up to its responsibilities or be extinguished.
Duplessis and Gouin advocated for the primacy of agricultural reforms, including rural electrification (similar to that of the United States during this time), low interest rate banking for farmers, and price guarantees to preserve the existence of the farmlands. Labor was next in importance, with the Union reform plan seeking to improve minimum wage and industrial hygiene issues in order to improve the quality of life for laborers. The breaking down of industrial trusts and the public ownership of utilities was seen as a serious first step by the Union Nationale in order to achieve the goals of the labor movement and make industry more effective. Finally, Duplessis especially wanted to eliminate the growing bureaucracy of the provincial government by downsizing government institutions and also to eliminate conflicts of interest in representation by forcing parliamentarians to sell stocks in companies before their terms began. The promise of these reforms, however, was left by the wayside with the onset of World War II and the revelation of Duplessis’ true inner politics.
Maurice Duplessis’ two administrations would prove to be the death knell of a long period of popular French nationalism. Instead of fulfilling the promises of an immense and popular reform plan, Duplessis reverted to primal instincts of protection, isolation, and resentment to push against English-Canadian culture. World War II broke out and the loyalty of Canada at large to Great Britain required it to involve itself militarily. Rekindling the debate between Quebec and Ontario over conscription in WWI, members of the Union Nationale rejected the idea of plucking French Canadians for service in a war that they did not feel need to be involved in immediately. It must be remembered that aside from the academic elites and some political leaders, most French Canadians had a distinct identity from their European homeland and did not feel the same kinship as the English Canadians to Europe.
Duplessis took advantage of this by using rhetoric of nationalism that bordered on fascism, popular amongst small factions in Quebec and throughout Canada before the atrocities of the war in Europe were discovered. In general, the Union Nationale’s use of language became less effective following the loss of Duplessis in 1939 and his reelection in 1944. The war’s end, the realization that Catholics were part of the persecutions in Europe, and the need for a government focused on domestic issues with postwar economy required new leadership. The problem was neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives were able to establish a good set of ideals or have a powerful leader like Maurice Duplessis. Duplessis used a toned down version of provincial autonomy in his second election while also touting the results of his first campaign, specifically against an unpopular conscription drive. This led to his reelection in 1944 as premier, replacing Adelard Godbout and the clean but largely ineffective government of the Liberal party.
Maurice Duplessis’ second term, lasting until 1959 with his death, focused unfortunately on domestic issues that he was ill equipped to deal with. Returning to the promises of the Union Nationale reform circular, Duplessis worked on attempting electoral reform and labor mediation. The party had built up a substantial nest egg of campaign money from sources in private industry and in the Catholic Church, allowing the party to maintain strength amongst the public and work against the opposition parties. These two sources of revenue were very important to understanding Duplessis’ original support in Quebec: the Catholic Church and private industry both favored the government’s Padlock Act and anti-communist stances, popular amongst some conservative labor unions.
Patronage was rampant in the Duplessis administration, which ran counter to the electoral reforms promised in 1935 but managed to keep alive the Union Nationale for almost two decades. By promising jobs for votes, Duplessis not only maintained his own power but he also went against his promise to cut down the provincial government bureaucracy. In two of his important reform areas, Maurice Duplessis had failed to use the support he enjoyed to achieve results and went counter to what his party had originally intended.
The examples above and many more can be given to show the failure of Union Nationale do much to fulfill their mission in office and all of the evidence can be used to show the success of isolationism and fear mongering by Duplessisism. Three groups saw the deeds of their government as misguided and Duplessis as a dangerous individual who needed to be removed from power. One such group was the radical nationalists, who did indeed share the spirit of Duplessis’ nationalism but also wanted radical reorganization of economic and social structures in Quebec. Another group was the trade unions, which organized in the 1950s as the Quebec Federation of Labor (QFL) and started to project a singular agenda. The success of Duplessis’ prior labor practices were his use of powerful political networks to force through pro-industry legislation as well as his ability to play unions off against each other in order to keep them busy and disorganized.
The third group, and probably the most powerful in destroying the Union Nationale, was the Catholic Church. The Church, once a major ally of the party, turned quickly against Duplessis because of what clergy deemed “political immorality”. The Church became friendlier to labor movements following WWII and saw the Union Nationale as detrimental to the growth of the province. Clergy and other French Catholics also saw Duplessis as a traitor to the traditions of the province, as he turned away from the approved reform plan and went forward with ultraconservative policies that did not favor the most important French Catholics. This traitorous activity by Duplessis would prove to be his undoing; before his death, the party had been on the decline and the burgeoning Liberal gains that would lead to the Quiet Revolution were beginning to materialize.
Maurice Duplessis’ death on September 7, 1959 spelled the end of Union Nationale as a nationalist reactionary force in Quebec. Duplessis, for all of his bluster and dangerous ideas, did bring together a great deal of constituencies in Quebec politics. His protests against conscription and involvement in the Second World War were met with cheers by French Canadians who wanted to assert their identity against foreign concerns. The man made the party and Duplessis’ untimely passing brought this chapter of success to an end for the party. His successors, Paul Sauvé and Antonio Barrette, tried to change the Union Nationale in order to compete with the increasing popularity of Liberal party politics. They attempted vigorously to rid Quebec politics of patronage but Sauvé’s death only months after his accession and Barrette’s ineffectual administration could not save the quickly sinking nationalist party.
The strike of Radio Canada in December 1958 was another example of the changing times in Quebec. Radio Canada was at odds with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), who would not let Radio Canada employees unionize or bargain collectively. The strike would drag on until March of 1959, with an uncertain decision that seemed to favor the CBC and its control over Canadian media. The smaller branch of the media corporation, Radio Canada, failed to push against large bureaucratic structures exemplified by the CBC. Labor unions, which had made strides in the 1950s against the Union Nationale, were not being allowed to function at their potential level. The public would start to become more familiar with this pattern and become more accepting of bureaucracy and federal unity with the Quiet Revolution.