Quieter Revolutions

A Québécois historian examines the undercurrents of La Révolution Tranquille, fifty years after it began

Illustration by Mathieu Lavoie

Translated by Lazer Lederhendler


Quatre Vignettes

The Quiet Revolution is not an event, but an advent. For the francophones of Quebec, it represents a turning point, both a break with the past and a new beginning. Goodbye la Grande Noirceur—the Great Darkness—hello modernity. Goodbye dominance, hello awakening. In the 1960s, Quebec stopped being a belle province that could be readily bought or brought to its knees. Climbing out of the historical bed to which it had been confined, a nation stood up and set about regaining its place among other nations.

Were Quebec high school students asked to recount the history of their province, they would likely focus on two fundamental episodes, one with tragic overtones, the other with euphoric effects.

The first is the Conquest of 1759, a crucial moment of collective reversal for a society that, having already begun to gather speed, was halted in its national progression and bottled up. The second event is the Quiet Revolution, a crucial moment of collective recovery—a transformation of sorts, when Quebec, breaking its accumulated silences, endeavoured to once again become master in its own house and to cast aside restraint.

What is noteworthy here is the degree to which two events, though 200 years apart, have each come to seem like the reverse of the other. The defeat at the hands of the British, which marked the beginning of two centuries of survival; and then the triumph, not so much over the English as over the Self, long entrapped by the Other.

When he took over as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1998, Jean Charest toyed with the idea of rethinking certain accomplishments of the Quiet Revolution that, in his view, had over the years become hindrances. In his speeches during that period, he suggested the need to break with the development model of the 1960s, which he deemed unsuited to the prevailing challenges. Stigmatized for infringing on the sacrosanct, Charest did not make this mistake again. He, too, came to exalt the Quiet Revolution as “a period in which we took charge of our destiny,” and a “powerful impetus that continues to drive us today.”

Je me souviens. I remember. January 1995 at Mirabel Airport near Montreal, in the shuttle bus between the terminal and our plane. In front of me, a small man, but a giant of modern Quebec. Almost seventy-five, he sat straight as an oak, his eyes full of light. British in appearance (he had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford) but resolutely on the side of Quebec (he had, for example, memorably argued that international policy was within its jurisdiction), he was bound for Paris.

I looked at Paul Gérin-Lajoie with admiration for several minutes. The course of my life was so closely bound up with his goals. Just before we went our separate ways, I found the courage to express my thanks to him, and to tell him how much his efforts in the mid-1960s as minister of education had changed the trajectory of a whole society. Not to mention my own, destined as I was from childhood to be a labourer for the Davie shipbuilding company of Lauzon, PQ. Thanks to the education reforms he had directed, I had been propelled toward an infinitely broader horizon.

What do these four vignettes have in common? They suggest the degree to which the Quiet Revolution, whose inception fifty years ago is being commemorated in 2010, marks Quebec today. It is something the province can move away from, but never forget. In the Québécois collective imagination, the Quiet Revolution—a term coined by a Torontonian—represents a happy, liberating, and fruitful passage that demarcates Before from After.

And yet Quebec in the late 1950s was actually in sync with the times, not stuck in a past that refused to pass. True, it faced nepotism and corruption, anti-communist witch hunts and anti-unionism, natural resource handouts to the Americans and timid state regulation, rampant poverty and the under-education of the masses, excessive middle-class moralism and the ever-present priests. But these were not specific to the province. And the era also saw the rise of television and the inauguration of a Paris–Montreal air link, the revitalization of the école Polytechnique and the building of Place des Arts, suburban growth, and the proliferation of carport-equipped bungalows. In addition, there was the construction of the Metropolitan Boulevard expressway and the start of work on Place Ville-Marie—two icons of the modernization of Quebec. The extent of post-war activity in the province has often been overlooked.

Everyone in those days wanted to step confidently into the future, but intense struggles were taking place over the best route to follow. Under Maurice Duplessis, the conservative Union Nationale had come to power in the last years of World War II. It proposed to stay loyal to tradition while not shutting itself off from progress—to be both “traditional and progressive.” On the other hand, the provincial Liberals, who had not won an election since 1939, were endowed with a bevy of young visionaries and decisively inclined toward progress, though still committed to upholding a certain tradition. Their mantra could have been paraphrased as “Let’s move forward, but not smash everything along the way.”

The death of Duplessis in September 1959 tipped the balance toward change. “Désormais [henceforth],” said Paul Sauvé, over and over. Modernization would now take priority. But Sauvé was cut down by a heart attack, and his little revolution lasted less than four months. Still, it was with his ascension on September 11, 1959—ironically, 200 years almost to the day after the British victory on the Plains of Abraham—that things began to shift. Soon the change would be dramatic.

Following the deaths of Duplessis and Sauvé, the Union Nationale became disorganized. The general elections of June 22, 1960, were won by the Liberal Party, though by a narrow margin: fifty-one seats versus forty-three for the Union Nationale, which was being led by a low-profile politician, Antonio Barrette. Did the Québécois really want change? Yes, but gently, gradually, and in small doses. This was consistent with their usual political culture: seemly and sensible, peaceful and moderate, conciliatory and modest (quite the opposite of the image often projected on them from the outside).

Thus the Liberal train got under way. In command was Jean Lesage, wearing several hats: premier, minister of finance, and, eventually, minister of revenue and of federal-provincial affairs. A political pragmatist and an acknowledged federalist, he was at the head of an équipe du tonnerre—a dream team—the likes of which would not be seen again for many years: Paul Gérin-Lajoie, minister of youth and sports, and later of education; René Lévesque, public works and water resources, then natural resources; Georges-émile Lapalme, attorney general and, as of 1961, cultural affairs. Other prominent figures included Gérard D. Lévesque; René Hamel; Marie-Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, the first woman ever to enter the provincial cabinet; and Pierre Laporte, named minister of municipal affairs in 1962.

Following their lead, the civil service became highly professional, competent, and efficient. Among the outstanding individuals in important positions were Jacques Parizeau, Arthur Tremblay, Michel Bélanger, Claude Morin, and André Marier. And behind the scenes a host of academics—primarily from Université Laval—advised, conceived, imagined, and idealized. Léon Dion, Fernand Dumont, Gérard Bergeron, and Guy Rocher come to mind, among many others.

Within five years, sharing the same resolve (if not always the same ideas), these actors set about to recast the state of Quebec along modern lines. They had two overarching aims: to level Quebec society, stratified after almost twenty years of laissez-faire and feeble interventionism; and to stimulate its economy, now displaced by the Great Lakes region as the primary zone of North American growth. Their priorities were to foster the large-scale education of the population, as a springboard for social mobility; to promote the formation of a Québécois business class, particularly among francophones, as a means of reducing the province’s economic dependence on foreign or English Canadian capital; and to support the development and dissemination of Québécois culture—especially but not exclusively francophone culture—throughout Quebec and across the globe.

Imagination and daring were firmly in control. But the revolution was not merely idealistic—the questions of the day were urgent, and demanded action. What to do with the thousands of children born after the Second World War, who had to face the challenges of an increasingly knowledge-based society? How to address the needs of a labour market driven by technological innovation, and hence increasingly in need of a well-trained workforce? And how to put an end to the economic disadvantage of French Quebecers, whose average income, we know thanks to the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission on bilingualism and biculturalism, was 35 percent lower than that of English Quebecers, and whose ranking for revenue based on ethnic origin was twelfth, just ahead of the province’s Italians and native Americans?

More broadly—in the context of the emerging ideologies of development, planning, protection, justice, and equal opportunity—how to reform society so that it might realize its full potential, rectify its glaring imbalances, regulate its flows, and carry an entire population along on the tide of growth?

These questions weren’t limited to Quebec, of course; they preoccupied governments throughout the Western world. There were no turnkey solutions, and imitation was widespread. Quebec drew on what was being done elsewhere, including in Ottawa. But it invented and innovated as well. Operating with only marginal public debt, it was able to be creative and act freely. Although the province occasionally made errors, many of its gambles paid off.

Beyond the confines of ministerial offices, the effervescence was palpable. Quebec society was being carried along by its youth. The mid-1960s were demographic heydays, with those under age twenty-five representing more than half of the province’s population. Rebellious but not radical, they were thirsty for emancipation.

Yet, while it was the younger generation that forged ahead, the pioneering role of the previous generation, the one born in the 1920s and ’30s, was undeniable. Slogans put forward by the state, political parties, and civic boosters alike aimed at galvanizing the masses: “It’s time for change!” “Building with battering rams,” “Education is wealth,” “Quebec knows how,” “Quebec certified.” (“Equality or independence” and “Quebec for the Québécois” were soon to come.)

The reform of the education system was perhaps the government’s greatest—and most underrated—success. Between 1960 and 1970, enrolment increased radically, following the creation of the Collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (Cegep) in 1967, and the development of the Université du Québec network in 1969. Francophones, in particular, had newly extensive access to higher learning, which made their impressive social advancement possible. By the end of the 1960s, the traditional portrayal of French Canadians as drawers of water and hewers of wood was being roundly scorned.

In the economic sphere, the founding of a set of unique institutions—beginning with the Société générale de financement in 1962 and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec in 1965—allowed for the formation of a large class of francophone business people, soon to be dubbed Québec Inc. The name encompassed those from state-owned companies, notably Hydro-Québec, and private corporations, such as Quebecor, Cascades, Bombardier, Lavalin, Provigo. This entrepreneurial avant-garde, which also included the Desjardins association of credit unions, spurred the province’s development. It furthermore enabled Québécois talent to access external markets, and sometimes to move to the forefront, both in Canada and abroad. And it allowed Montreal, once Canada’s primary economic hub, to regain some of its lustre.

The upward economic and social mobility of francophones, and their attendant rise in self-assurance, eventually manifested in the political sphere. The seeds of this shift can perhaps be traced to the provincial Liberal Party’s declaration of support for nationalizing electricity, which all but acquired manifesto status. The party escalated its rhetoric during that year’s electoral campaign, stating, “Quebec is finally seeing that there will henceforth be no future and no pride in being the eternal Adjutant of the Other, the designated subordinate and poorly paid executant.” And then there was the Liberals’ electoral slogan (“Now or never, master in our own house!”), which resonated for a long time with its audience.

By the mid-1960s, the historical consciousness of francophones was about to undergo a major mutation. Indeed, the “Québécois,” that rebellious heir of the French Canadian, came into being during the états généraux du Canada français in Montreal in November 1967. There, the province’s francophones dissociated themselves from their siblings in other provinces, adopting a nationalistic outlook on their political destiny and asserting their national identity as firmly Quebec based.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that the Québécois were then—or, for that matter, are today—in the mood for independence. The idea, rather, was to reconquer the position that Quebec, and thus francophones, had lost in the political economy and the symbolic space of Canada. During the years of the Quiet Revolution, the Québécois overwhelmingly supported the Canadian project, which they hoped to develop in partnership with English Canada. Witness their sustained and ongoing support for Pierre Trudeau, who aimed to show the English what francophone Canadians could do. Trudeau embodied Québécois’ view of themselves after eight years of Quiet Revolution: as a people on the move. Yes, we can—long before Barack Obama.

There were, of course, a few eccentrics roused by the ideologies of the day: decolonization, socialism, independence, revolution. Their tumultuous and sometimes violent approach relegated them to the margins, however, and the escalation of their radicalism into the October 1970 assassination of Pierre Laporte sounded their death knell. The discourse that fuelled them has since become folkloric.

The majority was resolutely positioned elsewhere. It wanted Quebec to regain peacefully its central location in a federal system that would respect the constitutional division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces. It also wished for Quebec to be recognized as a historical partner in the Canadian federation, with all the attendant political implications. Upheld by René Lévesque, a reformist more than a hard-line partisan of Option-Québec, these aspirations utterly annoyed Trudeau, whose goal was to get rid of the Quebec-Canada dichotomy entirely. Trudeau believed Quebec’s emphasis on its distinctness would forestall its potential and leave it with only feeble autonomy. Where Lévesque aimed to de-Canadianize and Quebecize the Québécois, Trudeau sought to de-Quebecize them and Canadianize them in his image. Yet neither prevailed over the political logic of those directly concerned, who balked at being either simply Québécois or simply Canadian. This is where things still stand: at the inn of the in-between.

It has often been said of the Quiet Revolution that it was a specifically Québécois experience. In fact, most of the changes in the province during the 1960s were occurring, with varying degrees of intensity, throughout Canada, North America, and Western Europe. Feminism, the sexual revolution, counterculture movements, socialistic ideologies, utopian quests, artistic experimentation—these phenomena affected every Western society. In many ways, the Québécois were simply taking part in a transformative epochal shift.

Still, the local particulars were significant. The rapid pace of laicization was certainly one of the Quiet Revolution’s salient features, though Quebec was never a “priest-ridden society” to the extent generally claimed. That said, in the 1950s, the Church remained powerful in many sectors of society: education, social welfare, trade unionism, community life, and culture in general.

By the early 1960s, however, it appeared to be a giant with feet of clay, undermined for over a generation by modernist currents within. When it came to conquering minds and assembling throngs, Christ now faced competition from some cool new apostles: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Robert Charlebois, to name a few. By and large, Catholic dogma was increasingly unable to answer the questions of a population that, though it still believed in God, wanted to live its faith in the light of the present. The reforms of Vatican II, the updating of the catechism, and the introduction of go-go masses could not stem the underlying movement. Large numbers of priests gave up the cloth, technocrats took over from clerics, and faith became a personal and private affair.

Many Church dignitaries played key roles in effecting change. Take, for example, Jean-Paul Desbiens, author of Les insolences du Frère Untel (1960), which radically denounced the cultural poverty of the Québécois and, more generally, their contempt for the French language. Or Monseigneur Alphonse-Marie Parent, who presided over the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Education in the Province of Quebec, and whose monumental report cleared the way for the mass education of Québécois youth. Finally, there were Gérard Dion and Louis O’Neill, two churchmen who, by censuring electoral immorality during the Duplessis era, helped raise the standards of democracy in the province.

It is commonly believed that the Quiet Revolution was carried out by francophones, for francophones. But this is wrong. The transformations of that period also had many positive effects for Anglo Quebecers, who have never comprised a monolith of tightly knit, well-to-do people, nor a group united, by virtue of privilege and arrogance, against francophones.

For many anglophones, the Quiet Revolution, which enlarged the reach of the état providence (the welfare state), led to a genuine improvement in quality of life. And in contrast to what is commonly claimed, the province’s anglophone institutions were not jeopardized by the wide-ranging emancipation movement of the francophones. Predictably, however, many of the established anglophone elites found it difficult to see new actors occupying coveted places in the economic and social order. Power, after all, is not a pie gladly shared. The famous question was uttered: “What does Quebec want? ” But it often became “What do those French people want? ”

Uncomfortable in the stormy climate of a province that no longer wanted to be strictly provincial, many anglophones moved away, some bitterly and with extravagant gestures. However, the vast majority stayed, voluntarily and affectionately, because Quebec was their home. Time eventually soothed the discourse. Even when the rhetorical gulf between the two solitudes remained, the empirical gap shrank. The process gained momentum with the arrival of a new generation. Forgetful of past tensions or simply indifferent to bygone quarrels, the children of the 1970s and 1980s laid the groundwork for transforming the traditional relationship between francophones and anglophones. Long based on forced interdependence, it quietly evolved toward a relatively harmonious interculturality. The pacification of the anglophone-francophone relationship was a second quiet revolution, this time without capital letters.

What can be said about the legacy of the Quiet Revolution, fifty years on? It is considerable. What Quebec became and continues to be today on the material level derives to a very large extent from the seeds that were planted in the 1960s: the modernization of the operations of governance; the broadening of state intervention; the development of a high-calibre class of francophone business people; the upward social mobility of francophones; the international recognition of Quebec; the strengthening of French language and culture in the public space; and so forth. Certainly, many other transformations followed. But the change set in motion in the 1960s was fundamental. No government elected since then—whether Union Nationale, Parti Québécois, or Liberal—has fundamentally broken with the spirit of the Quiet Revolution.

The legacy of the Quiet Revolution is equally significant on the symbolic level. In fact, this may be its most enduring bequest. The successes of that decade—the nationalization of electricity, Expo 67, the Caisse de dépôt et placement, education reform, the widening of the social safety net—instilled in the Québécois the idea that they, too, could aim high and go far. That ambition is not about to wither away.

These symbolic successes have also, however, produced a persistent, often florid discourse that occasionally rises to the level of myth-making. The transformations of the 1960s didn’t engender only the beau et bon. A long list of errors and disgraces arose during that period, among them the demolition of residential neighbourhoods to make way for highways and other automobile-oriented infrastructure and the extreme bureaucratization of the state and its agencies.

Recent scholarship has tended to cast the Quiet Revolution in a more nuanced light, in which continuities contend with change. But those years remain a major site of memory for the Québécois. In fifty years, the Quiet Revolution will still be celebrated as a high point of our collective history.

This appeared in the October 2010 issue.

Mathieu Lavoie contributes regularly to The Walrus. He won three Infopresse Lux grand prizes for illustration in 2010.

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