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Social Change, French Canadian Nationalism

Pierre Laporte, Jean Lesage, War Measures Act, Parti Quebecois, new Quebec

During Diefenbaker’s time as prime minister, French Canadian nationalism moved into a phase that came to be called the Quiet Revolution. This was a transition, almost explosive in its suddenness, from traditional, rural, church-oriented values to full participation in modern, urban, secular values.

Political leader Maurice Duplessis, premier from 1936 to 1939 and from 1944 to 1959, staunchly defended the old belief that preservation of a traditional rural society was the best way to protect French Canada from British and secular influences. Religion and agriculture, not government, were considered the vital defenses. The Catholic Church held a special role: Its priests, nuns, and other religious figures ran educational, health, social, and cultural programs that were government-run in the rest of Canada. The church’s educational curriculum was weak in science and technology, and the percentage of graduates from secondary schools was low. Through support of the church and his party’s control of political patronage, Duplessis maintained the status quo until his death in office in 1959. Even though Quebec had by that time become an urban industrial society, English-speaking Canadians, many of whom considered French Canadians to be backward, dominated public life in Canada. Even in Montreal, Quebec’s largest city, English predominated in commerce and among the leaders of business and industry.

In 1960 a new Liberal government led by Jean Lesage took power in Quebec promising to make French Canadians “masters in their own house.” Lesage planned to use state power to promote better education, health care, public industries, and French Canadian culture. The state replaced the church as the guardian of Quebec society, and the role of the church in operating secular institutions like schools and hospitals plunged dramatically. A ministry of education was established to modernize the curriculum and make postsecondary education more broadly available through a new system of community colleges.

The government of this new Quebec was also determined to secure new powers and reduce the role of the federal government within the province. The Liberals, particularly under Premier Robert Bourassa (1970-1976, 1986-1994), worked to revise the federal system to better accommodate French Canadian aspirations. A variety of opinions emerged in Quebec over French Canadian aims. Premier Daniel Johnson (1966-1968), whose Union Nationale party governed between Lesage and Bourassa, called for a new Canadian constitution with special status for Quebec as the homeland of one of the two founding peoples. Other movements were formed to advocate complete separation from Canada. One group, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ), resorted to terrorism to achieve that end. Meanwhile, Rene Levesque, formerly in Lesage’s Cabinet, left the Liberals and founded the Parti Quebecois (PQ) to seek sovereignty-association. This was envisioned as a union in which Quebec would be an economic partner with the rest of Canada but otherwise Quebec would be fully independent. In the 1970 provincial election, the PQ won the support of almost a quarter of the voters.

In the October crisis of 1970, the terrorist FLQ kidnapped a Quebec politician, Pierre Laporte, and a British diplomat, James Cross, and demanded the release of FLQ members who were in jail. The Canadian government rejected the kidnappers’ demands and invoked the War Measures Act, which authorized mass arrests and the deployment of army troops in the streets of Montreal. The murder of Laporte by his kidnappers added to the crisis. Cross was released by his captors in December in exchange for their safe passage to Cuba, and Laporte’s killers were later tracked down, arrested, and convicted of murder. The violence discredited the FLQ’s revolutionary approach to Quebec nationalism, and the independence movement united behind the PQ’s approach.

Quebec’s demand for increased provincial powers was mirrored elsewhere in Canada. Other provincial leaders claimed the right to acquire any new constitutional powers Quebec might receive. Western Canada, increasingly prosperous but still lacking the political clout of Ontario or Quebec, resented Ottawa’s preoccupation with central Canadian concerns. Challenges to the growing power of the federal government mounted in the provinces, but several federal-provincial constitutional conferences to try to resolve these issues, notably in 1964 and 1971, ended in deadlocks.

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