Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Principles Governing the Social Organization of Quebec



[This text was written by Esdras Minville. For the precise bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]

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The very purpose of this study requires a pre­liminary setting out of juridical and sociological principles that govern the social institutions of the province of Quebec: on the one hand, juridical rules that confer on the family, property, contracts, etc., their peculiar physiognomy; on the other hand, a social doctrine that inspires directly the social institutions and tends by the medium of legislation, if not to penetrate the others, at least to create for them a certain atmosphere.


Confederation confirmed: (a) the freedom of the Catholic throughout the length and breadth of the Dominion; (b) the exercise of French civil laws in the province of Quebec.


It thus sanctioned two essential prerogatives of the French-Canadian people who consented to enter Confederation only on condition that their "moral possessions"—religion, language, and civil laws—would be safeguarded.


At the time of the last census (1931) the popula­tion of the province of Quebec was made up as follows:


  • From a religious standpoint, 2,458,283 Roman Catholics or 85.5 per cent of the total population; 415,972 Protestants of the various denominations, Jews, orthodox faiths, etc., or 14.5 per cent of the total population;


  • From an ethnical standpoint: 2,292,193 French Canadians, that is to say, within a few tenths, 80 per cent of the total popula­tion; 582,062 Anglo-Canadians, Scotch, or Canadians of other ethnical origins, that is 20 per cent of the total population.


Since 1931 these proportions must not have varied to any extent.


Hence, the religious line of demarcation corre­sponds closely to the ethnical line of demarcation. Therefore, it is easily conceived that the Catholic majority which merges so to speak with the French-Canadian majority, will naturally tend to impose its social system, as the autonomy of the province invites it to do, and as the democratic system, that is, the system of government by the majority, presupposes.


Thus, the French civil laws officially recognized in the province provide society, without regard to the ethnical and religious differentiation, with its structure: family, marriage, conjugal authority, paternal authority, education, property, contracts, etc., in a word the rules governing the civil rela­tions between persons and between persons and. things.


Let us underline a few of the differences that, distinguish the civil law of the province of Quebec: from the civil law of the other provinces.


(1) It is codified. Hence two consequences :


(a) Quebec is a land of written law. Jurisprudence is not law therein as in the other provinces. When an economic and social situation arises, parliament must intervene to modify the sections of the Code which are deemed obsolete or have lapsed. (b) Codification does not prejudice the application in. the province of certain rules of the old French law as decreed by the great royal ordinances : custom of Paris, edicts of the Sovereign Council, to which, by virtue of an express provision of the Code, it is necessary to revert when the latter is silent on a given legal point.


(2) It is of Roman-French origin. Most of the institutions that govern, in the province of Quebec, the family, property, contracts, estates, come from Roman law, christianized under the influence of the Catholic church, synthesized, reduced to formu­las by jurists of ancient France.


Thus, in Quebec, the family presents two original characteristics. (a) It is one. The father exercises, authority over the members of the family. Com­munity of property corresponds to unity of family. (b) It rests on indissoluble marriage. The Civil Code (s. 183) does not admit divorce. But it recognizes separation as to bed and board which in no wise affects the marriage ties.


Similarly, the Civil Code subordinates property to certain social functions—interdiction of prodigals, concession in favour of the neighbour (enclave) or of the community (expropriation).

Let us again cite a typically French institution, the hypotheque, which is established by notarial deed and can only affect immovables; etc.


To the non-initiated, the peculiarities that dis­tinguish French civil law from common law may perhaps seem quite unimportant. Yet, if one keeps in mind, on the one hand, that civil law regulates the relations between citizens, determines the stan­dards they must observe in their external and social acts; that the laws which it contains spring from the customs of a people, from its manner of con­ceiving, of binding and unbinding the relations of its members; on the other hand, that once estab­lished the laws become in turn the guardians of the morals and of the traditions of a nation, it will be recognized on the contrary that these peculiarities are fundamentally important.


*     *     *     *     *


The religious influence is not as clearly defined; the Catholic religion, professed by 85.5 per cent of the population, inspires if not an altogether corresponding portion at least a considerable portion of all social undertakings and institutions in Quebec. As distinct from legal regulations, this doctrinal in­spiration is not imposed directly, nor with the same character of obligation, on the undertakings and institutions founded and maintained by non-Catholics. However, it tends to penetrate them in-directly by the simple fact that the majority, gives the laws their character. If non-Catholic social institutions have their own particular doctrinal in­spiration and may rest on their own conception of human life, whether materialistic or spiritual they evolve necessarily in a framework and within a system of lego-social rules which proceed more or less directly from Catholic thought and which confer on the social organization of the Province its doctrinal physiognomy, so to speak.


What are the essential postulates of the Catholic doctrine in social matters? They all flow from its conception of the human personality. Man is a being endowed with an immortal soul, who seeks a supra-natural end for the achievement of which his whole temporal activity must be ordered. Created in the image of God and called to live eternally the same life as God, he surpasses the other beings of creation by all the majesty of his origin and of his destiny.


The Church makes of this "eminent dignity of the human person" the basis of its social doctrine. From it flows a certain number of social conse­quences.


  • The respect due to the dignity of the human person which none may violate with impunity;
  • The respect due to the worker who must not be exploited like a machine and whose labour must not be looked upon as a common chattel;
  • The right of the worker to human living con­ditions; industry is made for man not man for in­dustry;
  • The right to the morality of labour; the human body must not be hired out like an instrument of pleasure.


But man does not live in isolation. Living with his fellow-men, because of the needs of his nature, he inevitably establishes relations with them. To what rules will they be subjected? He likewise has relations with the whole social body. What is his position towards society and how are the one and the other to be ordered reciprocally?


His relations, of whatever order they be, must be conceived in such a spirit that true freedom will be safeguarded, that freedom which, protecting human freedom, is by the very fact "above all violence and all oppression." The laws that govern these relations must therefore be such as to grasp man in all the manifestations of his activity and lead him normally to the attainment of his true end: eternal life.


Such laws are those of morality founded on belief in God and in the immortality of the soul. Catholic morality groups its demands around two powers of action: justice and charity. It involves general de­mands that may be summed up in the two following rules: "Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you." "Do unto others as you would have done unto you."

It also has particular demands which moralists group into two classes, each of these comprising three categories.


(1) Justice: (a) man to man which asks respect for whatever belongs to another—possessions, repu­tation, home—and for what is agreed upon with another by virtue of a deed of sale, labour agreement, lease, etc. That is commutative justice; (b) as between man and a group which demands that the rights of a group as such be respected, that it be not injured by words or actions, that its regu­lations and laws be obeyed. That is social justice; (c) finally, as between a group and man which calls for the equitable distribution of positions, offices and penalties. That is distributive justice.


(2) Charity: (a) from man to man demands that one love one's neighbour as one's self in a supernatural spirit, help him in his difficulties, console him in his afflictions, lend him assistance in his efforts towards moral progress, etc. ; and demands also what is called "social sense," which means direction of particular attention to the "social " sufferings of one's neighbour; (b) from man to group, asks the Catholic not to grudge his share of collaboration, of responsibilities, of accepted dis­cipline, of reciprocal esteem and union; (c) from group to man asks that society shows for its mem­bers a loving solicitude and that it does not accept service and support without serving and upholding those who compose it.


This summary analysis already indicates the position of man towards the social body, as well as the nature of the reciprocal relations that are estab­lished between them. The Catholic Church insists on this idea which it opposes, on the one hand, to individualism, on the other hand to socialism and totalitarianism.


In man, it distinguishes the individual from the person. The individual embodies everything that causes a man to be himself ; including the effect of material circumstances and of the forces that act on his physical being and, through it, on his moral being. The person, on the contrary, is individual substance, of a reasonable and free nature. It is essentially freedom, spirit, capacity for the divine. Hence, personality is of a higher order: of the spiritual order. It has a right to its integral de­velopment, therefore a, right to be accorded respect.


Consequently the reciprocal relations of society and man are easily defined. As an individual, man bears among other burdens that of social depen­dence. He cannot reject it, he is a unit in a group and as such falls into the group. But in so far as he is a person, he cannot accept his dependence upon society to the sacrifice of his own personality, the inferior existing for the superior and not in­versely. And thus society which submits the indi­vidual to its authority in turn becomes subservient to the person whose full development it aims to encourage within the limits of its natural role.

This social morality entails a certain number of consequences that may be grouped into three main categories.


(1) Reform of principles :


  • True notion of the right of ownership. The right of ownership is a natural right founded on the requirements of the human person and on those of the common weal. The Church distinguishes, how-ever, between the right to ownership and its use: that is the social function of ownership. Its whole doctrine may be summed up in this passage from Saint Thomas: "Temporal things given to man by God are truly his own as to ownership; in the matter of use, they must be not only his own but also those of others who may find therein their sup-port in respect of that which is superfluous to the owner. . . . When it comes to the use of goods, man must not consider external things private, but common…."


  • Relations between capital and labour. These relations must be founded not on the exploitation of the one by the other, but on justice tempered with charity, not on opposition but on the neces­sary collaboration of classes. Contrary to the teachings of economic liberalism, human labour cannot be likened to a commodity, subjected like wheat or cotton to the law of supply and demand. The worker has a right to living conditions worthy of a human being, hence to an equitable remuneration and to working conditions: time, health, security, that take into account his status as a man. In return, he must supply the labour to which he bound himself with assiduity, exactness, conscien­tiousness. He must respect the person and the pos­sessions of the employer; obey orders and give def­erence and respect. In a word, there will emerge from the collaboration of the employer and the worker in a spirit of justice and peace both their reciprocal weal and the weal of society in general.


  • Fair wages and lifting of the “proletariat.” The wage-earning system is not an unjust system in itself, provided it conforms to the demands of commutative justice and distributive justice. Labour agreements that do not secure to workers a living minimum are unjust and immoral. Failing organizations such as trade unions and associations, it behooves the state to secure to all equitable work­ing conditions.


But if the wage-earning system is not unjust in itself it has nevertheless engendered by reason of unbridled competition a real social problem: the "proletariat." In line with capitalism it has, in fact, the enormous disadvantage of sanctioning the separation of the worker from his working implements and intensifying class struggles. Contrary to what socialism succeeded in making people believe, proletarians and wage-earners are not synonymous. One cannot qualify as proletarians that section of wage-earners constituting the technical personnel, and in a general way, skilled labour. According to the definition of Goetz Briefs, the proletarian is "the worker who only possesses his working strength, without property and without hope of ever owning any." The "proletariat" is made up of the multi­tude of workers "enjoying abstract freedom, without the means of asserting same effectively." This is a modern phenomenon that goes back to the abolition of the worker's right of association and to the political liberation of the worker by democracy, followed by his effective enslavement by capitalism originally liberal but finally authoritarian. Industrial concentration of the last quarter of a century accelerated the proletarianization of the masses.


Social justice demands that the state set everything in motion to abolish the proletarian condition, and similarly all those who occupy leading positions in society should apply themselves to the same task: to protect the middle classes threatened by "proletarianization "; to defend the working classes and small tradesmen; to work for the up-lifting of the masses by the dissemination of general culture and vocational training; to make it easy for the worker to become a property owner, to protect the wage-earner against the uncertainty of the morrow by a system of public or private insurance, etc.


(2) Reform of institutions.


(a) Reform of the state. Liberal economic and political institutions associated in social realism were bound to direct the world inevitably towards a more and more widespread state control. So much so that to-day the role of the state extends to a multitude of fields over which, by definition, it has no jurisdiction, and there is too a growing tendency on the part of the people of all classes of society to expect more and more from the state, even up to and including the daily sustenance. It is essential that this tendency be combated, that the state be recalled to its true role as guardian of the common weal, as director, assistant and co-ordinator of individual and social activity.

If the state is more and better than the super-guardian of "liberalism," it is not and cannot be the "omniscient and omnipotent" Providence of state control and Communism. It has the faculty of intervening in the play of private activity and such interventions can be either direct and negative (to repress abuses: for instance, to compel reluctant employers to pay a living wage) or positive and indirect (to equip institutions in such a manner that spontaneously and without effort there will ensue therefrom prosperity both public and private; guardianship of morals, equitable division of posts, etc.).


If such a doctrine departs from planned economy, a disguised form of state control, it allows to subsist and even supports organized economy in which the state is responsible for general measures looking to the common weal, leaving the remainder to lower-ranking organizations. It makes it incumbent on the state to insure for the worker, within the laws and customs, the place to which he is entitled, to see to it that conditions are such that everyone earns his living honestly and enjoys the consideration which his labour and his honesty deserve : to assist in the struggle against unemployment, against pro­letarianism, insufficient wages, the exploitation of the weak by the strong; to protect the worker's freedom and the freedom of association; to under-take suppression of workers' coalitions that hamper the freedom of enterprise, and of employers' coali­tions intended to deny the workers their rights; to provide guardianship of individual, family and col­lective property.


But if it is in order to relieve the state of the tasks that are outside its province, it is essential that there be organizations capable of assuming them. The Church favours in particular vocational associations. These vocational associations, an out-growth of social education and not the result of compulsion, will themselves assume : (1) the intel­lectual and moral improvement of their members; (2) their protection against the numerous hazards of contemporary existence by insurance, pension and retirement funds, etc.; (3) the regulation of trades and crafts: wages, working conditions, etc. They will relieve the state of a multitude of prob­lems which it is not qualified to solve satisfactorily.


But their great service will consist in shaping among their members, instead of the present spirit of opposition and struggle, a spirit of solidarity and of broad collaboration on the social plan, aiming no longer at the well-being of an individual or of a group, but at the common well-being of all trades and of society in its entirety.


(b) Reform of morals. "This social renovation so much to be desired, must be preceded," writes Pius XI, "by a complete renovation of the Christian spirit." The world must, as a matter of fact, revert to the Christian conception of social life, hence to justice and charity as a regulative standard of human relations. But men can only give that which they possess. In order that justice and charity shall hold sway about them, they must cause them to enter and fill their lives, and subject their whole activity to these virtues. On that condition they will become righters of wrongs in our imperilled society and in our society of tomorrow factors of order, of peace and of well-understood prosperity.

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Source: Esdras MINVILLE, “Principles governing the social organization of the Province of Quebec”, in Labour Legislation and Social Services in the Province of Quebec, A Study Prepared for the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations, Ottawa, 1939, pp. 7-10.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College