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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Massey Report


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

The first fifty years of the 20th century witnessed a profound transformation in the outlook of English-speaking Canadians. From a rather colonial mentality, where King, Country and Empire were inextricably mixed to create a sentiment of confused nationality, English Canada became more conscious of its own distinct identity and moved closer to the views held previously by French Canadians on the nature of their country. This process was a slow and often painful one: for over a century English Canada had defined itself as a British community bent on orderly development and opposed to the American way of life. But, as the old ties with Britain were slowly eroded, it became evident that the vacuum created was being filled increasingly by cultural importations from the United States. The economy of Canada came to be dominated by the Americans and with it came American culture. It was very difficult for English Canada to resist the trend: Canada shared a long frontier with the United States; many people had crossed the border, in both directions, and kept in contact with the people bach home. This had led to an intermingling of population particularly in the Western provinces; there was a desire to attain a high standard of living and, above all, English Canadians spoke the same language as the Americans. The development of the new mass media, especially television, made it difficult for English Canadians to resist the American cultural invasion and to express, in cultural forms, their newly defined identity. It was too easy to import almost everything from the United States and too difficult, futile and costly to try to emulate and compete effectively with the Americans.

The experience was doubly crippling because English Canadians had, before their eyes, the example of French Canada which seemed to find it so much easier to express its own individuality and culture and to resist, much more successfully, American cultural pressures. Provincial governments were either too poor or incapable to help build what was then commonly  called "a genuine Canadian culture." Under these circumstances, English Canadians turned instinctively to the national government- the federal government- for help. This process of looking upon the federal government as the depositor of the hopes and aspirations of Canadians gathered momentum during the Depression and the 1940's. The Depression had demonstrated to most Canadians the utter incapacity of the provinces to deal effectively with real problems and the War had shown what a powerful federal government could do. This process of focusing increasingly on the State, and especially on the federal government, has been documented very well by Doug Owram in his The Government Generation. Canadian Intellectuals and the State, 1900-1945  (University of Toronto Press, 1986). This focus on the federal government led inevitably to centralisationand, thus to demands that the federal government becomes involved in the cultural sector.

The notion of federal involvement in cultural affairs worried considerably the people and government of Quebec. After all, federalism had been created so that the individuality of the provinces- their local cultures in particular, -would not be interfered with; Quebec had been on the front line of those demanding such a system. Furthermore, there was deep distrust in Quebec about entrusting cultural matters to a level of government where the culture of the majority was not the same as that of Quebec, especially in light of the repeated attacks that the French language had had to suffer in the past at the hands of anglophone majorities in various provinces and where the federal government had stood idly by...

The federal government responded eventually to the call for intervention from intellectual circles in English Canada (there were also some voices heard from Quebec who welcomed Ottawa's initiatives in the cultural sphere; after all, the Duplessis regime was not well known to support intellectual ventures...). The federal government appointed a Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences - commonly called the Massey Commission- in 1949. Its report was issued in 1951 and, on the whole, the hopes of the interventionists were not disappointed.

The Commission proposed the revamping of the CBC and the involvement of the federal government in national television; funds would come from the federal government. The Commission also proposed the creation of the National Library, of Radio-Canada International and to enlarge  the mandate of the National Film Board. A Canada Council for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities would also be set up and its task would be to distribute funds so that national cultures would emerge. Finally, the Commission recommended the introduction of federal bursaries for university students and federal funding for Higher Education.

Most recommendations, in one way or another, encroached on provincial spheres of jurisdiction, especially  on education; culture had, to this point, been reserved to the provinces. The Commission justified this intrusion into provincial matters by making a rather unconvincing distinction between culture and education. Despite the strenuous opposition of Quebec (which fought to protect what we would call today its "cultural sovereignty"), all of the major recommendations of the Commission were implemented by the federal government over the next few years. The report led to the establishment, by Quebec, of the Tremblay Commission and to years of federal-provincial disputes, especially on the subject of university financing.

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College