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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Tremblay Report And Provincial Autonomy In The Duplessis Era (1956)

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

The centralisation that resulted from the Great Depression and the war caused apprehension to some of Canada's regions and provinces; but nowhere was the reaction as strong as in Quebec where the principle of provincial autonomy was held in such high esteem so as to constitute, truly, a national dogma. In the defence of the rights of provinces, Quebec had always found in the past willing partners, particularly in Ontario. But the development of a national consciousness in English Canada, separate from British and American overtones, and the resulting emphasis placed on the federal government, served to isolate Quebec from the rest of the country. Slowly, in the post-world war period, Quebec lost all of its allies as, one after the other, the provinces accepted to rent their taxes and let the federal government occupy not only the centre stage but just about all of the stage, leaving but a small, insignificant role for the provinces to play.

Several elements of the new centralisation were particularly worrisome to Quebec: the abolition of appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the resulting enhancement of the role of the Supreme Court, the multiplication of conditional grants, federal involvement in the fields of culture and social affairs, the discussions surrounding the patriation of the Canadian constitution and the virtual elimination of any autonomous tax base for the provinces. It was in this context of massive centralisation by the federal government and the resulting isolation of Quebec that Maurice Duplessis created in 1953 the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Constitutional Problems headed by Judge Thomas Tremblay.

The Commission's main purpose was to give Quebec's answer to the views of the Rowell-Sirois Report and of the Massey Commission. It was given the mandate to examine the problem of tax sharing between the various levels of government (federal, provincial, municipal and school), to study the effects of the "encroachments of the central government in the field of direct taxes" and generally to make recommendations to solve constitutional problems. In fact, it seems clear today that Duplessis never envisioned that the inquiry would assume the large proportions that it eventually did. What he seemed to have had in mind was the publication of "un petit rapport" which would state clearly and concisely the position of Quebec on fiscal matters and provide him with the necessary arguments to make his case for the protection of the autonomy of the province in federal-provincial conferences.

In the mental universe of Duplessis, two components were essential to protect the people of Quebec against centralisation:

  • a provincial government entrusted to a party completely divorced from the federal parties (that often considered their provincial counterparts as under their control); in this respect Duplessis led the Union Nationale Party, a party completely independent from any other party; it was the only "all Quebec" party in the province.
  • insistence on the respect of the autonomy, fiscal or otherwise,  of the province.

Duplessis’s views of provincial autonomy was typical of the time. He had a ‘banker’s conception of it. He saw himself as the guardian, indeed the custodian, of the traditional values and of the culture of the people of Quebec. A sacred trust had been given to him, as the Prime Minister of the French-catholic province, to safeguard these values, to keep them from the grasp of those who would undoubtedly do harm to them, change them to assimilate the people of his province into the foreign culture of the world that surrounded the province. Leading the charge in the integration of the people of Quebec, indeed their assimilation, was the federal government. The extension of its sphere of activity into a wide range of matters, especially in education and other cultural matters, in the post-war period, posed a particularly potent threat to Duplessis. It is that aspect, and the increasingly large share of taxes that the federal government raised to support its purposes, which Duplessis wished the Commission to address. He wanted to say no to centralisation; he desired to repatriate what he called ‘notre butin’ (the taxes that belonged to the people of Quebec); he wished to explain why it was important to preserve provincial autonomy but he did not have much to propose as to what should be done with these powers and with this money. He saw his role to preserve what had been, and not necessarily to make it fructify. He wished for the Commission to provide him with the basis of arguments to sustain his goal to safeguard the autonomy of the province.

However, once appointed,  the Commissioners (6 in number) took their task very seriously. They called for submissions by experts, held 97 public meetings in various parts of the province, received 217 briefs, commissioned many studies and finally produced, three years later, in 1956, a massive five volume report accompanied by 10 published annexes. In it, they studied not only the functioning of the federal system and the fiscal relationship of the various levels of government but also attempted to define the culture of French Canada and made several recommendations to ensure it’s continued development in Quebec. The focus was on development and not merely preservation. This concern of the Commission with the future, even more than with the past, gave the Report a distinctly progressive tone that, on the whole, displeased Duplessis and accounts largely for the first class burial given to the Report by his government.

The central aim of the Report was to stop what it considered the erosion of federalism in Canada. The Commission implicitly recognised the continued necessity of federalism to protect local cultures in Canada, especially the culture of Quebec. It found that it had been the design of the Fathers of Confederation to create a federal state, despite some strong centralising features in the Constitution Act. In their view, the original aim of Confederation to create a federal state had been reinforced by judicial interpretation but, it claimed, the federal government had consistently defeated the purpose of Confederation in four main ways:

  • by using an inordinate proportion of the tax allocation that far exceeded the cost of federal services;
  • by invading fields of exclusive provincial jurisdiction mainly through conditional subsidies;
  • by securing amendments to the constitution without the consent of the provinces "as parties to the original agreement."
  • by using federal revenues and institutions to promote social, cultural and educational uniformity in Canada; this was called federal "imperialism" and would lead to the imposition of a cultural system incapable of resisting American influence in the future.

The Report was particularly critical of the concept of local autonomy which had served as the basis of the Rowell-Sirois recommendations It contended that "there can be no federalism without autonomy of the states' constituent parts, and no sovereignty of the various governments without fiscal and financial autonomy." In a few well chosen sentences, it blasted the position and theories sustained by the federal government since the beginning of the Second World War. According to the Tremblay Commission, the federal government "concludes that it alone can exercise all the initiatives needed to control the economy, to maintain employment, and to equalise fiscal resources between the provinces. As a consequence, it seems to think that the pursuit of economic and social goals has, in some way, priority over cultural objectives, and, as well, that the federal government itself has similar priority over the provinces." The Commission's study of the "true" concept of federalism and its analysis of the post world-war federal-provincial developments in Canada led it to believe that Canada was well on the path to a legislative union. The result of the federal "standardising plans" was to create social and cultural homogeneity in Canada which, the Commission claimed, by weakening the distinguishing features of the constituting parts, would lead Canada directly to be a carbon copy of the United States. Of the position occupied by the provinces in the mid 1950's, the Commission wrote: "to believe and to try to have it believed that there is respect, in Canada, for the autonomy of the provinces, because they are allowed to exist as mere administrative units to which the central authority will distribute living allowances, is mere self-deception and an attempt to deceive others. It confronts true federalism with mere administrative decentralisation which is to be found in any state but which does not truly allow autonomy of the regional and local communities."

Thus, one could summarise the Commission's views on the history of federalism in Canada as follows: several colonies, in the face of external threats and pressures, had decided to unite in a federal state in 1867; the central government had been created by the provinces to protect their autonomy and to assure their prosperity. However , after 1867, the federal government had assumed the position of being an "interest" apart from that of the provinces and had proceeded to defeat the purpose of Confederation by attempting to create uniformity in the country and by continuously undermining the local autonomy of the provinces. At this level of analysis, the Tremblay Report voiced opinions and concerns that were common in Quebec, and also voiced elsewhere in the country.

But while the considerations raised above were important to sustain provincial autonomy, the Commission carried the analysis of the Confederation pact much further: it also found that Canada was a country, fundamentally, of two people and cultures and that it had also been the purpose of Confederation to provide the proper conditions under which each culture would develop. The protection of the autonomy of the provinces was important to Quebec not only as one of the member-states of the federation but especially because it was the sole representative of the French culture in Canada. In the truest sense, Quebec was the "fatherland" of French Canadians in Canada. The government of Quebec thus assumed the responsibility vis-à-vis the French culture which the other provinces undertook jointly for the English Canadian culture in Canada. The federal social and cultural policies of the 1940's and 1950's were thus perceived as an attempt to undermine the particular culture of Quebec and integrate and assimilate that culture to the Canadian whole. Rather, the Commission felt, cultural and social policies "must be entrusted to the Government which, being itself a participant in the culture, can best grasp its spirit and express it through laws"; for French Canadians that meant the government of Quebec.

The description of some of the most distinctive features of the culture of French Canada constituted one of the most interesting parts of the Report. Culture was defined as a combination of "knowledge and values" which constitute the determining factors in shaping attitudes to life. Some of the elements of the culture of French Canada noted by the Commission were logical reasoning, as opposed to practical reasoning; reliance on principles rather than facts and a spiritual repugnance to materialism. The Commission found that North America was characterised by material success, efficiency, ambition, initiative and cleverness while French Canada believed in justice, patience, charity and sacrifice. It also found in Quebec a dedication to protect and develop the person and the family which was not matched on the rest of the continent. Even in the field of public finance, the Commission found a difference between Quebec and the rest of the continent in that the provincial government of Quebec had always shown great reluctance to resorting to provincial debt. It was this strong cultural flavour which compelled the Commission to not only oppose federal centralisation but to also press the provincial government to act strongly to protect and develop the culture of French Canada. Reforms were necessary in the social, cultural and educational sectors and the provincial government had to act. As a result, one can easily understand the displeasure of Duplessis to see a provincial commission indicate clearly that not everything was perfect in the "heaven" that Quebec was supposed to constitute under the Duplessis administration.

The Commission had a large number of recommendations to make; outlined here are the most important:  

  • A maximum level of taxation should be set and taxing powers should be so allocated that each level of government would have sufficient revenues to provide adequate services without exceeding the maximum limit.
  • Each level of government should be given those taxes that are closely related to their legislative tasks; the federal government should be given the sales, amusement and gasoline taxes; provincial governments should have exclusive control of the succession duties; both levels would share in the personal and corporate tax fields; the provincial income tax paid would be deducted from the share of the federal government.
  • A fund should be set up by the provinces to assure that the poorer provinces are capable of providing a minimum of social services. Social security (family allowances, old age pensions and unemployment insurance) would be returned to the provinces.
  • The federal taxing power should be used as an instrument of economic control but it is imperative that unemployment relief be declared provincial, as provinces could combat unemployment as it arises locally,  instead of having to wait until it reaches high national levels.
  • Provinces should be given access to the Bank of Canada so that credit could be used to combat unemployment.
  • A permanent council of the provinces ought to be established so that ideas could be exchanged and conferences easily arranged.
  • A permanent secretariat of federal-provincial affairs should be established.
  • The Supreme Court ought to be reorganised or, alternatively, a Constitutional Court should be established where federal and provincial nominees would sit.
  • Greater emphasis should be put, in Quebec, on research; the main areas mentioned were: higher education, arts and letters, history, natural resources development, constitutional law and economic.
  • Greater financing for Quebec's universities was proposed.

The Report was a landmark in Canadian federalism. In the short run, it did not have the impact that it deserved. Duplessis found its progressive tone annoying; from his point of view, it was too much the product of ‘intellectuals’ more concerned with philosophy than practical matters. The many suggestions for change clearly implied that all was not well in Quebec. Duplessis had wanted the Commission to focus on the federal government, and not on the provincial administration. The Report was hardly distributed,  remained largely unavailable, locked up in the basement of the National Assembly of Quebec. However, the philosophy of the Report was put fully into application by the government of Jean Lesage with the result that Quebec probably saved Canadian federalism from sinking into oblivion.

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College