Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 13, 2004

Biographies of Prominent Quebec Historical Figures


Adélard Godbout


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College


Godbout was born on September 24, 1892, in the Lower St. Lawrence region. He was the thirteenth child of a family that was to contain, eventually, 18 children. While political folklore was to present Godbout as a “son of the land”, one of the few premiers of Quebec that did not hail from the legal profession, and thus an outsider, the reality is somewhat more complex. True, his father was a farmer, and his son was to follow his footsteps by becoming an agronomist and something of a “gentleman farmer”. However, it should also be pointed out that his father had been a member of the National Assembly; so had one of his uncles. Thus, politics "ran" in the family, and so did the Liberal Party.

Godbout studied at the Séminaire de Rimouski, where he obtained his B.A., at the Ecole d’agriculture de Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, and at the Amherst Agricultural College in the USA. He also spent about two years at “Le Grand Séminaire” to become a priest. He would have left because of poor health. In any case, in a province where agriculturalism was very strong among the traditional elite, he had the right formation. He became professor of agriculture at Ste-Anne and occupied the post between 1918 to 1930. As well, he was appointed agronomist for the provincial department of agriculture, a post he held between 1922 and 1925.

In 1929, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly to represent the district of L’Islet. He stood as a Liberal, as his father had done previously. He was re-elected by this district in 1931, 1935, 1939 and 1944. He was defeated in 1936, and was out of the National Assembly between 1936-1939. On November 27,

1930, he was appointed Minister of Agriculture in the Taschereau government. He held this position until June of 1936. As a Minister of the Crown, Godbout kept a low profile but was nevertheless noticed for his dedication to work, his sense of duty, his seriousness and, in a government increasingly challenged for its ineptness and corruption, for his moral rectitude and his honesty. That is mainly why he was called to replace Taschereau as the Prime Minister of the province in June of 1936; he held this position until his defeat in the elections of August of the same year.

The attempt of the Liberal Party to keep in power by eliminating those most associated with the corruption of the Taschereau regime did not work; hence the Godbout government was not elected in 1936 and Godbout went down personally to defeat. Many thought that his political career was finished and that, as such, he would not rate more than a footnote in the annals of Quebec History. However, such was not to be the case.

Between 1936 and 1939 Quebec was governed by Maurice Duplessis. If there is dispute over the nature and appropriateness of the Duplessis administration between 1944 and 1959 such is not the case for his first term of office. Of course, Duplessis was unable to do very much about the Great Depression and the means put at his disposal hardly were sufficient to make a dent in the great socio-economic upheaval that was taking place. Yet, Duplessis so thoroughly, and rapidly, discarded the progressive program of the Action Libérale nationale to which he had committed his new Union nationale party that he soon became the subject of contempt, and in large numbers Quebecers turned against him. Furthermore, there was little evidence that he had eliminated the type of corruption that had characterised the Taschereau regime. The reforms he implemented, such as they were, hardly made a dent in the problems confronting so many of his electors. He turned his back on the great nationalist-reformist policies that were demanded by an increasing proportion of voters in Quebec. As the war got closer, looming with the twin issues of participation and conscription, Duplessis thought he was given the opportunity to salvage his political career.

Soon after the federal government of Mackenzie King declared war on Germany, Duplessis called a provincial election, ostensibly so that a strong mandate could be given to him to oppose the evils of centralisation and conscription that would inevitably come with war. In the view of Duplessis, he was the protector of the province against these evils. Sensing the challenge to their credibility and position, the federal ministers from Quebec [Lapointe, Cardin and Power] threatened to resign unless the Duplessis regime was defeated at the polls.

The circumstances of the elections of 1939 were to weight heavily on the political fortune of Adélard Godbout. He became a bit player when, otherwise, he should have had a central role. When he won by a landslide [54.1% of the vote to 39.1% for the Union Nationale; 70 seats to the UN’s 15], everyone knew that he owed much of this victory to his federal counterparts. Throughout the whole of the war, he was hampered by this knowledge and he found it very difficult to shake the image of subservience to Ottawa, a capital sin in a province where provincial autonomy was a national dogma. He rarely ever dared challenge his federal allies partly because he owed his election to them and was seen as being of little consequence by them. Closely associated with the federal Liberals, whose presence in power in Ottawa was deemed essential for the well being of Quebec during the war, Godbout was blamed for every false move they made simply because he could not distance himself from them. As the federal liberals did things that were inevitably unpopular in Quebec [raise taxes, centralize powers, implement conscription, etc.], and given that Quebecers could not turn against them, as the Conservative alternative would have been worse in their eyes, then to Godbout was transferred the animosity of the electors.

However, Godbout did not merely act as he did – co-operating fully with the federal authorities – because of personal weakness of character, or because he owed the federal liberals his election. He also acted out of genuine concern for the people of Quebec, wishing to spare them the intolerant attacks to which the province had been incessantly subjected in the latter part of the First World War. Nobody would be justified in attacking the moral character of the people of Quebec, and believe them to be any less loyal than their compatriots from the other provinces, if they so clearly and plainly saw the Government of Quebec co-operate so strongly in the pursuit of the war. If, for nothing else, Godbout deserves respect for that. He did what many thought was needed to be done, even when it was unpopular to do so. As such, he stands in the long tradition of Quebec leaders of the past who knew that co-operation was the only way to make the Canadian confederation work and who made the necessary compromises to ensure la survivance. Such was the legacy of LaFontaine, Cartier, Chapleau, Laurier and Lapointe who had all been confronted with similar problems themselves.

So he co-operated fully: he agreed to the constitutional transfer of unemployment insurance to federal jurisdiction in 1940; he acquiesced to the wartime tax rental agreement that striped the provinces of fiscal autonomy; he recommended to vote yes in the plebiscite of 1942 over conscription; he refused to condemn the federal government when it introduced conscription in Bill 80 and, in 1944, he made several references to the need for agreement and co-operation, at a time when the King government was implementing conscription, although a limited one..

Though he did what he felt was needed to be done, and did it for the most part for elevated reasons, his subservience to the federal authorities was duly noted in Quebec and deeply resented by many. In the end, it was to be partly his undoing. However much the people of Quebec may have understood the necessity of the position he took on issues, nevertheless they resented it and blamed him for it. Many believed that he had gone too far when he said that if his leader, Mr. King, asked him to wax the boots of soldiers, because it would help the war effort, he would do it. The notion of the premier of the province of Quebec waxing the boots of soldiers was appalling, as was demeaning in the extreme the idea that the Premier of Quebec had “a leader” and that the leader was in Ottawa... Elections in Quebec are not won with this kind of sentiments.

Otherwise, his administration was remarkable. The prosperity generated by the war provided the opportunity to achieve a great deal. However, when compared with other provinces at the same time, or with the Duplessis regime in the equally prosperous post war period, few measure up to the accomplishments of his administration.

In 1940, and against the expressed wishes of the seemingly powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy, he granted the right to vote to women. Quebec was the last province to do so in Canada and it was evidently long overdue. But it took a considerable dose of courage to confront and defeat the opposition. Again in 1943, he clashed with the conservative Church authorities in instituting compulsory education for the children up to age 14. Many in the Church feared that such a measure was only the prelude to neutral, or “godless”, schools and that the Church would soon loose control of the schools and other social institutions in Quebec. To the Church, their control of these institutions was essential to the pillar of survival that faith was. To oppose compulsory education was to protect the nation. On the contrary, Godbout saw clearly that the future prosperity of the province, and the improved prospects of its population, passed inevitably through educational reform.

On less debatable grounds he instituted free education in the primary schools of Quebec. Henceforth, tuition fees were abolished for grades 1-7 and textbooks were distributed free of charge. Large sums of money were found to complete the campus of the Université de Montréal on top of Mount Royal. Designed and started in the 1920’s to house the largest French speaking university outside of France, the Université had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression and the buildings remained unfinished, and largely abandoned, throughout the Depression. A more poignant symbol of the poverty of Quebec society, and the lack of priority of education, could hardly be found than in this shell of a University. It took a premier committed fully to education to complete the work.

Godbout’s accomplishments in economic terms were no less favourable. Throughout the 1930’s, the nationalists had clamoured for steps to be taken against the “trusts” that they argued strangled the province economically and so evidently disregarded the welfare of the people. Chief among these trusts was the “electricity trust”. Once, the province had been partitioned between various power companies, each of which was given the monopoly of production and distribution over a region. Cost of electricity was high, and few of these companies served the interest of the province well. There had been widespread demand for the nationalisation of these power companies during the Great Depression and the Action Libérale Nationale had made it an important part of its platform to achieve it. In significant part, it was his support, and promise, for nationalisation of power companies that had brought Duplessis to office in 1936. He had not carried it out, as he had not done many of the things he had promised to do.

In 1944, the Godbout government nationalised the Beauharnois Light and Heat Power Company, one of the largest in the province and servicing Montreal. With it, Godbout created Hydro Quebec. To the new state company, all of the ungranted water reserves of the province were ceded. Thus, the future belonged to Hydro-Quebec. It should be noted that Duplessis made no further additions to Hydro-Quebec and that the network remained largely in private hands until the nationalisation of the Quiet Revolution period. As well, Godbout created an economic council to advise the provincial government on development strategies. In 1944, the government issued a new Labour Code that affirmed, without question, the rights of workers to collective bargaining and to unionisation. The code was said to be one of the most advanced in North America.

Thus, there was much to put to the credit of the Godbout government when it faced electors in 1944. Godbout had provided good and honest government,

a rare occurrence in those days. The reforms made by his government would rank it as one of the three most progressive governments of Quebec history [the others being the Lesage Quiet Revolution government and the first term in office of Levesque’s Parti Québécois]. Yet, the government was defeated in the provincial elections of 1944.

Three reasons especially explain the defeat of the Godbout government:

The first was addressed earlier. By identifying himself too closely with the federal Liberals, by not upholding sufficiently the principle of provincial autonomy and, in general, by supporting the war effort to the point of accepting conscription, Godbout undermined his position in Quebec and lost the support of the nationalist faction in the province. He appeared weak and subservient when the province expected its political leaders to be strong minded and independent. In this respect, he suffered from a weak image that he could never quite overcome.

Still, given his legislative record, he could have survived if he had received the complete support of the progressive faction in the province. However, for the most part, the progressives were also the nationalists; this tendency is significant in understanding developments in Quebec. Class consciousness and national consciousness often went hand in hand in Quebec from the time of the Great Depression. In 1944, for a variety of reasons, the progressives generally supported the Bloc Populaire Canadien. This party received 14.4% of the votes in 1944 and gained 4 seats in the Legislative Assembly [incidentally, the Liberal Party received about 15% fewer votes in 1944 than it had had in 1939; this should not be treated as a coincidence]. The division of the votes between three parties, and the siphoning of the progressive votes from the Liberal Party to the Bloc Populaire made it possible for the Union Nationale to win the election even though it obtained a smaller percentage of the vote in the elections of 1944 than it had received in 1939 when it went down to a crushing defeat [the UN won with 38% of the votes in 1944 while it had lost with 39.1% in 1939].

The third main reason for the defeat of the Godbout government is related to the Canadian electoral system. It rests on district elections, each of which elects a member of the Assembly. The party that elects a majority of candidates immediately will form the government. Most of the time this reflects the will of the people. But, sometimes, that is not the case. A first complicating element may be that the electoral map did not represent adequately the distribution of population. Until the Quiet Revolution, the rural districts of Quebec elected a disproportion of members when compared to their actual share of the total population. By contrast, the large urban areas were significantly underrepresented. If a party performed very well in rural areas, but not so well in the larger urban areas, it could still win the election. Such was the case in 1944, and such remained the case under the Duplessis regime between 1944 and 1959. Duplessis made it a policy to continue to industrialise the province but without ever forgetting to cater to the rural areas and rural traditions. Except for efforts at rural electrification, pale efforts when compared to the achievements of Duplessis on this score, the Godbout government was focused more on the problems of the cities than those of the rural areas. This is surprising, given that Godbout was an agronomist. The second complicating element in the electoral system is that it does not matter how large a majority in a riding one has, all you ever win is one seat at a time. A party could win half a dozen seats, each with a majority of one vote, thus winning six seats and loose one seat by 25,000 votes. The party with the one seat has actually won a greater share of the votes than its opponent; yet it has lost 6 of the seven seats and thus has lost the elections. This happens rarely but it happened in 1944 [and again in 1966 and in 1998] in Quebec. Godbout’s Liberals received 39.4% of the votes to the Union Nationale’s 38%. Yet the UN won 48 seats and the Liberals 37. This result was compounded by the presence of third parties and in all three cases when it happened in Quebec history, third parties were part of the scene.

Defeated, Godbout settled in his position as Leader of the Opposition between 1944 and 1948. He was no match for Duplessis and did not particularly distinguish himself. He lost even more badly in 1948 when Duplessis was clever enough to gain the support of the nationalists and boost his percentage of the votes to 51.2%. Soon after the elections, Godbout resigned. In June of 1949, the St. Laurent government appointed him senator for the district of Montarville. He died in 1956.

Godbout literally disappeared from the collective memory of Quebecers. Even Taschereau, who left politics under a cloud of accusations, has been honoured with monuments and boulevards. Duplessis has become something of a folk hero (or a devilish creature according to some); in any case he is not forgotten. But Godbout has almost disappeared altogether (save for the unveiling of a monument on the grounds of the National Assembly in 2000). In a province with a motto “Je me souviens” [I remember] this is rather surprising.


© 2003 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College