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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
September 2006

“The Negro-King Theory” [La théorie du roi nègre]


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

This theory was outlined by André Laurendeau, prominent journalist of Le Devoir, in an editorial published in the newspaper on July 4, 1958. Over the next four months, Laurendeau wrote two other editorials to elaborate on the subject. In order to grasp the full meaning of the theory of Laurendeau, it is essential to examine carefully the events that led to its enunciation and the context of the time.

In the 1950’s, Quebec was governed by Maurice Duplessis. His Union Nationale regime had given birth to the expression duplessisme. In part, duplessisme describes a socio-economic and ideological universe as exemplified by the Duplessis regime and where deep conservatism and traditionalism in values was associated with liberal economic policies, such as reliance on private enterprise, little intervention of the government in the economy, low taxes and debts, and, generally, few constraints on business. In return for these eminently pro-business practices, the government of the Union Nationale received massive support from them at election time, especially in the form of large and secret contributions to the electoral fund. Indeed, the Union Nationale [Duplessis' Party] organised this system on a massive and efficient basis. An essential aspect of duplessisme was connected to the large-scale system of patronage and corruption that characterised the regime. Evidently, his government was not the first to do such things, in Quebec or elsewhere. However, he seems to have refined the system to such an extent that it soon reached the bounds of unacceptability by even the most lax of moral judgement. Duplessis was also a sometimes crude and ruthless politician who ran his party and the province with an iron fist. He was an authoritarian leader; his conception of the state was that it was his to use to further his power. The state, the bureaucracy, public funds only existed to extend his control of the province. Whatever belonged to the province was his to use and to dispense of as he saw fit. Mostly he saw fit to extend his power. If in the process he did some good, so much the better. In this personification of the state, there was evidently great abuse of the democratic process and of the public trust. Rumours were numerous of ministers engaging in reprehensible dealings and the net effect of duplessisme was to bring the province, its government and institutions, and thus the democratic system of Quebec, into disrepute. Accusations of fascism were sometimes hurled at the province and the regime.

It required a strong measure of courage to oppose this power, as there were inevitably consequences to opposition to the regime. Ridings would not get the grants they should have expected to receive; schools, hospitals and roads of communities that did not tow the line would remain in disrepair; individuals could loose their licence, for a variety of petty things, or their job. Contractors that did not pay the kick-backs expected would simply not get the public contracts. This was not hard to do as public tenders were rarely ever called. Consequently, open opposition was difficult and always costly.

Until 1956, centres of opposition were relatively few. They centred on the intellectual circles of creators, academics from the Social Sciences and history, the national television network (CBC), the leadership of some unions and some publications like Cité Libre and Le Devoir. While important, many of these centres of opposition tended to be removed from the common people and did not always have the impact that their number would suggest. At the time of the provincial elections of 1956, two prominent theologians/priests, Gérard Dion and Louis O’Neill, published a very strong denunciation of the electoral practices of the regime. They condemned the immorality of the political system operated by the government; they denounced the buying of votes as against all Catholic principles. They predicted that the result of these practices would be the dechristianisation of the masses in the province. They also castigated the use of the communist threat that was so skilfully utilised by Duplessis, and some clerics, to tar all opponents to the regime. According to the two priests “communism as presented to the masses of Quebec is a myth [used by] known fascists, pitiable show-offs and true louts”. In the McCarthy era, such strong words were courageous indeed. Thousands of copies of the publication were distributed or sold throughout the province. In part, this served to distanced further the Roman Catholic Church from the Duplessis regime.

Strong denunciations also came from the Rassemblement démocratique, an association that regrouped about 100 prominent intellectual opponents of the regime. One of them, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, future Prime Minister of Canada, was especially active and virulent. His democratic manifesto, issued in 1958, in Cité Libre, pointed out that the very notion of democracy was endangered in Quebec. He argued that “above all, two forces command[...] our destinies: international capitalism and Quebec clericalism”. These forces did not have to negotiate with the State but merely with each other. “All that was left to the State, was to sanction their modus vivendi”. Trudeau should have added that, in many respects, the Duplessis regime was the instrument of the international capitalists and of the extreme clericalism of the province. He called all the free people of this province to regroup under the common objective of democracy. His condemnation of the province was stinging: “the civic and electoral immorality of the French Canadians, their propensity for authoritarianism, the antidemocratic theses that they learn in the colleges, the childish structures within which they debate at university, the small place occupied by the laity within the Quebec church, the low level positions they occupy in the authoritarian structures of capitalism, their fear to use the state, the only instrument capable to pull them from their plight, the lack of concern manifested by most for violations of freedom of speech, of the press or of association, all of these constitute characteristics of a people that has not learned as yet to govern itself, of a people where democracy cannot be taken for granted”. Trudeau’s description was far from incorrect on several points, but he was too quick to condemn and he did not sufficiently pay attention to the causes of the ills he described.

Despite these strong denunciations, by 1956, the leadership of the opposition to duplessisme was squarely with Montreal’s newspaper Le Devoir. Ever since its founding, in 1910, by Henri Bourassa, the newspaper enjoyed a fine reputation as a fiercely independent organ. Under the leadership of Henri Bourassa, and later of Gérard Filion and Claude Ryan, the paper acquired the well-deserved reputation of being the leading proponent of reflective journalism in Quebec, indeed in Canada, of defence of worthwhile causes and intellectual honesty and probity. One could always expect to find Le Devoir at the centre of the great debates that agitated Quebec society, whether these were political, social or economical. In the 1950’s, around Gérard Filion and André Laurendeau, a small team of intelligent, active and talented reporters activated themselves. This was that much more remarkable because the paper had very limited financial resources at its disposal. However, what it lacked in funding it more than made up in dedication, talent and seriousness.

André Laurendeau, Le Devoir and the Negro-King theory

As Le Devoir’s opposition to duplessisme grew in boldness from the mid 1950’s, the newspaper concentrated increasingly its attacks on the corruption of the Duplessis regime. Eventually, it uncovered a scandal of considerable magnitude, one that would even shock a province used to reprehensible behaviour among its elected officials. On the front page of the newspaper, on June 13, 1958, it informed its readers about what came to be known as the Natural Gas Scandal [le scandale du gaz naturel]. The paper asserted that Hydro Quebec, a crown corporation under the jurisdiction of the government, had sold its network of distribution of natural gas to a private corporation, the Corporation de gaz naturel du Québec that had been organised shortly before the sale had taken place. Very little money had been invested by the promoters of the new company in which several ministers of the government held shares. The profit realised for the shareholders by the acquisition of the natural gas network was considerable. The government had issued the Order in Council determining the conditions of sale of the gas network of Hydro-Quebec on 7 March, 1957. The official issue of shares of the new natural gas corporation took place on April 25, 1958. Yet, 13 ministers and legislative councillors of the Union Nationale government, had acquired a total of 7,840 shares, worth in excess of $110,000 before they were offered officially to all other investors. There had evidently been inside information used and abuse of one’s position of office. For days, indeed months, Le Devoir raised this issue and hammered away at the government. It had found something of importance and was not about to let it go. In 1962, a Royal Commission [the Salvas Commission] appointed by the Lesage government to look into this matter found essentially that the facts had been as Le Devoir had reported.

As Le Devoir hammered away at this scandal in the summer of 1958, Duplessis grew increasingly irritated. On June 28, 1958, at his weekly press conference, where he usually carried out a monologue on the virtues of his government, Duplessis, upon seeing the reporter representing Le Devoir, Guy Lamarche, angrily had him expelled manu militari. Such an affront to freedom of the press was roundly condemned by various associations and unions of journalists. It was also to be the occasion for André Laurendeau to enunciate his theory of the Negro-king.

As Laurendeau reflected on the enormity of the events that had taken place, and on the universal condemnation that should have been expressed for the behaviour of the premier, he realised that one sector of Quebec society had remained silent: the anglophone press. All four of the anglophone dailies of the province had avoided condemning the attitude of Duplessis, even though the press from outside of Quebec had been quick to do so. He tried to understand why this had been and the result of his reflection was printed in three editorials in the newspaper, starting on July 4, 1958.

On the whole, he argued, Duplessis behaved like one of these Negro-kings that one found scattered throughout the British Empire. The British, he argued, always pragmatic, did not necessarily destroy and replace the existing political power in the colonies. In fact, they frequently accommodated themselves with local customs and rulers, as long as these petty rulers recognised the superior authority of the imperial power and protected its economic interests. To maintain traditional rulers was useful; the local people were used to them and obeyed them. The Negro-king could be used to carry out the policies that the natives might have resented if they had come from the colonisers. In return, the imperial authorities protected the Negro-king. Of course, the Negro-kings could not be expected to behave like civilised and democratic rulers would. According to Laurendeau: “The British have political sense; they rarely destroy the political institutions of a conquered country. They dominate the Negro-king but they allow him fantasies. On occasion they permit him to cut off a few heads: these are the mores of the country. One thing never comes to their minds, and that is to demand that the Negro-king conform to the high moral and political standards of the British. The Negro-king must collaborate with and protect British interests. This collaboration assured, everything else goes by the boards. The kinglet violates democratic rules. Nothing else is expected from a primitive...” Again, on November 18, 1958, he was to write: “these leaders comport themselves as metropolitans act in a colony of exploitation that has kept a margin of local autonomy: they close their eyes to the abuses of authority, as long as their interests are well served. That is what we call the Negro-king theory”.

To Laurendeau, it was evident that Duplessis was one of these Negro-kings. He was plainly the instrument of powerful economic interests, and when these clashed with those of the natives he sided with his masters against the populace. There is no doubt that Laurendeau had in mind Duplessis’ frequent interventions on the side of business, against the interest of unionized workers, such as in the case of the Asbestos strike of 1949. He frequently behaved appallingly but did not loose the support of his backers for that. At elections’ time, plentiful amounts of money flowed in the direction of his party and the anglophone newspapers, controled by the very same capitalists, could be counted on to continue to praise his accomplishments.

Laurendeau was quick to point out that the entire anglophone minority of Quebec was not guilty of that. Those he blamed specifically were the anglophone newspapers and the anglo-Quebec financial circles. These were the ones who pulled the strings and who were guilty of collusion, of propping up the Negro-king. The result of this, he claimed “was the regression of democracy and parliamentarianism, the reign even less contested of the arbitrary, the constant collusion of anglo-Quebec finance with what politics has the most rotten to offer”. Again, on October 23, 1958, he wrote: “Furthermore, the leaders of the anglophone minority in Quebec, have adjusted very well to the sort of democracy that we live under”.

Sensitive and nuanced as he always was, Laurendeau was aware of the difficulty for anglophones, often privileged and remote, to criticise French Canadians, lest they be accused of intolerance or racism. However, between giving condescending lessons and abstention, which appeared to him even more contemptuous, he thought that there existed “the acceptance of the fact that we form together a political community, that we all have duties to accomplish and reforms to achieve”. Between the lines, Laurendeau was stressing that the anglophone community was not sufficiently part of the political community of Quebec. Similar sentiments struck Pierre Trudeau who, at a Citizen Forum held around this time, wondered aloud whether or not anglophone Quebecers did not have in Quebec a comportment toward democracy that was not usual. Another editorialist of Le Devoir around this period of time (October 20, 1958) was to write in the same critical vein: “When Mr. McDonnell [proprietor of the Montreal newspapers, the Star and the Herald, one of the wealthiest man in Canada at the time, a great supporter of Duplessis and contributor to the coffers of the Union Nationale] gives $4,500,000 to McGill University, it is very nice for the Anglo-canadian minority. But all can see that no French Canadian is in the position to do the same for our universities. Yet, Mr. McConnell and the other generous donors from the same anglo-Quebec group have made millions among us, in enterprises where the properties of the province and the clientele of French Canadians had a great deal to do [with their prosperity]”.

So, at the heart of the events described above, and even beyond the Negro-king theory, there was the issue of the place, sentiments and role of the anglophone community in the Quebec of pre-Quiet Revolution period. Its isolation, its refusal to be involved in the affairs of the province, resulted in letting reactionary forces speak for it without registering protest. In later times, this attitude was condemned in the strongest of terms by René Lévesque who once reflected that the anglophone community of Quebec had a Rhodesian mentality. The comment was stinging and largely unfair but it struck at the heart of the issues raised by “duplessisme” and the Negro-king theory.

Consul the documents on the Negro-King Theory elsewhere at the site.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College