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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

The Quiet Revolution

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

The Quiet Revolution is the name given to a period of Quebec history extending from 1960 to 1966 and corresponding to the tenure of office of the Liberal Party of Jean Lesage. The term appears to have been coined by a Toronto journalist who, upon witnessing the many and far reaching changes taking place in Quebec, declared that what was happening was nothing short of a revolution, albeit a quiet one.

Underlying the concept of the Quiet Revolution is a perception or interpretation of the time period that preceded it and which is called “duplessisme”, from the name of the Prime Minister of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis. Quebec, under the Duplessis era, was supposed to be characterised by traditionalism, conservatism and, generally, a rejection of contemporary ways and values. In consequence, the province had fallen behind, had acquired increasingly negative characteristics and had had to live through “les années noires”, a sort of a Quebec equivalent to the “Dark Ages”. This perception is broadly challenged by many social scientists today. However, there is no doubt that the death of Duplessis, and the subsequent election of the Liberal Party of Jean Lesage, ushered a period of intense changes and activities, the sum total of which seemed to amount to a Revolution. Certainly, few, at the time, challenged that what was taking place was a Revolution.

The first major change that took place during the Quiet Revolution was the large-scale rejection of past values. Chief among these are those that Michel Brunet called “les trois dominantes de la pensée canadienne-française: l’agriculturisme, le messianisme et l’anti-étatisme” [the three main components of French Canadian thought: agriculturalism, anti-statism and messianism]. In this respect, Quebec entered resolutely into a phase of modernisation: its outlook became more secular (as opposed to religious), much of the traditionalism that characterised the past was replaced by increasingly liberal attitudes; long standing demographic tendencies, associated with a traditional rural way of life (high marriage, birth and fertility rates), were rapidly reversed. In fact, of all of the values associated with the past, only nationalism continued with any vigour in the period, although in a significantly altered form as will be shown below.

The period was also marked by intense social change. In the 1960’s, Quebec, indeed the world, was agitated by powerful currents of change. Liberal and leftist forces everywhere questioned the social order that had been accepted for so long. The current of decolonisation and the movement for civil rights made social and national inequities increasingly difficult to accept. Objectives of democratisation of the political system or of the educational network, equal and adequate accessibility for classes and regions to educational and social services, economic well-being for all, and the establishment of a social safety net were voiced and pursued strongly here, as they were in many other places. The province that had so frequently opposed change before the 1960’s now welcomed it and spearheaded the movement in Canada.

Embracing social change inevitably involved a greater role for the state as the only lever of significance in the hands of French Canadians and capable of effecting the great transformations that seemed to be required. In this respect, in a short six years, Quebec went from being the least taxed and the least indebted of the Canadian provinces to have the highest taxes and debt. A large and professional state bureaucracy was rapidly set up, many government departments and agencies were created, public institutions that had not existed previously were formed (a network of state universities, public colleges, SOQUEM, SOQUIP, Société générale de financement, etc.). No full understanding of the Quiet Revolution can be arrived at unless the strong current of statism of the time is grasped. . Whatever the problems were in the 1960’s, as great and varied as they might have been, the solution always involved the stirring of state intervention to achieve proper results. For the state to be effective, planning had to take place.

Planning, state intervention, modernisation and social change were not elements peculiar to Quebec. They were part of the spirit of the time; but because they happened so rapidly in Quebec, in such a short and concentrated period of time, they seemed to have a sense of urgency and prevalence here that they did not always have elsewhere. For a province that seemed to have developed previously seemingly aside from the movements that agitated others, to belong to the sense of the time, to be swimming with the current, and not against it as sometimes occurred before, was exhilarating. The national time clock of Quebec had been reset from its traditional magnet to be resolutely in step (ahead of the pack?) with the most progressive to be found anywhere. All of that emphasised that the outlook of Quebecers had become resolutely far more internationalist; indeed Quebec heroes were as likely to come from the USA (Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy) or Cuba as they were to be home grown. The opening to the world was unmistakable.

Yet, nationalism survived very well throughout the period. The process of questioning the social order inevitably led to a redefinition of the role and place of French Canadians in Canada. Demand for change was heard everywhere: for bilingualism, for biculturalism, for the respect of the autonomy of Quebec, for equal status in Confederation. The tokenism of the past was rejected. The concept of French Canadian was replaced by that of the Québécois. There was no doubt that the Québécois, governed for so long by “Negro-Kings” [to use the interesting expression of André Laurendeau] in the interest of foreign powers, economical and political, had to become masters of their destiny, had to be “Maîtres chez-nous”. Scads of Parti Québécois supporters were later to echo these sentiments in chanting loudly during political rallies: “Le Québec aux Québécois”. But, as the state became increasingly the foundation of the nation, rather than the ethnic group as before, it focused the nationalism less on ethnocentric impulses and more on collective goals for all of Quebec. It also gave rise to a powerful separatist movement and even to terrorist manifestations, both of which linked strongly the ideology of nationalism and the desire for social change.

If separatism gained in importance without entirely grasping the support of the many, it nevertheless was successful in leading the province away from the ideology of la survivance to focus it on development. It was not sufficient any more to assert that one wished to continue to exist as a separate body; rather, it was essential that one takes one’s place, have it respected [no more national “humiliation”] by others and seek to enlarge it and make a contribution. For the most part, the pillars of survival that had characterised the past, and defined the distinctive nature of Quebec, were dispensed with. The institutions of the past were abandoned, the faith of Catholicism was discarded. There remained only language around which so many debates were to take place later.

However much it may be challenged today in its assumptions and contributions, the Quiet Revolution was a high point of Quebec History. It was a fantastic time to be young, to have ideas and ideals, to be alive, to wish to do things, to want to improve the world, to be a Québécois.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College