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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Jean Lesage and the Quiet Revolution


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Born in 1912.  Elected to the House of Commons in 1945 and reelected until 1958; elected to the Quebec Legislative Assembly 1960-1970. Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources  1953-1957. Leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec 1958-1970; Prime Minister of Quebec 1960-1966. The Lesage years coincided with what has come to be called the "Quiet Revolution" years. The focus here is in outlining the major changes that occurred during the Quiet Revolution.

The Quiet revolution was a period of intense social change, of modernisation of Quebec and of a profound redefinition of the role of Quebec and French Canadians within Confederation. The background to the Quiet Revolution years was the Duplessis regime which had been characterised by isolation, social conservatism and generally negative autonomist stands. The energies and hopes unleashed during the Quiet Revolution years shook the very foundations of Canada and are still being felt today. The slogan which best represents the Lesage years was "Maîtres chez nous" [Masters in our own house]. The underlying belief in Quebec, during this period, was that French Canadians should not be content to play a second class role in socio-politico-economic matters and that the key to a full, ‘normal’ development of the community rested in the utilisation of the only tool which collectively French Canadians controlled: the state of Quebec, and thus in the rejection of the anti-statism of the past. So, the government of Jean Lesage became the symbol and the tool of a whole people on the road to self-assertion.

The government embarked on a series of reforms that altered substantially conditions in Quebec: creation of a provincial hospitalisation scheme (1961), creation of departments of Cultural Affairs and of Federal-provincial relations (both firsts in Canada ), nationalisation of all private hydro electric facilities in Quebec (1963) and their incorporation into the existing network of Hydro-Quebec, wholesale reforms in the field of education (the Parent Report and Bill 60) and creation of a Department of education (1964), creation of the Société Générale de Financement- SGF (1962), creation of the Quebec Pension Plan (1965), and of the Caisse de Dépot et de Placement (1965), creation of the Société Québécoise d'Exploration Minière- SOQUEM, electoral and social reforms, in particular by the introduction of a provincial family allowance scheme (though only implemented in 1967), etc.. For a while, there seemed no limits to the reforms that the government would bring about.

However, such limits, existed and they rested, above all, on the restricted financial capabilities of the province. To implement its programme, the government of Jean Lesage built up a substantial and competent provincial bureaucracy, raised taxes substantially (by 1963, Quebec already had the highest provincial taxes on corporations, succession duties, sales, properties, and licences in Canada; its income tax on individuals was the third highest and its tax on gasoline ranked fifth), resorted to heavy borrowing (the net debt of Quebec increased by over 300% between 1960 and 1966) and raided continuously the federal treasury, demanding an ever increasing share of the taxes collected in the province.

Thus, relation between the governments of Canada and Quebec were strained during this period. This tension resulted from a number of factors: 1) the Lesage government continued to support the autonomist stand which previous provincial administrations had taken; however, while previous provincial governments had been characterised by negative autonomy, the government of Jean Lesage not only refused federal initiatives in provincial matters but implemented its own programmes. In this respect, Lesage stated very clearly his position in 1964:

"Il ne s'agit plus de nous poser en objecteurs perpétuels à des politiques fédérales...Ce qui importe pour le moment, c'est que, face à n'importe quelle initiative fédérale dans les champs proviciaux, nous soyons toujours prêts à proposer une solution qui permette au Québec de sauvegarder ses droits." [The issue is not anymore to position ourselves as perpetual opponents to federal policies... What is important for the time being is that faced with federal initiatives we would always be ready to propose an alternative that safeguards our rights.]

2) The second source of tension has already been pointed out: the Lesage government brought in many reforms that necessitated the transfer of fiscal powers from the federal to the provincial government; the federal government was not about to relinquish some of its fiscal powers without opposing great resistance; 3) the third source of tension was that French Canadians now desired to be recognised, not only individually but also collectively, as equals in Confederation.

It was this last factor which led to so many difficulties in federal-provincial relations during the Quiet Revolution years. The rest of Canada had welcomed the changes that had occurred in Quebec; they were also prepared to make accommodations in the distribution of fiscal powers in Canada (other provinces were making similar demands); they could understand, and to some extent accept, the autonomist stand that the province took but they, generally, were not prepared to go along with the new definition of the country that Quebec proposed.

Originally, the position that Lesage took on constitutional matters was very traditionalist; to an audience at the first Congress on Canadian Affairs he had said, in 1961: "It will not be necessary to rewrite Confederation in order to make it a success. It will suffice to live its true meaning. We of Quebec must learn to implement all the powers accorded us by the pact of 1867."

But, imperceptibly, the position of the Lesage government shifted as the years passed. The government came to preach a belief that had been deeply imbedded in the subconscious of French Canadians since the days of Riel and of the Mercier government: the government of Quebec was the national government of French Canadians (increasingly referring to themselves as the Québécois) and Quebec was the fatherland of all French Canadians. Canada was implicitly a country of two people; such had been the wish and the aim of the Fathers of Confederation (many of these ideas are developed in the Tremblay Report, which the government of Lesage resurrected, and in Un Québec fort dans une nouvelle Confédération). This implied, in particular, two things: 1) French Canadians could not accept greater centralisation as this would result in the reduction of the amount of self-government that the community (many said nation) had; if centralisation continued, the fate of the nation would be put more and more in the hands of a government that had become of late, and increasingly, the political expression of the other nation (English Canadians); 2) the task of developing the French Canadian nation required not only the retention of such powers as had been granted to Quebec in 1867 but the enlargement of that self-government; the government of Jean Lesage demanded that Quebec, as much as possible, control the economic, social, political, and administrative means which would permit the realisation of the ‘legitimate aspirations’ of Quebec. Eventually, this led the government to demand a special status for Quebec though Lesage was always careful to point out that such powers that would be transferred to Quebec could also be transferred to the other provinces if they so wished. As nobody in Quebec expected that the other provinces would want such powers, in practice this amounted to asking for special status.

The response of the federal government was originally somewhat favourable. The Pearson government was making an honest attempt to accommodate French Canadians in their demands. Moreover, his political position depended largely on solid support from Quebec (the Pearson governments were always minority governments). So accommodations were made: Quebec withdrew from some 30 odd joint programs with full fiscal compensation (1965) and the Pearson government instituted the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to make recommendations so that Canada "would develop along the lines of an equal partnership between the two founding people." [my emphasis] The recommendations of the B. and B. Commission displeased many English speaking Canadians and when Lesage, and later the Johnson government,  pressed for more changes and more money the situation reached a breaking point. Quebec's refusal to accept the Fulton-Favreau formula angered a large cross-section of English Canada who started to search for a leader capable of resisting pressure from Quebec, indeed  able to ‘put Quebec in its place’ and standing firm against the demands  for more money and a special status.

The Lesage government was defeated at the polls before the full force of the backlash could be felt. Three individuals (les trois colombes ‘the three wise men’) had come to the federal government in 1965 who were to play a significant role in arresting the process of accommodations  and devolution which had been slowly emerging-: Gérard Pelletier, Jean Marchand and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. They brought with them a new vision- that of a bilingual country- which was to come to predominate as policy and solution to the problems of French-English relations in Canada within federal circles. Their policy could be summarised simplistically as: for French Canadians everything possible, for Quebec, no special status. To the concept of Quebec as the homeland of all French Canadians they would oppose the idea that all of Canada is the home of French Canadians; to the idea of a French Quebec, they would counter with the concept of a French Canada. Thus, it would not be necessary to grant more powers to Quebec since the federal government would see to the protection and the development of the French culture in all of Canada.

The government of Jean Lesage had brought many changes, some of them, perhaps, too rapidly, and without spending enough time to explain and justify them to the population. These disturbed many in the population of the province that were still very traditionalist. Its policies had been expensive, leading to a heavy tax burden; ultra-nationalists undermined his political support by fielding, under the banners of the Rassemblement pour l'Indépendence Nationale and the Ralliement National, candidates in the 1966 elections. The ideologues and the technocrats in the government did not spend enough time to discuss their policies with the people and to adapt them in the various regions of the province. Every change made brought with it resistance with an increasingly important proportion of the population. The Lesage liberals were not advantaged by an electoral map that still overrepresented rural areas. His government was narrowly defeated, but the impetus for constitutional reform, although not as much for social change, continued to be strong in the government of Daniel Johnson that followed. Jean Lesage had not been alone. In fact, much of his success had been largely due to the important team, -"l'équipe du tonnerre" [the thunder's team] that he had surrounded himself with. Among the most important and influential cabinet ministers were: Eric Kierans, René Lévesque, Pierre Laporte, Georges-Emile Lapalme and Paul-Gérin Lajoie.

Further reading: Quiet Revolution

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College