Report And Provincial Autonomy In The Duplessis Era (1956)
Department of History,
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.
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.
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
- 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.
on the respect of the autonomy, fiscal or otherwise, of the province.
views of provincial autonomy was typical of the time. He had a bankers
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.
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
its 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.
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:
using an inordinate proportion of the tax allocation that far exceeded the cost
of federal services;
invading fields of exclusive provincial jurisdiction mainly through conditional
- by securing amendments
to the constitution without the consent of the provinces "as parties to the
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."
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.
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.
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.
Commission had a large number of recommendations to make; outlined here are the
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.
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
- 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.
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.
should be given access to the Bank of Canada so that credit could be used to combat
- A permanent
council of the provinces ought to be established so that ideas could be exchanged
and conferences easily arranged.
permanent secretariat of federal-provincial affairs should be established.
Supreme Court ought to be reorganised or, alternatively, a Constitutional Court
should be established where federal and provincial nominees would sit.
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.
financing for Quebec's universities was proposed.
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
1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College