Traditional Quebec

samedi 01 avril 2017

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The most striking feature of Quebec society is its capacity to survive, what Quebec historians called “la survivance”. The main explanation is that Quebec survived by preserving its 3 traditional characteristics as:

  • an agrarian society

  • a deeply religious society under the influence of the Catholic Church

  • a French-speaking society

These 3 characteristics kept Quebec apart from the rest of North America, an increasingly secular English-speaking society that was becoming industrial and urban. But keeping to tradition was harmful to the social and economic well-being of the people in Quebec.

 

How could the clergy and the other elites maintain values and institutions that were so much at odds with those of the rest of America? One key factor was that the Conquest had made the Church the natural leader of the French Canadians with the Quebec Act, of 1774. The commercial French elite had been eliminated and replaced by English merchants (Quebec historian Michel Brunet coined the term “decapitation” to refer to this situation). This resulted in a  division of power along cultural lines: political and social power belonged to French Canadian seigneurs and, above all, the Church, while economic power belonged to English Canadian merchants.

 

Yet both the power of the Church and that of the English Canadian merchants was challenged in the 1820s and 1830s by the new bourgeoisie of doctors, lawyers, and notaries organized in the Patriote movement under the leadership of Louis-Joseph Papineau which constituted the first French Canadian nationalist movement. Their goal already was an autonomous Quebec state. The British crackdown that followed the 1837 the rebellion soon eliminated the Patriote challenge.

 

In the years that followed, a conservative political elite emerged and chose to forge political alliances with English Canadian partners to keep the French Canadian culture  safe. This elite supported Confederation, whose benefit, in their eyes, was to give Quebec complete power over its internal affairs. Quebec was now a protected political unit in which the French Canadians are clearly dominant. Yet Confederation was also a risk: at the federal level, the French Canadians were a permanent minority. The risk was somewhat lightened by French-English alliance in Ottawa, first among the Conservatives (Macdonald/Cartier), then within the Liberal Party with Wilfried Laurier.

 

The Church also actively supported the Confederation process and the political alliances, and its position remained pre-eminent from the 1850s to the 1950s. It was active in fighting any secular view that emerged among the Quebec political movements, first with the Patriotes and then among the Rouges, who opposed Confederation. The Church was also very successful in controlling education until the 1960s, because it managed to convince the French Canadians that only Catholic schools could defend the French culture. So Quebec culture emerged as religious and agrarian. The agrarian lifestyle was presented as the model that made Quebec a distinct society. For a century, the political and religious elites maintained that survival was best promoted by a rejection of the industrial society, and consequently they saw no need to challenge the economic power of the English Canadians in Montreal.

 

 

The problem was that there was not enough land for everyone to lead the agrarian life that Quebec leaders lauded; moreover it was impossible for Quebec to entirely escape the urbanizing, industrializing forces at work in North America. From the 1920s to the 1960s, there was a widening gap between the myth of the traditional agrarian society and the economic evolution of the province The period was characterized by the growing exploitation of natural resources in the north (hydroelectricity, lumber, mining) and the development of manufacturing in the Montreal region. Because English Canadians controlled investment and management, French Canadians were relegated to lower positions and formed the working class. Hence the social hierarchy clearly coincided with cultural divisions, turning Quebec into a discriminatory society. This became all the more blatant as economic changes were not accompanied by a political modernization.

 

For most of the period between 1936 and 1960, Quebec politics were dominated by the Union National of Maurice Duplessis. The economy was left in private - English Canadian -  hands, contrary to what happened in other provinces where natural resources were nationalized early in the century (e.g. hydroelectricity in Ontario in 1906). In the economic sphere, the Duplessis government’s only intervention was against the trade unions; the most famous example was the breaking of the Asbestos strike in 1949. In social legislation, Quebec under Duplessis was characterized by an extreme passivity in education, health, welfare, which were left under the authority of the Catholic church. This was because the nationalist political elite continued to believe in the traditional ideology: Quebec was essentially agrarian and its identity based on the parish community. As late as 1956, a report of the Tremblay Commission reaffirmed that the only stable societies were agricultural communities. This position served the class interests of the clerical elites and was supported by the English Canadians. The longevity of the Duplessis regime was due to massive support from rural and small-town areas and to its strong nationalist agenda, while the Liberals were compromised by their federal counterparts.

 

Maurice Duplessis, Premier of Quebec, 1936-1939 and 1944-1959

Cette période ultra-conservatrice est connue sous le nom de « La Grande Noirceur »