Duplessis is gone, but he’s dominated this campaign

Peter C. Newman June 18 1960

Duplessis is gone, but he’s dominated this campaign

Peter C. Newman June 18 1960

Duplessis is gone, but he’s dominated this campaign


Peter C. Newman

DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL POWER can be achieved either by appealing to the people's higher sentiments or by exploiting their weaknesses. The toughest and most efficient political machine ever built in this country through dedication to the latter of these principles is being tested this month in Quebec.

It is probably the most expensive provincial election in Canadian history. The Union Nationale, founded and ruled for a quarter of a century by the late Maurice Duplessis, is spending an estimated fifteen million dollars in a passionate bid for a sixth term. The Liberals have a war chest being estimated at six million dollars.

Both parties have new leaders. But the election is dominated by other presences. The beaky ghost of Maurice Duplessis, the leader who manipulated the memory of The Conquest into eighteen years of political power, haunts every election meeting. The campaign is being fought almost entirely on the issues he created. He has even influenced the election's timing. When Antonio Barrette. Duplessis' minister of labor who took over the Union Nationale leadership after the tragic death of Paul Sauvé, was choosing the voting date, he carefully picked a Wednesday (June 22), because in the Catholic «alendar Wednesdays

are set aside for special devotion to St. Joseph who was Maurice Duplessis’ favorite saint. Barrette also announced that the next session of the legislature would begin on September 7 — the anniversary of Duplessis’ death.

Another ghostly presence on the hustings is that of the energetic and now idolized Paul Sauvé. A politician who believed in the preservation of FrenchCanadian culture fully as much as Duplessis, Sauvé nevertheless did more during his 1 14 days in office to patch up the split between Ottawa and Quebec City than had been accomplished in the previous decade and a half. His achievements haunt both parties. He proved that federal-provincial warfare is not a prerequisite of fostering Quebec’s welfare.

A less apparent but still visible presence on the Quebec hustings is the image of Louis St. Laurent. He serves as a reminder that no Ottawa politician, no matter how popular he becomes federally, has ever managed to gain provincial control over the nationalist sentiment of the French-Canadians—the deciding factor in Quebec elections.

In an attempt to offset this tradition, Jean Lesage, the capable northern affairs minister of the St. Laurent ministry who now leads the Quebec Liberal party, is billing himself as the only true champion of provincial rights. He is, in effect, attacking Barrette for not being as forceful as Duplessis in battling the centralization pressures of Ottawa. Lesage wants to provincialize such federally administered plans as unemployment insurance and old-age pensions. His platform even advocates the establishment of a department of federal-provincial relations. Such an organization would amount to a Quebec ministry of external affairs, as it would also exercise nominal jurisdiction over French-speaking Canadians living in the other provinces.

Lesage’s attacks on Barrette reveal one other presence in the Quebec campaign—that of John Diefenbaker. Lesage realizes that he cannot charge Barrette with all of the sins he ascribes to the Duplessis administration. because of the intervening detergence of Sauvé’s brief but enlightened rule. The L.iberals have discovered that it has become politically profitable in Quebec to paint Barrette as a Diefenbaker man, capitalizing on the recently negotiated Ottawa-Quebec agreement about the distribution of federal grants to universities.

In the rural ridings, Lesage holds Barrette personally responsible for the Ottawa policies that have reduced farm produce prices, stressing Barrette’s open support of Diefenbaker in the last two federal elections. Before more sophisticated audiences, Lesage exploits the astonishingly bitter resentment over Diefenbaker’s failure to give Quebec a strong voice in the federal cabinet.

Diefenbaker swept the province in the 1958 election as no Tory before him, and he has for the past two years had forty-two French-speaking Quebec Conservative MPs to choose from. Yet the representation of Quebec in the cabinet consists of a sad quartette described by Azellus Denis, a Liberal backbencher, in the House of Commons recently, as “a stone crusher (Mines Minister Paul Comtois), a store clerk (Defense Production Minister Raymond O’Hurley), a minister to prisoners (Leon Balcer), and batman to the minister of national defense (Associate defense minister Pierre Sevigny).”

Diefenbaker gave Post Office, the only patronagerich portfolio held by a Quebec member, to Bill Hamilton, an English - speaking Montrealer who has effectively (and over the protest of other Quebec MP's) cleaned out most of the department’s past patronage practices.

Duplessis’ favorite campaign tactic was to swamp

his opposition with so many charges that his opponents were kept busy answering him, rather than attacking the record of the Union Nationale. To avoid such a trap this time, Lesage has ordered his candidates to concentrate on attacking the government, instead of attempting a defense of the many countercharges hurled at the Liberal party.

Liberal tactics are based on a 150-question motivational research survey quietly taken from a sampling of a thousand Quebec voters last fall. Results showed that accusations of provincial skulduggery arouse little concern among voters, but that they do become excited about local scandals. Liberal candidates have been supplied with a mimeographed list describing incidents that involve the Union Nationale in fortysix alleged scandals, as they affect each individual riding.

The Union Nationale is far more concerned on the hustings with attacking Lesage, than in defending the record of its administration. At one election rally I attended, Barrette described Lesage as “an immigrant from Ottawa,” and charged him with having been a member of the St. Laurent cabinet when it was at the peak of what he called “its centralizing offensive.”

The campaign hasn’t many genuine issues, because Sauvé’s heavy legislative program implemented most of the measures that had been advocated by the Liberals when they were in opposition under Duplessis. Paradoxically, some of the reforms put into effect by Sauvé now threaten the long-term survival of his party. The power of the Union Nationale is weakened by every law that substitutes statutory grants for the discretionary handous of the past. By abolishing most of the powers of the private bills committee of the Legislative Assembly, for instance, Sauvé all but killed the municipal arm of the Union Nationale’s political machine. Duplessis had acted as chairman of the private bills committee. The mayors and other officials of Quebec municipalities who wanted a salary increase for themselves or any change in municipal bylaws without the risk of public plebiscites, could appeal directly to the committee. Duplessis accepted only those requests that guaranteed political advantage. One Liberal mayor was given such a whopping salary hike that he was neutralized before a provincial election. Nearly a hundred supplicants made the pilgrimage to Quebec City every year giving Duplessis a great deal of control over municipal politics. Sauvé changed the system. Remuneration of municipal officials can now be approved only by a vote of the local council and a referendum to ratepayers.

These and other reforms have not yet drastically weakened the political machine put together by Duplessis. But for the first time since the 1944 election that swept them back into power, the Union Nationale is on the defensive.

Had Duplessis lived, he would probably have been crushed in this election. His insistence that the voting process is an instrument of racial defense has not gone out of date in Quebec, but the way he went about it was becoming too distorted and far too negative.

Paul Sauvé, Le Chef's brilliant successor, could probably have wiped out all but half a dozen of the Liberals at the polls. His masterful assessment of the province's political temperament would eventually have brought about a New Deal type of renaissance within the Union Nationale.

If Antonio Barrette is returned to office, as he almost certainly will be, he will head a government that has been granted only a temporary reprieve. Without Sauvé — or a leader of equal calibre — the Union Nationale is doomed. Pun-loving Quebeckers sum up the outlook with a shrug and the phrase: "Barrette, il n’est pas sauvé.” *