The French Revolution, QUEBEC 1961

Premier Jean Lesage and the Young Turks of his Liberal cabinet are breaking up the two-century-old cartel of church and state that ruled Quebec until 1960

PETER C. NEWMAN April 22 1961

The French Revolution, QUEBEC 1961

Premier Jean Lesage and the Young Turks of his Liberal cabinet are breaking up the two-century-old cartel of church and state that ruled Quebec until 1960

PETER C. NEWMAN April 22 1961

The French Revolution, QUEBEC 1961

Premier Jean Lesage and the Young Turks of his Liberal cabinet are breaking up the two-century-old cartel of church and state that ruled Quebec until 1960



WHEN JEAN LESAGE, a dapper Quebec City lawyer who became a reluctant reformer at the age of forty-eight, was elected premier ot his province last summer, he set off a political revolution that promises to alter severely the two-century-old pattern of French-English relations in this country.

Although most people outside French Canada have not yet become aware of it, Lesage has already been responsible for some of the most dramatic changes in the lives of Quebec citizens since the dream of a French empire in North America was crushed on the Plains of Abraham.

After two centuries of uninterrupted partnership between church and state in Quebec, Lesage and the young men he has named to his cabinet have indicated that the clergy should confine their work to spiritual things, while the government takes over the Roman Catholic church's traditional control of educational, health and welfare institutions throughout the province.

The Catholic hierarchy is. of course, fighting back, and fighting hard, but its stand is considerably weakened by the close association it enjoyed with the autocratic regime of Maurice Duplessis, whose Union Nationale imperiously ruled Quebec for sixteen years. 'I he intimacy of this relationship is only now being fully revealed. Msgr. J. A. Desmarais, the bishop of Amos, for instance, was carried on the books of the Duplessis government, with a $9,350 annual payment from the department of youth and social welfare.

"The fact that the church tolerated and in some cases encouraged the politicians has done us irreparable harm,” one priest told me during a recent tour of Quebec. "We were too silent too long; our bishops were not proud enough.”

After decades of shrugging off political immorality as an inevitable result of the system of government imposed on them by the British. Quebeckers have awakened to a feeling of revulsion against the methods employed by Duplessis and most of his predecessors. The list of the Union

National's finagling, being lengthened with each investigation, is a documentation of the most corrupt provincial regime in Canadian history. When the Liberals installed Josaphat Brunet, a former assistant commissioner of the RCMP. as head of the Quebec Provincial Police—a force that the Union Nationale used as its private army—he discovered that a fifth of his men had criminal records.

Of most significance to the rest of the country has been Lesages firm stand against much of the narrow Quebec nationalism that has been such a burden on the effectiveness of the Canadian confederation. The new premier is just as determined to safeguard the rights and powers given his province under the British North America Act. but he is exploiting them in a very different way. He has already signed nearly all the contracts for federal aid that had been turned down by Duplessis, and he has made many suggestions for improving dominion-provincial relations generally.

"The time when we wondered only about our survival is over." he says. "We want to use our autonomy as a sign not of weakness and obstruction, but of strength and action.”

This is no longer racial anger; 'it is nothing less than an earnest challenge to this country's English-speaking citizens to compete, or be satisfied wfith a secondary position.

With this new' spirit of freedom has come a wave of popular protest against old-line Quebec politicians for failing to lead the province into the twentieth century. "It was a waste of time for our politicians to teach us to spit on the English.” says Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the backer of Cite Libre, a Montreal journal whose burgeoning following closely reflects the new mood of Quebec. "It's not the fault of the English that we're a backward province. We're responsible for our own mess. But from now on. we'll contribute more than inhibitions to the Canadian confederation."

By manipulating the folk memory of the


The French Revolution Quebec 1961

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Conquest, men like Duplessis had managed to make the state into an instrument of fear. In sharp contrast, Lesage and his young men are busy creating a dynamic new kind of administration, one that intends to interfere powerfully on the side of the citizen. By the gradual but stubborn implementation of the 53point platform on which he was elected, Lesage is establishing in Quebec a welfare state more radical than that of any government in North America, including Tommy Douglas’s socialist administration in Saskatchewan.

Because French Canadians control only about ten percent of their province’s material wealth, and there are no great locally owned pools of money with which to buy back these assets, the Lesage government plans to use nationalization as the tool for returning to Quebeckers the benefits of their natural resources.

The major unknown in all these politically exciting events is the question: can Lesage get away with it?

He was elected to office by a margin so slim that he would have lost if only four extra voters at each poll had cast their ballots against him. Since he has come to power, his reforms have offended large sections of the population. Those affronted by Lesage’s actions include a considerable number of influential men inside his own party, who resent his autocratic prohibitions against the return of any patronage. In Quebec City recently, Emilien Lafrance, a realestate agent from Richmond County who is Lesage’s minister of social welfare, appeared with an ugly black eye, given to him by one of his own organizers when he refused to grant the man patronage control in his riding.

As Lesage drastically transforms the political, social, cultural and economic face of Quebec, his own personality is also changing. He’s a smooth politician who has become a presence. The lazy amiability he once projected has given way to the rigid dignity of a bishop. He won’t stand being contradicted; even the presence of a third person in private conversation stiffens his mood. He addresses his remarks to the Quebec legislature, Kennedy-fashion, with hands slipping into his side pockets.

Once voted the handsomest man in the House of Commons by his fellow MPs, Lesage radiates the confident look of a matinée idol on the crest of a successful comeback. His whitening hair adds dignity to his open amiability. Lesage’s working day is spent in furious and not too systematic concentration on the province’s problems in Maurice Duplessis’ former parliamentary office, which he has not yet had time to refurnish. His day usually ends at midnight in the study of his modest brick house beside the Plains of Abraham.

Lesage has installed a crucifix on the wall beside his desk. It’s a symbol of the fact that, although his administration is being accused of violent anti-clericalism, the premier himself is an ardent, almost ostentatious, believer. No matter how

bEtsy he becomes, besage attends the 7:30 mass every morning at St. Mary’s parish church and he talks to all visitors at length about God’s influence on provincial affairs.

besage was born in Montreal but raised in Quebec, where he attended bavai University and, at twenty-seven, became one of the youngest crown attorneys in the city's history. His vigorous campaign against conscription during the World War II plebiscite helped to get him elected in 1945 to the House of Commons as the biberal member for the rural riding of Montmagny-b’Islet, which he represented for the next thirteen years. In Ottawa, besage was at first regarded as a likeable lightweight. But he was chairman of the parliamentary committee that devised the plan for old-age pensions without a means test, and his work there so impressed bonis St. I.tinrent that he brought besage into the cabinet in 1953. as the first minister Eif northern affairs and national resources. besage tripled the government's spending on northern administration during bis three and a hall years in office, anti gained the sell-confidence necessary for his entry into Quebec politics. He once referred to his job at northern affairs as "the premiership of Canada's unorganized territories.” But his hopes of becoming the bibcral party’s chief Quebec spokesman were seriously weakened w'hen a Montreal seat was found for bionel Chevrier, the MP from Cornwall. Ontario.

After the second electoral defeat of the I i lierais, besage’s ambitions switched to the provincial field, and on May 31, 1958. at a virtually uncontested convention in Quebec City, he became the provincial biberal leader. At the time, it wasn't much of a prize. The biberals hadn't been in power since 1944: in the 1948 election they had won only eight seats.

besage spent the next two years stumping the province, trying to rally voters behind a 53-point election manifesto drafted by a group of Montreal intellectuals headed by Maurice Sauvé, a brilliant young lawyer who had been assistant secretary of the royal commission on Canada’s economic prospects.

"It was only at this point that besage really became a reformer,” recalls a biberal politician who helped in the campaign. "He finally saw a chance of victory and more or less swept himself off his own feet by falling in love with the image of himself as the man chosen to lead the province out of the wilderness of political immorality.”

Probably the most astonishing aspect of his narrow victory over the powerful Union Nationale was that besage managed to beat the ballot-stuffing tactics of his opponents. I he official report of the voting shows that the UN won eleven of the twelve polls in which there were more valid ballots than eligible voters. T he summary issued by Quebec s chief electoral officer calmly lists such oddities as polling station 114 in Chicoutimi, where 162 eligible electors are shown, but 224 “valid” ballots w'ere counted. At poll 56 in Granby, 142 eligible voters somehow managed to cast 183 ballots.

An analysis of the results shows that the biberal victory didn’t substantially bite into the established Union Nationale vote, but besage did get a decisive share of the half million new voters who had come of age since the last election. This has placed besage in the traditional dilemma of the political reformer—the man brought into power to sweep out a corrupt regime, who. because he is a prisoner of the radically-minded ele-

ments that elected him, must now carry through radical measures, whether or not he personally believes in such extremes.

besage by nature is a conservative politician. His record shows that he believes in going along with, rather than leading, public opinion. “He has a great deal of ability and much energy, but he has no political ideology, or even roots in political thought,” says Pierre Elliott Trudeau, echoing the opinion of many fellow intellectuals.

When I interviewed besage in Quebec City recently and asked him about his political ideology, he was brief but firm. “The main principle of my party.” he said, "is the freedom of the individual within the modern complex of security and welfare measures. It's up to the politician to reconcile these two apparent contradictions.” besage has not yet had to solve the serious ideological differences within his cabinet, because everyone has been too busy trying to reform the province’s day-to-day administration.

The cabinet under besage is a very much more powerful institution than it

ever was under Duplessis, who constantly reminded his ministers that they held their jobs solely at his pleasure. "Many of l.esage’s ministers—particularly René bévesque and Georges bapalme-—can sit back and think, with a great deal of justification, that besage would never have gained power without them.

bévesque, who was Quebec’s most popular television commentator before he took up politics, is the rallying point of most of the young idealists w'ho voted for besage. He w'as so hated by the Union Nationale that they pledged, if re-elected, to set up a provincial broadcasting network in order to combat his influence. He’s been spearheading the biberals’ anti-patronage drive in his job as minister of public works anti now of natural resources. “The ideology of the Liberal party is historically nonexistent.” he snorted, when I saw him in his office. “We’re starting from an ambiguous base, with a wide range of opinions in cabinet. I’m on the far left, of course. If this government doesn't reflect the views of the left, it w'on't be here long.”

Georges Lapalme, the attorney-general who is pushing through the reforms of the Quebec Provincial Police and the province’s liquor legislation, is Levesque’s ideological confrère. A moody and tense Montreal lawyer, he led the Liberal party during its most frustrating days of opposition under Duplessis. The other strong personalities in cabinet are Youth Minister Paul Gérin-Lajoic, a leading constitutional expert: Minister

of State George Marler, the former federal transport minister who now provides I.csagc’s link with the Montreal financial community, and Trade and Commerce Minister André Rousseau, a L’Islet industrialist who is regarded as Lesage’s most likely successor. Seven of the seventeen cabinet ministers are former federal MPs.

Some political observers in Quebec City believe that Lesage is handicapped in his dealings with the cabinet’s radical elements by the federal ambitions that are attributed to him. Fifteen years younger than Lester Pearson, he’s in a favored position to lead the federal Liberal party, which has a habit of alternating Englishand French-speaking chiefs. When I asked him about his federal plans, Lesage just shrugged and said: “I don’t know. If you had asked me whether I was interested in the provincial leadership in February 1958,

I would have said no. Three months later, 1 was the leader. One must leave these things to God.”

The opposition is demoralized

Any effective opposition that develops to challenge Lesage’s ambitions will probably have to come from outside the legislative assembly. Although the Union Nationale fields forty-one members as the official opposition, it is a completely demoralized, leaderless crew. Its defeat revealed the UN as a personal political machine rather than a political party. It didn’t even have a written platform during the last election: no cohesive political philosophy has survived. The party is now busy setting up constituency organizations, so that delegates can be sent to its first leadership convention this fall. There are rumors that Jean Drapeau, the mayor of Montreal, may run for the leadership of a reformed Union Nationale, but the most likely candidate is Daniel Johnson, a French-Canadian lawyer and brilliant political campaigner who was Duplessis’ minister of hydraulic resources.

Meanwhile, a royal commission set up by the Liberals has methodically been uncovering the many corrupt practices of the former regime. One major puzzle for the new government is what to do with the million dollars’ worth of slightly used typewriters they’ve discovered in a Quebec City warehouse. A connection of Duplessis’ operated an office machine agency, and every two years all the typewriters owned by the province were automatically replaced, while the older machines were tucked away.

When René Lévesque took over as minister of public works, he found out that no one in his department actually knew how to draw up papers for open tendering on contracts. Although Quebec laws clearly state that all major public works are to be awarded by tender, not a single public tender was issued during the last sixteen years of the Duplessis regime; all work was awarded privately to contractors who had to kick back part of the value of their bids into the Union Nationale treasury.

Just before the last provincial elec-

lion, the Union Nationale awarded thirtysix bridge-building contracts through "letters of intent.” But Lévesque refused to recognize these, and re-opened the contracts to free bidding. The bridges, originally let at a cost of $4,351,000. are nowbeing built for $2.912,000—mostly by the contractors who made the original bids.

The builders of seventeen other bridges who had already signed formal contracts with the government were called into Lévesque’s office shortly after the election. He asked them whether they'd be willing to reconsider file amount of their bids, now that no political kickbacks were necessary. Every contractor slashed his price by at least a quarter. A bridge in Bagot County, for instance, had been under construction for $49.924: it’s now being completed by the same builder for $29,978.

Lesage has introduced Ottawa's system whereby every large government expenditure is submitted to a treasury board for approval. On top of that, he has also appointed a treasury comptroller who countersigns every major purchase proposed by any minister. Ostensibly. this man's function is to make certain that there's enough money in the treasury; actually, he's a super-w'atchdog, responsible alone to the premier, for the financial dealings of the ministers.

Most deputies arc still UN men

Even some of Lesage’s most loyal supporters are beginning to complain about his rugged reform measures. They accuse him of being afraid to clean out the provincial civil service properly, because if he replaced existing officials with his own appointments he might be charged with the type of patronage he has pledged to eliminate. The result is that only the four deputy ministers who have retired since the Liberal victory have been replaced. Most departments continue to be ruled by appointees of the Union Nationale—and the mentality imparted to them by sixteen years of the Duplessis regime. Less than a dozen permanent civil servants have been fired for political activity.

Businessmen who supported the Liberal party during the Duplessis era. often at considerable personal expense, are furious that they’re now being prevented from benefiting from their party’s victory. Quebec insurance firms, for instance, were bypassed recently for a large contract to insure Hydro-Québec’s trucks and cars, because an Ontario company submitted a slightly lower tender.

When Lesage told Liberal members of the legislative assembly that they would not be patronage-wielding gods in their own ridings, as government-side backbenchers had been under Duplessis. one member of the caucus accused the premier of attempting to shatter the traditionally intimate contact between assemblymen and their constituents, by confining MLAs to the role of lawmakers.

"What stupidity!” Lesage burst out. "Ehe system that edified the new class of millionaires of the Union Nationale has been abolished. We will never return to it. Let that be clearly understood. NEVER!”

An even more difficult challenge to Lesage than trying to reorient his party’s thinking on patronage is his attempt to change the role of government wfithin the Quebec economy. Under Duplessis. the state limited its function to that of an arbiter between conflicting representatives of free enterprise, with

“We’re going to be moving left,” said Lesage, “but that doesn’t mean we’re a leftist government”

the winner usually being the businessman most willing to meet the conditions set by Le Chef. But under Lesage, and more especially the radical forces in his cabinet, the Quebec state is rapidly moving into something the new premier calls "democratic planning.”

“I regard the state as our main tool for social progress,” Lesage told me. “Of course that means we’re going to be

moving left as a government, but it doesn’t mean that this will be a leftist government.” The first step in this direction has been the formation of the fifteen-man Economic Advisory Council, responsible directly to the premier, charged with preparing “a plan for the economic organization of the province with a view to the most complete utilization of its material and human re-

sources.” Its secretary is René Tremblay, a former professor of economics at Laval University who is the new administration’s most brilliant recruit to the civil service. In his other job as deputy minister of trade and commerce, Tremblay has, since the change of government, brought into his department a hundred and seventy-five new economists, statisticians and sociologists, giving Quebec the

largest industrial-promotion staff of any province. He has also permanently posted Quebec’s own trade-promotion officers to Paris, London, New York and Chicago.

Montreal’s financial community is increasingly apprehensive that the Quebec government will nationalize the province’s many private hydro producers, including the giant Shawinigan Water and Power Company. “We’re tired of watching the exploitation of the province’s resources as spectators,” René Lévesque said recently in his capacity as minister of hydraulic resources. “The government wants to change things gently. But if that doesn’t w'ork, the only alternative will be the use of Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick.” Lévesque has conceded to the provincially owned Hydro-Québec all the unharnessed waterpower along the 300-mile Manicouagan River, a potential block of six million horsepower that had been sought by private developers.

Lévesque also has pointed to medical costs in his battle to keep the Quebec government moving left. “Some time or other there will have to be a ceiling on doctors’ fees and salaries,” he told a startled audience at a Laval medical faculty banquet. “I ardently hope the initiative will come from the medical profession itself. If not, [the profession] will be confronted with an accomplished fact.”

Probably the move that has attracted most attention outside Quebec has been the establishment by Lesage of a new department of government, roughly equivalent to the federal ministry of external affairs. For one thing, the new office will seek to influenee the two million or more French-speaking North Americans who do not live in the province. “No one seriously imagines that French Canada ends at the territorial limits of Quebec,” says Lesage. "We must lend our support to those of our compatriots who, because of their location, are in great danger of being assimilated and losing contact with the French culture.”

The most important change in Quebec’s relations with the rest of Canada is Lesage’s new attitude toward the federal government.

At the dominion-provincial conference in Ottawa last fall. Lesage became the first Quebec premier to lay down positive assertions about what should be done in Canada, instead of just reiterating what shouldn’t be done to Quebec. Since he came to power, the new Quebec premier has signed agreements with Ottawa that give the province an additional hundred million dollars in revenue for such things as hospital care and highway construction.

Lesage’s new approach to dominionprovincial relations is his most significant accomplishment to date. Quebec nationalism has in the past been based on two maintaining forces: the paternalistic, conservative objection to change of any kind, and the fight for the survival of French-Canadian culture. Lesage and his young men have succeeded, for the first time, in dissociating these two elements.

That separation in thinking represents a philosophic revolution of major proportions, currently expressing itself in a strong wave of anti-clerical emotion.

Such feelings show up most vividly in the popular revulsion against the clergy's traditional role of running most

of Quebec’s health, welfare and educational facilities. This was necessary after the 1759 conquest, when the beaten colony was abandoned by France, and the parish priest was in many cases the only literate member of Quebec settlements. But it is an obsolete system in an age when welfare and educational institutions must depend on state funds to survive.

"Most of the people who are leading the movement against the clergy’s continued intrusion into non-religious activities are good Catholics,” a Montreal university professor told me. “But they feel it’s high time for the church to trust her laymen, and hand over to them (Control of the institutions whose bills they're paying.”

There have already been serious skirmishes between the Catholic hierarchy and the Lesage government about the acceptance of the federal hospital insurance plan. The cabinet had to pass an order-in-council setting a scale of prices for medical services, because some Catholic hospitals had been trying to get extra grants by padding their payrolls. One hospital in the Eastern Townships, for instance, tried to charge the government for the services of three elderly nuns needed “to cheer up patients.” Church and state have clashed most directly in the Gaspé. where the archbishop, Msgr. Paul Bernier, tried for a time to stop three church-operated hospitals from joining the hospital insurance plan, because it would work toward the elimination of religious orders from Quebec hospitals.

A battle of even more serious proportions is shaping up in the field of education, where the government plans some drastic revisions of a system that has not been basically altered since 1875. The church has maintained that education and religion are inseparable, since education is meant to prepare the individual not only for the earthly life but also for the life to come. Quebec has no department of education, in the ordinary sense. Schools are administered by a semi-autonomous council of education, divided into a Protestant committee and a Roman Catholic committee; the latter has in its membership all of the province’s Roman Catholic bishops. The two committees rarely confer with each other.

Lesage's electoral platform included a pledge to provide free education at all

levels. This means that about half a billion dollars will have to be invested in expanding the province's educational facilities during the next three years. Tw'o days after he took office, Lesage centralized all the government’s educational responsibilities under Youth Minister Paul Gérin-Lajoie, who plans to change the system completely. A royal commission has been appointed to make the necessary recommendations, but the direction of the changes is already clear: the state will take over the control of education from the church.

When four church-operated colleges recently applied for charters to become degree-granting universities—a procedure that would have been little more than a formality under Duplessis— they were turned down and told to wait until the royal commission report.

Lesage's attempt to take Quebec into the twentieth century has forced him into so many radical positions that strong opposition is developing from the extreme right. Because the Union Nationale has now' been discredited, much of the anti - government sentiment has joined a movement called Le Ralliement des Créditistes du Québec, an offshoot of the Union of Electors, which was the Quebec branch of Social Credit. Its president is Réal Caouette, a Rouyn garage operator who sat briefly for Social Credit in the House of Commons after he won a 1946 by-election for the Pontiac seat. His Sunday afternoon television program is getting high ratings and thousands of Quebeckers jam every rally he addresses. His platform is simple and effective: it's mainly the

promise, if he becomes premier, to pay a hundred dollars to everybody who votes for him.

I he fact that such marginal movements are able to gain a large following indicates the province’s political ferment. At the end of my tour of Quebec. I sat in the study of a high-ranking Catholic ecclesiastic, an enlightened man who suffered because of his opposition to Duplessis.

“Many things are possible in Quebec during the next few years,” he said. “If w'e weren't surrounded by the calming influence of the Anglo-Saxon temperament, there would be a full-scale revolution here. As it is, there will be riots and local uprisings unlike anything Canada has seen before.”