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McGill's Antonia Maioni
McGill's Antonia Maioni

ANTONIA MAIONI

Quiet lessons for Canada Add to ...

This fall is a season of many anniversaries in Quebec: 15 years since the 1995 referendum, 40 years since the October crisis. But this year also is the anniversary of another event that had an even deeper and enduring impact on the province's politics and society: the Quiet Revolution. Indeed, Nov. 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the first throne speech presented by the "Équipe du tonnerre" - the Liberal government of premier Jean Lesage that wrested power from the conservative Union Nationale - which would transform both state and society in Québec.

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While all of Quebec is awash in discussions of the meaning and impact of the Quiet Revolution, it's the rest of Canada that might learn the most from this anniversary. The term that Quebeckers have made their own - la Révolution tranquille - was coined in the English-language media, first by Brian Upton in the Montreal Star and then by Peter Gzowksi in Maclean's, to reflect the powerful momentum of Mr. Lesage's reforms. It was not a sudden shift from la grande noirceur to sudden enlightenment - instead, it was characterized by the determination to harness the power of the state to effect real improvements in the socioeconomic well-being of Quebeckers.

This was reflected, as the throne speech reads, in a desire to "broaden the government's field of action" to "meet the collective needs of the people." They would include the creation of a department of natural resources, led by René Lévesque, that would end up nationalizing hydro-electricity and revving the motor of Québec's economic development; an innovative department of cultural affairs with the mandate of promoting Québec's "specific" culture, including language; the literal takeover of education from the hands of a defiant clergy; and, with considerable implications for the future of federalism, the first federal-provincial affairs bureau in a Canadian province.

The "quietness" of the revolution was ostensibly based on the expansion and modernization of the administrative machinery of government in the province instead of radical ideals. But this expansion would contribute to, and become intertwined with, much larger societal and political change. The kind of welfare state that emerged in the 1960s throughout Canada would have a distinctive format in Quebec, and would give rise to a wider consideration of the role of the state in social and economic matters. Inevitably, questions about which state - federal or provincial - was to play that role would become matters of crucial importance not only to Quebec but to all of Canada. It was not merely a question of tax points or transfers. Rather, the key question since the 1960s has been the relative autonomy of the provincial state as a marker of Quebec's special place in the federation and its ability to maintain linguistic and cultural objectives.

Today, 50 years later, everyone has an opinion of the ramifications of the Quiet Revolution - some critics decry it as the birth of "separatism," others that of the "nanny state," while more celebratory views see it as the basis for a necessary affirmation of autonomy, or the foundation of Quebec's economic success and social survival. The tension can be seen in the continuing debate over public versus private funding in key sectors of the economy, the still unresolved divisions between supporters of sovereignty and some kind of federal arrangement, and the recurrence of new political movements, such as the recent attempts to revive the political right.

But most of all, Quebec has emerged from the Quiet Revolution with an identity distinct from the rest of Canada. Quebeckers display significantly different attitudes on a number of issues, such as the environment and families, than most other Canadians. And the province has gone it alone on a number of public policy innovations, such as daycare and pharmacare, rather than waiting for federal leadership. While the demands for more autonomy on the part of political parties - Liberal or Parti Québécois alike - are still there, Quebec seems less inclined than ever to play ball - even hardball - with the rest of Canada on constitutional issues. Even more significant is that francophone Quebeckers seem to be opting out of the Canadian political mainstream, continuing to support a sovereigntist party in the House of Commons even while the sovereignty movement has trouble finding its groove in Quebec itself.

Fifty years ago today, Quebec's government officially announced its turn toward social and political modernization - a process that would change Canada for good. Now, however, we may be seeing the development of a "proxy independence" in which, for lack of anything better, Quebeckers are living in a political and social space that is practically detached from that of other Canadians. The nature of this space was broadly defined by the contents of that first throne speech by the Lesage government. As we seek to understand Quebec's present and future, we have much to gain in pausing to reflect on its message and how it inspired half a century of rapid change.

Antonia Maioni is director of McGill's Institute for the Study of Canada, an organizer of Wednesday's half-day Montreal conference "Voices from the Quiet Revolution," which is free and open to the public: http://www.mcgill.ca/quiet-revolution.

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