A new book adds further colour and detail to one of the most amazing rehabilitations of a political figure in recent Canadian history.
No, not Pierre Trudeau, nor R.B. Bennett, but Maurice Duplessis. In fact, the discoveries of the revisionist historians working on Duplessis and the key period of his time as Quebec premier (1944-59) should cause a root-and-branch re-evaluation of Duplessis’s achievements, as well as of what came after in Quebec.
Victors write the history that celebrates their victory; Duplessis’s successors thus spent the decades following his death dancing metaphorically on his grave. They would do far better trying to understand the groundwork he laid for a modern and dynamic Quebec society, groundwork his successors have done much to undermine.
Economist and Montrealer Vincent Geloso’s new book, Du Grand Rattrapage au Déclin Tranquille (From the Great Catch-up to the Quiet Decline), is the latest in a series of works (starting with Conrad Black’s 1976 biography) that have argued Duplessis unleashed a wave of economic and social progress that many wrongly attribute to the subsequent Quiet Revolution.
To listen to the apologists of the Quiet Revolution, Quebeckers under Duplessis lived a benighted existence under the thumb of the Catholic Church, denied the economic opportunity available to other Canadians, and particularly to their neighbours in prosperous Ontario. What little modern industrial work there was paid only paltry exploitative wages. Modernity was passing Quebec by.
The historical record, as set out in Mr. Geloso’s book and other recent works, says otherwise. Duplessis’s was an era of unprecedented expansion of the economy and public services, closing the gap with Ontario at a rapid clip. Whether in terms of manufacturing, forestry, mining, retail sales, car ownership or construction, Duplessis presided over impressive progress, and did so while keeping public finances under tight control. Quebec became a magnet for foreign private investment. Duplessis’s fervent nationalism was no pretext for antagonizing the English-speakers who were such a vital part of Quebec’s success.
Again contrary to the Quiet Revolution’s myth makers, the revisionists argue Quebec’s workers were not exploited victims of unbridled capitalism. Duplessis did not offer foreign capital cheap labour, but rather was usually successful in getting parity for workers with Ontario in new industrial developments. Over these years, income per capita in Quebec grew much faster than in Ontario: Every dollar increase in the income of the average Ontarian was matched by an increase of $1.69 for the average Quebecker.
On Duplessis’s watch, the gap between Ontario and Quebec for the average number of schooling years narrowed significantly. The province had more university students than Ontario and the number of university faculty had risen 5-fold.
Of this vast expansion, Montreal was the beating heart. In the 1950s, it remained Canada’s undisputed metropolis. According to Conrad Black, among major North American cities only Houston was growing faster than Montreal, and growth in property values and new construction there dwarfed Toronto’s.
Hardly anyone today remembers any of this, and indeed many people will be skeptical that Quebec, in the intervening half-century, could have fallen so far. Separatist agitation, Parti Québécois governments, constitutional confrontations, language conflicts, xenophobia and uncertainty have all taken their toll.
In 1960, Ontario’s population was 6.11 million and Quebec’s 5.14 million. Today, Ontario’s population has more than doubled, while Quebec’s has grown by barely half. Toronto long ago left Montreal behind as Canada’s economic and financial centre. Quebec attracts about the same number of immigrants each year as much smaller British Columbia. In fact, Quebec has a huge problem with people fleeing the province, as roughly 425,000 non-French-speakers have left over the past 40 years – a stunning loss of skills and knowledge.
Some of the highest personal taxes in the developed world, excessive provincial borrowing, a stifling regulatory burden, all have drained Quebec’s economic vitality and are a reversal of the Duplessiste policies that saw Quebec take a great leap forward.
This decline has not happened, as the sovereigntists would have you believe, because Quebec was being bled dry by Canada. Au contraire, during this time Canada ramped up federal employment and transfers to help compensate for Quebec’s self-inflicted wounds. Had the public sector in both Ottawa and Quebec City not stepped in, the private sector collapse would have been even worse. As it is, a mere 16 per cent of Canada’s private sector employment is based in Quebec, and much of that is heavily subsidized by both levels of government.
Duplessis proved that federalism, distinctiveness and prosperity can be combined in a winning formula for the province and Canada. But before it can be revived, power may have to pass into the hands of a generation able to look objectively at Quebec’s recent past.
Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.