Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale
By Amy DeMarco
Maurice Duplessis was born on April 20, 1890. After graduating from Laval in Montréal, he started a successful law practise in Trois-Rivières. Duplessis soon became involved in politics and was first elected to the Québec House of Assembly in 1927. In 1933, he became the leader of the Conservative Party of Québec and two years later, his party united with the Action Libérale Nationale under Paul Gouin to form the Union Nationale Party. (Bélanger, http://members.nbci.com/history_1/his951/bios/duplessi.htm; Black, 636-7)
As head of the Union Nationale, Maurice Duplessis led Québec from 1936 to 1939 and again in 1944 until his death in 1959. The story of how this new political party was formed and came to power under Maurice Duplessis is central to the story of Québec during the Depression. (Neatby, 112; Anonymous, http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=1197528&hook=477776#477776.hook)
Traditionally, the identity of French-Canadian society has been found in the rural sector, characterised by the French language, Roman Catholicism, the integrity of the family and the traditional virtues of life on the farm. Despite this, by the 1930s the province of Québec had been industrialised and urbanised with over fifty percent of the population living in towns and cities. At the time, Montréal was the largest metropolis in Canada.
As a result of the Depression, farm produce prices plunged and families were forced to leave their farms and travel to the city to find work. This large-scale migration led to the development of slums and the emergence of many urban problems. However, because of French-Canadian loyalty to the rural region, these problems were ignored in provincial politics.
One of the most significant problems in industrial Québec was class difference. Most of the corporations were owned and run by English-speaking people, while French-speaking people provided the labour. As a result, an English-speaking upper class emerged. Although conflicts between labour and capital occurred in any industrialised region, in Québec these conflicts were further complicated by the fact that French was labour and English was capital. Rural and urban problems associated with the Depression became problems of French against English. (Neatby, 105-20)
The Liberals were in power at the beginning of the 1930s as they had been for the past thirty-three years. Premier Alexandre Taschereau had created a comfortable system for the Liberal Party whereby they were financed by the capitalists and elected by the rural vote. Although Taschereau placed immense value on rural society, he maintained close ties with financiers and industrialists. For example, in poor farming areas of Québec, families depended on farmers and their sons being able to work in the paper mills during the winter for survival. Because of this, Taschereau could encourage the establishment of paper mills and thus, the establishment of new settlements. For this, Taschereau received large financial contributions from the capitalists. Despite his seemingly flawless system, by the mid-thirties the Liberal party was divided and many young Liberals joined with Conservatives to form the Union Nationale.
Contributing to the Liberal's demise were the events of the 1920s. During the 1920s, the federal government began to address the problems of urban-industrial society and proposed legislation regarding the right of collective bargaining, unemployment insurance, illness insurance and pensions. Under the B.N.A. Act, such legislation fell under provincial jurisdiction and in order for the legislation to pass, the B.N.A. Act would have to be amended. Because of Taschereau's industrial connections, he opposed the legislation and refused any amendments to the act. Furthermore, in 1927, when the federal government passed an act regarding pensions, Taschereau refused to participate. The legislation did not pass in Québec until 1936 and by this time, French-Canadians were fed up with Taschereau and the Liberals and the Union Nationale posed a serious threat.
During the 1930s, young Liberals frustrated with Taschereau's politics formed the Action Libérale Nationale. Although the party was originally intended to be a reform movement within the Liberal Party, the A.L.N soon realised Taschereau would not be reformed and decided to defeat him. However, if the A.L.N ran opposition candidates, the vote would be split with the Conservatives and virtually ensure another Liberal victory. The A.L.N, under Paul Gouin, and the Conservative Party, under Maurice Duplessis, decided to join forces and formed the Union Nationale Party. The new party adopted the A.L.N platform and Maurice Duplessis as its leader. The policies of the A.L.N were principally concerned with rural society; however, they also addressed traditional labour rights such as accident insurance, maximum hours and minimum wages. The most significant difference in policy was the Union Nationale's view of corporations. Unlike Taschereau, they saw corporations as exploiting the poor and wanted to nationalise trusts. (Neatby, 105-20)
Although the Union Nationale lost the provincial election of 1935, they did manage to capture 42 of the 90 seats and put pressure on the Liberal Party. After the election, instead of advocating the policies of the Union Nationale, Duplessis attacked the government for patronage, nepotism and corruption and brought forth enough evidence to force Taschereau's resignation and the defeat of the Liberal Party under Adélard Godbout in the 1936 elections. The Union Nationale took 72 of the 90 seats.
As Premier, Maurice Duplessis did not nationalise trusts. Although he supported new settlements, roads and rural services, he developed a relationship with industrialists similar to that of Taschereau. This relationship was demonstrated by the Padlock Law (Act Respecting Communistic Propaganda) which he implemented in 1937. The law empowered the attorney general to close, for one year, any building used for propagating "communism or bolshevism". These terms were undefined. As well, the act empowered the attorney general to confiscate and destroy and printed matter propagating communism or bolshevism. Violators of the act could be imprisoned for up to a year without appeal. Because the rural sector was the emphasis of French-Canadian society, there was very little concern or understanding of urban problems. These problems were readily attributed to communist influence and thus, French-Canadians generally accepted Duplessis's Padlock Law. (Neatby, 105-20; Forcey, 1601; Scott, http://www.members.nbci.com/history_1/his951/docs/views/scott.htm)
Like Taschereau, Duplessis was also a champion of provincial rights. In a speech he delivered at the Federal-Provincial conference of 1955 he talked about what would happen if the province sacrificed certain rights to the federal government, "In other words, such a situation would amount to replacing the reins enabling one to drive with shackles that paralyze and enslave."(MacKirdy, Moir and Zoltvany, 38) During Duplessis' rein as Premier, the federal government proposed legislation on minimum wages and maximum hours which would require amendments to the B.N.A. Act in order to pass. Maurice Duplessis adamantly refused to consider surrendering any provincial powers.
In November of 1939 the final act of the 1930s occurred. Duplessis called a snap election. Canada was participating in the war effort and Duplessis chose to direct a campaign on the dangers of federal encroachment on provincial rights in wartime. However, Godbout and the Liberals directed a campaign promising to protect French-Canadians from conscription and were able to defeat Duplessis and the Union Nationale. The Union Nationale would return to office in 1944 after Duplessis portrayed Godbout as a puppet of the federal government. The party remained in office until Duplessis' death in 1959. The deaths of his successors, Paul Sauvé and Daniel Johnson, as well as the success of the Quiet Revolution, led to the crumbling of Duplessis' system. Today, Duplessis is remembered for his strong, yet controversial leadership of Québec. (Lemieux, 2214; Neatby, 105-20; Black, 636-7)
Bélanger, Claude. "Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959)".http://members.nbci.com/history_1/his951/bios/duplessi.htm
Black, M. Conrad, "Duplessis, Maurice Le Noblet", The Canadian Encyclopedia,
1988, I, 636-7.
Forsey, Eugene A., "Padlock Act", The Canadian Encyclopedia,
1988, III, 1601.
Lemieux, Vincent, "Union Nationale", The Canadian Encyclopedia,
1988, IV, 2214.
MacKirdy, K. A., Moir, J. S., and Zoltvany, Y. F., Changing Perspectives in Canadian
History, Toronto: The Byrant Press Limited, 1971.
Neatby, H. Blair, The Politics of Chaos, Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada
Scott, Frank. "How Others have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec".
"The Origins of Quebec Separatism".