Brian Lee Crowley

Laying the ghosts of Quebec’s past

In their critique of my book published in Le Devoir (“Les vraies origines de l’État providence”, 7th October), Jean-Luc Migué and Gérard Bélanger take issue with several of Fearful Symmetry’s central ideas. I don’t have the space here to respond to all their arguments (those who care to do so may consult an earlier post on my blog where I respond to many of the criticisms they raised in a similar article they published in the National Post:

On the other hand, in this new piece the authors offer a counter-interpretation of Quebec’s history that really demands a response, if for no other reason than it repeats a number of tired old myths that recent Quebec historians have firmly placed in the dustbin of history.

Migué and Bélanger write, “Before 1960, our social conscience owed much more to the rules laid down by our authoritarian Church than — contrary to Crowley’s assertions — to a commitment to limited government and the rule of law. For most of our history we lived, first, under the “ancien regime” and thereafter as a rural minority.”

The authors thus repeat the myth of the “grande noirceur” (Great Darkness), according to which, prior to the Quiet Revolution, French-Canadian society was essentially a backward, feudal, rural and economically underdeveloped society living under the thumb of the clergy.

This myth has mostly been propagated by non-historians who wished to blacken Quebec’s past once they became dominant politically in the Sixties, and is now repeated widely by other non-historians (such as Migué and Bélanger) who really ought to know better by now. There is no denying that there is an important debate about whether or not the Quiet Revolution in fact constitutes a radical break or “rupture” in Quebec’s history. On the other hand, to my knowledge, no serious Quebec historian today subscribes to this kind of account of the allegedly wretched and pitiful state of Quebec society before 1960.

One wonders if the authors haven’t quite simply got their societies mixed up when they talk about French-Canada as a « rural minority ». French-Canadians have never been even close to being a minority in Quebec at any point in Canadian history, while the statistics concerning urbanization and industrialization paint a completely different portrait than the one presented by Migué and Bélanger.

According to the Université de Montréal historian Professor Jacques Rouillard,

The image according to which the Franco-Québécois are latecomers to urban life, or that they rejected jobs in the industrial economy, does not correspond to reality when one compares the relevant indicators to those observable in the rest of North America or other industrialised countries. Their rate of urbanisation and of participation in industrial activities is comparable that of other highly industrialised societies. [My translation]

What about the belief in the principles of economic liberalism in Quebec society before 1960, or what Migué and Bélanger are referring to when they reject my contention that the ideas of limited government and the rule of law were guiding principles at the time?

In his book on the economic history of Quebec, Professor Robert Armstrong of McGill University wrote,

Throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century, the government of Quebec occupied a unique position among provincial governments in Canada. Provincial government intervention in the regional economy lagged behind all of the other provinces; the Quebec government practiced the strongest of laissez-faire strategies.

The historian Fernande Roy, in her book on the history of ideologies in Quebec, explains the extent to which values such as private property and individual liberty found fertile soil in Quebec. She writes,

This liberal credo was widespread in the Quebec society of the time, and is to be found well beyond the confines of the business world. It is quite wrong to suggest, as some have done, that these ideals were somehow limited to the English-speaking community either. It is an abuse of history to attribute to all Quebeckers the ultramontanist point of view, which certainly endorsed a different set of values. [My translation]

Just a few days ago, Le Devoir published an interview with Éric Bédard regarding his latest book, devoted to the “reformers” of 19th century Quebec, people such as Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, Étienne Parent, Pierre Joseph-Olivier Chauveau, François-Xavier Garneau and others. Mr Bédard is one of the many historians who rejects the suggestion that Quebeckers lived through a “grande noirceur” in the years prior to 1960.

These reformers were powerful and remarkable personages who contributed mightily to Quebec’s progress and development. Nor should we forget the “rouges”, an even more radical group of reformers whose focal point was l’Institut canadien. To reduce the ideological ferment and diversity of this period to a blind adherence to the “rules of our authoritarian Church” is nothing more than a caricature with no basis in the historical record.

I am all the more mystified by the assertions of MM. Migué and Bélanger because Jean-Luc Migué knows better : in a book he published a decade ago, he contradicts the assertions he makes today and instead adopts a line completely in accordance with the one I defend in Fearful Symmetry. In particular he draws a portrait of a traditionally liberal Quebec society which was developing rapidly until the fateful moment when, in the 1960s, the province abandoned its commitment to freedom and the rule of law in favour of an unhealthy reliance on the state. In his Étatisme et déclin du Québec : Bilan de la Révolution tranquille, Migué wrote,

Throughout its modern history, from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 1960s, Quebec enjoyed a period of strong growth, which paralleled that of Ontario… The period immediately before the Quiet Revolution, namely from 1935 to 1955, a period that coincides with the high point of the rule of Maurice Duplessis, is also a period that distinguishes itself as one of the most prosperous of our entire history. Industrial production rose by 10.2% annually, a rate higher than that of both Canada and Ontario, who themselves enjoyed vigorous growth of 10% and 9.6% respectively. Between 1946 and 1958, personal income per capita grew by more than five percent per year, again a growth rate greater than Canada’s or Ontario’s… [My translation]

And how does Migué explain this economic dynamism ? He attributes it to the fact that “the political authorities of the time applied to their work the first principle of the Hippocratic oath : Do no harm.” In other words, this economic success was due to an adherence to economic freedom, limited government and the rule of law!

The unjustified blackening of Quebec’s past before 1960 has for half a century reinforced the policies that, as I explain in Fearful Symmetry, have deeply and unnecessarily damaged Quebec society. It is more than time that Quebeckers read their historians and that they reconcile themselves with their unjustly vilified past.

Bélanger and Migué on Fearful Symmetry

Economists Gérard Bélanger and Jean-Luc Migué have an interesting piece in the National Post of 5th October arguing against some of the case I make in Fearful Symmetry attributing the rapid growth in government in Canada to a combination of the rise of the Boomer generation and a separatist Quebec nationalism.

One of the main points they raise against my argument is that growth in government was occurring all over the world, and especially in the western world, and therefore to attribute the growth in government in Canada to these two factors in Canada is to miss the larger picture of change affecting all western societies.

This would be a fair criticism, if it were true. But of course it isn’t. Indeed I spent an important part of the book tracing the growth of government spending in Canada, comparing it to our counterparts in the US (with whom we shared almost identical patterns of government growth for over a century, until the 1960s), and demonstrating that there were in fact two “camps” among Western industrialised societies. One was essentially the US, Canada and Australia, the other was much of Western Europe. The first group proved remarkably more resistant to the growth of government than the latter. But Canada in the Sixties and Seventies essentially changed teams. After a century of following in America’s footsteps, we suddenly and brutally changed camps. Over the ensuing few decades, America’s share of GDP devoted to government rose 6 percentage points. Ours rose over 20. As I say in the book, the zeitgeist in favour of larger government no doubt explains part of the growth in Canada. But it is the speed and size of the change over such a short period, that requires supplementary explanation in Canada, especially since the political class remained committed to small and limited government right up until the early 1960s, as I again show in the book.

As for the rise of a separatist Quebec nationalism only emerging in the 1970s, Migué and Bélanger must have lived through a very different history than I did. The Sixties were a time of radical nationalist ferment that was frightening the life out of the political class in Ottawa. The B&B Commission was named in response. The PQ was formed in the late Sixties from the merger of two other separatist political parties that had been agitating for some time. This was the time that mailboxes were blowing up in Montreal and the FLQ was issuing manifestos. Jean Lesage won the 1960s election on a platform of Maîtres chez nous, and Daniel Johnson won the 1966 election on the slogan of Égalité ou indépendence. The federal Liberal Party went and recruited les trois sages (Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier) in the mid-Sixties as an attempt to strengthen their response and Trudeau was clearly made leader of the party because he was seen as the man able to respond forcefully to what was happening in Quebec, as indeed he did in the FLQ crisis in 1970.

It is historical revisionism pure and simple to say that because the PQ only made its entrée into the National Assembly in 1970 with a quarter of the vote or because the first referendum only occurred in the late Seventies (with half of French-speakers voting to give the government a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association) that therefore nothing had happened in the decade preceding or that politicians in Quebec City and Ottawa were not already responding to the rise of a separatist nationalism in the province.

Brian Lee Crowley
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