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The Quiet Revolution

By Mathieu Pigeon, under the supervision of Dominique Marquis, internship director, Université du Québec à Montréal

The Quiet Revolution

The expression "Quiet Revolution" refers to a pivotal period of Québec history in which social change was swift and sweeping, and the values of many Quebeckers underwent a radical transformation. Originally, the term applied to the six years from 1960 to 1966 when the Québec Liberal Party led by Jean Lesage (1912-1980) was in power. However, the Quiet Revolution is now thought to have extended into the early 1970s, when moves were made to implement the well-known slogan Maîtres chez nous! (Masters in our own house).

Early signs

Nevertheless, the election of a provincial Liberal government cannot be regarded as a total break with the past. Some signs of change were already evident in the postwar years (1945-1960). A number of groups began to question some of the traditional values of Québec society. The Refus global manifesto of 1948 was very critical of French-Canadian society of the time. The following year, a handful of influential members of the Catholic Church, including Msgr. Joseph Charbonneau (1892-1959), spoke out in support of the workers involved in the Asbestos strike. In a sense, even the 1954 decision by Premier Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959) to levy a provincial income tax was a progressive measure worthy of the objectives of the Quiet Revolution. Another significant event was the 1955 riot at the Montreal Forum: it can be seen as a harbinger of French Canadians' revolt against the English-speaking establishment that maintained their inferior status in a society where they constituted the majority.

New role for the State

Between 1944 and 1959, Maurice Duplessis preserved the traditional role of the State. He personally managed many provincial matters and granted little autonomy to his ministers. His laissez-faire policy placed Québec's economic development in the hands of foreign companies. The social arena was left to the Church, and charitable organizations were counted on to come to the aid of people in distress. At the time, French Canadians were generally excluded from the seats of economic power in the province.

After being elected in 1960, Jean Lesage's Liberals set about introducing the reforms that Duplessis's opponents had been clamouring for. One of the new provincial government's priorities was to lay the groundwork for the social and economic emancipation of French Canadians. The slogan "Masters in our own house" perfectly encapsulated this intention. To Lesage and his ministers, the State was the best tool French Canadians had to help them achieve this objective. Québec, following the federal government's example, adopted the principles of the welfare state and took even more radical measures. In its new role, the Québec State exercised greater control over the economy, by enacting legislation and establishing means of financial leverage, and took charge of the social sphere. The objective was to reduce social inequalities and build a more just society in which all citizens would enjoy the same rights. The governments that followed Jean Lesage's did not question these principles and continued to pursue Québec's modernization.

Major accomplishments

The State's expanded role led to the setting up of many new government departments and government-owned corporations during the 1960s and 1970s. This growth compelled the government to hire significantly more, well-qualified civil servants. The establishment of the Ministry of Education (1964) and the implementation of a universal health care system (1971) were two of the main social advances of the time. The complete nationalization of the hydroelectric power industry (1964) also had a beneficial effect in several respects. Besides bringing in new revenue to the State, it also gave many French-speaking engineers and managers an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise. Government-owned corporations such as the Société générale de financement (1961) and the Caisse de dépôt et placement (1965) constituted symbols of Québec's economic success.

Rise of French middle class

During the Quiet Revolution, organized labour was able to make significant gains because the political environment was in its favour. In 1964 the Lesage government passed a new Labour Code that recognized the right to strike in the public sector. This was a significant step because by the late 1960s, the government had become the province's biggest employer. The general economic prosperity of the 1960s and early 1970s also put the government in a position where it could accede to a number of union demands. These social and economic advances gave rise to a new French-speaking middle class that could now aspire to hold the highest positions in society.

New values

The end of the Duplessis era prompted a questioning of the traditional values that had up to that point defined the role of religion, the family and women. The State's new-found importance in the lives of French Canadians led them to identify increasingly as Quebeckers. This new Québec identity gradually took the place of traditional French-Canadian nationalism. The new nationalism found its inspiration in the reform ideas that constituted the pillars of the Quiet Revolution, rather than in the Roman Catholic religion that had hitherto provided the foundation for French-Canadian identity. The concept of territory took on a new meaning, and all the inhabitants of Québec, regardless of language or ethnic origin, were an integral part of this definition of the nation.

Baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1960 in the economic prosperity that followed the Second World War, represented a substantial part of the population in the 1960s. The government's firm resolve to overhaul the education system made these young people the first Québec beneficiaries of a modern education. They, in particular, embodied the new values of Québec society because the values were part of their education. Québec's distinct, dynamic cultural milieu also helped spread these values. Baby boomers and cultural figures became significant social players at the time of the Quiet Revolution. They didn't hesitate to lend their support to nationalist groups and political parties like René Lévesque's Parti Québécois, which was founded in 1968.

Opening up to the world

During the Quiet Revolution, Québec emerged from its isolation and opened up to the outside world. This opening up had begun in the 1950s with the advent of television, which soon found a place in Québec homes. As broadcasting was an area of federal responsibility, program content could not be controlled by Duplessis and was a source of new ideas for many Quebeckers. Current affairs programs such as Point de mire, hosted by René Lévesque when he was still a journalist, informed French Canadians about national and international issues. Foreign culture, which spread in Québec through television, radio and the press, appealed particularly to young people. During the summer of 1967, Montreal hosted the world's fair. Expo 67 had a major impact, showcasing Québec to the world and giving Quebeckers an opportunity to discover the world. Québec also began to assert itself internationally, playing an active role in affairs among French-speaking countries and establishing diplomatic relations with countries such as France, which became a key ally.

Contested legacy

The marks left by the Quiet Revolution, which radically transformed the face of Québec, are still visible today. The more difficult economic conditions of the 1970s and the recession of the 1980s brought the period to a close. Since that time, the foundations of the Quiet Revolution have frequently been challenged, and there seems to be a certain bitterness about the legacy left by earlier generations and the economic debt burden that has been allowed to build up over more than 40 years of the welfare state.


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Web site visited between September 29 and October 6, 2008.


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