Antonio J. Barrette, premier of Québec in 1960 and leader of the Union Nationale (born 26 May 1899 in Joliette, Québec; died 15 December 1968 in Montréal). Less than six months after his rise to power, he was defeated by Jean Lesage’s Liberals, an event that marked the beginning of the Quiet Revolution. As Minister of Labour inthe Duplessis government, Barrette had to contend with the many strikes that occurred during Duplessis’ tenure.
Education and Early Career
Antonio Barrette studied at the Académie Saint-Viateur in Joliette. He then worked for Canadian National Railways, first as a messenger and later as a machinist. From 1931 to 1935, he was the chief mechanical engineer at Acme Glove Work Ltd. in Joliette.
Member of the Legislative Assembly and Minister
Barrette’s political career began when he ran as a Union Nationale candidate and won the riding of Joliette in the 1936 provincial election, the same election that brought Maurice Duplessis to power. He easily won six more elections between 1939 and 1960. Drawing on his trade union experience as a mechanical engineer and leader of the local labour council, he was minister of Labour between 1944 and 1966 in the Duplessis and Sauvé governments as well as in his own. In the 1952 general election, he beat Liberal leader Georges-Émile Lapalme in the riding of Joliette. He was tasked with enforcing his party’s labour policies, which in some cases were clearly anti-union.
Turning Point: the Asbestos Strike
During the 1949 Asbestos strike, Barrette introduced the Code provincial du travail (Bill 5), or Québec Labour Code, which banned solidarity strikes, made arbitration compulsory for firefighters, police and teachers, and rescinded accreditation of unions with “Marxist” representatives. Because the asbestos strikers enjoyed considerable support from the Catholic Church, he requested and was granted a private audience with Pope Pius XII on 3 February 1950. The next day, Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau of Montréal resigned, citing health reasons. The event highlighted the Duplessis government’s influence over the Canadian Catholic Church.
Premier of Québec
After Paul Sauvé’s death in January 1960, Antonio Barrette was named the new leader of the party. Many disapproved of the decision, and this divided the party and weakened his leadership. At the time, there were several candidates for the interim leadership: Antoine Rivard, Yves Prévost, Antonio Talbot, Daniel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Bertrand. The first three dropped out due to a lack of support, and party officials rejected the latter two because of their lack of experience. With a general election looming, Barrette was named as a compromise candidate without a leadership race. He governed as Québec premier until the election in June of the same year — an election that his party lost to the Liberals.
The 1960 electoral campaign was marked by the natural gas scandal. Several ministers and legislative councillors had bought shares in the Quebec Natural Gas Corporation before it was nationalized, pocketing substantial profits. The Commission royale d'enquête sur la moralité dans les dépenses publiques (Salvas Commission), established by the Lesage government, directly implicated Barrette in the affair, but he was not charged.
After the electoral defeat, Gérard Martineau, treasurer of the Union Nationale and legislative councillor, along with Joseph-Damase Bégin, former minister of colonization, asked Barrette to resign, which he did. He did not, however, cede ownership of the daily newspaper Montréal-Matin to the next leader of the Union Nationale, as was the custom, until Daniel Johnson was elected party leader.
Honours and Awards
Antonio Barrette ended his public career as the Canadian ambassador to Greece from 1963 to 1966 (seeDiplomatic and Consular Representations). He was also an insurance broker in Joliette after his retirement from politics. In 1945, he received an honorary doctorate from Université Laval, and in 1948, the Université de Montréal honoured him with the title of doctor rerum civilium scientia. In addition, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of George I of Greece. Finally, Highway 31 in Québec, partially located in his riding of Joliette, is named after him.
He published three works: Considérations sur les relations industrielles en démocratie (1953), Le communisme est-il une menace? (1954) and Mémoires (1966). Antonio Barrette’s archives are held in the Québec City archives centre by the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.