Background and Rise to Power
Maurice Duplessis's father, Nérée Le Noblet Duplessis, was a fervently Catholic and Conservative MLA for Trois-Rivières 1886–1900. He had been an unsuccessful federal Conservative Party candidate before being named a superior court judge by Sir Robert Borden in 1915. Duplessis' mother was of part Scottish and Irish descent.
After studying at Collège Notre-Dame in Montreal (where he became something of a protégé of Brother André) and the Séminaire de Trois-Rivières, he graduated from Université Laval's Montreal law faculty in 1913, spending the First World War in the local militia. He developed a successful popular law practice in Trois-Rivières, was narrowly defeated there in the 1923 provincial election, but won the first of nine consecutive elections there in 1927.
He helped mayor Camillien Houde of Montreal ease out Arthur Sauvé as leader of the provincial Conservatives in 1929. Duplessis subsequently deposed Houde after the electoral debacle of 1931, in which the Conservative Party, led by Houde, was routed. Confirmed as leader of the Quebec Conservative Party in 1933, Duplessis wooed disgruntled reform Liberals and Nationalists who had become disillusioned with the arch-conservative Liberal government of Louis-Alexandre Taschereau. Duplessis formed a movement styled Action libérale nationale, and two weeks before the 1935 election he united with them to form the Union Nationale, with the rather unworldly Paul Gouin as ostensible coleader.
Taschereau was returned in 1935, but Duplessis forced him out in June 1936 with a sensational performance before the Public Accounts Committee exposing corruption and profligacy in the regime, accompanied by a filibuster in the Assembly. He also dispensed with Gouin and outmaneuvered his other Action libérale nationale allies, defeated the hapless Joseph-Adélard Godbout, and won a landslide victory in August 1936, ending 39 years of Liberal rule.
First Term as Prime Minister
Maurice Duplessis's first term was a disappointment. Except for his successful farm credit scheme, his Fair Wages Commission, and provisions for destitute mothers and the blind, little was achieved. The administration was prodigal. Duplessis himself lived riotously (he was a lusty and somewhat alcoholic bachelor in these times, and never did marry), and he blundered disastrously in September 1939 by calling a snap election on the issue of participation in the war effort.
Quebec’s federal ministers, including Ernest Lapointe, Arthur Cardin and C.G. Power, threatened to resign, leaving Quebec defenceless against a pro-conscription English Canada if Duplessis was re-elected. They also pledged that they would prevent conscription if Duplessis was defeated.
Though he was personally re-elected, his government lost badly to Godbout. In opposition, Duplessis's health collapsed. After months in hospital in 1941–1942 fighting pneumonia and diabetes, he never drank again.
Second Term as Prime Minister
Maurice Duplessis campaigned strenuously for two years, and was narrowly re-elected in 1944 over Godbout and the nationalist Bloc populaire canadien. The latter included notable figures like André Laurendeau and Jean Drapeau as well as being supported by Henri Bourassa. The Union Nationale was re-elected in 1948, 1952 and 1956.The party also successfully intervened in other elections, especially in defeating Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau in 1957 and in helping elect 50 of John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives in Quebec in 1958.Duplessis’ 15-year second term saw him assert the authority of the Quebec state over that of the Church. He wrestled part of the concurrent jurisdiction over direct taxes back from the federal government after WWII. Under him, the Quebec government introduce social legislations such as Canada's most generous minimum wage and home ownership assistance Acts. His government produced enormous public works, highway, hospital, school and university construction projects. Ambitious hydroelectric power schemes were set up while electrification was extended throughout rural Quebec.
Duplessis became equally known for dealing harshly with striking unions, especially at Noranda, Asbestos, Louiseville and Murdochville. (See also Asbestos Strike of 1949; Murdochville Strike.) He also had disdain for most contemporary concepts of civil liberties. This was particularly apparent in litigation over the anticommunist Padlock Act, overruled by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1957, and the Roncarelli case, in which Duplessis was personally ordered to pay damages of $46,132 by the Supreme Court in 1959. (See also Grande Noirceur.)
Apart from his jurisdictional gains, Duplessis presented a number of symbolic nationalist measures, such as the adoption of the Quebec flag. Duplessis developed a very powerful political machine. Corruption and patronage reached legendary proportions, yet Duplessis presided over a period of unprecedented prosperity, economic growth and investment in which Quebec was for the first time by almost any social or economic yardstick gaining on Ontario.
A modernizer except in political methodology, Duplessis pushed the Quebec state to an unprecedented position of strength in relation to the church, the federal government, and the Anglo-Saxon Montreal business establishment. His system depended upon employing the clergy at bargain wages to do what was really secular work in schools and hospitals, while reducing the episcopate to financial dependence. He reduced taxes, balanced budgets and persuaded conservatives and nationalists to vote together (for "autonomy" as he called it).
His system crumbled after his death in 1959 with the demise of his successors Paul Sauvé and Daniel Johnson, and the triumph of the Quiet Revolution. Maurice Duplessis was an enigmatic and picturesque character, the public demagogue at some variance with his urbane, elegant and witty private personality. For much of his career he was almost universally known as "le Chef" in recognition of his strong, though controversial leadership of Quebec.