Québec Since Confederation | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Québec Since Confederation

When the Canadian Confederation was established in 1867, provisions were made for the creation of a provincial government in Québec, the only region with a majority French-speaking population. This distinctive identity has exerted a profound influence on all facets of Québec’s history and continues to fuel debate about the province’s future.
René Lévesque, politician
Lévesque founded the Parti Québécois, whose main objective was Québec sovereignty (Canapress).
henri bourassa, publisher
founder of Le Devoir and opponent of Canadian involvement in foreign military adventures, Bourassa inspired the growth of a vigorous nationalism in Québec (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-27360/Henri Bourassa Coll).

When the Canadian Confederation was established in 1867, provisions were made for the creation of a provincial government in Québec, the only region with a majority French-speaking population. This distinctive identity has exerted a profound influence on all facets of Québec’s history and continues to fuel debate about the province’s future.

The Catholic religion, too, has been an identity marker for just as long a time, exerting a strongly conservative influence on the province. Québec society has had to adapt to the major trends and changes in the Western world (industrialization, urbanization and modernity). Québec’s francophones have lived side by side with their English-speaking counterparts — sometimes in harmony, sometimes in an atmosphere of tension — and have also incorporated contributions from other countries and cultures into their society. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s marked a tipping point: a new nationalism emerged, religion declined, and plans to modernize the province were launched. This article presents the main trends and events that have marked the history of Québec since 1867.

The End of the 19th Century

Confederation opened the way to a permanent settlement of a political problem that Canada had faced for several decades — the existence of a French-Canadian nation in what had now become, through immigration, a predominantly English-speaking country.

Confederation confirmed French Canadians as a minority but gave them in return — in addition to bilingualism in federal institutions — provincial status for their heartland, the former Lower-Canada. They were a majority in Québec, the new province, and securely in control of their own cultural and social development. At the same time, the English-speaking minority in the province benefited from significant measures protecting their religion and language. But this political reorganization was only one of the fundamental changes that Québec society was undergoing at the time.

For a long time, writers concerned with Québec's development characterized it as a traditional society, largely closed to the changes occurring elsewhere in North America. Québec was described as a peasant society, emphasizing its stability and arguing that at bottom its characteristics changed little between the 18th and mid-20th centuries. In the 1960s, however, new historical research began to show that Québec was a much more complex society, constantly evolving and with phases of apparent stability between periods of rapid transformation. Québec participated in the major developments that characterized the Atlantic world between 1815 and 1930: large-scale population movements and increasing industrialization and urbanization, in which respects the second half of the 19th century was a pivotal period.

Demographic Changes

The ethnic composition of Québec's population changed significantly over the 19th century. This can be seen first by looking at developments in demography. Heavy immigration to Québec from the British Isles occurred between 1815 and 1860; in 1867 a quarter of Québec's 1.2 million people traced their roots to Great Britain (mostly to Ireland) while three-quarters were of French origin. Around 1870, however, this large wave of immigration ended.

Meanwhile, French Canadians were also increasing rapidly in number because of their high birth rate. In Québec's older rural areas they soon became too numerous, and farmers' children had to look for jobs elsewhere. A French Canadian who wanted to be a farmer had to go to a distant colonization zone in Québec where the soil was typically poor and living conditions were difficult. Some areas, such as the Bois-Francs, were on the South Shore, but most were located north of the St. Lawrence Valley, including the Laurentians, Lanaudière, the St. Maurice Valley, and Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. The colonist was isolated and the deficiencies of his marginal farm forced him to work in the forest as a lumberjack to make ends meet. Few rural Québécois were attracted by the new colonization regions, and most, regarding even the long hours of factory work as preferable to the life of a colonist, went to urban areas instead.

The textile mills of New England needed cheap and plentiful labour, which they found in the Québec countryside. In the late 19th century, immigration to the United States became a mass movement (see Franco-Americans). It is estimated that between 1850 and 1930, almost a million French Canadians left Québec for American destinations. Most of them left for good, but some returned to Québec and helped to spread American influence, particularly in business, trade unions, the arts and journalism. The rural population surplus also stimulated the emergence of industries in Québec itself. This was one of numerous reasons for the growth of industry in Québec, others being the expansion of the Canadian domestic market, railway construction and the Canadian government's economic policies — especially the protective tariff of 1879 (see National Policy).


Industrialization in Québec during this period occurred in two stages. The first, in the mid-19th century, was concentrated primarily in Montréal. That city's industrial structure was also strengthened in the second stage, in the 1880s, but during this period industry grew in many small and mid-sized cities and towns as well, especially Québec City and the urban centres of the Eastern Townships such as Sherbrooke, Magog, Coaticook and Granby.

Industrialization in Québec was based mainly on light manufacturing, employing plentiful, underpaid labour and producing goods for immediate consumption, such as shoes, textiles and food. There was also some heavy industry in the transportation and metal-processing sectors, and it was centralized in Montréal.

Industrialization increased the process of urbanization, and by the end of the 19th century a third of all Québécois lived in cities and towns. The most significant urban and industrial growth took place in Montréal, where half of Québec's industrial production was concentrated and almost a quarter of all Québécois lived in 1901.

Nevertheless, the majority of Québec's population was still in rural areas, where subsistence was beginning to yield to more commercial forms of agriculture. The farmers were weaned from their traditional attachment to grain cultivation and started to concentrate on dairy farming and the production of more specialized, market-oriented commodities. This change took place slowly, and its pace varied widely from region to region.

New social groups

As a result of the period's economic growth, a new bourgeoisie emerged. Unlike the bourgeoisie of the previous period, whose interests were purely commercial, this class also invested in transportation, the financial sector, and industrial corporations. It was drawn overwhelmingly from the English and Scottish groups, and was concentrated in Montréal, Canada's leading economic centre. It controlled the major economic institutions that operated Canada-wide, such as the powerful Bank of Montreal (founded 1817). French Canadians were almost completely absent from the upper level of the bourgeoisie. At the same time, however, there arose a class of French-speaking businessmen with a much more local or regional economic base. They actively exercised a share of political power in Québec and established specifically French-speaking institutions, e.g., banks, business periodicals and chambers of commerce.

Industrialization also led to the formation of a working class. In Montréal, Québec City and the smaller industrial centres, Québécois who had left farms to become workers lived under difficult conditions: low wages, long working hours, poor housing conditions, a high death rate and widespread seasonal unemployment. French-Canadian workers had the fewest skills and had to be satisfied with the lowest-paying jobs. This was especially true of women (see Status of Women), whose numbers were increasing in the textile, clothing, shoe and tobacco industries. The growing importance of the working class was confirmed by the rise of the labour movement in the 1880s and 1890s (see Working-Class History–Québec). The trade union movement quickly became dominated by two American organizations, the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, which established affiliates in Canada. During this period, only a small proportion of Québec's workers — primarily the most highly skilled ones — belonged to these unions.


This period was marked politically by the domination of the Conservative Party, which held power in both Ottawa and Québec City except for brief intervals. After the death of George-Étienne Cartier in 1873, the party was gradually eroded by quarrels between its Ultramontane and moderate wings. Between 1867 and 1897 Québec had 10 premiers: 8 Conservatives, including Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau (1867–1873) and Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau (1879–1882), and two Liberals, one of whom was Honoré Mercier (1887–1891). He took power as the leader of a coalition known as the Parti national, which was established in response to the hanging of Louis Riel.

The actions of Québec governments during this period were modest in scope because they had limited means. Provincial revenues came from federal grants and subsidies and royalties from natural resources. Municipalities were responsible for the largest public expenditures (roads and highways, water supply and drainage). Successive Québec governments tried to foster economic development through the settlement of farmland, the exploitation of natural resources, and especially railway construction (see Railway History). They endeavoured to raise people’s level of education, but in doing so they relied on the Catholic Church and school boards. The office of Premier enjoyed greater prestige and, particularly under Honoré Mercier, grew to include the role of spokesperson for Canada’s francophones.

The Power of the Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church (see Catholicism) was a powerful social force. It controlled the public education system, and through its network of parishes and religious associations it exercised tight control over people's morals. Its bishops (Ignace Bourget andElzéar-Alexandre Taschereau, to name only two) enjoyed considerable authority. The rapid numerical growth of the clergy and religious communities, starting in the mid-19th century, was evidence of the church's vitality and its power in society. Women’s communities had the most members and provided educational, social and hospital services. Under the Civil Code, a married woman’s status was no more than that of a minor, so the religious life gave many Québec women an opportunity to expand their horizons and take up an occupation, the limits placed on their personal lives notwithstanding. As for men, congregations of teaching brothers and priests arrived from France and then recruited new members in Québec, with the result that religious supervision and leadership for men was strengthened.

Nevertheless, the Church was not ubiquitous and all-powerful. Despite its success in the social and cultural spheres, it was less effective in the political and economic realms. The clergy did not have the power to stop industrialization or immigration to the United States. And although the clergy did try to dominate Québec's politicians, to the point of supporting the formation of a Catholic party in 1871, it was unable to control government institutions. Many priests were openly hostile to the Liberal Party, but the Liberals, under federal leader Wilfrid Laurier and provincial leader Honoré Mercier, followed a strategy of softening their radicalism and increased their support among the population.

The Protestant clergy was much less monolithic. Practising Protestants, nearly all of whom were anglophones, were divided among Anglicans (the largest group), Presbyterians (see Presbyterian and Reformed Churches) and Methodists, but also among many sects. Protestant churches were everywhere and were home to a vibrant associative life. As a minority, Québec’s Protestants remained united for strategic reasons — to maintain their own educational institutions (school boards and McGill University) and healthcare institutions.

Culturally, Québec was still a society on the periphery. The motherland of France was a force of attraction for the French-speaking elites, in spite of the fact that the clergy condemned France in its official, republican and lay incarnation and promoted, instead, the rural, Catholic incarnation of France, with its deep roots. At the same time, US promoters dominated the performing arts and organized tours by orchestras and theatre companies; French-language performances were few and far between. In literature, the most popular genre was the French novel, which was serialized in newspapers. A home-grown literature slowly emerged with authors such as Louis-Honoré Fréchette, Joseph Marmette, and Laure Conan (Félicité Angers). In the visual arts, artists went to the US and France for their training. The sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert and the painter Napoléon Bourassa enjoyed some success in their dealings with the political and religious authorities, who were the main sources of commissions. With respect to the media, it was during this period that the popular, large-circulation press developed (La Presse, La Patrie, and The Montreal Daily Star) and helped to shape Québec culture.

Although rural life was still a major feature of late 19th-century Québec, the province's social and economic development was parallel to that of other parts of North America that were becoming industrialized. There were still significant differences of language and culture between Québec and the rest of the continent. In addition, French Canadians were not masters of Québec's economic development; they occupied a secondary economic position and were much more likely to be workers than employers.

A Period of Growth (1896–1930)

During the first 30 years of the 20th century, Québec enjoyed strong economic growth, and the size of its population increased from 1.5 million to 2.9 million. The pace of change that had marked the previous period quickened. Industrialization and urbanization continued: by the First World War half the population lived in cities and towns, and this proportion grew to 60 per cent by 1931.

To an increasing extent, Montréal was Québec's metropolis, and in 1931 Greater Montréal accounted for 35 per cent of the province's population. The city's industrial growth was remarkable: new industries developed while some old ones substantially increased production to meet the demand caused by Canada's rapid economic growth. Through its railway systems, large banks and many commercial and industrial corporations, Montréal became the metropolitan centre for the development of Western Canada. Canadian wheat was exported to Europe from its harbour. It remained Canada's leading industrial centre and accounted for two-thirds of the value of Québec's manufacturing production.

A More Diverse Society

At the same time the Québec countryside was being changed by a new kind of industrialization based on the exploitation of natural resources. Industries linked to hydroelectric and forest resources (pulp and paper, aluminum, chemicals) developed quickly in former colonization zones such as the St Maurice Valley and the Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean region. New cities and towns sprang up as a result, including Shawinigan, Arvida, and Kénogami. Further north, Abitibi was ceded to Québec by the federal government in 1898. The settlement of farmland in the region began in 1912 under the impetus of the new National Transcontinental Railway. From the 1920s on, mining transformed the region, creating a new area of economic and industrial growth around Rouyn and Noranda. Emigration to the United States slowed, although it remained substantial until the 1930s.

As concentration in the industrial and banking sectors increased early in the century, economic power increasingly became centralized in the hands of a few Montréal capitalists, almost all of them English Canadian; the French-Canadian bourgeoisie was reduced to a marginal position and increasingly limited to local institutions and traditional sectors. However, it maintained a strong political presence, especially at the provincial level.

But the vast majority of French Canadians could choose only farming or factory work. The situation of Québec farmers improved as the trend towards specialization and market orientation continued up to Second World War. In the 1920s, Québec farmers tended to come out of their traditional isolation and join together in associations and co-operatives (see United Farmers of Québec; Co-operative Movement).

In the cities and towns, French-Canadian workers had to compete with a new wave of immigrants who came increasingly from continental Europe. The largest ethnic group that was neither French nor British consisted of eastern European Jews, and Italians were a distant second. In the second half of the 19th century, the proportion of French Canadians in Québec's population had increased from 75 per cent to 80 per cent, and it remained at this level through the early part of the 20th century. The proportion represented by the British group, however, declined to 15 per cent by 1931, while people of neither French nor British origin accounted for almost 6 per cent. At the same time, ethnic diversity was a phenomenon that was increasingly limited to the Island of Montréal, where people of French origin represented approximately 60 per cent of the population.

The situation of the working class improved. With the growth of unionism, workers enjoyed better working conditions. Public health measures (filtration of water, pasteurization of milk, vaccination of children) brought down mortality rates. New housing came with the comforts of modern life. Nonetheless, some major inequalities remained, and many unskilled workers could not find stable employment. Church-based charities continued to bear the heaviest load when it came to helping the destitute, and it was not until 1921 that the government started to provide financial support.

In contrast, urbanization fostered the growth of services and an increase in the number of jobs for office and store clerks, accountants, insurance agents and small retailers. A new middle class of white-collar workers emerged. At the same time, however, another employment sector developed, made up of low-paying jobs filled mainly by young women. More and more of these women entered the labour market, taking jobs in industry and in services, and kept working until they got married. Their wages were much lower than those of men.

Political Polarization

As they had in the late 19th century, French-Canadian politicians and businessmen strongly supported Québec's industrial development. The provincial Liberal Party, in power from 1897 to 1936, was solidly behind big business and the entry of American capital in the new resource-based industries. Premiers Félix-Gabriel Marchand (1897–1900), Simon-Napoléon Parent (1900–1905), Jean-Lomer Gouin (1905–1920) and Louis-Alexandre Taschereau (1920–1936) all pursued programs of modernization. The Gouin and Taschereau governments counted on technical and professional education along with scholarships to improve labour force training. They invested heavily in road and highway infrastructures (see Roads and Highways). In rural regions, they supported the growth of commercial farming. Under their leadership, the State became involved in support for social services and culture.

However, a group of intellectuals and members of the liberal professions led in turn by Henri Bourassa and Abbé Lionel Groulx and calling themselves nationalists, reacted by trying to resist rapid industrialization, and especially the sale of natural resources to foreigners. They received considerable support from the Catholic clergy, which was alarmed at the massive rural exodus (see Québec rural society) and the rapid urbanization of the population. However, the clergy was not rejecting outright a process over which it had no control; instead, it developed a new strategy of establishing organizations to make it possible to dominate the new economic and social order from within. For example, the clergy promoted the establishment of Catholic unions, which were especially active in Québec's smaller industrial towns. However, these new unions largely failed to take root in Montréal, and, despite clerical support, only a quarter of all unionized workers in Québec belonged to Catholic unions in the late 1920s, the great majority remaining with the big United States-based international unions (see Québec Union Centrals).

Liberal and Traditionalist Ideologies

Throughout the period, two opposing conceptions of Québec society confronted each other. The first, which can be called the liberal ideology (see Liberalism), was upheld by businessmen and most politicians. Emphasizing economic growth and the idea of progress, it placed a high value on the individual and free enterprise. Its representatives believed that the well-being of the nation would flow from the individual progress of its members, and that economic growth was the only road Québec could take. Since they took the position that individual progress would lead to collective progress, they also believed that better education was the path to an improved economic situation. Their goal was to modernize the province’s economic structures without disrupting relations among social groups. They did not dare challenge the power of the clergy, even though some tried to limit it, and most refused to amend the rights of men, on the one hand, and of women, on the other (see Status of Women).

Opposed to the liberal ideology was the deeply traditionalist clerical-nationalist ideology, which suggested that the French-Canadian collectivity would achieve national well-being by withdrawing into itself and returning to rural life and traditional French-Canadian and Catholic values. Upheld by nationalist intellectuals and many clergymen, this ideology was opposed to almost everything foreign. It was forcefully expressed in a number of publications and in sermons and speeches. It was much more explicit and more fully articulated than was the liberal ideology, and hence historians and sociologists long maintained that it was Québec's dominant ideology. However, the real situation was much more complex. Despite the resistance of clerical-nationalist ideologues, industrialization continued and increasing numbers of Québécois left their farms to live in cities and towns. A return to traditional rural society was a dream that did not come true.

Socialist ideological currents were very important in Europe at the time, but they occupied only a marginal position in Québec. Some representatives of the labour movement became involved in politics through the Parti ouvrier, but they were closer in their thinking to the British Labour Party than to European socialists.

Feminism (see Women’s Movement) also made its presence felt in both the anglophone and the francophone community of Québec. The feminist movement gave women greater access to higher education and some professions, but the professions of lawyer and notary remained closed to them. In 1917, women won the right to vote federally, but the religious and political elites refused to give them the right to vote in provincial elections.

The social conservatism of the elites affected culture too. In literature, the ruralist, or “regionalist,” tradition survived, even though modernist, or “exotic,” authors challenged it. The new schools of fine art promoted the classical tradition, but some artists, including Morrice, Suzor-Côté and Cullen, reflected more modern influences in their work. France remained a dominant force in the academic world and the arts. It also made its presence felt in popular culture, but this field was influenced above all by the rapid growth of Americanization — a trend that was intensified by United States control over show tours and movie theatres as well as the widespread distribution of consumer goods and the “American Way of Life.”

The rise of French-Canadian nationalism, moreover, posed the question of Québec's place in Confederation. While Wilfrid Laurier was prime minister, French Canadians felt that they held some power. In fact, they witnessed the reduction of their educational and linguistic rights throughout various parts of the country, despite the vigorous battles fought by the nationalists. The nationalists' real political setback, however, the election of a Conservative government to Ottawa in 1911 — and especially the conscription crisis of 1917 — served to highlight the isolation of Québec, which henceforth bound its fortunes to those of the Liberal Party. Another result of this electoral failure was that nationalism went in a new direction. Taking inspiration from Lionel Groulx, the new nationalism focused more clearly on Québec as the homeland of French Canadians and condemned the marginalization of francophones and their language in their own province.

Great Depression and Second World War (1930–1945)

The Great Depression of the 1930s appeared to be a partial vindication of the clergy and the nationalist intellectuals who had long been predicting that the liberal model of society would fail. The area of Québec most seriously affected was Montréal. Because Montréal was Canada's leading port, it suffered substantial unemployment when international trade and Canadian exports collapsed. In addition, its industries were hurt by a drop in domestic consumption. Montréal teemed with tens of thousands of unemployed people living on public assistance.

State Intervention

All over Canada, traditional solutions based largely on private charity proved inadequate to cope with the Depression. Governments had to intervene. Provincial governments were overwhelmed and appealed to Ottawa, which participated financially in assisting the unemployed. This intervention by the federal government in social policy led to a rethinking of Canadian federalism in the form of the Rowell-Sirois Commission (see Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations). It also marked the beginning of a long process of centralization favouring the federal government, which had a considerable impact on Québec.

The Second World War, during which Ottawa intervened extensively in economic management, played a determining role in this respect. During the Depression and the war, the idea of more systematic government intervention, based on Keynesian economic policies, was gradually accepted. In a federal system such as Canada's, however, such a development raised a fundamental question: which level of government should be in charge of the regulatory instruments that were established? In general, English Canadians came to believe that this was the responsibility of the federal government, which should provide for equality of opportunity from coast to coast.

By contrast, most French-speaking political thinkers and politicians in Québec were opposed to concentrating power in Ottawa's hands in this way, on the grounds that it threatened the autonomy that French Canadians had gained through the existence of a provincial government over which they had majority control. The question seemed especially complicated in Québec's case because most Québec representatives in Ottawa, the Liberals who were in power from 1935 to 1957, supported federal centralization. During the war, the federal government could impose its own solution, but once the war was over the issue reappeared, and as vexatious as ever. As a result, the recent history of Québec — and of Canada as a whole — has been marked by federal–provincial struggles.

In the economic disorder brought about by the Depression, there were many challenges to the prevailing political and social system. Although communist and socialist groups grew substantially in Canada during the 1930s, they had little success in recruiting French Canadians, among whom left-wing traditions were very weak. In Québec, only immigrants and English-speaking intellectuals in Montréal were attracted to these groups. Among French Canadians, nationalist and traditionalist movements enjoyed new popularity instead. In 1933, a group of priests and laypersons published the Programme de restauration sociale, or Social Recovery Program, which emphasized nationalism and corporatism. The following year, a group of disaffected Liberals founded a new party, the Action libérale nationale (ALN), and based its platform on these two themes. In the 1935 election, the ALN, with Paul Gouin as its leader, forged an alliance with Maurice Duplessis’ Conservatives and came close to upsetting the Liberals. The alliance became the Union Nationale, and the following year it won the election, with the result that Duplessis took over as premier. Taking a very conservative stance on policy matters, the new government introduced farm credit and assistance to mothers in need but was unable to stimulate an economy that was still in crisis. It lost the 1939 election.

Effects of Global Conflict

Ideological effervescence of the 1930s was calmed by the war. In Québec the war was synonymous with a return to prosperity and full employment. Québécois actually profited from the war — although they were reluctant to pay the price for their new prosperity. Thousands of French Canadians joined the Canadian Army to fight in Europe, but in its culture and operation the Canadian Army was a profoundly anglophone institution and held little attraction for French-speaking Québécois. Nationalist leaders portrayed the war as something foreign that did not concern French Canadians, so that intense resistance to Canadian military participation in Europe, and especially to conscription, developed in Québec.

In 1942, Ottawa held a Canada-wide plebiscite on the question of conscription. An overwhelming majority of Québécois voted against compulsory military service, whereas a majority of English Canadians in the other provinces voted in favour of it; a deep national cleavage ensued. As a consequence, a new party, the Bloc populaire canadien, was created, with a federal and a provincial wing. However, it enjoyed very little success in elections.

The war also had highly significant long-term social consequences, which manifested themselves both concretely and in attitudes. Québécois who served in Europe came into contact with different cultures and ways of life. Thousands of women worked in factories as part of the war production system, and even though many returned to traditional family life after the war, this exposure had long-term effects (see Women and War). But the impact of the war was probably felt most strongly by rural Québécois. They were increasingly integrated into the industrial capitalist economy, as many of them left the countryside to work in factories while others introduced changes that made their farms much more productive. Meanwhile, war propaganda, the increasing availability of radio and improved communications all tended to bring rural Québécois into the broad current of modernization that had been felt in Québec for several decades but had not reached all parts of the province in equal measure.

During this period, the Liberal Adélard Godbout served as premier of Québec (1939–44). His government introduced a number of reforms heralding the spirit of the Quiet Revolution. It settled issues that had been the subject of endless debate: women’s right to vote (1940), compulsory school attendance (1942) and nationalization of power generation in Montréal with the creation of Hydro-Québec (1944). It passed the Labour Code and launched a study on health insurance. It completed construction of the Université de Montréal, which had been interrupted during the crisis, and promoted education reform. Because of Godbout’s support for the war effort and his attitude during the conscription crisis, nationalist voters rose up against him, and this contributed to his defeat in 1944.

The Duplessis Era (1945–60)

Québec entered another period of rapid economic growth after the war. This was conspicuous in the natural resource sector, where it was stimulated by American demand. Its most spectacular manifestation was the opening up of the North Shore of the St. Lawrence and the far north of the province, Nouveau Québec, to mining development. But growth was also visible in the manufacturing and service sectors. Québec underwent a new wave of urbanization, its standard of living improved substantially, and Québécois had greater access to the consumer society. Rural exodus speeded up and by 1960 farmers were a small minority of Québec's economically active population.

Post-War Prosperity

Québec's population grew substantially from 3.3 million in 1941 to 5.3 million in 1961. The number of births increased (see Baby Boom) and remained at a high level until the early 1960s. Immigration, which had almost stopped in the 1930s and during the war, resumed. The many newcomers came from the British Isles as before, but also — and in greater numbers — from southern Europe, especially Italy and Greece. Montréal became even more cosmopolitan, and by 1961 Italian Québécois constituted the largest ethnic group of neither French nor British origin.

Economic growth also had significant social effects. It brought about the rise of a new middle class made up of highly skilled workers, executives, managers and teachers. This group increasingly favoured a modernization of the social and political structures of Québec, in which traditionalism and social control by the church played too large a role. The gap between socioeconomic reality and the needs of the population on the one hand, and the traditionalism that characterized Québec's institutions and structures on the other, was increasingly evident.

A new urban sprawl developed around big cities as a result of the popularity of the automobile and of the single-family home surrounded by lawns and typified by the bungalow. Home ownership became easier for city dwellers, the vast majority of whom had been renters. The suburban ideal depicted in the media underpinned an updated perception of a housewife and mother supposedly spared the drudgery of the hardest domestic chores by the advent of electrical appliances. The number of married women in the labour market remained small, but the female workforce increased substantially because of the growing participation of unmarried women. In addition, the establishment of many new educational institutions for women gave girls an opportunity to receive more extensive training, even though social conventions still confined them to employment ghettos and lower-level positions (see Status of Women).

Traditionalism’s Last Gasp

Throughout the postwar period the Québec government was dominated by the Union Nationale Party under Maurice Duplessis. Maintained in power by Québec's most traditional elements, political corruption and an outdated electoral map, Duplessis ran a conservative, narrow-minded government with a traditionalist vision of society. While the need for a wide range of reforms was even more strongly felt, the Union Nationale effectively delayed them.

The Duplessis government used Québec nationalism to justify its policies. Its nationalism was traditionalist and conservative, emphasizing the classic themes of religion, language and the rural character of French Canada. It resisted the federal government in the name of provincial autonomy. At the same time, the federal government represented a new and reform-oriented brand of liberalism that attracted many young French-Canadian intellectuals, who described this period as the era of the "Great Darkness." Moreover, the federal government was led by a French Canadian, Louis St-Laurent, who had strong backing from the Québec electorate. Thus, much of that electorate simultaneously supported two first ministers of opposing orientations.

The Duplessis period was especially difficult for the trade union movement, which came into conflict with the anti-union policies of the government. A number of strikes, especially the Asbestos Strike of 1949, had wide repercussions. There were also changes within the unions themselves: the Catholic unions became more secular and radical (see Confederation of National Trade Unions; Québec Union Centrals), and the merger of the two American trade union congresses, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (see AFL-CIO), led to a similar reorganization among Québec affiliates.

With the support of Duplessis, the Catholic Church continued to enjoy considerable prestige and power. However, there were not enough members of the clergy to meet the growing demand for education, healthcare, and social services. Religious institutions were overwhelmed and hired lay staff, who demanded a voice in how things were to be run. The church hierarchy fought back and tried to strengthen its authority (for example, by replacing Monseigneur Joseph Charbonneau with Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger in Montréal), but it was steadily losing its ability to block the social change that even some priests supported.

Because of their revolt against the clergy, the authors of the Refus global manifesto (1948) were temporarily ostracized. In spite of this setback, the cultural world had become a cauldron of change under the impetus of television (1952), which was controlled by the federal government and was at lightning speed becoming the primary mass medium.

The Quiet Revolution and After (1960–80)

Some of Québec society's institutions — especially the educational system, the social services and the administrative arm of the provincial government — were increasingly ill suited to the postwar world. When Duplessis died in 1959, it was the signal for the start of a new era, known as the Quiet Revolution, which lasted roughly from 1960 to 1966. The political and ideological heritage of the Duplessis era was liquidated with a speed that indicated how little it corresponded to contemporary socioeconomic realities.

A Series of Reforms

The provincial Liberal Party, led by Jean Lesage (1960–1966), proceeded to modernize government institutions, the school system and social services. This direction was followed, though less spectacularly, by subsequent governments: the Union Nationale of Daniel Johnson (1966–1968) and Jean-Jacques Bertrand (1968–1970), the Liberal Party of Robert Bourassa (1970–1976) and the Parti Québécois under René Lévesque and Pierre-Marc Johnson (1976–1985).

Educational reform was highly emblematic of the changes effected in the wake of the Quiet Revolution. The government amalgamated school boards and created a Department of Education. It established co-education in schools, developed secondary education, and created Cégeps, or junior colleges (1967), and then the Université du Québec (1968). The effect on francophones’ level of education was dramatic.

Government reform was equally far-reaching and entailed the establishment of new departments and agencies and the professionalization of public servants. Operating in full compliance with the principles of the welfare state, the Québec government took a more interventionist approach, taking over control of hospitals and social services. It increased the number of state corporations. After the 1962 election and on the strength of its “Maîtres chez nous” (“Masters in our own house”) slogan, it nationalized private electricity companies and incorporated them in Hydro-Québec (see Electric Utilities).

In addition, a major effort was made to upgrade infrastructures, with the construction of highways, hydro-electric dams, schools and public buildings. The term “rattrapage,” or “catching up,” was used to refer to the ever-faster pace of modernization of all facets of Québec society.

With the Quiet Revolution, Québec society made a major break from its traditional roots. A long tradition came to a close as the influence of religion and the clergy faded rapidly. The Catholic Church lost its control over education and social services, and its political power declined. An even more serious blow to the institution was the fact that it lost its control over churchgoers in spite of the renewal resulting from the Second Vatican Council. Religious observance declined, the ranks of the clergy shrank, and the bishops lost their influence over people’s minds.

Note that Québec’s Quiet Revolution occurred during the “roaring sixties.” During that period, the Western world was in the throes of a cultural revolution — youth self-affirmation, the creation of new forms of music, liberalization of morals, etc. The Québécois joined the cultural revolution enthusiastically, and the success of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montréal (Expo 67) reflected their openness to the world. In this context, a new Québec voice found expression. Freed of the traditional canons of French-Canadian culture, poets, novelists, singers and other artists shaped a new Québec and exerted a significant impact on the public at large.

While the Quiet Revolution marked a major break with the past, it was nonetheless part of a centuries-old process of ongoing development of Québec society. The effects of industrialization, urbanization and the growth of the service sector, all of which had been in process for a long time, were then fully felt. Other trends continued: a rising standard of living, the emergence of a new middle class and new elites, and a higher level of education.

Francophone Self-Affirmation

While postwar prosperity brought benefits to francophones, it also made them see much more clearly the extent of ethnic discrimination. In the workplace, French Canadians were limited to subordinate jobs, while in Montréal department stores and the public arena in general their language held second place to English.

A new form of nationalism emerged. Unlike Duplessis' nationalism, it was essentially reformist and demanded a change in Québec's position in Confederation. This new nationalism manifested itself in a number of different tendencies. There were the Liberals, who favoured greater autonomy for Québec but remained federalists; the independence movement, which grew in size and credibility during the 1960s; and the socialists, working within a newly strong trade union movement and in intellectual circles, who wanted to go beyond reformism.

Major struggles for power took place in Québec in the 1960s and 1970s between old and new elites and between francophones and anglophones. Especially noteworthy were battles over language, the economy and politics.

The struggle on the language front was aimed at having French, the language of the majority, fully recognized as Québec's primary language. One major objective was to integrate Québécois of neither French nor British origin into the French-speaking majority. This engagement was fought on the battleground of the language of education. The goal of making Québec French was achieved in stages, and at each stage it encountered resistance from non-francophone groups (see Québec Language Policy).

In the late 1960s, the language struggle was fought in the streets, but it later found its way into Québec's National Assembly and, more generally, into the forum of public debate. Three language laws were passed by three different provincial governments between 1969 and 1977. Step by step, these pieces of legislation increased the pressure in favour of French, widened its recognition as Québec's official language and made its use compulsory. The third of these laws, Charte de la langue française (Charter of the French Language) also known as Bill 101, went well beyond the educational field. It was aimed not only at bringing more children into French schools but also at making Québec a more francophone society, and dealt with corporations, professional services, public signs, etc. By 1980 French was spoken and recognized everywhere in the province. The anglophones, nevertheless, retained their own institutions and their language rights as is guaranteed by the constitution.

Another struggle was over the question of economic power. One government objective was to introduce changes into the workplace so that French Canadians would have better jobs and career opportunities in the private sector. Another goal was to support and assist French-Canadian businessmen and the companies they owned so that they would grow and gain a larger share of the market. A third aim was to have large Canadian and international corporations which operated in the province take Québec's specific needs increasingly into account. A final objective was to make the Québec government a major partner with private enterprise in Québec's economic development. In the 1960s and 1970s francophones made considerable economic progress.

The growth of new French-Canadian financial groups was significant, as was the increasing intervention of the Québec government in the economy through such publicly owned corporations as Hydro-Québec and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. These successes, however, were counterbalanced by the weakening of Québec's economic position as the country's economic centre of gravity moved westward. In 1960, Toronto replaced Montréal as Canada's metropolis and many companies moved their head offices or manufacturing operations to Ontario.

Québec–Canada Relations

The third struggle was over political power within Canada. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there were continuing attempts to increase Québec's influence in Confederation and to revamp the division of powers between the two levels of government. The Québec government's goal was to stem the tide of federal centralization and to make itself the government with primary responsibility for French Canadians. The debate over the Constitution was clearly one of the major themes of the 1960s and 1970s. It was marked by provocative statements and battles over protocol and appearance, and also by discussions, negotiations and federal-provincial conferences. Québec's firm self-assertion during the Quiet Revolution was followed by a period of federal resistance to the provinces' desire to increase their autonomy; the new federal stance became explicit when Pierre Elliott Trudeau came to power in Ottawa in 1968.

This long political conflict even had some violent episodes with the Front de libération du Québec and the October Crisis of 1970. It was nevertheless fought through the legal democratic system. Over a 20-year period, considerable effort and energy was expended on the crisis, which led to defeat for both the advocates of independence and supporters of a strong Québec within the Canadian Federation. As a result, centralized federal power was strengthened and Québec’s minority status in Confederation was confirmed. In fact, the position of Québec with respect to the federal government appeared to be improving. Under Trudeau (1968–1979 and 1980–1984) there were more Québécois than ever before in Cabinet, and federal institutions adopted a far more pronounced bilingual stance. But these circumstances depended on the influence of Québec representatives in the Liberal Party.

In addition, there were conflicts internal to French-Canadian society. The growing strength of the trade-union movement during the 1960s led in the next decade to serious confrontations between the major union federations and the provincial government. At the same time there were profound tensions within the new French-Canadian middle class, which had grown up gradually in the postwar period and occupied centre stage during the 1960s and 1970s. There was relative unanimity during the Quiet Revolution, but afterwards deep divisions appeared — politically, with the polarization between the Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois, and socially, with the tensions between trade union leaders and provincial government administrators.

Fighting Inequality

Although the province enjoyed a higher standard of living, serious inequalities continued to characterize Québec society during this period. There were regional inequalities — as Montréal flourished while other regions remained underdeveloped — and social inequalities — as Québec's unemployment rate was substantially higher than the Canadian average and many of its citizens lived in poverty. Awareness of these problems was much greater in the 1960s and 1970s, and demands for a change in the situation were increasingly heard.

These demands were reflected in the many citizens’ committees that sprang up in cities in the late 1960s and in the frequent street demonstrations.

Even Indigenous people, long treated as wards of the federal state, called into question their subservience. The provincial government’s interest in developing Northern Québec’s natural resources compelled it to take Aboriginal land claims into account, and this led to the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement (1975), the first large-scale agreement between Québec and Indigenous persons.

Women played only a marginal role in the Quiet Revolution; it was men who largely brought it about. Claire Kirkland-Casgrain was the first woman to win a seat in the National Assembly (1961). Later she became a minister and pushed through legislation providing for the legal equality of spouses (1964). From 1966 on, the emergence of a new feminist movement that was more aggressive in its demands for change enabled Québec women to make significant gains in birth control (see Abortion) and, more broadly, in terms of equal opportunity. From this time on, governments acknowledged the importance of the issue, adopting anti-discrimination policies and establishing the Council on the Status of Women (1973) and a position of Minister of State for the Status of Women (1979). At the same time, the number of women at university and in the workforce grew substantially.

A Period of Uncertainty (1980–95)

The period of upheavals and rapid transformations that had characterized Québec since the start of the Quiet Revolution ended in the early 1980s. The following period was marked with uncertainty and turbulence as the ebb and flow of economic and political development evidenced sharp turnarounds.

Economic Highs and Lows

Québec was hard hit by the recession of 1981–1982. Recovery was slow but it finally took hold, allowing for strong growth in the second half of the decade. The good times abruptly ended with the severe depression of the early 1990s, and it was not before the middle of the decade that the economy gathered steam again. The effects of these major crises were compounded by the fundamental restructuring of the economy, which had begun to take place before 1980 but whose consequences were now fully felt. Québec's traditional light manufacturing industries, based on the use of low-skilled, cheap labour, were badly hurt by the new international competition. Numerous old plants closed, unemployment rose dramatically and great numbers of people were forced to go on welfare. There were signs of hope as the new economy, with its emphasis on leading-edge technology, took hold in the manufacturing and service sectors and fuelled economic growth. The adjustment process was nevertheless painful as the discarded workers could not easily find employment in the new highly skilled workplace. After rising steadily since the end of the Second World War, purchasing power began to stagnate, but this was offset by the broad trend toward two-income households.

After 1980, despite those problems, Québec society harvested the benefits of the economic, educational and language policies adopted during the two previous decades. The rise of new generations of highly trained people transformed all walks of life. Women's participation in the workforce became much more significant as they made inroads in many previously male-dominated sectors. Generally speaking, francophones gained a much higher profile. In the large Canadian and American corporations operating in Québec, where they had long been confined to the lower ranks, they rapidly rose to prominent positions. Private enterprises owned by francophones became much more numerous and powerful; some of them, such as Bombardier and Cascades, achieved the status of multinational corporations.

Francophone entrepreneurs' successes shed new light on the role of the private sector and stirred questions about a cornerstone of Quiet Revolution policies: government intervention in the economy. This led to a drive for privatization and deregulation during the 1980s and 1990s. Ever-increasing deficits forced governments to cut expenses and to reduce the level of services offered by the welfare state. The pace of reductions accelerated in the mid-1990s, as the objective of a zero deficit was laid out for the end of the century. In spite of this, the general public continued to believe in the Québec model of social solidarity, and governments had to take this into account.

Population Movements

Significant demographic changes also occurred. The Québec population had increased from 5.3 million in 1961 to 6.4 million in 1981. But then the growth rate slowed down, and by 1996, the size of the population had reached 7.1 million. Since the late 1960s, the birth rate of people of French origin had steadily declined and now ranked among the lowest in the world, compromising the future growth of that group. The population of British origin declined sharply as a result of migration to other provinces. These factors contributed to the rise in importance of other minorities whose ranks were fuelled by immigration. Introduced in the 1960s, the federal government’s new immigration policy served to broaden the range of groups represented in Québec. It also put an end to the absolute preference given to Europeans and rules discriminating against Asians, Africans and Latin Americans. Furthermore, from the 1970s on, successive Québec governments signed agreements with the federal government that gave them a greater role in the immigrant selection process. The results quickly became evident: in the last quarter of the 20th century, new immigrants came from all regions in the world, and French-speaking countries — particularly France but also Haiti (see Caribbean People) and the countries of the Maghreb — were by far the main sources of new immigrants. Their presence was now officially acknowledged and recognized through the cultural communities policy, the Québec version of multiculturalism, which was praised in the media. Representatives from these groups held a larger sway in public debate and in politics.

The Constitutional Issue

The political scene was characterized by back and forth movements between sovereignty and renewed federalism and between the Parti Québécois and the Liberal Party.

The referendum of 1980 on Sovereignty-Association dealt a severe blow to the independence movement. In 1982, the Canadian government, led by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, managed to repatriate the Canadian Constitution against Québec’s wishes, and as a result the province was faced with an arrangement that it had never accepted. After this double failure, Premier René Lévesque proposed trying the option of renewed federalism again, a move which created a schism within the Parti Québécois. He resigned in 1985 and his successor, Pierre-Marc Johnson, lost the provincial election a few months later. The departure of Lévesque, and that of Prime Minister Trudeau the year before, marked the end of an era. Liberal Party leader Robert Bourassa, back in power as premier in 1985, joined forces with the new prime minister, Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney. They attempted to solve the Québec–Canada wrangle by proposing new constitutional discussions. The ensuing Meech Lake Accord (see Meech Lake Accord: Document), which nominally recognized the distinct character of Québec and was designed to pave the way for Québec to accept the Constitutional Act of 1982 (seeConstitutional Law). The Accord was drafted in 1987, but failed to get the constitutional approval of Newfoundland and Manitoba in 1990.

The failure of the Accord was widely resented in Québec and fuelled a renewed support for the idea of sovereignty. Bourassa then challenged the rest of Canada to come up with acceptable alternative proposals. But his strategy backfired. In 1992 he was compelled to accept the Charlottetown Accord, which was rejected by a majority of Québécois in a provincial referendum, as well as by the voters in five of the nine other provinces. These events had two major political consequences. The first was the creation of a federal party devoted to the sovereignty of Québec: the Bloc Québécois, headed by Lucien Bouchard. In the federal elections of 1993, the Bloc swept the province and won 54 of the 75 seats, becoming the Official Opposition in the House of Commons. The second consequence was the return to power of the Parti Québécois, now headed by Jacques Parizeau, who won the provincial election of 1994 against Daniel Johnson's Liberals. The PQ launched a second referendum on sovereignty in 1995, but lost by a narrow margin, even though it won the support of most francophones.

In the midst of these dramatic turns of events on the constitutional front, Québec was shaken by the Oka crisis (1990), an uprising of Mohawk groups in the Montréal region who were unhappy with the way their land claims were being handled. The Canadian army was eventually sent in and ended the conflict, but tensions continued to simmer.

Political conflict and two recessions dominated the period from 1980 to 1995 and explain the gloomy climate noted by many observers. Yet in spite of these difficulties, conditions improved for Québec’s francophones. Many left Montréal for the suburbs in the 450 area code belt, where it was easier to buy a home. In the suburbs, they were able to establish a relatively homogeneous community in which their ethnocultural group was clearly predominant.

The Québécois were proud of their culture, which was now being enriched by people of many different origins. They supported their novelists, singers and actors, all of whom could even aspire to international fame and recognition. The development of the Francophonie enabled Québécois artists to work outside their province and to contribute to the emergence of a French-speaking multicultural world.

The Dawn of a New Century (1996–present)

After the referendum failure of 1995, support for sovereignty fell dramatically, but the nationalist parties were still backed by a significant proportion of francophone voters. As a result, the Bloc Québécois was well represented in Ottawa for a dozen years or so and usually won the most seats in Québec. It stood up to Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada (1993–2003), and then took advantage of the sponsorship scandal, which discredited the Liberals in Québec.

Provincially, the Parti Québécois was still in power and won the 1998 election. In January 1996, Lucien Bouchard succeeded Jacques Parizeau as leader of the PQ and premier. He convened economic summits and tried to reduce the provincial deficit by making thousands of public servants take retirement. He played a high-profile role during the Ice Storm of January 1998, which cut electrical power supply to nearly half of the Québec population. In 2000, he launched a project to amalgamate municipalities, which was highly controversial and was hotly debated. The following year, he quit politics and was replaced by Bernard Landry, who focused on assisting Québec’s economic recovery and signed the “Paix des Braves,” or “The Peace of the Braves,” with the Cree Nation.

Daniel Johnson resigned as leader of the Liberal Party in early 1998 and, after an extensive show of public support, Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest resigned his federal seat and agreed to take up the nomination to replace Johnson as leader of the Québec Liberal Party. Federalists and Liberals counted on Charest to defeat the PQ. He was unsuccessful in 1998, but he won in 2003 and stayed in power until 2012. Initially he tried to implement a neo-liberal program, triggering considerable public resentment, but then he changed his tack. Charest made headlines in 2007 by appointing a cabinet comprising an equal number of men and women and reflecting the growing number of women in the National Assembly. At the same time, the Action démocratique du Québec, or ADQ, (1994–2012) rose in popularity under the leadership of Mario Dumont (see Mario Dumont Interview) and on the strength of a conservative platform. It made a breakthrough in the 2007 election and formed the official opposition for a short time until the 2008 election. In 2006, a new left-wing party called Québec solidaire was established, and it won its first seat in the National Assembly in 2008.

Economic Recovery

After 1995, the Québec economy recovered significantly. Exports rose dramatically because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (see Free Trade) and a weak dollar, but this growth would be jeopardized a few years later by competition from Chinese producers and a stronger dollar. Growth in demand from China triggered very strong interest in Québec’s mining resources, which kick-started economic activity in resource-based regions that had been hurt by the decline in the lumber industry. Premier Charest took further steps to strengthen resource development by introducing his Plan Nord (2011). Another economic driver was residential construction, which expanded during the first 10 years of the 21st century, just as housing prices took off.

In these favourable conditions, population growth picked up. Québec’s population grew from 7.1 million in 1996 to 7.9 million in 2011. In a major reversal of trends, the birth rate started to rise again. This was probably due in part to the incentive policies introduced by the PQ and Liberal governments, including the $5/day daycare program (1997) and the Québec Parental Insurance Plan (2006). Women’s organizations had been calling for these initiatives for a long time, and the fact that a large percentage of the labour force was now made up of women with children largely explains why they were introduced.

Population growth was also fuelled by continuing high levels of immigration. French-speaking countries, especially France and the countries of the Maghreb, were still among the main sources of immigration, but migration from Eastern Europe, Latin-American countries and China increased too. This new diversity in the immigrant population was not only ethnic but also religious, so in 1997 Québec passed a constitutional amendment replacing confessional school boards with language-based school boards. Diversity was praised by some but feared by others. In 2007, in response to public alarm over immigration, the Charest government struck the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (Bouchard-Taylor Commission), which advocated harmonious integration through interculturalism.

An Unsettled Period

Toward the end of the decade, investigative reporters exposed corrupt practices in the construction industry and government contracts connected with illegal financing of political parties. There were calls from many quarters for an in-depth inquiry. The Charest government resisted the calls for a long time, but it finally agreed in 2011 and established the Charbonneau Commission. The subsequent hearings brought home the extent of the problem.

At the end of its term, the government had to deal with a student revolt against university tuition fee hikes. It had backed off in the face of an earlier student strike in 2005, but this time it held firm. Symbolized by the red square on the strikers’ clothes, the student protest turned into a social movement. It was called the Maple Spring and expressed public dissatisfaction with the Liberal government (see 2012 Québec Student Strike).

In the 2012 election, the Liberal Party lost power to the PQ, which then had to run a minority government. Dissident sovereigntist groups attracted many voters, and a new party called Coalition avenir Québec won a number of seats. Pauline Marois became the first female premier of Québec. Her government attacked political corruption and introduced measures to protect the environment (end of nuclear energy, asbestos production, and shale gas exploration). Its most controversial initiative was the Charter of Québec Values, the goal of which was to standardize accommodation practices and affirm state secularism by prohibiting government representatives from wearing conspicuous religious symbols.

Marois’ term was short-lived, however. Hoping to win a majority, she called an election for the spring of 2014. The PQ’s share of the popular vote dropped significantly, and the Liberal Party, under Philippe Couillard, won a majority. Coalition avenir Québec and Québec solidaire won seats too.

This overview of nearly 150 years of Québec history has shed light on the many changes Québec society has gone through. The French-speaking population is its largest component, its soul, and its raison d’être — its development and progress have been significant. Thanks to the impetus of the Quiet Revolution, francophones were able to significantly improve their position within their own province and to shed the feeling of being second-class citizens.

However, they failed in their attempt to redefine Québec’s relationship with the rest of Canada. Over the last century and a half, Québec society has been transformed in major ways. Its evolution was not linear, but involved taking steps forward and back. There were winners and losers in the process and inequalities persisted. Continuing tensions show that Québec is a complex society and that its history cannot be explained in simplistic terms. Québécois themselves have been, and still are, far from unanimous in their interpretation of Québec's past, its future goals and its politics.

Further Reading

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