The Quebec Elections (Part 3): The Rise Of Duplessis

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1927

For the first time in some time, the leaders of the two main parties in Quebec would not change leaders when the next election came along, four years after the last one.

Louis-Alexandre Taschereau continued to lead to the Liberals and still focused on improving education in the province and to push against the power and influence of the Catholic Church in the province. His government also subsidized scientific and literary works in the province and his liquor policy would establish the Quebec Liquor Commission, which gave the government a monopoly over the sale of liquor and wine during the Prohibition Era in the United States. The policy of not allowing power to be exported from the province meant that the Aluminum Company of Canada had to move into Quebec to conduct business, which helped the economy and gained Taschereau more popularity as premier.

On the Conservative side, the man who had led the Conservatives since 1916 continued to lead the party. The relative success of the previous election had reinvigorated the party and Sauve was seen as the man to lead the party to a potential upset in the coming election.

There was controversy when Taschereau was acclaimed in his riding despite having an opponent running against him. It was stated that the nomination papers of Lucien Drolet were irregular and he was rejected for running in the riding.

The returning officer would say quote:

“Mr. Drolet did not retire from the contest on account of any representations on our part. His nomination papers were declared irregular and were rejected by the returning officer to whom their remained no alternative to proclaim Mr. Drolet’s opponent.”

Taschereau would say quote:

“If the deputy returning officer has acted illegally, it is for the courts to say.”

Taschereau was confident of a victory, especially due to the slow process to nominate candidates by the Conservatives. During a visit to Montreal where the party had lost 10 of 11 seats in the last election, he would say quote:

“It is ten days since Parliament was dissolved and still we have no information that the Opposition has chosen candidates in some of the principal divisions of the province.”

Sauve would run his campaign on portraying Taschereau as an oppressor in the province, who had been in power for too long by 1927. With slogans such as “Good blood cannot lie” and “Face the foe” he called for the Liberals to be removed from power for being too big. He would say quote:

“He says that Montreal can only blame itself because it did not elect Liberals. Is the government the government only of the counties which sent in deputies? Should it render justice only to those who supported it in the election, or is it the government of the province charged with administrating the business of all citizens without preference or partisanship.”

Taschereau would contradict this, stating that Montreal had been focused on despite its lack of Liberal MQPs. He would say quote:

“We have successfully given to Montreal the head office of the Liquor Commission, which employs thousands, the Vaudreuil bridges sought for 50 years, which did not cost a cent to the municipalities benefitting by them, and on which we have granted free passage with the exception of automobiles.”

He would add the fine art school and the court house that had been built for $4 million in the city, as well as the $30 million in funds put forward for the expansion of roads around the city.

Sauve also accused the premier of fixing the election date when he did to ensure he could go on a fishing trip later in the month. Taschereau would respond quote:

“We are going fishing but the only fishing we will do is for electors and I am confident that we will have a good catch.”

Speaking of the confidence he had in the victory of the Liberals, Taschereau said he had spoke throughout the province and that the prospects for the party were excellent.

In the May 16, 1927 election, the Liberals bounced back from the previous election and regained the 10 seats they lost, finishing with 74 seats. The party also increased its share of the popular vote by nearly eight per cent. The dominance of the party continued, having won every election since 1897, and every election but two since 1878. Since 1900, the party had never won less than 57 seats in an election, which they did in 1908, the only election the party had less than 64 seats.

The Conservatives lost all gains from the previous election, falling by 11 seats to finish with only nine seats, once again putting the party into single digits for the fifth time since the 1900 election. In the eight elections since 1900, the party had finished with less than 10 seats more often than they did with more than that number. The only bright spot of this election was that the party picked up an increase of five per cent in the popular vote.

1931

As we have seen in my series on Ontario election and federal elections, the Great Depression was a time of political upheaval. It was when established parties would fall, at least for a time, to be replaced only for those parties to fall amid the difficulty of dealing with The Great Depression.

The same would be true for Quebec, as the Liberal dynasty that had lasted since 1897 began to come to an end but it wouldn’t be in this election. No, in this election, the Liberal Party would have one of its greatest elections.

Louis-Alexandre Taschereau continued to lead the Liberal Party, and the province, as he had since 1920. As The Great Depression began, Taschereau, like other leaders, underestimated its severity but the consequences for that would not be felt in this election.

Over the previous few years, Taschereau continued his attempts to modernize the educational system of the province. He would establish a Jewish board in 1930 to provide Jewish participation on the highest decision-making educational body in the province, which was the Quebec Council of Public Instruction.

His decision to do this was not greeted warmly by some newspapers in the province who accused him of attempting to reshape the school system through an effort to undermine Christianity. Due to the opposition, he was forced to go back on his decision. He would put forward a new bill that he received approval on from the Roman Catholic Church before he submitted it. This put Jewish people back into the Protestant system, and the Jewish board had no power beyond being able to negotiate a deal with the Protestant school board.

The Conservatives had a new leader, and he was one of the most important politicians in the history of Quebec. Arthur Sauve had served as the leader of the party since 1915 but repeated election losses undermined his support. He would resign as the leader of the party in 1929 and then moved on to federal politics to serve in Parliament for five years.

His replacement was Camillien Houde. Houde had first served in the Legislature in 1923, until he lost in the 1927 election. He would be back in the Legislature in 1928 after he won a by-election and became the leader of the Conservative Party on July 10, 1929. At the same time, he was the mayor of Montreal, serving from 1928 to 1932. This was one of four times he served as Mayor of Montreal, between the period of 1928 and 1954.

Houde was criticized in the riding of St. James for running there, with many saying he was not wanted there. Anger among constituents only increased when he said on Aug. 18, quote:

“If you let Camillien Houde be beaten in St. James, I will never set foot in the division again.”

The election would have various issues including the hurting economy, a scandal that I will talk about later and exports coming out of Quebec. Macleans would write quote:

“Mr. Bennett has strained a point to help his Quebec political ally, to make it a little easier for him to face Mr. Taschereau when the guns get going in Quebec. Mr. Houde had staked much of his reputation on this Montreal terminal fight. He had told his friends and supporters that he would stop the National plans. If he had failed to do so, his prestige in the coming Quebec battle would have been seriously impaired.”

Houde would mostly attack the government, while highlighting his experience with civic affairs as a reason he could govern the province. He would say at one rally on Aug. 21, quote:

“It is time for a change. You have heard it said no doubt that our terrible administration has resulted in the ruin of the City of Montreal. It is frequently being said by Mr. Taschereau and his friends but in addition to the things that Mr. Weldon has told you of the progress of the City of Montreal under our administration, I might tell you that we have recently provided a grant of $500,000 to increase the capacity of our hospitals.”

Houde would lay the blame of unemployment on Taschereau, stating he was responsible for half the unemployment for the province because of the closing of pulp and paper mills.

Taschereau would campaign on the strength of his record and the fact that he had led the province since 1920. He said at a rally on Aug. 3, quote:

“After 31 years in public life, you will admit with me that the summit has been reached, that from now my path slopes down, but at the end of my public career I will be able to hold my head high, and I hope that Mr. Houde will be able to say the same when he ends his public career, which it may be, will be sooner than in my case.”

Taschereau would attack Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, in an attempt to link him with the provincial Conservatives. At a rally on Aug. 12, 1931, he said quote:

“I want to be just to Mr. Bennett. I do not blame Mr. Bennett for the unemployment but I do hold him responsible for the promises he made to the people, unrealized promises for the most part. He said there would be no unemployment by September, and when he said that he knew he made a promise he could not fulfill.”

R.B. Bennett would chime in on the election, stating that the only way to get rid of a government far too long in power to be good for any democracy was to vote for Houde and the Conservative Party. His statement reads quote:

“The only method by which the electors of Quebec can indicate their disapproval of the Government of Mr. Taschereau, which has been in power longer than is good for any democracy, is by supporting you and your candidates in such a way as will make your election beyond question and clothe you with authority to institute the reforms which experience has indicated are so much required in the interests of the citizens of Quebec. I trust you will achieve unqualified success.”

Considering that Quebec still remembered the Conscription Crisis of 1917 put forward by the federal Conservative Party, and that in the 1930 election the Conservatives only won 24 of 65 seats, it is likely the endorsement of Bennett did Houde more harm than good. Although, Houde would do plenty of harm for himself.

Things looked up for Houde, who seemed to be gaining ground throughout the election. Over the campaign, he gave 60 speeches in only 10 days across the province. Then, the day before the election he went on the radio and unleased an angry tirade against his opponents, all but evaporating his support in the province. He would accuse Taschereau of engaging policemen to rig the vote in his favour on election day. He also said that airplanes would be touring the province, dropping secretly printed circulars charging that he was surrounded by bandits.

He would state quote:

“The beast writhes in its death agony but it will die. We have not killed any individual. We have killed the government.”

Speaking of the threat of arrest of himself and others in his party on murder charges, he said quote:

“They are ready to go to any length. It is very possible indeed, the plan is all ready for the arrest of friends or people around me and perhaps of myself to be charged with the Bouclier murder. All is fixed for Saturday. I tell the Liberals if they can do no better than that, they are indeed in dire straits.”

Henri Bouclier had been a wealthy man from Belgium who was found dead in Montreal in July 1930, a possible victim of gang vengeance and a suspected diamond smuggler.

Taschereau would respond to the fact that special police were sworn in for work on polling day, stating quote:

“The electoral law authorizes us to name special officers to see that peace is maintained and good order respected on voting day. It is for that purpose that officers have been named and for nothing else. This is possibly the cause of Mr. Houde’s protest.”

On the charges that the government was going to arrest his friends in Montreal on the charges of murder, Taschereau stated quote:

“I am afraid, that Mr. Houde is suffering from the mania of persecution and wished to pose as a martyr.”

In the Aug. 24, 1931 election, Taschereau took the Liberal Party to its greatest height to that point, winning five more seats to finish with 79. The 79 seats was the most the party had ever won in an election, and it was the most won by any party in the history of Quebec elections to that point. The number would not be exceeded until 1948 by the Union Nationale party. To this day, it remains the fifth most seats ever won by a party in Quebec. The Liberal Party would not exceed this number of seats until 1973.

Taschereau would say in a speech quote:

“The Liberal Party has achieved one of the greatest victories in its history. We have given in the past an honest and progressive administration and the people of the province have responded in a manner which leaves no doubt of their appreciation of our work.”

Opposition leader William Mackenzie King would write in his diary that the Beauharnois scandal of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett had cost him popularity in Quebec, aiding Taschereau and the Liberals. The scandal revolved around Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power, which had occurred when the company gave the Liberal Party $700,000 for the right to change the flow of the St. Lawrence River through building a dam. This hurt the Liberals federally, but seemed to aid them provincially as the dam would have helped the province economically and the actions of Bennett on it were criticized by residents of Quebec.

The Conservatives gained two seats, to finish with 11, which was a slight improvement for the party but it was also the sixth time since 1900 the party had won less than 12 seats. Houde would not do well in the election, losing his own seat in his Montreal riding, which is ironic considering he was also the mayor of the city at the time. The Conservatives were able to gain nine per cent of the popular vote, for a small silver lining in the election.

Houde would simply say quote:

“The province has spoken.”

Macleans would write in 1947 in a profile about Houde quote:

“In 1931, he greased his political pole and skidded himself out of favour in provincial politics for the next eight years. His own temper was his undoing that time. He had toured the province winning favour left and right. Victory seemed possible. Then, the night before the election, in a fit of anger against his opponents, he went after them over the radio in such a vituperative anger that Jean Baptiste in the backwoods shook his head. ‘Non’ hard headed habitants decided, ‘Camillien is not yet the man to be Premier.”

The election had some tense moments, including when special constables arrested a deputy returning officer on the charge of throwing ballots out of a window. Hymie Swartz, a special constable as well, was hit in the head with a blackjack during the scuffle. Another special constable was beaten by several men and left in Papineau Avenue and his condition was listed as very serious. One deputy returning officer in Montreal apparently stole a ballot box and police found him one hour later, arresting the man and four others on the charge of stealing a ballot box. Over at St. Jerome, election celebrations almost became tragic when a foot bridge leading from the Liberal committee room to the street collapsed, sending 200 people down 15 feet to the ground. Six people were injured in the incident.

1935

After the historic win by the Liberal Party in 1931, any hope of repeating the feat evaporated as The Great Depression continued to get worse. Unemployment was rising, anger towards the provincial and federal governments was increasing, and many residents of Quebec were ready for a change.

Since 1920, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau had led the province and the Liberal Party but his popularity was mostly evaporating. Discontent in his party was rising since the last election and the left wing part of his party decided they did not want to have Taschereau as their leader. Instead of forcing him out as leader, they left the party and formed a new party called the Action Liberale Nationale.

The new party would gain a major boost when Paul Gouin joined. He was the grandson of Honore Mercier and Lomer Gouin and he would become the leader of this new party. The party had been formed in 1934 and quickly began to gain support from prominent Liberal MPs and the mayor of Quebec city. The party would make its platform about farm credits, voluntary migration from cities to rural areas, rural electrification, the nationalization of electricity and electoral reform.

The Conservatives were now led by a new man who had taken over from Charles Gault on Nov. 7, 1932, who had taken over from Houde earlier that year. Maurice Duplessis had first entered politics in 1927 and quickly rose in the party as a dynamic individual. As leader, he began to align himself with the Action Liberale Nationale and the two parties agreed they would only run one candidate in a riding to ensure they did not go against each other in the election.

One year before the election started, Duplessis began to tour the province to get voters to the ballots. On June 17, 1934, he would give a speech that stated his attachment to traditions and his distrust of modern life. He would attack foreign economic interests in the province and accused Taschereau of supporting supermarkets at the expense of smaller stores due to the tax credits he gave them, which left many independent store owners with no path but bankruptcy.

While Duplessis did somewhat align with the new party through their agreement, he worried about the division of opposition forces, stating publicly that two parties was the right system, rather than three parties.

This election was important for several reasons. For one, it was the last election for Louis-Alexandre Taschereau but we will talk about why in the next election section. More importantly, it was the last election for the Conservative Party in Quebec. The party had existed since the formation of Canada in 1867 and Quebec’s admission to Confederation. In that time, the party won five elections, including the first three in Quebec’s history. It had not won an election since 1892 though, and it was now time for the party to fade away as massive change was on the horizon for the province. It would all come, much sooner than many expected.

This election would be a difficult one on all sides, with personal attacks flying back and forth. Gouin would say at one rally that he had been the target of personal attacks. Duplessis, who often attended rallies with Gouin, would confirm this and call for residents of Quebec to make a change in government. He would say quote:

“The news we hear is the noise made by the breaking of your chains.”

Taschereau would say of Duplessis, stating quote:

There are Conservatives here who inherit all the traditions of that party through blood inheritance and by conviction. Conservatives who love their party, who love their traditions, who are faithful to those traditions, will say that Mr. Duplessis has betrayed those traditions.”

Gouin would also speak of the prosperity the province enjoyed under the Conservatives in years previous, stating that Taschereau was using the memory of Gouin’s own grandfather for his political gain.

He would say quote:

“Mr. Taschereau went to the tomb of my grandfather in Montreal last year, but when did he go in pilgrimage there before? It was only after we came into being that he proclaimed himself a disciple of my father, but where is the monument he has erected to my father? There is not even a memorial tablet at the place of his birth.”

As with previous elections, Taschereau would continue to campaign on his record from the previous 15 years in the hopes that would be enough to be elected once again. He would say quote:

“Our acts are the best guarantee of the future and that is what you must remember on November 25.”

He would also cite the fact that the Liberals were in power once again in Ottawa and that Quebec being Liberal would help the province federally. He would say at a rally on Nov. 2, 1935 quote:

“Surely, Quebec would not want to be represented at these provincial conferences by the only Conservative provincial government. In all, but one of the provinces, and that one has a Social Credit government, Liberals hold sway today. Is it not logical to think Liberal governments will be given a more sympathetic hearing at Ottawa than those of another colour?”

Prime Minister King would also aid in the campaign, as he was already in Quebec for the arrival of the new Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir.

Taschereau would also bring out prominent politicians to help build his case. Senator Randolphe Lemieux would say in a radio address quote:

“We elected King to Ottawa. Let us take no risks, elect Taschereau again in Quebec.”

The fact that Taschereau was also 68 was raised, to which Taschereau said his age was no problem and would not impact how he led the country.

Despite his best efforts, Taschereau found his popularity was falling and this was evident on Nov. 21. In Montreal, where he was speaking, a group of people showed up outside the St. James Market with ripe tomatoes and frozen potatoes and began to throw the vegetables at the windows. By the time they were done, 21 windows were smashed and 15 people were struck by the vegetables. Taschereau would do what he could to salvage the situation, saying as windows were smashed, quote:

“That is all our opponents are good for, destruction, nothing constructive.”

Police would arrest 17 men who were involved in the incident.

The previous day, Gouin and Duplessis held a meeting at that same market, where 5,000 people jammed into the St. James Market Hall, with 1,500 unable to get inside and standing outside listening to the speeches from the two men.

In the Nov. 25, 1935 election, the Liberals won their 11th election in a row, a streak that began in 1897. It was also the fourth straight win for Taschereau. While the party won the election, they lost 32 seats to finish with only 47. This seat drop was the worst in the history of the Liberal Party to that point and the lowest seat total for the party since 1892. He would retain eight of his cabinet ministers, while only losing two.

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would write quote:

“This means that the vote against Taschereau will succeed in the end and that a real Liberal sentiment is again asserting itself in that province.”

The Conservatives picked up six seats, finishing with 17, while also losing 24 per cent of the popular vote compared to the previous election. With 17 seats, the party was the third party in the Legislature.

The Action Liberale Nationale would gain 25 seats to finish with that number as it was a new party. The party also picked up 29 per cent of the popular vote, second only to the Liberals. With its 25 seats, the party was now the Official Opposition and this was the first time in the history of Quebec that the Conservatives nor the Liberals were the Official Opposition.

Almost as soon as the election was over, Taschereau could see the writing on the wall. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would write in his diary on Dec. 9, 1935 quote:

“Taschereau suggested I should let him know that if he could bring together the radical element, L’Action Liberale Nationals, and the Taschereau Liberals, on the understanding that Taschereau would drop out of cabinet and two or three of the radicals would be brought under the leadership of Mercier, that he, Taschereau, would step aside to this end in order to save the party.”

This was also the only election for Action Liberale Nationale and it would emerge under a new name with the Conservative Party to change Quebec politics forever.

As for Duplessis, he would become a giant of Quebec politics and it all began with this election.

1936

Every few elections, in provinces across the country, there is a shift. Sometimes it is quick, sometimes it is immense. Quebec is no different and in 1936, the province would change its political landscape and it could be argued that the change that happened in this election is still being felt to this very day.

Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, the man who had led Quebec since 1920, would suddenly find himself out of a job shortly after winning the 1935 election. That election, as we saw, was one of a split party with disenchanted Liberals joining Action Liberale Nationale and Taschereau winning the election but at a much smaller margin than had been seen for the Liberals in the 20th century to that point.

Taschereau’s opponent from the previous election, Maurice Duplessis, would dramatically raise his profile in Quebec by exposing misdeeds conducted by the Taschereau cabinet. This scandal was addressed by the Accounts Committee of the Legislative Assembly. It was there that Taschereau’s brother Antoine admitted that he had deposited the interest on funds that belonged to the Assembly into his own bank account. This would completely sink the career of Taschereau and he soon resigned and Adelard Godbout took over as premier in June 1936.

Despite the scandals that rocked the Liberal Party, Godbout was untouched by them and he would distance himself from Taschereau and that era of Quebec politics.

As for the Action Liberale Nationale, that party was now gone, as was the Conservative Party. The two parties had merged into one, creating Union Nationale, a new party that would become a dominant force in Quebec politics for the next half century.

At its helm was Duplessis, the man who had been the last leader of the Conservative Party and was now the first leader of the Union Nationale Party.

Only two months after Godbout took over as premier, Godbout would call an election for August 1936.

Macleans would write quote:

“The campaign began. Mr. Duplessis’ aides in the constituencies preached everything from provincial independence and quasi-republicanism to never-let-the-Old-Flag-fall imperialism.”

Duplessis would travel the entire province, speaking two to three times a day in different locations, for a solid month. Macleans wrote of this quote:

“Wearing out his day-by-day companions but crossing the finishing line apparently as fresh as when the race began.”

Godbout was the opposite, trying to keep pace with Duplessis, he would have to spend the last few days of the campaign in bed, recovering and forced to cancel several speaking engagements.

Godbout would attempt to link Duplessis with separatism, something that would grow in importance as an election issue in the coming decades, but for the time it mostly fell flat among voters. The Montreal Star stated quote:

“He referred to a certain pamphlet issued by the Opposition headquarters in which a chapter had been devoted to the outline of a policy that would lead to separation from the Empire and Confederation.”

Duplessis would respond to this, stating he was loyal to the British Crown. He would say quote:

“It is inspiring to see all around us the red, white and blue colors which in one form represents what was once our common motherland and when arranged in another design, represents our Motherland of today, the British Crown, to which we have sworn allegiance and to which we are loyal.”

Throughout the election, the main issue was The Great Depression, still raging throughout Canada and the world. Both leaders were asked about how they would bring relief to those who were out of work. The Liberals followed the policy put forward by Taschereau the previous year of splitting relief 50-50 with Ottawa, although Ottawa never agreed to that deal. Godbout also pledged more support for farmers. The watchword for the Liberals in the campaign was quote:

“Keep the famers on the farms”

To do this, they promised bonuses and subsidies to farmers in the province.

Duplessis would primarily campaign on the scandals of the Liberal Party and link Godbout as much as possible with his predecessor. Duplessis would call for a full investigation into irregularities that he had brought forward to the public accounts committee.

Godbout would charge Duplessis with trying to rake up scandals in order to undermine the support of the Liberals.

Duplessis would pledge support for various groups, including fishermen in the province. He would also attempt to stoke the pride of Quebecers, stating quote:

“There is a new awakening among the people, that they are beginning to realize that the province belongs to them and it should be administered for their benefit and not to their detriment.”

Godbout would seize on this, claiming that Duplessis was contradicting himself with his promises. He would say quote:

“Mr. Duplessis cannot realize many of the tenets of his political catechism. They contradict each other. In some places he speaks for the benefit of some sections of the electorate, of his love and loyalty for the British flag, even as I am loyal to the flag. In other parts of that same catechism he talks of this province leaving the flag and separating from the rest of confederation.”

Staying with his usual practice, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King pledged that he would take no part in the official campaign and if any ministers of his government did, they were doing so as private persons.

For many, the campaign was seen as one of the bitterest in the history of the province. Former Liberals, now part of Union Nationale, were going up against their former party, while Duplessis campaigned on the fact Quebec needed a change after almost four decades.

The Montreal Star would write quote:

“On the one hand the city dweller and the soil-tilling habitant found new embodiment of the Liberalism toward which they have looked for government for 40 years. On the other, they had a Union Party, Conservatives and insurgent Liberals, under Duplessis, lifting a banner emblazoned Union Nationale.”

In the Aug. 17, 1936 election, the Quebec political landscape was reshaped for the first time in the 20th century.

The Liberals lost 33 seats under Godbout, who also lost his own seat, which he had represented since 1929. The defeat was humiliating for the party that had ruled Quebec politics for 39 years and had never had below 47 seats in the 20th century. The 14 seats won was the lowest number of seats since the party had 13 seats in the first election for the province in 1867. The Liberals would also lose four cabinet ministers in the defeat.

Godbout would say in a statement quote:

“I am convinced that the electors of the province have expressed themselves with calmness and moderation and have selected the persons whom they believe to be the most worthy representatives in the different constituencies.”

Macleans wrote quote:

“Godbout put up the best fight he could under the conditions imposed, failed to even to carry his own riding.”

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote in his diary quote:

“It is a clean sweep, which I should have foreseen with a Liberal Party divided. A house divided against itself is sure to fall. My feeling on Saturday was that Godbout could not win, though my wish was that the result would be close.”

Union Nationale, on the other hand, surged ahead by gaining 34 seats and finishing with 76 to form a solid majority and to end the Liberal rule of the province. Duplessis was now the premier of Quebec and he would become a defining force in the province for the next several decades. The 76 seats was the most for the Union Nationale, obviously, but if we compare it to the seats won by the now gone Conservative Party, it was the most seats ever won, with the next highest being 62 in 1867 and 1892. It was the most seats, to that point, won by a non-Liberal Party in Quebec history.

The Ottawa Journal wrote quote:

“There was no mistaking the definiteness of the mandate given Mr. Duplessis. From the time polls closed, at six o’clock, it was evident the Liberal dynasty which had ruled the province for just short of 40 years was doomed.”

Macleans wrote in October 1936 of the election quote:

“English-speaking Quebec wanted a change of masters and was bound to vote the Duplessis ticket, no matter what alarms its opponents might trumpet.”

Don’t count Godbout out yet though. He was not a one trick pony and as we will see, just as fast as things can change in Quebec politics, they can just as quickly change back.

Prime Minister King would write Godbout upon his defeat, telling him to keep on.

Godbout would, and it would pay off for him.

1939

For the previous three years, Maurice Duplessis began to focus on dealing with the impact of The Great Depression in Quebec. He would announce four measures, the creation of a Farm Credit Bureau, the abolition of the Dillon Law, the adoption of old-age pensions with the federal government, and a ban on ministers sitting as corporate board of directors. His rural loan program proved to be extremely popular.

Many of the policies that Duplessis put in place mirrored those of the Liberals that had been removed from power. He would also open up the province to more foreign capital, which brought in new paper plants among other things. His social welfare program also brought in workplace accident protections and he initiated public works projects, which included the Montreal Botanical Garden. His cabinet was also the first in Quebec history to include the Ministry of Health, and he financed a microbiology and hygiene lab in Montreal. His government also extended assistance to needy mothers if they were not unwed, divorced or separated. His government also created the Fair Wage Board, and minimum wage was implemented for the first time to all workers in Quebec. Unfortunately, there was weak enforcement of this and only one-fifth of workers actually received the mandated wages.

Throughout his first term, Duplessis was a critic of Communism. He would state quote:

“Communism must be considered the top public enemy, despised and to be despised.”

His government would enact the Act to Protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda. This allowed the Attorney General to prosecute people who spread Communism on private or public property and it also banned all Communist publications.

Adelard Godbout continued to lead the Liberals despite the terrible election result from 1936. Those around him were confident in his abilities and felt he had been handed a losing hand with the party in 1936. He would remain as leader and would begin to rebuild the party over the course of the next three years. He would also hold the first Liberal Party Convention in the province’s history, which brought together 900 delegates from across the province.

As the Second World War began, Duplessis decided to call a snap election in an effort to use the distrust among Quebecers of the federal war plans and general anti-war attitudes, while also catching the Liberals by surprise.

In his first campaign speech in his home riding, he would denounce centralization and assimilation and said his government would have no participation in the war. Yet at the same time, speaking in another riding that was predominantly English, he would say he was a loyal Canadian and since war was declared, Quebec must move along with the rest of the country. Then, speaking in St. Johns, this time to a French audience, he once again denounced the war.

Duplessis would say in one speech quote:

“We want to make it understood that the province of Quebec has the right to live and is going to live. The best way to preserve Confederation is to respect provincial autonomy.”

The effort to stoke memories of the Conscription Crisis of 1917 in Quebec would fail for Duplessis, as Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King declared that no one would be drafted to the army by force.

Another problem for Duplessis was that the Liberals were not caught off guard but were ready for the election and they had the support of the federal Liberal Party currently in power. The highly influential federal minister Ernest Lapointe was also outraged at the election call by Duplessis, and he would help Godbout in his election campaign.

King would write in his diary on Oct. 12, quote:

“Lapointe is wonderfully optimistic about the Quebec elections. Cardin seems to share his view. I doubt if they appreciate how far money spent by Duplessis on roads and the ignorance concerning Quebec’s relations to the Dominion as a whole is likely to go on the day of polling. I am sure Duplessis will be cut down considerably but I do not yet feel at all sure that he is going to be defeated.”

Lapointe would not hold back in attacking Duplessis, saying that the Nazis saw him as a friend. He said that the Germans boasted a triumph when they sunk a British ship and quote:

“They boast of another triumph in having a friend in Canada, in the province of Quebec, in the person of Premier Duplessis.”

Duplessis was also being hurt by the debt load of Quebec at the time, which had reached $280 million by that point, doubling in only three years.

Godbout would say at a campaign rally early in the campaign quote:

“He is face to face with bankruptcy.”

He would also criticize Duplessis by saying he was hurting the industries of Quebec with his opposition to unions. He said quote:

“The government of Premier Duplessis has attempted to break down the labour unions. The premier at the same time has alienated industrial interests. He has unsettled industry by intervening in its affairs with legislative control measures.”

Overall, many felt that the campaign was not impressive. The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:

“The situation is simply that two little men, both of them under medium height, almost bantamweights, are competing for the highest post in the public life of French-speaking Canada.”

It would describe Duplessis as a restless, highly nervous personality. It stated quote:

“He never speaks in normal tones or in measured accents at any of his meetings. His appeal obviously is directed to passions and not to reason and so he unlooses a Niagara of words that he cuts off with incisive sharpness whenever he thinks he has made a point and wants applause. His whole performance before an English speaking audience would seem highly artificial.”

The newspaper say somewhat better things about Godbout. It stated quote:

“He does not speak eloquently but there is a ring of sincerity to what he says and a homeliness about his lack of prose and pretense. His manner is as natural as Mr. Duplessis is forced.”

Throughout the campaign, Godbout pushed the message that there would be no military conscription. He would say quote:

“The government will never declare military conscription. I undertake, on my honour, weighing each of my words, to leave my party and even to fight against it, if even one French Canadian, before the end of the hostilities in Europe, is mobilized against his will under a Liberal government.”

All three parties opposed conscription but Duplessis was the only one who charged that a vote for another party was a vote for conscription.

Duplessis became a candidate who couldn’t seem to do anything right, and many felt he was trying to turn the rest of Canada against Quebec with his anti-war talk. It didn’t help that at various times during the election campaign, he showed up to campaign rallies intoxicated.

In the Oct. 25, 1939 election, Adelard Godbout and the Liberals rebounded in spectacular fashion. The party picked up 56 seats, finishing with 70 seats for a majority government. The party also gained 14 per cent more of the popular vote compared to the previous election. The seat gain was the largest for the party in its history to that point.

Godbout would say quote:

“Should I thank Mr. Duplessis for having wished that this provincial election campaign touch also on questions concerning federal politics? We knew that the provincial Liberal party had good and loyal friends in the federal domain but in spite of their sympathy in our behalf, they would not have had to participate in this political campaign if it had been conducted only on a provincial basis. In effect, today’s election has a double significance. It shows first that in the provincial domain the electorate wishes to confer the administration of this province to the Liberal Party and to see again order and good sense reign at the Quebec Legislature.”

King wrote in his diary the night of the election quote:

“I rang up Lapointe and Power at Quebec to congratulate them on their part in the campaign and to get their impressions of the result. Lapointe was certain there would be a great victory.”

He would write later in the evening quote:

“Congratulated Godbout over the phone. Sent off a few telegrams. Received quite a number.”

Duplessis and the Conservatives suffered one of the worst collapses in Quebec election history, falling from 76 seats to only 15. The loss of 61 seats was the worst defeat for the party in its short history, but also the worst defeat for any Conservative party in the province’s history to that point. The drop in seats would actually be the worst decline for the party in its entire history until its eventual demise in the 1980s. In total, the party lost six cabinet ministers. Duplessis would make no statement to the press.

The collapse of the party was put on the Participation Issue issued by Duplessis when he dissolved the government and charged that Ottawa wanted to centralize its authority through the War Measures Act. Macleans would write after the election quote:

“Had the Union Nationale leader been able to keep the issue on the high ground, the autonomy question, without dragging in the war, had he not thrown down the gauntlet to the federal ministers from Quebec and had they not accepted his challenge, the outcome might have been a different story.”

The Montreal Gazette would write of this election quote:

“Fifty years from today, historians may speak of the Quebec provincial election of October 25 as a turning point in the history of Canada. To a great many people in Eastern Canada, the landslide of votes which swept Duplessis from power in the ancient province yesterday meant that Quebec returned to Confederation.”

As with most things in politics, things would once again change very quickly by the time the next election came around.

1944

This election would be a watershed election in Quebec’s history.

For the previous four years, Adelard Godbout led the province as premier. As premier, he would bring in many different progressive bits of legislation which would begin to lay the groundwork for the Quiet Revolution that would change Quebec forever in the 1960s. As premier, Godbout gave the provincial vote to women, making Quebec the final province to do so, almost two decades after the rest of Canada had already done so.

Along with that huge bit of legislation, his government created the Civil Service Commission, passed an act that required compulsory school attendance until the age of 14 and the introduction of free education. His government would also nationalize the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company, which would lead to the creation of Hydro-Quebec in 1944.

Maurice Duplessis, after his terrible showing in the last election, would rebound over the previous few years. He would deal with dissention within the party over his campaign performance and would go through a leadership challenge in 1939 and 1942, but would survive to hold his post through both.

Macleans would write quote:

“Maurice Duplessis, leader of the Union Nationale, is personally unpopular, even within his own party, except among cronies.”

Duplessis would disappear for several months in the winter of 1942-43 when he stayed at an American sanatorium, what we would call a rehab centre today, and by the time the 1944 election came along, Duplessis had refrained from drinking at all.

A new party was arriving in the mix at this point, the Bloc Populaire. The party had been formed on Sept. 8, 1942 and was led by Andre Laurendeau, who had entered politics in 1942 in opposition to conscription. He would help found the party and would become its leader for the first election in its history.

The main issue of the campaign was provincial autonomy and Duplessis would lean into this heavily by attacking Godbout and stating he was not taking a strong enough stance against Ottawa. He would also criticize Godbout for the unpopular decision of transferring control of unemployment insurance from the province to the federal government.

Duplessis would say quote:

“The only government which can give back to Quebec province the precious rights and privileges guaranteed to it by the constitution and ceded to Ottawa by the Godbout administration is an Union Nationale government. The Godbout regime in five years of its administration has sold you down the river. We want in Quebec, a government which will be the servant of the people of the province, not the instrument and the valet of any federal government.”

In the election, Duplessis appealed to antisemitism in Quebec at the time, claiming that the federal government, along with the provincial Liberals, had made a deal with what he called the International Zionist Brotherhood to bring in 100,000 Jewish refugees left homeless by the Holocaust, in exchange for campaign contributions. Duplessis would then state that he would stop any plan to bring Jewish refugees into Quebec, and he had no agreement with the brotherhood. The Union Nationale would also hand out pamphlets featuring racist stereotypes of Jewish people, holding bags of money to give to Godbout who was drawn in the background.

It wasn’t all racism in the campaign for Duplessis. He would promise to create a Quebec radio system, which he wanted to create because of attacks he received from opponents on CBC Radio.

He would say of the 1939 election quote:

“I was the premier of this province and I was refused the right to use the facilities of the CBC because I was told I would have to submit a text of my addresses for approval.”

The Liberals were also hurt by the Conscription Crisis of 1944, which resulted when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King decided to implement limited conscription in the country. Godbout would promise to fight conscription, but the memory of the 1917 conscription crisis was still in the minds of many Quebec voters.

Godbout would say at one rally quote:

“It is because I have supported a Liberal government in Ottawa that you did not get conscription. The present federal government understands agriculture and it is the reason why your sons, the farmers sons, are on your farms.”

Overall, it was a nasty campaign, something Godbout stated himself as the election day approached. He would say quote:

“It is my desire that democracy continue to be loved and respected in this country. That is why we preach against intolerance and hatred and why we preach in their place charity and co-operation. Authority within the family, unity within the family, will make up the strength of the Canadian nation.”

Godbout would accuse Duplessis of sowing hatred and division, stating that his political opponents had quote:

“Sworn to destroy me personally.”

Godbout had several rallies that showed he was still popular, including one featuring 10,000 people in Three Rivers, the same riding that Duplessis represented. While there, he would say of his opponents quote:

“These doctrines of hatred preached by our opposition endanger our future.”

Although at one rally in Hull on July 14, he faced a noisy crowd that booed him heavily as he tried to speak. Police had to be called in to remove heckler before he could continue.

In the Aug. 8, 1944 election, the Liberals were soundly defeated, losing 33 seats to fall to 37 and becoming the Official Opposition once again. The party also lost 14 per cent of the popular vote.

There was the belief that the majority won by Duplessis was not large enough, at least at first, to win the election. Some speculated that Godbout could hold onto power with the help of the Bloc. By Aug. 11, it was clear he had lost. He would say quote:

“Even if I have a chance of regaining power on a technicality, I will not. Mr. Duplessis has the responsibility of administering the province in a most difficult period. I am most sincere when I wish him good luck.”

Prime Minister King would write in his journal quote:

“This morning, I got word over the radio of Godbout’s defeat, later verified by the morning news, and of Duplessis having a majority over Liberals. I did not communicate with Godbout so as to be free to say I had made no suggestions about what he should do.”

The only bright spot for the Liberals was that they won two per cent more of the popular vote compared the Union Nationale.

Duplessis and the Union Nationale bounced back from the last election defeat, picking up the 33 seats lost by the Liberals to reach 48. It was not a huge majority, but it was a majority nonetheless for the party, beginning a run of success for the Conservatives that would last the rest of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s.

Duplessis would say in his election win quote:

“The Union Nationale party will carry on a policy which will help Quebec to recover all the rights our province relinquished during the last few years.”

Macleans would write quote:

“Maurice Duplessis is again Premier of Quebec. Not so long ago few outsiders would have cared. Duplessis was remembered vaguely as author of Quebec’s notorious Padlock Act, under which anyone who the attorney general thinks is a Communist may be deprived of the use of his premises. Lately, this indifference has vanished. Quebec is the spotlight now, Canada’s political question mark Number One. Return of the Union Nationale to power is national news. Still unanswered is the question, Good news or bad?”

The Bloc Populaire would win four seats in the election, picking up 14 per cent of the popular vote, essentially taking it from the Liberals.

This election was the last time until 1960 that the Liberals would win an election.

1948

Heading into the election year of 1948, the country had emerged from war and was about to enter into the prosperous 1950s. This was also the beginning of the end for many traditional institutions within Quebec, as the Quiet Revolution began to loom on the horizon.

Over the previous four years, Duplessis had focused heavily on rural areas, versus the development of the cities, and introduced various forms of agricultural credits into the province. He also began to increase the budgets of social services and education. For the first two years of his second term as premier, he opposed conscription in Quebec, which never reached the levels seen in the First World War. He also worked to ensure the continued support of the Roman Catholic Church in his campaigns, which still remained extremely powerful within the province still.

Duplessis would begin to deal with a variety of strikes that would start to emerge in the province during this term in office, beginning with the Dominion Textile Strike in Valleyfield in 1946.

The Liberals were still led by Adelard Godbout, who had been leader since 1936 and had served as premier twice during that time. Godbout did what he could to boost the Liberal Party in the province but the post-war boom was benefiting Union Nationale, making it difficult for the Liberal Party to make any inroads in popularity in the province.

Duplessis and the party put everything it could into the election, spending upwards a huge amount. The Liberals stated they spent $500,000 on the election, and estimates were that the Union Nationale spent $5 million, amounting to $64 million today. Throughout the campaign, the Union Nationale campaign conducted 40 broadcasts per day, put out full-page advertisements in the newspapers and produced matchbooks, direct mail flyers, bilingual billboards, phone calls to voters and even an airplane that swept over the rural hamlets of the province broadcasting out of a loudspeaker quote:

“Duplessis! Duplessis! Duplessis!”

Even the Quebec Press Gallery was softened in its coverage when the Duplessis government paid for an all-expense trip for the gallery to New York two months before the election. There were even claims that reporters received handouts of $10 and $5 at meetings from the party to provide good coverage.

Godbout would spend much of the campaign criticizing Duplessis and his government for what he stated was an attempt to divide the province.

Future prime minister Louis St. Laurent would weigh in on the election, stating that Union Nationale was a threat to the province, rather than a benefit.

Duplessis would also receive attacks from Godbout in the election. At one point, Godbout stated Duplessis was a traitor to his country. He would say quote:

“It is treachery on the part of the premier of the province to try to make believe that Quebeckers cannot live in harmony with the rest of Canada. It is treachery to give the rest of Canada the impression that Quebeckers are savages.”

Godbout also claimed that Duplessis was a friend to Communism. During one rally he stated quote:

“He is the best press agent the Communists have in Quebec.”

Duplessis, for his part, would state at a rally that same day quote:

“As long as there is a breath of life in me I will never let federal authorities crucify Quebec, not even on a golden cross.”

Duplessis would continually criticize the federal government for allowing its ministers to campaign for the provincial Liberal party, saying of the party quote:

“Apparently they look upon truth as something so precious as not to be used on ordinary occasions. We have not descended to a campaign of belittlement and insult as have our opponents and it is most unworthy of the leader of the party to make such assertions as are made by Mr. Godbout.”

Godbout would pledge to end sales tax in the province, which did prove to be popular, but many questioned what this would result in regarding the loss of revenue for the province. He would say quote:

“We imposed the tax in 1939 to cover an orgy of expenditures by the UN party while it was in power from 1936 to 1939.”

Despite the war having been over for three years, Duplessis would still bring up the topic of conscription and attack Godbout over it, despite Godbout having been opposed to it.

In the July 28, 1948 election, the Union Nationale dominated the election, winning 34 more seats than it had in the previous election to finish with 82. This seat count won by the party was the most won not only by the Union Nationale in its history dating back to 1936, but it was also the most seats won by any party in the province’s history since 1867. It would not be until 1973 that a party would win more seats than Union Nationale won in this election.

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote quote:

“Just before dinner, the returns from the Provincial Election in Quebec began coming in. They indicated from the start that there was likely to be a Union Nationale sweep.”

Macleans would write of the election for Duplessis quote:

“Maurice the magnificent, he of the Bourbon nose and twinkling brown eyes, was incontestably Canada’s man of the hour that night. His party had scored one of the most amazing political triumphs in history, winning 82 out of 92 seats and leaving the Liberal opposition all cut and bleeding.”

Duplessis would say on election night quote:

“The people of Quebec recognize the gravity of present-day events and the importance of those who wished to sacrifice the province. Our opponents used means that I regret. I forgive them. We now have a new administration. We are in a grave period in our history. The assistance of all people of goodwill is welcome.”

As can be expected, the Liberals suffered a horrible defeat, losing 29 seats to finish with only eight. The eight seats won by the Liberal Party was its lowest seat total in an election in its entire history and the first time the party had single digit seats. The previous lowest was 13 seats, which the party had in 1867. To this day, this remains the worst seat result for the Liberal Party in Quebec in its entire history and the only time the party has won only single digits in seats.

Godbout would say quote:

“I must accept their decision and thank the electors who voted honestly and who personally chose their own roads for the future. I trust they will broaden and always will lead toward social justice and the greatness of my country. I have given several years of my life for national unity and the understanding of problems which the nation has faced.”

Godbout would lose his seat as well, which he had represented almost continuously since 1929, except from 1936 to 1939. This would be the last election for Godbout, who would be appointed to the Senate in 1949, serving until his death in 1956.

Despite the collapse in seat count, the Liberals still earned 33 per cent of the popular vote, only 18 per cent lower than the Union Nationale, despite the other party’s overwhelming seat majority.

1952

A new decade had dawned, the economy was booming after the Second World War and Quebec was entering the final decade before a fundamental shift would begin in its society.

Leading the way into the decade was Maurice Duplessis, who had led Union Nationale since its formation in 1936, and was looking to continue on as premier in the next election, scheduled for this year.

In 1949, Duplessis attempted to bring in a law modelled on an American law to eliminate labour union rights due to rising labour tensions within the province. Due to immense opposition from unions and citizens, the bill was removed but the government would remain hostile to unions throughout Duplessis’ tenure as premier. Labour relation tensions would define Duplessis term of office that ran from 1948 to 1952.

From Feb. 14 to July 1, 1949, 5,000 asbestos workers began to strike, and were supported by the clergy, creating a division between long-time allies of conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church. The strike, which was deemed illegal by the government, was punctuated by clashes between strikers and provincial police. In the end, only minor gains would be won by the workers.

Duplessis and his government would be criticized by artists and those who did not like his commitment to conservatism in regards to social, educational, economic and political issues in the province. Opposition to his policies would lead to the founding of Cite Libre by two men in 1950, Gerard Pelletier and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, which was openly critical of the Duplessis government and a thorn in his side.

Despite the rising tensions with a society looking to change and the rise of labour unions in the province, Duplessis continued to be incredibly popular and held total power within the party.

As for the Liberals, with Adelard Godbout leaving the party after the last election, the party could not form an effective opposition. This was because the party had about 75 less seats than Union Nationale, and the party had no leader beyond an acting one from 1948 to 1950.

There was increased hope in the party with the arrival of a new leader Georges Emile Lapalme. Macleans would write quote:

“A few months ago, many Ottawa Liberals frankly admitted they had no more hope of ousting Premier Maurice Duplessis than they had, last November, of beating Premier Leslie Frost in Ontario. Today, these same Liberals are full of fight. Few go so far as to boast that they can actually turn Duplessis out in 1952, but they’re resolved that if they fail, it shall not be for lack of trying.”

Throughout the election, the Liberals primarily focused on gaining the support of unions, through the attacking of the Union Nationale over its policies.

Early on in the campaign, on June 16, Lapalme spoke at a meeting attended by several thousand individuals in Drummondville. He would state quote:

“Men in politics must think of the workers, and this is one of the Liberal Party’s most important objects, because history shows what happens when workers are dissatisfied.”

Lapalme would promise to bring in full-time arbitration for labour unions, and he would establish a labour code to protect unions. He stated it would be the first measure his government would pass.

Lapalme would also attack the increasing debt burden of the Duplessis government, stating that hospitals and schools were saddled with over $50 million in debts based on the decisions of the Union Nationale government. He would accuse the Union Nationale government of being corrupt, adding that as a lawyer, he had seen a man sentenced to seven days in jail for stealing a loaf of bread, adding quote:

“But whole mountains of the province had been stolen by these people who today are greats of the hour.”

Duplessis would run on the government’s record over the previous years, stating that the province was prospering and highlighting the $1.5 million given annually for the construction of Protestant schools, compared to the $40,000 given under the Liberal regime of Adelard Godbout.

In his campaign speech to kick off the election, he said quote:

“This is a fight of principles and not personalities.”

He would also state that the Liberals were running a campaign of insults, and that his party would not do so, adding that his policy decisions were stable for the province.

While Duplessis said he would not resort to insults, he still gave his fair share. At one point he said Liberal House leader George Marler was led by fanaticism during a speech to 20,000 people in Montreal.

He would also state that Lapalme was only out to increase spending, putting a tax burden on citizens. He would also continue to court rural voters stating quote:

“In the rural class, we find the stable element which can counteract the spirit of disorder which is being found in some urban areas these days.”

One of his more unique speeches asked that he be re-elected as a gesture of gratitude for what he had done for the province. He would say quote:

“It is the duty of all honest and right-thinking citizens of the province to say thanks to the National Union by voting the present government back into office. It is the surest way to maintain progress and prosperity in the province.”

As the election approached, the Liberals began to lose their confidence in winning the election. Macleans would write the day before the election quote:

“As election day approaches, Liberal bravado diminishes. The hopes of last December have not vanished, but neither have they flowered. Duplessis is turning out to lie even more deeply entrenched than Grits had feared.”

In the July 16, 1952 election, the Union Nationale continued its dominance, but it did see a reduction in its popularity. The party won 68 seats, a loss of 14 seats from the last election. This was the fourth time that Duplessis led his party to an election victory, and the third time in a row. In the election, the party would lose three cabinet ministers, while 20 were re-elected. He would say that the election result was because farmers had quote:

“Put their confidence in a regime that applies the principle that agriculture is the basis of enduring progress.”

He would add in a victory speech quote:

“The National Union is the government of all the people of the province of Quebec and we must now all work hand in hand both National Union followers and sincere adversaries for the prosperity, progress and happiness of the people of Quebec.”

The Liberal Party rebounded, somewhat, gaining 15 seats in the election and 12 per cent more of the popular vote. While the party was able to gain seats, Lapalme did not win his own seat and would not actually sit in the Legislature until he won a by-election in 1953.

Lapalme would state that his party faced a hard fight, adding that it quote:

“was difficult to compete against the millions of the National Union and their party machine.”

Two funny stories from this election I wanted to highlight. One was a waiter who found he couldn’t vote because his employment was listed as water. Oddly, his brother had the same problem. He was listed as a coal employee, rather than a cook.

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