Other posts in this series are at the end of this post.
Venturing into the middle of the decade, Quebec was four years removed from its last election and ready to once again to go to the polls.
Maurice Duplessis continued to lead the Union Nationale and was still hard into his fight against Communism and labour unions. In 1954, he had introduced a bill to force union groups to expel any member who was a communist supporter. Any group that had even one member with ties to communist organizations would lose its trade union accreditation. Despite Duplessis putting his full power behind the bill, it was widely unpopular, especially among the Conservative Catholic Union group. Other problems were creeping up for Duplessis and they had to do with his health. He had quit drinking, but he had been hospitalized several times since 1950, and diabetes was forcing him to slow down as premier of the province. His first year since the 1952 election, Duplessis was dealing with the loss of revenue for the province in the millions of dollars due to his refusal to enter into an arrangement regarding annual payments from the federal government under the tax-rental program. He also announced that he would no longer allow federal grants to universities because he felt it was an invasion of education by the federal government.
Eventually, Duplessis would find a compromise on the fiscal autonomy of Quebec, announcing an agreement on a new revenue sharing formula in 1956, just prior to the election, which gave a reduction up to 10 per cent for provinces not participating in fiscal agreements, on the federal tax on personal incomes.
In 1953, Wilbert Coffin was charged with the murder of three American hunters, leading to his conviction. Duplessis railed against the federal government and Minister of Justice Stuart Garson after he attempted to have the Supreme Court intervene in the case. Coffin protested his innocence but he would be hanged on Feb. 10, 1956 and many saw Duplessis as the executioner.
Macleans would describe Duplessis as quote:
“Duplessis, it is true, is crafty, artful, not very scrupulous about means and not unduly embarrassed about principles. He has the faculty of knowing how to exploit the basic sentiments of the Quebec masses, on the other hand he is on the best of terms with the English-speaking population of Quebec, and he is as thick as thieves with the capitalists.”
Georges-Emile Lapalme continued to lead the Liberal Party, and the party did its best to build off the success of the last election when it had increased its seat total. Nonetheless, with Union Nationale commanding a massive majority, there was little the Liberals could do over the course of the four years leading up to the 1956 election.
Macleans wrote of him quote:
“He was compiled to fight on two fronts. Against us opponents to the front of him, and against his friends from behind, who stayed their games at his expense. If it were not for this kind of treason on the part of the federal Liberals, the Duplessis government would be in danger because it is losing the independent vote.”
Lapalme would spend most of the election attacking Duplessis and the corruption he accused the government of. He would say that Duplessis was getting too old to lead. He said quote:
“Premier Duplessis has reached the stage where he no longer can conduct an election campaign. And three cabinet ministers are fighting to lead the remnants of the party.”
Lapalme would also promise to investigate Union Nationale if his party was elected, saying that the investigation would uncover the greatest scandal since Confederation.
Lapalme stated quote:
“Since starting this election tour of the province, we have found that the corruption is 1,000 times worse than we first thought. A royal commission will seek out where millions and millions of dollars have disappeared.”
Duplessis would respond to this stating quote:
“Our people are reputed for their talent in knitting intricate color patterns but I’ve never seen anything quite like the Lapalme group.”
As the election campaign began for Duplessis and Union Nationale, he highlighted the accomplishments of his party, which included fighting federal centralization, the Youth Protection Schools Act of 1951, the founding of Sherbrooke University in 1954 and the establishment of the Quebec Agricultural Marketing Board.
The Union Nationale Party, and specifically Duplessis, continued to be popular despite the problems many saw in its government. In tours around the province, he continued to be greeted by many people, anxious to see him re-elected. It was believed that he would win another majority, but that it would be reduced somewhat.
In the June 20, 1956 election, Duplessis and Union Nationale increased their seat count by four, finishing with 72 for another majority. This marked the fourth victory in a row for Union Nationale, something not accomplished since the Liberal Party had its string of wins from 1897 to 1935. For a Conservative leaning party, it had never happened. The closest a Conservative party came was the three wins from 1867 to 1875. The four wins in a row by Union Nationale was also the last time, to date, that a government in Quebec has won more than three elections in a row.
Duplessis would say his government would continue quote:
“in quietude, as much as possible, to maintain and promote the initiatives we have founded.”
The Liberals would only lose three seats, and Lapalme was able to retain his seat, something he had been unable to accomplish during his first foray into provincial politics in the 1952 election.
As soon as Lapalme lost the election, there was already talk that he would be resigning as Liberal leader.
With this loss, it would be Lapalme’s last election as leader of the Liberal Party. He would continue to serve as leader of the party until 1960, and until 1966 in the provincial legislature.
After the election, reports would come out in the media that shady tactics were used by Duplessis and Union Nationale to win the election. This included accusations of extorting money from businesses and entrepreneurs, stealing the votes of some voters and buying the consent of the clergy by supporting charitable works and pushing anti-communism. Despite the charges, Duplessis would stay in charge of Quebec, but change was coming and it was change that Duplessis had no control over, or even saw coming.
Macleans would sum up the mood in politics at the time quote:
“The Duplessis team is dangerous old. The ministers are aged, tired, sick, the organizers have grown fat. Even the ordinary members are prosperous and satisfied. On the other hand, the Liberals have their tongues hanging out and their stomachs empty. They are hungry for power and for the sweets of office.”
After winning his fourth consecutive election, something that has not been accomplished since in Quebec, Maurice Duplessis embarked on another term of premier but little did he know, it would be his last.
Labour unions continued to be a thorn in his side and the Murdochville copper mine strike in 1957 was especially damaging to his image around the province. Duplessis would use provincial police to disperse the picket lines and arrest the strikers, which was condemned by many across the province. While Duplessis attempted to crush labour unions, the response to the Murdochville strike would actually lead to a victory for union rights and provide the spark the labour unions needed to push for new labour rights from the government. A natural gas scandal erupted in the legislature in 1958 after members of his cabinet and government were accused of purchasing blocks of shares in the Quebec Natural Gas Corporation before the sale of the gas network was made public. This would be defined today as insider trading. Television was becoming more popular and while Duplessis was able to ensure newspapers printed mostly favourable things about him because of his hold on advertising contracts from the government, television was a different beast. As a result, he preferred not to speak on television, and instead chose radio.
Perhaps Duplessis would have won another election, his fifth in a row, but that was not to be his fate. On Sept. 3, 1959 after visiting iron mines on a tour of the St. Lawrence region, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.
Only four days later, Duplessis, the man who had become a giant of Quebec politics and ruled the province almost continuously since 1936, was dead.
The Montreal Gazette would write quote:
“Duplessis was a controversial figure, admired and almost adored by some, despised and hated by others.”
Former Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent would say quote:
“I am very sorry to hear the news. I hoped that this illness would not prove fatal.”
Replacing Duplessis was Paul Sauve, whose father had led the Conservative Party from 1919 to 1929. Sauve had been the youngest elected member of the Legislature in 1930, and joined the Union Nationale in 1936. He would become, at age 29, the youngest Speaker of the Legislature in Quebec history. He enlisted to fight in the Second World War, taking part in the Battle of Normandy. He then came back to Quebec after the war and resumed his duties in the Legislature. Sauve knew that he had to prepare for an election in 1960. He would announce the 100 Days of Change, which would begin a major review of the issues facing the Quebec government that had been ignored under Duplessis. Education reform was the top of this list. Unfortunately, before he could really settle into his role, he died of a heart attack on Jan. 2, 1960. His 117-days as premier is the shortest non-interim stint in the history of the province.
The Montreal Gazette reported quote:
“The death of the new premier, who had only been in office 117 days, shocked and stunned the province and political leaders across Canada.”
Macleans would say quote:
“Sauve did more during his days in office to patch up the split between Ottawa and Quebec City than had been accomplished in the previous decade and a half.”
Now, for the third time in less than six months, Quebec had a new premier, Antonio Barrette. He had served in the Legislature since 1936, and spent 16 years as the Minister of Labour. He would succeed Sauve, and it would be Barrette who would lead the Union Nationale into another election.
For the Liberals, the era of Georges-Emile Lapalme had ended with the last election. A new man was ready to replace him, Jean Lesage. Born in 1912, he would practice law in Quebec City and would become a Crown Attorney for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board from 1939 to 1944. He would also serve in the Canadian Army Reserve during the war. In 1945, he was elected to Parliament, and would remain in Parliament until 1958, during which time he served in several cabinet posts including as Minister of Resources and Development. On May 31, 1958, he would be chosen as the new leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec, and he would resign from Parliament. Two years later, he was taking the Liberal Party back into an election with the hopes of returning the party to power once again.
The Liberals would launch their campaign on provincializing unemployment insurance and old-age pensions. He would also promise to establish a department of federal-provincial relations. Instead of attacking Barrette as a follower of Duplessis, Lesage would say he was a Diefenbaker man, which capitalized on the growing unpopularity of Diefenbaker in the province over the distribution of federal grants to universities. He would also blame Barrettte during rural campaign stops for reducing farm produce prices.
During the days of Duplessis, he would often levy so many charges at the Liberal party that they spent most of the campaign denying them. Lesage wouldn’t let this happen with Barrette. He would order his candidates to attack the government, rather than putting up counter defenses to claims from Union Nationale. Liberal candidates were also given lists of 46 alleged scandals to focus on when talking to voters in particular ridings.
The Union Nationale campaign was hampered from the beginning. The party was on its third leader in less than a year and the party had no official platform going into the election, and Barrette, for all his experience, seemed to be in over his head trying to live up to the shadow of Duplessis. He would even choose the election date due to Duplessis. June 22 on the Catholic calendar is the Saint day for St. Joseph, the favourite saint of Duplessis.
The Union Nationale would attack Lesage, claiming he was just an immigrant from Ottawa and someone who was helping the St. Laurent government during his time as a cabinet minister to centralize control away from Quebec.
Despite the growing popularity of Lesage, many still felt the Union Nationale would win. Peter C. Newman would write quote:
“If Antonio Barrette is returned to office, as he almost certainly will be, he will head a government that has been granted only a temporary reprieve. Without Sauve, or a leader of equal calibre, the Union Nationale is doomed. Pun-loving Quebecers sum up the outlook with a shrug and the phrase, Barrette, il n’est pas sauve.”
By some accounts, this campaign was the most expensive in the history of Canada for a provincial election. Union Nationale spent an estimates $15 million, amounting to $148 million today, while the Liberals spent $6 million, amounting to $59 million today.
Macleans would say of the election quote:
“The beaky ghost of Maurice Duplessis, the leader who manipulated the memory of The Conquest into 18 years of political power, haunts every election meeting. The campaign is being fought almost entirely on the issues he created.”
The June 22, 1960 Quebec election was one of the most significant in the history of the province. I will get to why exactly at the end of this section.
In the election, the Liberal Party under Lesage surged ahead to finish with 51 seats, a rise of 31 seats. With that election win, the 16 year rule of Union Nationale over Quebec had come to an end. With this election, the Liberals won their first election since 1939. The seat total was also the same amount they had won in the previous three elections combined. It was also the most seats the party had won since 1939.
Lesage would say quote:
“It is a mission accomplished. It is done. The province has been liberated from the Union Nationale yoke.”
Future prime minister Lester B. Pearson would say quote:
“I extend warm congratulations to Mr. Lesage, and the provincial Liberal Party on their great victory.”
For the Union Nationale, the party would lose 29 seats, finishing with 43. This still gave the Liberals a majority, but it was a smaller majority than the province had been used to over the previous couple decades.
Barrette would say from his home quote:
“The people’s voice is the voice of God. I hope that if the Liberal Party forms a cabinet, the people of this province will not have to regret it. They have had to regret the formation of a Liberal cabinet in the past. I deplore the defeat of my colleagues and old friends. They were subjected to a formidable assault of attack, most of them aren’t justified.”
He would add that he had done his duty and waged an honest fight.
Most significantly with this election was that it ushered in a time of transformation for Quebec society through the 1960s. What has now been called The Quiet Revolution, began with the election with of Lesage, and it saw a change in the values, attitudes and behaviors of Quebec society, as Quebec nationalism began to surge in popularity across the province. It would be in the 1960s when the power of the Catholic Church, which many felt held back the progress of the province, would finally begin to slip after over a century.
For Barrette, his time as premier and leader of Union Nationale was short as he would resign on Sept. 15, 1960. For Lesage though, his time as premier was just getting started.
As Macleans said of the matchup between Lesage and Barrette quote:
“Lesage toppled him, although hardly with ease.”
As we saw with the last election, Quebec was moving into a time of monumental shifting as the Quiet Revolution began with the election of Jean Lesage and the Liberals two years previous.
Macleans would write of the past two years quote:
“In the past two years, Quebec has changed so drastically that in discussing its progress the phrase quiet revolution has become cliché, yet there is no substitute for that phrase.”
Jean Lesage still led the province, and he had already begun to make big changes to it. From movie censorship to education, from the Church to the newspapers, from finance to alcohol, the province had gone through a lot in two years.
Macleans continued quote:
“This change is now so deeply entrenched that it would be hard to envision the province ever returning to the kind of corrupt dictatorship that existed under Maurice Duplessis.”
It was the belief of Lesage that French Canadians could develop as modern people in Canada without losing their identity. One of the biggest changes was the secularization of Quebec from the Catholic Church, allowing for immense reform in education and the modernization of the school system. His government would increase the mandatory schooling age from 14 to 16, and down the line would finally establish a Ministry of Education, decades after it was first proposed.
Lesage had made the unusual move to call an election only two years after the previous one. It was his goal to seek a mandate to nationalize the electricity industry and his campaign slogan of Masters In Our Own Home reflected that. He felt that the issue was so important, he was willing to stake his entire political career on it. The person who was helping to spearhead the nationalization of electricity and other utilities was Rene Levesque, who had been elected for the first time to the legislature in 1960 and would have a monumental impact on the future of Quebec.
There was a worry in Ottawa that if Lesage and his gamble did not work, it would end the hopes of Lester B. Pearson of ever being Prime Minister as well. Peter C. Newman wrote quote:
“If Jean Lesage and his dream of political grandeur go down to defeat, it is entirely possible that the prime ministerial ambitions of Lester Pearson will be swept away at the same time.”
The Union Nationale was now led by Daniel Johnson Sr, who had become leader on Sept. 23, 1961 in the leadership election after the party had gone through two leaders following the death of long-time leader and premier Maurice Duplessis. Johnson had first been elected to the legislature in 1946 and served as the parliamentary assistant to Duplessis in 1955, and was the Deputy House Speaker from 1955 to 1958.
Johnson had campaigned for John Diefenbaker in the 1958 election, but in the 1962 federal election he kept his party out of it.
Through the election campaign, many felt that Union Nationale had a chance of regaining power. Speaking of Johnson, Macleans wrote quote:
“In Three Rivers last month, he assured French-Canadians that his party will see to it our friends in Ottawa, particularly the Social Creditors, give us their assistance in getting what we want there.”
A month before the election day, bookmakers were offering $5,000 even money bets on a Johnson victory. Macleans would write quote:
“Those who accepted the wager were banking on one thing, that Johnson would fade in the stretch. Private polls taken by Liberal organizers tended to support this prediction.”
This election would also see the first ever television debate in Quebec political history. In order to ensure as many people as possible would see the debate, the Rochester-Quebec hockey game was moved to ensure it did not compete. Many were expecting it to be the most watched program in Quebec television history to that point.
The Montreal Gazette would write quote:
“Premier Lesage is a top-notch orator and Mr. Johnson is noted for his rapid exchanges in free-wheeling debate.”
The debate almost didn’t happen with the Liberals stalling before the debate on the date. Eventually, the CBC would get involved, and Nov. 11 was chosen, which was something that Union Nationale was not happy about. Johnson would say that he did not think it was fair for the CBC and the Liberals to decide the date.
Once the debate happened on Nov. 11, it was felt that little changed in voter’s eyes. Each man spoke for seven minutes at a time, and then answered questions from a panel of six reporters. The Montreal Gazette stated quote:
“Premier Jean Lesage and National Union Leader Daniel Johnson slugged it out for 110 minutes on television last night but the encounter produced little new and there was only one, quickly stifled, clash between the two men.”
The Ottawa Journal would say that the debate was conducted with dignity and had the benefit of an admirable moderator but as a spectacle, it was satisfactory.
A few days before the election happened, Andre Lagarde, the chief organizer of the Union Nationale, was arrested for fraud. The Liberals quickly jumped on this and said it was proof of lingering corruption from the era of Duplessis. The Union Nationale stated this was not the case and that Lagarde was innocent.
In the Nov. 14, 1962 election, the Liberals gamble of calling an election was rewarded when they picked up 12 more seats to finish with 63. The party also earned five per cent more of the popular vote. The party’s 63 seats in that election was the most it had won since it had 70 in 1939. The 56 per cent of the popular vote was also the most the party had ever had, and it was one of the highest shares of the popular vote in Quebec election history.
As for the Union Nationale, they lost 12 seats, finishing with only 31, their worst total since 1939. Despite the loss, Johnson would not be out as leader and the party would prepare for the next election, which would come in only four year’s time.
Johnson would say quote:
“If Premier Lesage had given us six more months, the result would have been different.”
As for Lagarde, it would be found that indeed, he was innocent but the damage had been done and the entire incident related to the fraud charge likely killed any chances Union Nationale had of doing better, or even winning, in the election.
For the previous four years, Jean Lesage continued to dramatically change Quebec, not the least of which through the nationalization of utilities in the province. His government would establish Hydro-Quebec during that time. He would say of it quote:
“The nationalize of electricity was a logical extension of the government’s goal of growth, based primarily on the promotion of the French-Canadian people.”
Working with his close friend Rene Levesque, they took the 11 remaining private power companies and bought them out, allowing Hydro-Quebec to take over all of the province’s energy. This was not the only success for his government. Over the previous four years, he would create the Societe generale de financement to help Quebec residents invest in their future, while providing money for Francophone companies. His government also created public companies such as the Societe de Montage Automobile, the Societe Quebecois d’Exploration Miniere and other organizations. Quebec also took over health care from the Catholic Church and he created the Quebec Pension Plan.
Overall, his popularity continued to be high but that doesn’t always translate into election success.
As for Daniel Johnson, he would continue to rebuild the Union Nationale, which had been floundering for much of the decade since the death of Maurice Duplessis. Rather than be surprised by a sudden snap election like happened in 1962, Johnson and the Union Nationale would be ready this time.
Both leaders were very different. While Lesage would be in his office at 8:15 a.m. every morning, seven days a week, Johnson was in his office at 11 a.m., Tuesday to Friday, spending three-day weekends in Montreal.
Macleans would write quote:
“Not that Johnson is lazy. He isn’t a work addict like Lesage, but he works hard enough in his own fashion. Each morning, for example, before going to the office he spends an hour or more on the telephone, talking to political advisers in every corner of the province.”
During this time, the idea of separatism was on the rise due to the changing culture amid the Quiet Revolution and the activities of the FLQ, which were gaining prominence.
Both Lesage and Johnson would attempt to court the younger generation of voters, and would speak at various schools, while answering questions from the students. Lesage would warn them of the dangers of racism by saying quote:
“Misfortune will settle on Quebec the day that racism and fascism takes over.”
Johnson would speak to 900 young people at an auditorium and state that the youth quote:
“Will have to pay the debts incurred by the government today. This is why they have a right to be present.”
Once again, a television debate was planned between Lesage and Johnson, scheduled for June 2. The date would result in Lesage needing to reschedule a large rally he was supposed to attend. Lesage would also say that he would only go up against Johnson, no other of the minor party leaders. He would say quote:
“He is the only leader of the Opposition with rights and privileges granted to him by law.”
Then, only a few days before the debate, Johnson would state he would not be taking part in a television debate. He would say quote:
“If you think I’m afraid of him, you’re mistaken.”
Johnson would be critical of the government throughout the election campaign. He would focus on several issues including the record of the Liberals over the previous six years. He would say quote:
“How can you promise to resolve the problems facing the province? What has he got to show for his six years of power with three times as much money as we had?”
Throughout the election campaign, Lesage was seen as the front runner, even as the election campaign itself for both main parties was described as low key, especially compared to 1962 and the debate over electricity nationalization. The Montreal Star wrote quote:
“He gave the impression of the well-heeled brother who shows up once in a while with gifts and advice and who leaves before the welcome wears thin. The confidence that Mr. Lesage exudes is that of a winner. Go-Go Lesage, as one tired aid said, never thinks of defeat and he knows that people love a winner, especially when they proudly feel he is a member of the family.”
In the June 5, 1966 election, Quebec was shocked to see the Liberals lose the election despite their popularity and the fact that the party had seven per cent more of the popular vote than Union Nationale in the election. The party finished with 50 seats, but because of the First Past The Post system, the popularity of the party did not translate into more seats due to the rural part of the province voting for Union Nationale. Other issues that played into the surprising loss were the rise in Quebec nationalism and the support for the separatist movement, the anger of rural voters to the focus on urban areas by the government, and Quebec wanting a better deal within Canadian Confederation.
In all, five cabinet ministers with the Liberals would lose their seats. At first, Lesage stated he would not resign until all the results were in due to the closeness of the election. Lesage would say that the result made him fear for Confederation.
Once the results were confirmed, he resigned as premier, having spent six years leading the province during a very transformative time.
Lesage would say quote:
“I thank all those who believed in the Quiet revolution. We wish to speed it up and we will speed it up.”
Union Nationale would gain 25 seats, finishing with 56 to lead the province. This would be one of the closest elections in Quebec’s history with only six seats separating the ruling party from the Official Opposition.
Johnson would speak directly to the English-speaking residents of Quebec, stating he would represent them along with the Francophones. He would say in a speech quote:
“It is evident that the English-speaking population in general did not support us. Notwithstanding the vote, I want to make it abundantly clear that the rights of the English speaking citizens will be completely respected. I don’t believe that you can build the greatness of the French Canadian nation on injustice or intolerance.”
Macleans would write quote:
“Lesage led Quebec with a team of college-bred technocrats. Now Daniel Johnson must do the same with a cabinet of small-town politicians. They’re old fashioned, canny and tough and most of them used to take orders from Duplessis.”
Due to the support from the rural ridings, Johnson would build his cabinet with six mayors of small municipalities, three aldermen or school trustees and two presidents of the local St. Jean Baptiste Societies. Ten represented the counties they were born, and two more, including Johnson, had close ties with their riding since boyhood. Five were country lawyers, two were country doctors and eight were small business owners. Only one cabinet member would be a university professor, and that person held a degree in theology.
One important fact about this election was that it was the last election for the Legislative Assembly of Quebec. Legislation would soon be passed to create the National Assembly of Quebec on Dec. 31, 1968.
This would also be the last election for Johnson, who only lived another two years before his sudden death. Interestingly though, both of his sons would go on to become premier. For Union Nationale, after three decades of being a major force in Quebec politics, this would be its last bit of glory before major changes came to Quebec politics thanks to one man who was a major part of the Liberal Party; Rene Levesque.
A new decade dawned for Quebec and it would be one that would forever transform the province and shape it in ways that continue to this very day. It would be another watershed election, and not the last one for the decade. Changes were coming, and new parties would rise, while established ones would fall.
The Liberals were no longer led by Jean Lesage, who chose to resign as Liberal leader in 1969. He would remain as the Leader of the Opposition until January 1970 when a new leader arrived for the party and one who would dominate the party for the next 25 years, Robert Bourassa.
Bourassa was first elected to the Legislature in 1966 and within four years he was the leader of the Liberal Party. Young and dynamic, he would portray himself to Quebec residents as a young and competent administrator.
The Union Nationale had lost its leader Daniel Johnson, who died suddenly on Sept. 26, 1968, a few months after he had suffered a heart attack. Replacing Johnson was Jean-Jacques Bertrand, who took over as the premier of Quebec. He had been serving in the Legislature since 1948 but his close victory over his rival for the leadership of the party would cause a deep split in the party. In 1969, he would pass Bill 63, a controversial language legislation that allowed all residents of Quebec an English-language education for anyone who desired it, labeling it as freedom of choice. This angered many in his party, especially Quebec nationalists, and two would cross the floor and sit as independents. His government would also abolish the Legislative Council of Quebec.
Two new parties emerged as well during this time. There was Parti Creditiste, led by Camil Samson. The party promoted social credit theories of monetary reform and brought many rural voters together who were angry over the focus on urban issues. The party had been founded on Jan. 25, 1970, only a few months before the election.
The other party would have a much larger impact on Quebec and Canada, the Parti Quebecois. The party was formed as the result of a merger of begun by former Liberal Party minister Rene Levesque between the Mouvement Souverainete-Association and the Railliement National. This part was known as the Rassemblement pour l’Independence Nationale before it changed its name to the Parti Quebecois. The main goal of the party was to obtain political, economic and social independence for Quebec. Levesque had been openly championing separation from Canada for several years prior to the formation of the Parti Quebecois, and had been inspired by the Vive Le Quebec Libre speech of French president Charles De Gaulle. He attempted to have this become part of the Liberal Party platform but when this failed, he left the party with his supporters.
The idea of separatism wasn’t quite as popular yet, but that would of course change with the events of October 1970. The sentiment of the time was seen in Henri Jolicceur, who told Maclean’s quote:
“We don’t want to be separated from Canada, to be shut up again in our own little corner. We have helped you, now you must help us. Go and tell them we must not be separated. That would crush Canada, that would crush Quebec.”
During the campaign, Bourassa would campaign on the slogan of 100,000 jobs and he would make job creation as his priority during the election. Bourassa’s plan was to use the hydro-electric resources of Quebec and modernize them, thereby creating new jobs for many in the province. At the time, the unemployment rate was 9.2 per cent, with 206,000 Quebec residents out of work. The province represented an astounding 38 per cent of all unemployed in Canada.
Rene Levesque, due to his high profile, would help his new party despite its hard-line message. Levesque would say in the campaign quote:
“The winter of our powerlessness is over, the spring of our strength has arrived.”
One man, identified as a commercial trucker, stated quote:
“I always voted Union Nationale but what a mess they made. I like Rene Levesque. I think he’s the only honest man in the race.”
Of course, the man added that when he voted, he would vote Liberal as he was quote:
“Too old for separatism.”
There was a clear shift on the horizon though, as Levesque was greeted by large crowds that numbered in the thousands wherever he went, and at times would received a standing ovation of up to 15 minutes.
Throughout the election campaign, while job creation was a major issue, separatism was also something that was creeping up in in importance. Many would see this as a massive change in the electoral landscape of the province. The Calgary Herald would write quote:
“The marked decline in public support suffered by the Union Nationale ranks with the dramatic rise of the Parti Quebecois as the key developments in the Quebec provincial election.”
A poll done by the Montreal Gazette found that the Union Nationale was running third behind the Liberals and Parti Quebecois in popularity.
Bertrand would state that the polls were not accurate, saying that they were influenced by Bay Street financiers and Montreal publishers who were puppet masters to the Liberal party.
The Liberals would begin to put out the Levesque Buck as a campaign prop, a separatist dollar that they said would decline in value by one-third if Quebec ever became independent. The prop featured a caricature of Levesque with the words “printed in a non-union workshop” on it.
Bourassa would not just focus attacks on the Parti Quebecois of course, and would levy attacks on the Union Nationale as well. He would state that Bertrand believed that Quebec residents were idiots who would believe his promises.
Bertrand would accuse the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau of getting involved in the Quebec election, something that Trudeau denied, stating quote:
“So far, the federal government has not intervened in Quebec’s general election campaign, in spite of provocation from certain provincial politicians.”
He would state in another campaign stop that the Liberals were too inexperienced to lead and the Parti Quebecois was too fanatic and intolerant.
The election would have some wild moments too. The most notable was on April 13 when a helicopter carrying Bourassa spun out of control during take off, but was able to land safely. Bourassa was not wearing a seatbelt and was tossed around the helicopter, while his wife, who had a seatbelt on, was able to stay safely in her seat. Bourassa would joke quote:
“We would have been in the sky by now if I had been at the controls.”
In the April 29, 1970 election, Robert Bourassa and the Liberals came back into power by gaining 22 seats to finish with 72. This was the largest amount of seats the party had won since 1931 when it had 79 and it represented a new shift in provincial politics. The party also had 45 per cent of the popular vote.
Bourassa would say in his speech quote:
“With this majority, I am confident that we are ready to face up to the challenge of the next few years for Quebec.”
In his own riding, Bourassa was able to win by an excellent 2,500 vote majority.
Macleans would write quote:
“The picture of Quebec reflected by the election of April 29, despite the surprisingly easy Liberal win, is confused and contradictory, and faithful to the people of the province.”
For the Union Nationale, they would fall back into being the Official Opposition and would never again hold power in the province. The party would lose an astounding 11 of its ministers in the election. With their 17 seats, a decline of 39 seats, the party began to lose relevance as the Parti Quebecois began its ascend to the top of provincial politics. The 17 seats won by the party was its lowest total since 15 in 1939. By the end of the decade, the Union Nationale, the party that had defined provincial politics for the most part since 1936, would be gone.
The two new parties did quite well in this election. Parti Creditiste was able to pick up 12 seats to become the third party in the Legislature, while the Parti Quebecois picked up seven seats. While the party only had seven seats, it actually had the second highest share of the popular vote in the election with 23 per cent, higher than the Union Nationale, despite having 10 less seats.
Unfortunately for Levesque, he would lose his seat in the election.
He would say in his speech quote:
“There’s no way of stopping my efforts but now I’ll have to find a way of making a living.”
He would add quote:
“I hope there will be no violence but there is always some temptation for the younger generation who worked hard.”
With Levesque losing his seat, as well as Jacques Parizeau and Bernard Landry, this might be the only election in Quebec’s history where three future premiers all lost their seat in the same election.
Of course, this would not be the last we will hear of Levesque, who would become a dominant figure in Quebec politics from now until his death, and even beyond.
Upon his election as premier, Bourassa became the youngest premier of Quebec at the age of only 37.
As for separatism, that was on the horizon as an issue, and would come to dominate Quebec politics for decades. Macleans would write quote:
“Bourassa’s victory was not a definite yes or no to federalism, at most it was a resolute maybe.”
Three years after the last election brought an end to the Union Nationale, Quebec was moving into another election. This time, it would be an election for the record books and one that would have long term effects for the province.
Robert Bourassa would have to deal with a crisis almost immediately after becoming premier in 1970. The October Crisis erupted that year when his deputy, Pierre Laporte, was kidnapped by the FLQ and later murdered. Bourassa would request that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau implement the War Measures Act to bring an end the crisis, which it did. The army would be deployed in critical points in Montreal, and would be withdrawn on Jan. 4, 1971.
While Trudeau did extend help during the crisis, Bourassa and Trudeau did not get along over several issues, especially when it came to Quebec nationalism. When Trudeau tried to bring about constitutional reform in 1971, called the Victoria Charter, the endeavor fell apart when Bourassa did not support the deal as he felt it would hurt Quebec.
In 1971 when Prime Minister Trudeau announced a policy of multiculturalism in the country, Bourassa opposed it heavily and stated in a letter in November of that year quote:
“I have serious misgivings about the principle of the multicultural policy.”
One bright spot for Bourassa during his first tenure as premier was the start of the James Bay hydroelectric project, which began in 1971. This would become one of the largest hydroelectric systems on the planet, costing upwards of $20 billion to build and generating 16,527 megawatts of electricity initially.
He also saw Montreal be awarded the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. The city was chosen over Moscow and Los Angeles on May 12, 1970.
The Parti Quebecois were still led by Rene Levesque, despite the fact he had not won a seat in the previous election. The hope was that the party could continue to syphon off support from the Union Nationale party and grow its strength in the province.
Parti Creditiste would be going into their second election, and were led by Yvon Dupuis, who had taken over as leader on Feb. 4, 1973. As the leader of the Quebec version of the Social Credit Party, Dupuis received a great deal of press, including a profile in Macleans. It would write of him quote:
“Suddenly, a third contender for power has elbowed his way in between the two adversaries, upsetting the nervous balance between them and causing Quebec voters to step back and have another look.”
Union Nationale, which had been reduced to the level of Official Opposition was now led by Gabriel Loubier. He had been elected to the Legislature in 1962, and served in the cabinets of both Daniel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Bertrand. He would take over as leader on Oct. 25, 1971 and it was the hope that he would bring the party back into power.
Bourassa would campaign on the mandate of le federalism rentable, which was his hope to create a profitable brand of Quebec federalism based on increasing the federal funds coming into the province.
Prior to the election, a large portion of voters were undecided. Macleans would write quote:
“No one could be certain whether that one-third of the electors who remained undecided would jump aboard Robert Bourassa’s federalist bandwagon or join Rene Levesque’s crusade for Quebec independence.”
Levesque would put his efforts to get elected into overdrive, travelling around the campaign at a whirlwind pace. He would talk to large crowds numbering in the thousands, and primarily focused on attacking the government of Bourassa, especially when it came to inflation. He would state quote:
“They stand like two cows in a pasture, idly watching a train speeding by.”
He would also criticize Bourassa over the FLQ crisis, stating that he took credit for the government actions in restoring order. Levesque would state quote:
“Mr. Bourassa does not mention that his government became a mere puppet of Ottawa in that crisis and that a panic was fabricated through a semi-military occupation which pushed aside human rights.”
Levesque would also call Bourassa a mouse, equating him as weak, especially when it came to the federal government. He also said that Prime Minister Trudeau was going to resign soon, and that is why the Liberals called an election in an effort to avoid losing amid the downfall of the federal Liberals. Of course, that would not be the case federally.
Sniping between the Liberals and Parti Quebecois defined the election campaign, with Bourassa calling Levesque Santa Claus because of the promises he was making. He would add that the Parti Quebecois were engaged in wicked deceptions in an effort to get elected.
With sovereignty being a major election issue, Bourassa would attack Levesque over his platform of independence. He would say quote:
“It is inadmissible that those who propose to break up the country should present such a document saying almost that Quebec would become a heaven on Earth.”
With the Liberals and Parti Quebecois dominating the election, the other two parties were left with little room on the newspaper pages. The Windsor Star would write quote:
“The other two parties have trailed far behind, and on most days, don’t even appear to be fighting the same election campaign.”
In the Oct. 29, 1973 election, Bourassa and the Liberals won a massive majority. The party would gain 30 seats and finish with 102, the largest total seats for any party in the history of Quebec politics. The party was also able to pick up 9.25 per cent more of the popular vote to finish with 54.65 per cent.
Bourassa would say that the landslide was a victory of common sense and a clear mandate that Quebecers preferred federalism. He would add that it was the greatest victory in Quebec history.
The huge seat gain of the Liberals came at the expense of the other parties, two of which would essentially be wiped off the electoral map.
The Parti Quebecois lost one seat, finishing with six seats in the Legislature. Levesque would once again lose his election bid, the second time in a row he was not elected in a provincial election. While the Parti Quebecois finished with six seats, they had 30.22 per cent of the popular vote, up seven per cent from the previous election.
Levesque would state quote:
“The several elected Parti Quebecois members carry 30 per cent of the Quebec vote on their shoulders. They hold for the coming society the only hope for French Quebec. We must make of this campaign a springboard for the future.”
Levesque would add that it was not a good thing for a government to have so much power, stating that it was rare that such a government did not abuse power.
Parti Creditiste would lose ten seats in the election, finishing with only two. Dupuis would not win in his riding either, leaving the party without a leader.
Dupuis would say quote:
“Democracy reserves surprises for those who will not capitulate.”
Lastly, Union Nationale would lose 17 seats, to finish with none. This would leave the party out of the Legislature. The party had fallen a great deal since its dynasty years when it won four elections in a row from 1944 to 1956, or even in its last gasp when it formed government in 1966. The party was not gone quite yet, but its relevance was essentially gone by this point. As for Loubier, he too would lose his seat in the election.
Loubier would say quote:
“The people were scared and did not take any chance. They voted for the Liberals in order to beat the Parti Quebecois.”
In this election, 25 women ran for a seat in the Legislature, but only one would actually earn a seat.
An interesting fact of this election is that it might be the only time in Quebec history that every party leader, except for the premier, lost their seat in the election.
Since 1936, Quebec had been represented by either the Liberals or the Union Nationale Party. Before that, dating back to 1867, either the Liberal or Conservative Party had ruled Quebec.
That pattern would change with dramatic fashion in 1976, when Quebec made a move to a new party and forever altered Canadian history in the process.
After the previous two elections when the Parti Quebecois had done well in the popular vote but had not picked up too many seats, while the Liberals had dominated the electoral landscape, everything would suddenly change.
It could be argued that in the history of Quebec, this was the most significant election to ever occur.
Robert Bourassa still led the Liberal Party, which had picked up the largest majority in Quebec history in the last election. During his latest term as leader, he implemented Bill 22, which declared that French was the sole official language in the province. This set Quebec apart from the federal government, which mandated bilingualism. Many Anglophones in Quebec were angry over Bill 22, who did not like that it did not give equal status to English speakers. At the same time, Francophones in Quebec did not feel the bill went far enough, so Bourassa fell into a situation where he angered two different groups.
Bourassa would also negotiate the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, which was signed with the Cree and Inuit of the region that was impacted by the James Bay Hydroelectric project. The James Bay project would be a major part of the second term of Bourassa. On March 21, 1974, workers belonging to a union at the site rioted using their bulldozers, destroying part of the site and setting buildings on fire. This riot would lead to $35 million in damages and was done as an extortion attempt by union boss Andre Desjardins. Bourassa would appoint a commission that included future prime minister Brian Mulroney and used the law services of Lucien Bouchard to investigate corruption in the construction industry in Quebec. Over the course of 68 days of hearings on live TV, 279 people were interviewed and testified regarding the widespread corruption in the industry. A report was presented by the commission in May 1975, which showed the government working closely with union leadership in the construction industry. This report would heavily turn public opinion against Bourassa and would do little do deal with corruption in the construction industry in Quebec.
Union Nationale was still around, despite winning zero seats in the last election. The party would now be led by Rodrigue Biron, a mayor previously, who was selected to lead the party in the hopes it could recover from its devastating election result.
Rene Levesque had weathered internal conflicts in his party after he twice failed to win a seat in the Legislature as leader of the Parti Quebecois. His leadership of the party was in serious question but he was able to maintain control of the party and that would be very beneficial to himself and his party.
Bourassa would call the latest election after only three years, two years ahead of when he needed to. Many believe he did this because of the boost he had received in ensuring that the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal were held. While that may have been his strategy, it was horribly misguided, as we will soon see. The decision to launch a campaign also came against the advice of his cabinet, something he would pay for.
Levesque would say quote:
“Mr. Bourassa’s reason for launching this election is still unanswered at the end of this campaign, and despite all his efforts, the premier has not convinced anyone that with the biggest majority ever, he was in a poor position to discuss with Ottawa.”
Throughout the campaign, the Liberals had a mechanical quality to their events. Meeting halls were arranged in identical fashion, with scarlet curtains on the podium and camera operators positioned to the right of Bourassa to capture what he felt was his best side.
Unfortunately for Bourassa, he would deal with strikers and many people who felt he was out of touch with them. At one stop, an entire busload of journalists got off the bus only to find that Bourassa had not showed up.
Bourassa would make the issue of unity a defining election topic. He would say in a piece written for the Montreal Star quote:
“How can you talk about employment with the national unity question lurking in the background? What could possibly more adversely affect employment levels in this province than the achievement of the separatist threat? Their very existence has already cost us investment and jobs.”
The Parti Quebecois operated a different campaign this year, which was described by Maclean’s as restrained and smooth. Levesque toned down his explosive bursts during speeches, and wore a business suit and tie to look less frazzled. The party avoided mass rallies as they believed that frightened voters in exaggerating their support.
Levesque would campaign by putting the taint of corruption front and centre, often accusing the Liberals and Bourassa of being corrupt. He would also not push separatism as much, choosing more of a soft-pedal approach during the election campaign.
Levesque and Bourassa would go toe-to-toe in a two hour radio debate and by all accounts, it was felt that Levesque had dominated the debate. Among the 3,000 listeners polled, two to one felt that Levesque had won the debate.
Bourassa would challenge Levesque to debate on the economic consequences of separatism and its impact on the Canadian dollar but Levesque would state quote:
“It is absurd with only three days left before the election.”
For refusing to debate the matter, Bourassa would call Levesque a coward. He stated quote:
“I call it cowardice when the welfare of Quebeckers is at stake.”
In the Nov. 15, 1976 election, the Liberal Party suffered arguably the worst collapse in Quebec political history. The party would lose an astounding 76 seats, falling to only 26 seats in the Legislature. As well, Bourassa lost his own seat in the election, which surprised many in Quebec politics at the time. In all, 12 cabinet ministers lost their seats in the election. The 26 seats won by the party was the lowest it had seen for a seat count since the 1950s when the party was routinely decimated by Duplessis and his Union Nationale.
Bourassa would say in his concession speech quote:
“It is very hard not to be worried about the future of Quebec. This is a clear victory for the Parti Quebecois insofar as number of seats is concerned. I am asking the economic milieu to remain calm and I ask this in the name of six million Quebeckers.”
Macleans wrote quote:
“For the third time since he came to office in 1970, the colorless, calculating Bourassa had sought victory by playing on fears of independence, and shrilling asking for a third strike against the separatists. But over the years, Bourassa’s government had been tarnished by a continuing series of scandals, economic foul-ups and a general appearance of purposelessness.”
After losing his seat in the election, Bourassa would resign from politics and leave Quebec. He would spend the next few years teaching in the United States and Europe. You may think that was the last we would hear of Bourassa, but he would come back in spectacular fashion in a decade.
The Parti Quebecois, after having only six seats and a leader without a seat in the last election, had the largest gain of seats in Quebec history when the party picked up 65 seats to finish with 71 and to form government. This would make history in Quebec, as the province was now led by a government with the open mandate to gain independence from Canada.
Macleans would write quote:
“At the candidate’s headquarters in a small shopping plaza across the St. Lawrence from Montreal, campaign workers went wild when the first poll in Taillon riding was announced. Rene Levesque 60 votes, his Liberal opponent 27. It was a sign that was to hold good for the rest of election night, in Tallion and across Quebec.”
In his victory speech after becoming premier and bringing his party to a new found glory, Levesque would say quote:
“Politically, it is the most beautiful and perhaps the most important evening in the history of Quebec.”
Levesque would promise to work for a country that he said would be greater than ever before for all Quebeckers.
In Francophone neighbourhoods across Quebec, cars honked and champagne was passed around as news of the Parti Quebecois victory spread.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would say quote:
“It was a provincial election which didn’t go the way I would have wanted it to go, but democracy has had the last say. I am confident that Quebeckers will continue to reject separatism because they still believe their destiny is linked with an indivisible Canada.”
Across Canada, this was greeted with anger and it began extensive discussions about reforming Canadian Confederation and finding new ways to accommodate Quebec within Canada. The arrival of the Parti Quebecois as the ruling party would also set the stage for the 1980 Quebec Referendum, which would be the first attempt for political independence for Quebec.
The Union Nationale, after losing every seat in the last election, bounced back slightly with 11 seats in the election. It also won a lot of support from Anglophone voters who were not happy with the Liberal Party and would not vote for the Parti Quebecois. While this may have seemed like the party was ready to bounce back, this would be the last time the Union Nationale ever held any seats in the Legislature. Its glory years were long behind it. By the time the next election came along, after retirements, floor crossings and resignations, it held only five members in the Legislature.
After the watershed election that shook up not only Quebec, but the rest of Canada, it would be another five years before the province moved into another election.
Rene Levesque had led the province for five years by this point and had brought in many changes when his party, the Parti Quebecois, became the ruling party of the province with a massive majority.
The first Parti Quebecois government became known as the republic of professors because of the large number of scholars that were in the cabinet of Levesque. As soon as the party was elected, it began moving towards eventual independence from Canada, or at least that was the hope. The party would pass the Charter of the French Language, which was a framework law that establish French as the primary language of Quebec, with the goal of making it the common language of the province. This was done because 85 per cent of the population spoke French, and many did not speak English, but English was the language of medium and large business management. The legislation would also forbid immigrants and Quebecers of French descent from attending English-language schools funded by the state.
The party was the first to recognize the rights of the Indigenous people of Canada to self-determination, but only as long as it did not impact the territorial integrity of Quebec.
One of the biggest moments for the party came in 1980 when the Quebec Referendum was held to seek a mandate to begin the negotiation towards sovereignty. This referendum would fail with 60 per cent of voters voting against it.
As for Levesque, he mostly had a good first term as premier but on Feb. 6, 1977, his car fatally killed Edgar Trottier, a homeless man who had been lying in the road. According to authorities, Trottier often did this to get a hospital bed for the night. Levesque would be fined $25 for failing to wear his glasses while driving. What really inflamed the newspapers though was the fact that he was in the vehicle with his longtime secretary, rather than his wife. Soon after the incident, his marriage ended in divorce and he married his secretary.
Levesque would complete the nationalization of Quebec’s hydroelectricity in his first term and his government was the first in Canada to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. His government also improved social services, moving it to be a state matter rather than a Church matter.
The Liberals were no longer led by Robert Bourassa, who had left politics following his stunning defeat in 1976. Claude Ryan now led the party, having been elected in the leadership election in 1978. His greatest triumph over the past few years had been leading the victorious No side in the 1980 Quebec Referendum.
Union Nationale was led by Roch Lasalle, who had served in Parliament from 1968 to 1981 when he resigned his seat to take over the leadership of Union Nationale.
In the election campaign, the Parti Quebecois leaders worried that the failure of the 1980 referendum would hurt them in the polls. At the same time, Union Nationale hoped to win back Parti Quebecois voters back to their side.
As for the Liberals, they wanted to regain control of the Legislature after the failure of the referendum. Unfortunately, Claude Ryan was not the man for the job as he had an old fashioned style of campaigning that did not match with the burgeoning 1980s. One major issue was that he refused to tailor sound bites for the evening news, and he ran a campaign that made it difficult to cover on the television, which greatly reduced his coverage. Through the campaign, Ryan would state that he had won every battle he had undertaken since becoming Liberal leader and the referendum was a sign that the Parti Quebecois was on the way out.
The campaign of Ryan started out well on the first week but soon began to peter out and the Parti Quebecois and its calm campaign began to regain steam throughout the election campaign. Levesque for the most part simply campaigned on the record of the Parti Quebecois in office, rather than making big promises. The only real promise of note was a pledge to give government aid to families who were buying their first home.
The Liberals in contrast promised to undo or dilute the major reforms that had been put in place by the Parti Quebecois. The Liberals also painted a picture of Parti Quebecois spending that was out of control, highlighted by the $3 billion deficit.
Sovereignty would be an issue in the campaign, but not nearly as much as it once had. Levesque would say the Parti Quebecois was still a sovereignty association but quote:
“a people does not change its mind on so fundamental an issue in a few months and that is why we are committed not to raise the question in another referendum in a second mandate.”
Despite this, the Liberals stated that Levesque would call a snap referendum on sovereignty if elected. For the most part, voters did not believe that this was going to be the case.
Commentators on the election felt that it was a fight to the death between Levesque and Ryan, and whomever lost would soon be out of provincial politics. The Montreal Gazette would write quote:
“Rene Levesque is in fine fighting form. The party is ready, the candidates are enthusiastic, and the backbench members are placing bets on a narrow Parti Quebecois victory. Claude Ryan is relaxed and confident. The Liberals are set to go. The candidates are eager. The opposition members can almost take power.”
The main issue of the campaign would be the economy, and Levesque had to convince voters that he had done well with the economic policies of the province. There were claims by the Liberals though that Jacques Parizeau, the Finance Minister, had mismanaged provincial finances.
The barbs between parties would fly throughout the election campaign.
Ryan would say quote:
“The Parti Quebecois is a band of imposters.”
Levesque would fire back quote:
“Maybe Ryan will decide to go back to the Middle Ages.”
Lasalle, who was relatively quiet during the election would simply state that his party was fighting to remain on the political map. The only real issue that Lasalle seemed passionate about in the election was repealing the seatbelt law, stating that it should be an issue of freedom of choice. He would say quote:
“We favor informing the population about the advantages of seatbelts, but we question making it an obligation to wear one. I think the liberty of the citizen must be respected here. The UN defends freedom of choice in this matter.”
Ryan would also accuse the Parti Quebecois of being racist after it stated the Liberal Party was dominated by the Anglophone establishment. Ryan would say quote:
“We must not maintain in power for any length of time a party whose very chief gives the example of the abusive exploitation of language and cultural tensions.”
As the election continued, the Parti Quebecois began to rise in the polls. With the economy being the dominant issue, as polled from 64 per cent of respondents, Levesque was chosen by the majority of respondents, 50 per cent, as the best leader. Ryan would get only 27 per cent, while Lasalle had only four per cent.
Public opinion polls also had the Parti Quebecois leading by seven per cent. Ryan would state that the polls were as wrong by as much as 25 per cent.
In the April 13, 1981 election, the Parti Quebecois was able to build on its past success and rose nine seats to finish with 80. The party also increased its share of the popular vote by nearly eight per cent. The 80 seats won by the party was the most by a non-Liberal party since 1948 when Union Nationale won 82.
Levesque would say in his victory speech quote:
“The greater the victory, the greater the responsibility.”
He added that the results showed quote:
“That it was no accident, it is going to dig deeper roots in Quebec and become permanent.”
As for Union Nationale, despite having won 11 seats in the last election, the party would be wiped off the electoral map for the second time in its history when it lost every seat and finished with zero.
The once dominant party was not gone quite yet, but it would never again win another seat and it would not survive the decade as a political party.
The Liberal Party was able to regain seats, 16 in total, to finish with 42. The party also raised its popular vote share by 12 per cent to finish only three per cent behind the Parti Quebecois. Ryan would say in his election night speech quote:
“The people of Quebec in their sovereign and supreme wisdom have chosen the Parti Quebecois to lead their destiny. We must accept the verdict of the people.”
Ryan would almost immediately state that he was going to look at quitting as leader. When he would eventually leave as leader, another man would take his place and become one of the greatest comeback stories in Quebec political history, Robert Bourassa.
The election of 1985 was one that saw changes with both of the major parties, but while one party would have a new leader, another party would have a new leader who was also its old leader.
The Parti Quebecois had only one leader, Rene Levesque, who had taken the party from being a non-factor in the Legislature in the early-1970s, to the ruling party from 1976 onwards. He had become an incredibly popular figure in Quebec at times, but also a controversial one in the province, but also Canada. Through the early-1980s, the province and Canada were going through a severe recession, which began to result in budget cuts in Quebec to deal with the growing deficits each year.
The cuts to the budget angered union members in Quebec, who were a major supporter of the Parti Quebecois. As the years since 1981 wore on, the party would see its popularity begin to decline.
Heading into the 1985 election, Levesque stated that the party should not make the sovereignty of Quebec an issue on the campaign trail, and instead focus on seeking understanding with the ruling federal Progressive Conservative party under Brian Mulroney.
Levesque would say quote:
“We can finally find government leaders in Ottawa who will discuss Quebec’s demands seriously and work with us for the greater good of Quebecers.”
This would anger the core supporters of the party, who felt it betrayed the core mandate of the Parti Quebecois, which was sovereignty for the province. This weakened his position as leader and Levesque soon saw the writing on the wall. On June 20, 1985, he resigned as leader of the Parti Quebecois and on Oct. 3, 1985, resigned as premier.
Two years later on Nov. 1, 1987, while at a dinner party, Levesque experienced chest pains and would die of a heart attack that night in Montreal. Upon his death, 100,000 viewed his body lying in state, and over 10,000 went to his funeral.
Replacing Levesque as leader would be Pierre-Marc Johnson, the son of Daniel Johnson Sr. who was premier of Quebec from 1966 to 1968. The leadership election of 1985 was the first of its kind in Quebec, and was conducted under the one member and one vote system. Johnson would win the leadership election with 58.7 per cent of the vote and over 40,000 more votes than the second place finisher, Pauline Marois. We will be talking about her in the next episode.
Automatically becoming premier, Johnson was the first Baby Boomer to hold office as premier. He would say about the link between himself and his father quote:
“I obviously cannot stop myself from evoking memories of a very similar ceremony here 19 years ago.”
Johnson was called the antithesis of Levesque, who was emotional and fiery, while Johnson was measured and calm. Johnson would say of this quote:
“I am a man who likes to project very carefully the consequences of things before taking action.”
The Liberal Party, which had been out of power for almost a decade by this point, was looking for a new leader to replace Claude Ryan. Ryan was not suited for the new era of campaigning and the party wanted someone new, but also someone with a real chance to lead the party.
That man would be their former leader and the former premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa. Since 1976, Bourassa had been spending his time as an academic in the United States and Europe. In 1983, he was chosen to lead the Liberal Party once again, but he would not have a seat in the Legislature for a few years yet.
The Union Nationale ran in the election under leader Andre Leveille. The party would only run candidates in 19 ridings.
Macleans would write when the announcement of the election came, quote:
“With that declaration, Johnson set in motion a campaign that promises to be one of the most remarkable contests since the PQ first campaigned in a general election in 1970, and made its founding goal of Quebec independence an election issue.”
Oddly, despite the Parti Quebecois calling the election, they were not quite prepared for it. They had just spent $500,000 on the leadership race and now needed to raise $2 million for the election. Johnson would tell his supporters that the party had to run a quote:
“Volkswagen campaign, meaning we must be inexpensive, efficient and lovable.”
The other issue for the party was that 80 members who had been elected in 1981 had resigned, quit the party or stated they would not run again. A week into the election, the party only had half of its 122 ridings filled.
The Liberals, in sharp contrast, were well prepared for the election. The party had 287,000 members, compared to the 152,000 the Parti Quebecois had, and $5.2 million in the bank, compared to the $1 million the PQ had.
The Liberal Party was also polling better with 52 per cent of respondents stating they preferred that party to the Parti Quebecois, who only had 32 per cent.
Bourassa continued to not have much support from Anglophones in Quebec, and this was made worse when he fired Harry Blank, who had represented the English riding of St. Louis for 25 years, and replaced him with a Francophone. That being said, many did support him for his economic expertise, which it was felt was needed during the recession.
Clifford Lincoln, a Liberal candidate, would say quote:
“It is true that people are not exactly jumping off rooftops with joy about him. But they respect his ability and that is what is most important.”
In one election poll, 59 per cent felt that Bourassa would improve the economy, compared to 41 per cent who thought Johnson would. Bourassa would also speak to large crowds, including 4,000 people at the Paul Sauve arena in Montreal, where the Parti Quebecois had its election victory event in 1976. In Quebec City, 500 people came out and sang the provincial anthem for him.
The free trade agreement being pushed by Brian Mulroney with the Americans would become an election issue, with Johnson supporting the free trade agreement, while Bourassa was not. Bourassa believed that it would undermine the textile industries of the province, and he wanted more foreign investment and a $25-billion expansion of the James Bay hydroelectric project so Quebec could sell more power to the United States.
Bourassa would criticize the Parti Quebecois who had reached an agreement with Hyundai for a plant that gave $110 million in grants and interest-free loan guarantees.
Bourassa would say quote:
“Mr. Johnson, in his haste to close any kind of deal before the election has not made the best deal he could for Quebecers.”
Johnson would criticize Bourassa for his election promises, stating that he was making $400 million in election promises including abolishing taxes on gasoline, auto insurance and which would cost the province $168 million that it could not afford.
Johnson was hampered by the fact that he was up against the charismatic Bourassa, and many voters saw Johnson as cold and arrogant. Within the party though, he had a lot of support. One party member said quote:
“Johnson has profoundly changed the Parti Quebecois to a more realistic, more open party.”
He would attempt to distance the party from sovereignty in order to win votes from Anglophones. He would say that he was not afraid of the English community and they had nothing to fear form him. Michael Goldbloom, president of the English activist group Alliance Quebec said of this quote:
“Mr. Johnson is displaying much more warmth toward the English community than we have seen from the PQ in the past, although we still have to see if that translates into actions.”
The radio debate would return for this election, 11 days before polling day. The debate was described as somewhat-heated. Johnson would say quote:
“I did not bring my boxing gloves. It was more of a judo match, and, as even a white belt in judo knows, sometimes you go to the mat yourself in order to bring down your opponent.”
Most observers to the debate felt it was a draw, with Bourassa scoring several points on financial details thanks to his training as an economist. One interesting thing about the debate was that for the first time since 1966, neither independence or the primacy of French in the province were topics.
Mulroney would be a topic of the election campaign several times, both with free trade and with how much the federal party was supporting the Parti Quebecois. While Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative were more aligned with the Parti Quebecois on issues, he was also an old friend of Bourassa. Mulroney would state quote:
“As for as I’m concerned I and my colleagues have practiced exactly what we preached, impeccable neutrality.”
The election saw the arrival of the Progressive Conservative Party of Quebec, which had been formed in 1982. Despite being the provincial version of the federal party, the federal party offered no support as it was felt the provincial party had no chance and Mulroney did not want to be associated with defeat.
In the Dec. 2, 1985 election, Bourassa and the Liberals jumped back into leading the province in an unbelievable comeback for the party and its leader. The Liberals gained 57 seats, finishing with 99. Oddly, Bourassa did not win his seat, making the Liberals the party with the largest majority to not have its own leader win a seat. Bourassa would win a seat in January in a by-election. With his election win he also became the second premier after Maurice Duplessis to lose an election after being premier and then to return as premier in a subsequent election.
The Parti Quebecois would lose 57 seats, falling to 23 but remaining as the Official Opposition. While the Liberals had gained nine per cent of the popular vote, the Parti Quebecois lost nearly 11 per cent.
Serving as premier from Oct. 3, 1985 to Dec. 12, 1985, Johnson would be the shortest of any premier in Quebec’s history. One interesting fact about Johnson was that his father had been premier, as was mentioned, he was premier and in a few years time, his brother would be premier, giving the family three premiers.
As for the Union Nationale, the party didn’t win a single seat. This would be the last election for the party that had been around since 1936, and had ruled Quebec as the governing party from 1936 to 1939, 1944 to 1960 and from 1966 to 1970.
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