Sunday, February 27, 2011

Prelude to Québec’s Quiet Revolution (1985) - review

Behiels, Michael D. Prelude to Québec’s Quiet Revolution: Liberalism versus Neo-Nationalism, 1945-1960. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985.

            Behiels begins his text by describing the economic and demographic changes that occurred within Québec society during the late 1940s and 1950s. The society was changing from one that was largely rural and agricultural to one where the majority of the population lived in cities and resource industry towns. As a result of their new urban existence, Québecers were also being exposed to the larger North American community to which the trade and industry, that had drawn them to the urban centres by offering jobs, were intimately connected. However, the jobs offered were not the leading positions in those sectors, but typically positions below the post of manager. Thus, while increasing working for the industrial and commercial sector, French-Canadians did not hold positions of control. Rather, control was largely in the hands of English-Canadian, American, and British companies, who tended to hire English-speakers to run their Québec operations. The result was that, although the majority in their province, French-Canadians were largely kept in positions of economic and social inferiority, with little hope of advancement in an economic environment controlled by the English population of the province and outside interests.
            Rather than encourage domestic control of local industry and the economic advancement of Quebecers, the Union Nationale provincial government and its leader, Maurice Duplessis, seemed to only encourage economic domination by non-French-Canadian interests. The provincial government recognizing that many of the industries, controlled by both the local English-speaking population and English-speaking outsiders, offered much needed jobs to its supporters. To not support the continued expansion of the province’s industry, particularly the exploitation of natural resources, over which the province held jurisdiction, by outside interests, could lead to job losses, and in turn, the fall of the Duplessis regime. This lack of resistance to outside economic forces, meant that French-Canadians had little or no protection against non-French Canadian social and linguistic challenges to their traditional way of life. The only institution which offered any kind of cultural and linguistic protection was the Catholic church. However, the church was itself reluctant to offer any new solutions to the growing economic and social pressures being placed upon French-Canadians. The church had gained its position of prominence in the province by encouraging the continuation of the traditional rural and agricultural lifestyle, where local curés were often understood to be the most educated and wisest individuals in the community and where the church held control over the formation and care of the citizenry, through its control of education, the hospitals, and most other areas of social welfare. To encourage the citizenry to take control of the province and not only participate in the industrial and urban society, but to manipulate it to their own ends, could very well undermine the authority of the church in deciding the best interests of the population, authority which was often used by the church to reinforce its central and guiding role in the lives of the citizenry.
            While not offering a very original portrayal of Québec society during the late 1940s and 1950s, what is original about Behiels text is his argument that the social revolution of the 1960s, which overthrew the Duplessis regime and rejected the church as the only, or even the primary, institution that could be used to protect and further the individual and cultural interests of the citizens, had its roots in two different groups of intellectuals, writing and acting so as to further the position of the Québec population during the late 1940s and 1950s. These two groups were what he terms the neo-nationalists and the Citélibrists. In addition to simply holding a more worldly view than most French-Canadians, a perspective from which they were able to recognize how their province was being exploited by both outside economic interests and the ruling elite, the members of these two groups were greatly influenced by the personalism of French Catholic intellectuals such as Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher whose ideas had led to progressive Catholicism in France. Like the personalists, both the neo-nationalists and the Citélibrists called for a transformation of Quebec society, where the state, church, and industry did not conspire to maintain a cheap and compliant workforce, but where an increasingly secular state was used to advance the interests and standard of living of the population. This accorded with Mounier’s third way, a reaction to both capitalism and communism, neither of which paid sufficient attention to the individual, protected his/her rights and freedoms, or worked to expand the opportunities of all people as much as possible. Instead, for Mounier, communism places the interests of the collectivity above those of the individual, while capitalism protects the rights, freedoms, and opportunities of individuals to freely participate in the market economy, paying no attention to differing social and/or economic conditions which could hinder an individuals’ ability to participate or excel in that market economy.
            The neo-nationalists, unlike their nationalist predecessors, such as Lionel Groulx, advocated an abandonment of traditional French-Canadian nationalism and its adherence to the three pillars of agriculturalism, anti-statism, and messianism. Recognizing that the working class was, by the 1950s, the largest social class in the province, and that it was living an increasingly secular and urban existence, these neo-nationalists, who included individuals such as André Laurendeau and Gérard Filion, were arguing for greater state intervention so as to ensure that services would be guaranteed which would allow French-Canadians to not only participate more easily in the existing market economy which was the focus of the Western world, but to regulate that market economy in areas where it threatened particular aspects of French-Canadian society. However, it was just how much and in what ways the government was to be used to intervene in the laisser-faire, economically driven, society that the views of the neo-nationalists differed from their intellectual rivals, the Citélibrists. While advocating a socialist and democratic state, the neo-nationalists placed particular importance upon the protection of French-Canadian culture and language. They believed that it was possible and desirable to merge the teachings of Mounier with French-Canadian nationalism so as to create a nationalist and socialist state where French-Canadian culture and language would be protected while allowing French-Canadians to develop their individualism and spiritualism to the greatest extent possible. During the 1940s and 50s these neo-nationalists forwarded their arguments through organs such as Action nationale and Le Devoir.
            In contrast to the neo-nationalists, the group which Behiels describes as the liberals, or Citélibrists, held that one cannot merge nationalism with personalism, and to do so would only lead to the creation of a thoroughly non-personalist state, and possibly a fascist one. To be driven by a nationalist agenda, rather than simply the furthering of the rights and opportunities of the individual, is to create a socialist state which defines those who deserve to have their rights and opportunities protected according to a preconceived notion of what the state should be like. By wanting to ensure the French-Canadian character of Québec, the neo-nationalists were not advocating the creation of a state where all individuals could pursue their needs and desires to the greatest extent possible without infringing upon others’ ability to do the same. Rather, they were promoting the creation of a state where one could pursue one’s needs and desires to the greatest extent possible, so long as those needs and desires did not conflict, in the eyes of the provincial government, with traditional French-Canadian culture and language. Through their periodical, Cité libre, which was circulated on a very small scale, the journal’s co-editors, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Gérard Pelletier, along with other contributors, argued that such a mixture of nationalism and socialism may result in a society which protects citizens from exploitation by outside interests, but would also likely lead to a state which maintained a very restrictive and unjust definition of a proper citizen.
            Thus, while sharing the desire to create a welfare state and overthrow the Duplessis regime, Behiels depicts the difference between the visions of the neo-nationalist and the Citélibrists to have been one of scope, with the former wishing to create such a society that would be limited to French-Canadians while the later advocated a pluralistic non-nationalist society that would take whatever shape those within it chose while ensuring hat everyone has the rights and freedoms to shape the society as they wished. While the neo-nationalists were able to attempt to create their society at the provincial level, especially with and after the 1962 Québec election, the Citélibrists were eventually able to act through the federal government. However, one should note, as does Behiels, that the Citélibrists, with the exception of Pierre Vadeboncoeur, did not envision the demise of French-Canadian society with the realization of their version of a personalist state. Instead, they believed that, if all individuals, including French-Canadians, were offered the rights, freedoms, and opportunities to do or think whatever they wished, then French-Canadians would be completely free to practice their culture and speak their language. All that the Citélibrists rejected was the neo-nationalists’ desire to either force non-French-Canadians to adopt French-Canada’s culture and language, or to exclude individuals who were not born into French-Canadian society from being considered true members of Québec society.

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