Quebec Studies

Caught in the Blind Spot: Organized Labor in Revisionist Explanations of the Quiet Revolution

Quebec Studies (2002), 34, (1), 3–18.

Abstract

3 Caught in the Blind Spot: Organized Labor in Revisionist Explanations of the Quiet Revolution A. Brian Tanguay Wilfrid Laurier University Introduction The Quiet Revolution, in the words of René Lévesque, was "a period when the people of Quebec set their clocks to the time of the twentieth cen­ tury. .. [B]etween 1960 and 1964 Quebec lived through the most exalting and fruitful aggiornamento" (Lévesque 184, 186). Until recently, Lévesque's view encapsulated the conventional wisdom about this decade in Quebec's history: the 1960s marked a pivotal turning point when a backward society belatedly entered the modern age.1 "Quebec awoke only very slowly from its long winter," Pierre Vallières wrote in White Niggers of America (42). For Vallières, it was the 1960 election victory of Jean Lesage's Liberal Party that shattered the monolithic ideology of the "great darkness" and ushered in a period when all of the traditional shibboleths and the dominant institutions in Quebec were called into question. In the most influential sociological accounts of the Quiet Revolution, the principal engineer of this sweeping transformation of Quebec's society and political institutions during the 1960s was a rising new middle class of highly educated young francophones. This group's upward mobility had been blocked in the postwar period by an unholy alliance of the Catholic Church, private capital (largely American and English-Canadian), and the autocratic, conservative, nationalist government of Maurice Duplessis. In order to expand their occupational space, the new middle class pressed for the expansion of the provincial state and its incursion into sectors of social life—health, education, and welfare—which had previously been the pre­ serve of ecclesiastical bureaucracies. This new middle class thesis has been criticized on a number of grounds, including its overly economistic nature (it tends to reduce nation­ alism to the search for better-paying jobs), its preoccupation with a single class, and its manichaean contrast between the great darkness of the Du­ plessis period and the enlightenment of the Lesage era. Some of the boldest critics of the orthodox interpretation of the Quiet Revolution have dis­ missed it as a cult, a continual celebration of the liberal (and Liberal) reformers of the 1960s. These revisionists are "increasingly irritated at the assumption that history began in 1960, and that nothing earlier had any sig­ nificance" (Fraser).2 One revisionist, Gilles Paquet, argues that the Quiet Revolution actually had a harmful effect on economic development in Quebec because the rapid growth of the provincial state apparatus during the 1960s eroded the "social capital" that had existed during the Duplessis years. Paquet has issued the pithy injunction, "oublier la Révolution tran­ quille" (Paquet 1999).3 Québec Studies, Volume 34, Fall 2002/Winter 2003

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Tanguay, A.