BORN: Trois-Rivieres, Quebec • 20 April 1890
DIED: Schefferville, Quebec • 7 September 1959
His chauffeur was surprised. It was a winter afternoon in 1938 and Maurice Duplessis suddenly wanted to stop in front of a well-known Liberal club in Quebec City. The premier of Quebec was many things to many people, but never a Liberal. The car halted. Duplessis rushed in, hurried past the stunned members, and urinated in the fireplace. Then he departed.
This was obviously a deeply symbolic act, one that said much about the premier. He was intensely partisan, irre¬ deemably petty, and habitually crude. The episode also demonstrated that for Duplessis, politics was life. That he got away with it also showed just how unchallenged this one disagreeable man’s hold on power was in his home province.
For almost twenty years Duplessis was the government of Quebec, personally embodying the state more than anyone else ever had before or since. He was born the son of an unimportant Conservative politician, but as a young man from a small town he learned quickly that all politics is local.
Conservatives were an endangered species in Quebec in the post—First World War era, but careful attention to the wants of the electors of Trois-Rivieres gained him a seat in the provincial assembly in 1927. When Duplessis was elected leader of the party in 1933, the job was not much of a prize: the Conservatives had been out of office for thirty-six years, and immediate prospects were not promising.
But the new leader quickly assumed total control of party strategy, and in 1935 he engineered a merger with reformist Liberals to make a new coalition, the Union Nationale. Duplessis made absolute loyalty to him the crucial prerequisite for member¬ ship in the alliance, and in 1936 the new party scored an upset victory over a scandal-ridden Liberal government.
The Duplessis era had begun.For Quebec, it was an era of stability and growth—yet also an era of democratic dictatorship. Except for a brief interval during the Second World War, Duplessis would rule Quebec until the day he died. For every one of those days, his eyes were fixed firmly on the past.
That meant that Duplessis allowed American big business to dominate the province’s economy, especially in the natural resources sector. It meant that the Catholic Church controlled Quebec’s education and society with lightning speed. In the turbulence, a new Quebec nationalism—aggressive, defiant, and ultimately separatist—took hold.
Within a decade, Duplessis’ one-man, Catholic state had practically disappeared. In an important way, however, Duplessis established the agenda for Quebec politics for decades. His oppressive regime bottled up the modernization impulses that spilled over in the 1960s, a decade that would be crucial for setting the terms of the Canada-Quebec debate.
Key figures like Trudeau and Levesque launched public careers in response to Duplessis’ Quebec. In short, Duplessis’ shadow represented clearly and forcefully the old order, the kind of province that was no longer wanted. What ought to replace Duplessis’ Quebec, though, is something Quebeckers have yet to agree upon.