Duplessis: A product of his time

August 21, 2014

Although he remains associated to this day with a period in Quebec history known as the “Great Darkness,” Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis (1890–1959) was also a man of his time whose legacy is often both poorly understood and relatively unknown.

Like his counterparts in other Canadian provinces, Duplessis was a product of the post-war boom. It was a time when Europe was struggling to get back on its feet against a backdrop of massive reconstruction projects, while the United States was transforming itself from top to bottom as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal and major industrial growth. Of particular note was the government’s involvement in the economy, which allowed a greater number of people to prosper. This also occurred during Duplessis’ time in office.

As Premier of Quebec from 1936 to 1939, and again from 1944 to 1959, Duplessis threw himself into colossal building projects which would last for generations: the Bersimis hydroelectric power station, large dams that brought electricity to rural Quebec, Montréal’s Metropolitan Autoroute, the Autoroute des Laurentides, hospitals, universities and thousands of schools. “Duplessis governed during a period when the material lives of Quebecers vastly improved. The per-capita disposable income more than doubled between 1944 and 1959, even in rural areas,” notes Xavier Gélinas, Curator, Canadian Political History, at the Canadian Museum of History.

Duplessis’ popularity among the rural electorate enabled him to win four consecutive elections: 1944, 1948, 1952 and 1956 — victories that “cannot be explained away by a timely paving of roads, or giving cases of beer to undecided voters,” says the curator.

This political longevity goes hand in hand with the political stability that reigned across North America during a time of great economic prosperity. “It was a similar story across Canada,” says Gélinas. “It was not rare to have provincial premiers governing 10, 15, 20 years, or even more.” There was, for example, Premier Joey Smallwood of Newfoundland (1949–1972), whose 23 years in power remains a record. There was also Angus Lewis Macdonald (1933–1940 and 1945–1954) in Nova Scotia, Tommy Douglas (1944–1961) in Saskatchewan and W.A.C. “Wacky” Bennett (1952–1972) in British Columbia.

For Xavier Gélinas, this longevity is explained by the fact that they were all figures of authority — father figures. “This was the era of ‘Father knows best,’” says the historian. “Politicians, like the directors of businesses, tended to behave like good family men, providing for the needs of those in their care. By virtue of being in power, they considered this normal — almost a divine right. The electorate, the family, also didn’t change ‘fathers’ every four or five years as we do today. And it must be said that the love of these politicians for the provinces they governed was unconditional.”

Even the most rigid-seeming conservatism, however, can hold a few surprises. When it came to political marketing, Duplessis was a bold innovator, drawing his inspiration from American political strategies. In this particular arena, he greatly outstripped his peers, no matter what their political stripes. It was undoubtedly another reason for his long career.

To learn more, visit the exhibition “Duplessis Gives to His Province” – The Political Marketing of the Union nationale, produced by the Musée québécois de culture populaire and on view at the Canadian Museum of History until December 7, 2014.