Today in Canada's Political History: Maurice Duplessis Sworn In for First of Five Terms as Québec's Premier

  • National Newswatch

As always at Art's History it is a very real pleasure to welcome, on occasion, select guest columnists. And, today, it is the turn of one of Canada's most distinguished historians, Conrad Black, to join us.  Mr. Black marks today's anniversary of Maurice Duplessis first becoming Quebec's Premier on this date in 1936.  Mr. Black's biographies of Duplessis, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon have earned him the reputation of being one of the nation's greatest and most respected modern-era historians.  For me personally, he has been a friend who was in my corner during some health difficulties in recent years, and even once traveled here to Kingston to lead a Sir John A. Macdonald-themed walking tour of Kingston. I owe Mr. Black a Conrad BlackAugust 26, 1936, 85 years ago, was a seminal date in the history of Québec. On that day, Maurice L. Duplessis was sworn for the first time as prime minister and attorney general of Québec. He had founded the incoming governing party, the Union Nationale, in the midst of the previous year's election, uniting the old Québec Conservative Party which had last held power in Québec in 1897, with a breakaway reform group of liberals called Action Liberal Nationale (ALN).The significance of Duplessis's installation was not just that it was the first government of Québec in 39 years that was not comprised of Liberals; it was also in the fact that the new premier would prove the most durable, powerful, and important holder of his office in Québec history.  And it was also important because although Duplessis used reform liberal votes to win the election, his government was composed almost entirely of conservatives and it was clear that, contrary to widespread fears, the Union Nationale was not going to be a radical regime.  In the last days of the 1936 election campaign, some of Duplessis's more flamboyant orators raised the temper of the campaign to extraordinary heights even for Québec: “On the day after the election we will need to build larger prisons and taller gallows,” said the ALN firebrand Ernest Ouellet.Maurice Duplessis would serve a total of five terms as premier of Québec, longer than anyone in the province's history up to now.  He acted for the first time on the concurrent provincial right of direct taxes and required Ottawa to permit the deduction of the Québec income tax for purposes of computing the federal tax; this effectively established what he called Québec's “autonomy” including the right to renegotiate Confederation or depart Confederation, although Duplessis was strongly anti-separatist.By massively expanding the number of schools and universities and the highway network of the province, Duplessis would exploit the low salarial cost of clerical teachers and nurses and build modern Québec including all its universities except McGill, and the first auto routes, while reducing taxes and balancing the budget. For the first time, Québec by every social and economic yardstick would advance more rapidly than Ontario.  By perfecting of traditional Québec political techniques, Duplessis made Québec a rich and modern province.Maurice Duplessis died in office on September 7, 1959.Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist.  He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney's best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen's Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy.  A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.