Capsules on Quebec's elections from The Weekly Writ
Every installment of The Weekly Writ includes a short history of one of Canada’s elections. Here are the ones I have written about elections and leadership races in Quebec.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1936 Quebec election
Maurice Duplessis gets his first taste of power
August 17, 1936
For the first third of the 20th century, Quebec was Liberal. Federally, provincially — it didn’t matter. The province was reliably painted red.
But things were starting to sour for the provincial Liberals in the 1930s.
By 1936, Quebec had been governed by the Liberals for 39 years. The party had racked up 11 consecutive election victories since 1897, with the last four coming under the leadership of Louis-Alexandre Taschereau.
Though governed by a French Canadian, Quebec’s nationalism was still in its infancy. The finance ministry was traditionally given to an anglophone and the industrialization of the province was being undertaken by anglophone and American industrialists. The Catholic Church still held much sway and women were still barred from voting.
Throughout the long reigns of Taschereau and his predecessor, Lomer Gouin, the Liberals had nevertheless dragged Quebec into the industrial revolution. But new movements in the province were agitating for change — including within the Quebec Liberal Party.
Taschereau almost went down to defeat in 1935 when the opposition parties teamed up against him. From just 11 opposition members in 1931, Quebecers elected 42 in 1935. They were a mix of Conservatives (Quebec’s traditional party of opposition now under Maurice Duplessis) and, ominously for Taschereau, members of the Action Libérale Nationale.
The ALN was formed by disgruntled Quebec Liberals under the leadership of Paul Gouin, son of the former premier. They were primarily made up of younger members of the party who felt sidelined by the old-fashioned establishment. They were nationalist, had the backing of the clergy and agreed with the Conservatives to divvy up the electoral map between them. It nearly worked.
But Duplessis was a canny politician. Despite his Conservatives winning fewer seats than the ALN in 1935, he out-maneuvered the disorganized and divided leaders of the ALN. Eventually, he lured most of the ALN caucus to unite behind his Conservatives and form a new party: the Union Nationale.
Shaken by the results of the 1935 election, Taschereau tried to rejuvenate his cabinet with some younger ministers and promised to bring in measures like old age pensions and farm loans.
That his government was still in office at all was remarkable — other governments saddled by the Depression, including the Conservative government in Ottawa, had gone down to defeat. Responding to Duplessis’s claim in the legislature that Taschereau’s diminished government would soon be replaced, Taschereau said “we have had elections. You are still there and we are here. Strong governments, the [R.B.] Bennett government included, have disappeared. We alone survive.”
Nevertheless, the Liberals were in a tough spot. The economy was still stagnant, unemployment was still staggeringly high and the government’s revenues were too low to provide significant relief to Quebecers.
In the legislature, the Union Nationale filibustered and obstructed, preventing the Liberals from passing a budget. Then, in the public accounts committee, Duplessis leveled charge after charge of corruption against Taschereau’s government.
Day by day the evidence mounted … No single revelation was serious enough to excite or even surprise public opinion. It was the enormity, the pervasiveness, and the brazenness of abuse which first staggered, then enraged the people of Quebec. In the midst of unprecedented poverty and suffering, while leaders preached the virtues of self-reliance, family responsibility, private charity and ‘fiscal responsibility’, this behaviour was regarded as positively obscene.”1
Duplessis spared no one — including members of Taschereau’s own family. For Taschereau, this was a step too far. He considered himself a gentleman, a seigneur, a representative of Quebec’s old aristocracy. To use such crass tactics was just not on.
Taschereau knew his time was up and he wouldn’t have his name or his family dragged through the mud any longer. It was recognized throughout the party that they needed a fresh face to give the Liberals a chance. So, Taschereau visited the lieutenant-governor, requested a dissolution and named his replacement: Adélard Godbout.
One of the stars of the last years of Taschereau’s government, Godbout was a good speaker with strong support in the rural parts of the province, particularly in eastern Quebec where he operated a farm and had taught agronomics before entering politics.
Godbout immediately tried to distance himself from the tainted Taschereau government, naming a new cabinet and presenting himself as the leader of a new, younger (he was 44) Liberal Party. There was certainly a contrast with the aged Taschereau. Godbout was not the patrician aristocrat his predecessor was. He was the descendant of humble farmers and, when in Quebec City during sittings of the legislature, he didn’t have a mansion on the Grande Allée to go home to like Taschereau did. He rented.
But Godbout could not make this distinction matter to voters. The Great Depression was attributed to the greed of heartless big industrialists and ‘trusts’ that held Quebecers back. These interests were seen (not entirely inaccurately) as being tied to the Liberals.
Duplessis, meanwhile, ran on cleaning up the administration. His prosecution of the Liberals in committee had given him tremendous publicity and cast him as the defender of the people.
Godbout and the Liberals knew they were the underdogs. Godbout, too, claimed he would run a clean administration and investigate any wrongdoings by the previous Liberal government. He took to the radio to present his platform, which including the electrification of rural areas and other measures to support agriculture. The party made nods in the direction of the ALN’s priorities in hopes of attracting the remnants of that party who had not gone over to the Union Nationale. But this campaign had little success. Nor did the assistance of the federal Liberal Party, which had won 60 of Quebec’s 65 seats in the 1935 federal election.
Duplessis just had the momentum on his side. There was a deep desire for change and he was the vehicle for it. Younger voters were behind him. The independent press was behind him. The Union Nationale held huge rallies, including one on August 12 at the Delorimier Stadium in Montreal, home of the Montreal Royals. The stadium’s 24,000 seats were packed and thousands more crowded the baseball field to hear Duplessis speak. Those who couldn’t get inside listened to him over loudspeakers outside the stadium.
The result was a landslide victory for the Union Nationale, which won 76 seats, an increase of 34 over the number of seats won by the Conservatives and ALN in 1935. The Liberals were reduced to just 14 seats.
Support for the UN was 56.9%, up nearly nine points from the combined performance of its predecessor parties. No party has since hit that level of support in a Quebec election.
The Liberals dropped more than seven points to just 39.4%. Godbout (by 20 votes) and five of his ministers went down to defeat. The Liberals were reduced to just three seats on the island of Montreal and eight in the surrounding countryside, with three more spread out in the Outaouais, Quebec City and the Bas-Saint-Laurent.
Duplessis’s victory ended 39 years of Liberal government, but the defeat wasn’t blamed on Godbout and he stayed on as leader. Duplessis’s first term as premier would prove short, as he called an early election in 1939 to challenge Mackenzie King’s prosecution of the Second World War. With the energetic support of the federal Liberal Party, this time Godbout was swept back into office.
It would provide Quebec with a short bout of progressive government (women finally got the vote and Godbout nationalized part of Quebec’s electricity system, among other achievements) before Duplessis and the Union Nationale returned to power in 1944. That election would kick-off his 16 years of nationalist, clergy-backed government that, in response, helped spark the Quiet Revolution.
1981 Quebec election
René Lévesque re-elected after referendum defeat
April 13, 1981
The election of a Parti Québécois government in 1976 was a watershed moment for Quebec, in some ways the culmination of the Quiet Revolution and in many ways changing the course of the province’s political history.
But after the rejection of the sovereignty-association option put forward by René Lévesque’s government in 1980, the PQ appeared to be adrift. With independence now off the table for the foreseeable future, what was the raison d’être of the PQ?
With the main project of the PQ’s first mandate ending in failure, Lévesque delayed the calling of the next election into 1981 — approaching the five-year term limit. Speculation that an election call was imminent was rife from the start of the year, and on the night of March 12, 1981, Lévesque announced to the National Assembly that it had been dissolved, and an election would finally be held on April 13.
From the outset, Lévesque promised that another referendum would not be held in a second PQ mandate, but many people believed that his party would not be given that chance anyway — especially those within the Quebec Liberal Party.
Now led by Claude Ryan since 1978, the Liberals were confident that victory would be a mere formality. They had won all 11 byelections held since 1976, picking up seats from the governing PQ but also the faltering Union Nationale.
That former hegemon of Quebec politics was a shadow of its former self, now under the leadership of Roch LaSalle, a Progressive Conservative MP. Support for the UN had collapsed when it was removed from office for the last time in 1970 and the party had nearly slipped away entirely after failing to win a seat in 1973. It managed a minor comeback in 1976 with 11 seats.
It was quickly apparent, though, that the Union Nationale was not going to be able to do nearly as well again. Polls put its support in single-digits, as Quebec’s politics evolved into the two-party system pitting the sovereigntist Parti Québécois against the federalist Liberals, a dynamic that would define the province’s politics throughout the 1980s, 1990s and into the 2000s.
Despite the victory of the NON side in the 1980 referendum with 60% of the vote, the PQ did have some successes to point to during its first term in office. The province’s economy was out-performing Ontario’s and the PQ had provided a relatively clean administration.
The Charter of the French Language, better known as Bill 101, was certainly divisive and controversial, but was popular among francophones. The PQ had brought in public automobile insurance and instituted new political financing laws that were well ahead of its time, banning corporate donations and limiting donations by individuals decades before other jurisdictions in Canada.
The PQ took this record to voters with good effect. Writing later in his autobiography, Lévesque said: “Of the seven election campaigns that I’ve been through, this one was by far the easiest … People were visibly happy to see us. Did this warmth hide something like an intention to console us? Maybe a wave of remorse had installed itself in many hearts after the sad [referendum] night of 20 May 1980.”
Ryan’s Liberals, arrogant and overconfident, waged a front runner’s campaign. But the bubble burst when a couple of mid-campaign polls showed the Liberals trailing the PQ by a significant margin — and on track for defeat.
The Liberal leader’s style was not going over well with voters. David Thomas of Maclean’s painted a vivid portrait.
His craggy head pokes through the doorway and scans the dining room like an aged tortoise hungry for an inattentive fly. Then, gnarled hand cocked for action, Claude Ryan strikes at the nearest table where surprised lunchers suddenly must shift from picking the bones of a barbecued chicken to grasping the candidate’s insistent claws. There’s no band, but from a cassette recorder slung over the shoulder of an accompanying aide crackles the tinny Liberal campaign theme which even Ryan’s chief communications adviser, Gilles Liboiron, admits “has a depressing effect on audiences.”
As the campaign turned for his party, Ryan undermined his own credibility when he announced some spending promises after previously criticizing the PQ for its deficit spending.
The campaign ended as a mirror image of how it had begun, with the PQ confidently cruising to victory and the Liberals desperately trying to avoid defeat. But the tables would not turn.
For a moment, though, it appeared that the Union Nationale, of all parties, had returned from the dead. With strikes impacting coverage of election night by Radio-Canada, all eyes were turned to TVA and Radio-Québec, who had teamed up to use a new computer system to report the election results.
It was a mistake.
Claude Ryan was reported to be barely registering a pulse in his own riding as the Union Nationale stormed ahead. A Marxist-Leninist candidate was leading in Montreal and another was declared elected in Quebec City, while UN candidates throughout the province were running in first.
It took a long time before the TV presenters realized something was going wrong (though that didn’t stop them from first trying to explain the surprising turn of events). Lévesque writes that he had given up on the French-language channels and had to turn to English-language media to find out he had, in fact, won.
The PQ took 80 seats, nine more than the party had captured in 1976 (the electoral map had increased from 110 to 122 ridings). Support for the party was up six percentage points to 49%, which still ranks as the best election performance of the party in its history.
The PQ won eastern Montreal, most of Laval and the suburbs north and south of the metropolis, captured all but one seat in Quebec City and gained seats from the Union Nationale in central Quebec.
The Liberals were also up in both seats and support, gaining 16 seats and 12 points to end with 42 seats and 46% of the vote. That three-point gap between them and the PQ was much smaller than the polls had indicated, but the inefficiency of the Liberal vote meant the party had only about half as many seats as the PQ.
The Liberals swept the West Island, but most of their seats elsewhere in the province were limited to the Outaouais and the Eastern Townships. Ryan would resign the leadership and be replaced by Robert Bourassa, returning as Liberal leader after governing the province from 1970 to 1976.
LaSalle and the Union Nationale, in the end, did not win a single seat and took only 4% of the vote. This would effectively be the end of Maurice Duplessis’s old party for good, and LaSalle would return to federal politics.
The election victory would be a last high point for Lévesque, as his second term in office was tumultuous. The economy took a turn for the worse, unemployment surged and there was significant labour strife in the province. Lévesque would be out-manoeuvred (or betrayed, depending on your point of view) by Pierre Trudeau and the provincial premiers in the repatriation of the constitution, a document that still does not have Quebec’s signature.
The arrival of Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government led Lévesque to pursue a more collaborative approach with Ottawa (the so-called beau risque) that cleaved the Parti Québécois in two, divisions that led to Lévesque’s resignation as premier and PQ leader in 1985. The party would be swept out of office later that year by Bourassa in one of the Liberals’ biggest victories of the modern era.
A far cry from the PQ’s heights, and Liberal lows, of 1981.
2008 Quebec election
Jean Charest gambles and wins
December 8, 2008
After four years in office, the Quebec Liberals under Jean Charest were reduced to a slim minority government in 2007 as Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique du Québec made big inroads at the expense of both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois under André Boisclair.
But it wasn’t long before support for the inexperienced ADQ tanked. As the Liberals moved back into the lead in the polls, Charest claimed he needed “two hands on the wheel” in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis and pulled the plug on his minority government less than 20 months into its second mandate.
Though the ADQ was the incumbent official opposition, the Liberals’ primary opponent was once again the PQ, now under the leadership of former cabinet minister Pauline Marois.
By the end of the campaign, the main issue wasn’t what was happening in Quebec, but rather what was happening in Ottawa. When Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe teamed up to try to bring down Stephen Harper’s government, the Conservatives went hard against the coalition of “socialists and separatists”. The rhetoric sparked a blowback in Quebec, where some voters were put-off by the attacks on the democratically-elected Bloc Québécois MPs.
It might have helped boost the PQ a little in the last days, but it also made the case for Charest about the necessity of having a stable majority government in Quebec City to avoid Ottawa-style shenanigans. When the results came in, Charest got what he asked for.
The Liberals picked up 18 seats, winning 66 with 42% of the vote, a gain of nine points since Charest’s 2007 performance. But the Parti Québécois also rebounded, gaining 15 seats to finish with 51 and 35% of ballots cast. Both Charest and Marois would stay on as leaders, facing off once more in 2012.
But Dumont was a casualty. He was re-elected in his Rivière-du-Loup riding, of course, but his party dropped 34 seats, ending with just seven and 16% of the vote. Dumont, who had spent years as the party’s sole MNA since its creation in 1994, resigned on election night.
While the election might have seemed like the return of the two traditional political rivals in Quebec, it actually turned out to be an election that led to the rise of two other parties.
With the resignation of Dumont, the ADQ became directionless. This left an opening for a former PQ cabinet minister named François Legault to start his own centre-right party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, into which the ADQ dissolved itself.
And 2008 marked the first seat win for a small left-wing party, Québec Solidaire.
Over a decade later, the Quebec Liberals were struggling for relevancy outside of its traditional anglophone base as the CAQ gobbled up its francophone vote, while the Parti Québécois was desperately trying to avoid being supplanted by Québec Solidaire.
It’s the kind of thing that would have seemed unthinkable in 2008.
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Quebec before Duplessis: The political career of Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, by Bernard L. Vigod.