Quebec's quiet revolution, 50 years later.

AuthorFortin, Pierre

When Jean Lesage and his equipe du tonnerre came to power in 1960, two thirds of young adults in Quebec didn't have high school diplomas. (1) Throughout the 1950s the Quebec economy had surfed on the global postwar expansion, but Quebec had not been able to narrow the 20 per cent gap between its standard of living and that of neighbouring Ontario. (2) Although francophones made up 80 per cent of Quebec's population, only 47 per cent of Quebecers were employed in francophone-owned businesses. (3) When writer Pierre Vallieres called French Canadians the "white niggers of America" in 1968, he was widely dismissed for making a ridiculous overstatement. In fact, he was telling the truth. In 1960, French-origin men earned less relative to British-origin men in Quebec (52 per cent) than black men did relative to white men in the United States (54 per cent). (4)

To his credit, Lesage insisted that improving the relative economic position of francophone Quebecers was urgent. Here is an excerpt from his April 1962 budget speech:

We constitute an ethnic minority that has been able to survive till now, but whose material power is far from corresponding to that of our English compatriots. In certain fields, we have accumulated the delays of at least one generation. It is for this reason that we have so much to accomplish today and that we have to realize it so quickly. We possess a common lever, the state of Quebec. We would be guilty if we did not use it ... The needs of our people can be grouped in three categories: those that arise from the effort that we should make in matters of education and culture, those that arise from the necessity of increasing the welfare and health of our population and those that are connected with the development of our economy. (5) Lesage used the provincial government to achieve four goals:

* raise the general level of schooling,

* accelerate economic development,

* share the increased income widely, and

* improve the relative economic position of francophones.

With the passage of half a century, it is a good time to ask whether these goals have been broadly achieved. In sum, the answer is yes. In what follows, I lay out evidence that the goals have been realized, largely as a result of the active role played by the Quebec provincial government during and after Lesage's terms in office. At the end, I mention a few areas where more progress has to be made, and a number of new problems that remain to be addressed.

Quebec government activity has expanded greatly

Lesage's deeds matched his words. A long-delayed set of accelerated changes took place during his two terms in office from 1960 to 1966. Political scientist Dale Thompson was the first to describe this as the Quiet Revolution. (6) This period has left a lasting imprint on Quebec's institutions and shaped the culture of the entire generation of baby-boomers that was entering adult life in the 1960s.

Beginning in 1960, government activity increased rapidly. The provincial public service was modernized and allowed to unionize and expand. Education and health were secularized, professionalized and centralized. New programs were launched, such as hospital insurance (a federal-provincial shared-cost program), school allowances and the Quebec Pension Plan. Regional high schools were launched throughout the province. A host of state enterprises were created, such as the Societe Generale de Financement (SGF), the steel company (Sidbec), the Societe Quebecoise d'Exploration Miniere (SOQUEM) and the Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec (CDPQ). In 1963, all large private power companies were nationalized, enabling the old Hydroelectric Commission to be transformed into modern-day Hydro-Quebec.

From 1960 to 1966 provincial government expenditures and tax revenues tripled, while gross domestic income increased by 65 per cent. The rapid change in institutions coupled with the sharp increase in the tax burden generated a voter backlash that led Lesage to electoral defeat in 1966. Out went "Ti-Jean la taxe," as he was called during the campaign.

Nevertheless, after 1966 the new Union Nationale Premier, Daniel Johnson, Sr., and his successors decided to carry on with the Quiet Revolution. From 1966 until today, Quebecers' lives have been changed by family allowances, health insurance and social assistance (two additional federal-provincial shared-cost programs), the development of Cegeps, many more new state enterprises (SOQUIP, SOQUIA, REXFOR, Loto Quebec, National Asbestos Corporation, Madelipeche, Nouveler, Quebecair, among others), the James Bay hydroelectric project, language legislation to protect French within the province, no-fault automobile insurance, provincial economic summits, many forms of financial assistance to business, a few privatizations, support for the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, a large number of tax credits, and a new wave of social programs in the 1990s.


Figure 1 summarizes the impact all these measures have had on total provincial and local government (P&L) expenditure from 1961 to 2007. (7) From 13 per cent in 1961, Quebec's P&L spending increased to 34 per cent of GDP in the mid-1980s, and it has hovered around this level ever since. From the same starting point in 1961, Ontario's P&L spending has stabilized around 24 per cent of provincial GDP, 10 points below the Quebec statistic. Put another way, Quebec's P&L expenditure in 2007 was $30 billion more than if the province had spent at the same rate as Ontario. (8) Consistent with its high ratio of P&L spending to GDP, total taxes paid by Quebecers to all levels of government amounted to 38 per...

To continue reading