Fifty years later: A View from Washington

By David T. Jones on June 10, 2010

As a truth in writing caveat, one must admit up front that Washington is paying no attention to Quebec.  It barely pays attention to Canada (except during this time of year as a possible destination for a vacation/fishing trip); it notices Quebec only when the province is in extremis:  in the throes of a "tear the country apart" referendum or, perhaps, with a dramatic winter storm with great media visuals of marching files of ice-toppled hydroelectric towers.

So one has to be pretty deeply into Canada/Quebec experience, beyond the tourist's appreciation of Montreal's summer music festivals or Quebec City's winter ice carnivals (complete with ice hotel), to even have heard of the "Quiet Revolution."

Still, there is no question that the Quiet Revolution is as important for 21st century Quebec as the American Revolution (a much noisier event) was for the 19th century United States.  During this epoch, Quebec clearly took very substantial control of its provincial political life and economic activity, as well as (most obviously for English speakers) control over the use of the French and English languages in the province.  The Quiet Revolution moved the concept of an independent Quebec (in some form of association with the rest of Canada--or none at all) from the vague intellectual musings of parlor politics to a movement that has often seemed on the verge of fruition.  Quite clearly the role of English speakers in Quebec politics or the government bureaucracy doesn't even approach minority group tokenism.  That their import for economics and finance is greater demonstrates that money trumps politics.   

Accompanying the Quiet Revolution across the province, there was an obvious surge of "can do"--or "We'll show them" attitude.  Most obvious was the development of the massive Hydro Quebec dam complex, which doubters suggested was well beyond the capabilities of Quebecois technology.  Obviously, it was not, and Quebec is unquestionably one of the centers for such hydroelectric engineering, with the Chinese Three Gorges dams consulting with Quebec (among many others) for their plans.  And there is no question that when the economics and finances combine appropriately, the technological expertise to construct a Great Whale hydroelectric complex is not in question.

Perhaps most historically and socially bemusing, however, was the fate of the Quebec Catholic Church following the Quiet Revolution.  Previously, the strength of the Church in Quebec was one of the defining characteristics of the province.  For some observers, it reflected poorly on the Francophone population; they were characterized as "priest ridden."  Bruce Hutchinson's iconic 1942 examination of Canada as the Unknown Country was more than a bit condescending toward French Canadians, depicting them as hearty sons of the soil and forest, dominated by the desire for children, totally and forever into the future to be directed by their village priests.  

And that Catholic Quebec has evaporated; it is epitomized by the brief scene in Barbarian Invasions depicting masses of Catholic statuary warehoused and forgotten.  From a society that quietly mouthed "the revenge of the cradle"--with massive population growth from fecund Quebecois--Quebec birthrate has plunged.  From a society in which the priest held sway in virtually every element of personal life, Quebec now has as its standard "common law" marriage.  While traditional churches throughout North America have lost members, it is hard to find a devout believer in Quebec.

As one of the puzzlements that I faced when arriving in Ottawa in 1992 at the U.S. embassy, I regularly asked, "Why did this happen?"  Answers were rarely profound; at best it seemed to a vague conclusion that the Church had provided the outlet for "political" energy and social action when it wasn't available within the normal governing structure of the province.  And perhaps there is no deeper answer.  Quebecois have simply moved on, leaving unresolved whether there is any potential for serious Catholic Church revival or whether Catholicism in Quebec is the intellectual equivalent of coureurs de bois fur traders.

Quebec today is both highly successful--and greatly challenged.  Quebecois live comfortably in North American luxury but with debt levels (and partly sustained Canadian government subsidies) that ultimately are not supportable.  That extracting themselves from the debt/deficit trap will be distinctly painful is evidenced by Premier Charest "Great Satan" level of unpopularity following relatively modest tax increases.  And its political consequences, including the potential resurgence of a sovereigntist movement, still hovering at about 40 percent of popular preference, is another unknown.

Indeed, the Quiet Revolution may ultimately be depicted as the mechanism that made Quebec sovereignty technically possible while making it unnecessary for achieving Quebecois political, economic, and sociocultural objectives.


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