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Quebec’s Quiet Revolution came at a heavy cost

By Gary Caldwell

In the last issue of Inroads, Pierre Fortin advanced the argument that, in light of the objectives set out in 1960, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution can be judged a success.1 These objectives, now achieved, were to:

  • raise the general level of schooling;
  • accelerate economic development;
  • see to it that increased income is more widely distributed;
  • raise the living standard to a level comparable with Ontario;
  • improve the economic position of francophones relative to that of anglophones.

Here I argue that although the Quiet Revolution was a success in his terms, it was a short-term success that could lead to long-term failure.

In a nutshell, in the immediate postwar period, Quebec enjoyed substantial advantages: public financial credit (almost no public debt); an economy growing as fast as Ontario’s (although admittedly from a smaller base); an extensive nonstate network of public health and educational institutions; a vibrant, dense civil society (stable families and large extended kin networks, local schools, municipalities, cooperatives, parishes and unions); and an annual population growth rate of 2 per cent. It exploited these advantages to meet short-term objectives: social-democratic reforms, an increased living standard and ethnic (francophone) advancement – precisely those laid out by Fortin.

However, the consequence of doing so was the dilapidation of existing human, social structural, cultural and economic capital – in other words, “the chickens are coming home to roost” a half century later. Physical infrastructure is failing as a result of lack of long-term investment, institutional development is curtailed, the quality of education is suffering, civil society has atrophied, demographic growth has stalled and the engines of economic growth – research and development and entrepreneurship – are lagging.

Furthermore, of Fortin’s Quiet Revolution objectives all but one – the more even distribution of income – are essentially materialistic: more economic development and more schooling to pave the way for a higher living standard. The New Testament teaches that “man does not live by bread alone,” and the corollary is that without a sense of purpose and a societal ethics long-term well-being may suffer.

Such nonmaterial aspects of societal experience can also be captured by indicators, albeit negative ones: suicide rates, alcohol consumption, mental illness, family instability and isolation or anomie. It remains to be seen what the long-term – two or three generations – consequences of the Quiet Revolution are in those terms. At this point, the consequences of the short-term dilapidation of collective capital can be seen more clearly.

Let us begin with economic development. From the last quarter of the 19th century to 1967, Quebec maintained a rate of economic growth equal to Ontario’s.2 After 1967, the year of Expo 67 in Montreal and only seven years into the Quiet Revolution, Quebec’s deindustrialization relative to Ontario began.3 For a quarter century, as Fortin indirectly acknowledges, a growing government contribution to Quebec’s GDP compensated for this reality. Quebec’s superior performance, again relative to the past and to Ontario, was financed by taking on increasing public debt and by nationalization of existing industrial assets (such as the hydroelectric companies) and social assets (hospitals and schools).

However, the debt-financed expansion of the public sector could not go on forever, particularly in a context of slowing population growth. The Bouchard government’s drastic civil service cutbacks in the mid-nineties, resulting from pressure emanating from North American capital markets, clearly demonstrated the limits of such public-driven growth in a deindustrializing economy. Having attained the limit of public sector growth, Quebec is now increasingly dependent for balancing the books on resource exploitation such as hydroelectricity, mining and forestry and services such as tourism, liquor distribution, lotteries and casinos. Of course, Quebec is not alone, and similar situations exist to a lesser degree in Ontario (Fortin’s point of reference) and to a greater degree in the United Kingdom.

How has such a relative economic decline, an invalidation of Fortin’s second achievement, come to be? There are many reasons and this is not the place to adequately address the issue. Suffice is it to say that weak indigenous capital formation, flagging entrepreneurship, suffocation by overcentralization, regulation and eccentric corporatism, not to mention the climbing down of the cultural level of the economic elite, have all contributed to dampened economic vitality.

For instance, it is difficult to cite economic initiatives comparable to the 1920s creation of a world-class pulp and paper industry resulting from a Quebec government ban on the export of pulpwood. Moreover, almost all of the government-sponsored economic agencies cited by Fortin (SGF, Sidbec, SOQUEM, REXFOR, SOQUIP, SOQUIA, National Asbestos Corporation, Madelipêche, Nouveler and Québecair) have failed, been liquidated or been merged into other agencies.

In all fairness, Fortin recognizes some (but only a few) of these problems, and efforts are being made to address some of the factors contributing to Quebec’s relative economic decline. Nevertheless the reality remains, as does the fact that this reality is equally a part of the heritage of the Quiet Revolution. Most importantly, our ability to sustain the gains of the Quiet Revolution Fortin evokes – to be able to pay for them as he mentions – is very much compromised in the long term by these economic realities.

Essentially, short-term gains have been achieved at the expense of the dilapidation of existing social, cultural, financial and economic capital. The implacable consequence, short of action to rebuild or restore this capital, is that the gains are not sustainable in the long term. Whether the medium- or long-term consequences of the changes implemented at the expense of the dilapidation of existing collective capital will be negative remains to be seen.

What is striking, however, is the extent to which the social-class consciousness of the new technocratic class, whose material base is the expanded public and parapublic apparatuses, has resulted in a failure to appreciate the cost of the dilapidation not only of existing collective economic capital but also of the social capital on which long-term economic development rests. Fortin is not oblivious to this: he speaks of the “reach of government into every corner of Quebec life.” But he fails to appreciate the consequences.

Notes

1 Pierre Fortin, “Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, 50 years later,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2011, pp. 90–99.

2 André Raynaud, Croissance et structure économique de la province de Québec (Quebec City: Ministère de l’Industrie et du Commerce, 1961).

3 Dan Czarnocki and Gary Caldwell, “Un rattrapage raté: Le changement social dans le Québec d’après-guerre, 1950–1974: Une comparaison Québec/Ontario,” Recherches sociographiques, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1977).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About the Author

Gary Caldwell
Gary Caldwell is the author of several books on Quebec and a frequent contributor to Inroads. He lives in Ste-Edwidge-de-Clifton, Quebec.




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