Mario Polèse, Le miracle québécois : récit d’un voyageur d’ici et d’ailleurs. Montreal: Boréal, 2021. 336 pages.

His parents were Viennese. His mother was a Jew. Not surprisingly, they fled after the Anschluss in 1938. Mario Polèse was born in Holland, in 1943. His parents subsequently emigrated to the United States, where Mario obtained his PhD in urban studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He came to Montreal as a young academic – and decided to integrate into francophone Quebec. His first language is German, his second Dutch, his third English. French, his fourth language, is now, in the jargon of the Canadian census, his “language most used at home.”

Le miracle québécois is, in a sense, a lengthy “love letter” to Quebec francophones who, against the odds, have survived as a nation over two and a half centuries.¹ Polèse is diplomatic: he does not enter into partisan jibes at individual politicians, nor is he hostile to English-speaking Canadians. He apologizes for not addressing the problems faced by francophone Canadians outside Quebec, in particular Acadians, in his book. Nor, he acknowledges, does his book address the problems facing the Indigenous population, inside and outside Quebec.

Polèse begins with a 1960 quote from a prominent French academic:

A powerful sentiment underlying all ideas among French Canadians is their sense of inferiority in the province their ancestors created. The inferiority is real: the levers of command, in finance, industry, large firms, are all in the hands of English-speaking strangers.²

His opening paragraph summarizes the “miracle”:

The miracle is first the history of cohabitation of two peoples on the same territory and in the same city, two peoples separated originally by religion and language. It is the history of eliminating the social gulf between two peoples, the elimination of a historical relation of domination. It is, finally, the history of a cultural revolution, of a people who literally metamorphose – who transform their institutions, change social norms and change the definition of their nation.³

The Quiet Revolution

Polèse divides Quebec’s Quiet Revolution into two phases. The first was expansion of the Quebec government in the early 1960s, triggered by the équipe du tonnerre of Premier Jean Lesage. René Levesque, a member of the équipe, championed nationalization of the Quebec electric power system. Eric Kierans, a close friend of Lévesque’s, played an important role in maintaining the financial credibility of Quebec’s government.⁴ The single most important accomplishment of the first phase was creation of a modern state-run education system, from primary school to a network of new francophone universities – plus the innovation of cegeps – general and vocational colleges – as an accessible introduction for those wanting to pursue postsecondary studies. Before 1964, publicly funded Catholic and Protestant schools operated autonomously, with little state involvement.

The second phase was the necessary promotion of French and limitation of access to English-language public schools. Bill 101, adopted in 1977, was needed to ensure that Quebec’s future would belong to well-educated francophones – and not to well-educated immigrants integrating into the anglophone community.

As an aside, Polèse mentions the prominent bust of Camille Laurin, the articulate champion of Bill 101 in the first Parti Québécois government, in front of Office Québécois de la Langue Française headquarters in Montreal. Laurin’s accomplishment is not without critics. Some argue that Bill 101 has not adequately limited access to public English-language education and that French linguistic hegemony in Montreal remains in doubt; some argue that linguistic protection unnecessarily accelerated Montreal’s loss of status as a finance and head office city and increased its unemployment rate. Polèse interprets the second argument as the unavoidable cost of survival of French as the dominant lingua franca in the province.

At one level, Polèse’s book is a discussion of the Quiet Revolution’s success in closing many of the socioeconomic gaps present in 1960. In point form, here are key statistics he cites, along with a few others I’ve added:

  • Average years of education among nonagricultural ethnic groups in Quebec, 1961: German 10.2 years, British 9.6, Jewish 9.5, French 7.0, Italian 5.5.
  • The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the most credible comparative assessment of secondary school systems in 80 middle- and high-income countries. Canada fared well in the most recent PISA round, conducted in 2018. Disaggregated by province, Quebec’s 2018 comprehensive PISA score was significantly better than the nine other provinces in mathematics (Quebec 532, rest of Canada 507) and close to the national average in reading (Quebec 519, Canada 520) and science (Quebec 522, Canada 518).
  • Average annual male earnings in Quebec, by ethnicity, 1961: British $4,940, Jewish $4,851, German $4,254, French $3,185, Italian $2,938.
  • In 1961, learning French was of minor value to anglophones, while learning English was of substantial value to francophones. Francophone-anglophone earnings premium in Quebec by French-English bilingualism, 1961: anglophone, bilingual $6,049, unilingual $5,929; francophone, bilingual $4,523, unilingual $3,107.
  • Quebec’s family income has risen from 70 per cent of Ontario’s in 1960 to above 90 per cent of Ontario’s in 2015.
Integration of immigrants into French as opposed to English
  • In the quarter century from the end of World War II to 1970, the share of immigrants’ children enrolled in English-medium schools rose from 50 to 90 per cent.
  • In 1976, 20 per cent of students with neither French nor English as mother tongue attended French-medium schools. By 2015, this figure had risen to 90 per cent.
  • In 1971, the share of Quebecers using French as home language was about 80 per cent. In the 1970s, projections indicated that the share of Quebecers speaking French at home would consistently decline, especially in Montreal. This has not happened. However, on the basis of census data from 2001 to 2016, Charles Castonguay concludes that French as the major home language declined from 83.1 to 80.6 per cent.⁵
Income inequality
  • Since 1990 income distribution, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has consistently been somewhat more equal in Quebec than in Ontario and in Canada overall.
Québécois pragmatism

Let me turn to Polèse as amateur political scientist and historian.

As the son of parents forced to flee a cosmopolitan city in a small country – with a large neighbour intent on establishing an empire based on German cultural superiority and antisemitism – Polèse emphasizes the rarity of successful countries containing multiple national communities. Perhaps the Slovak initiation of a separatist initiative, culminating in the 1993 “velvet divorce” in Czechoslovakia, is a European equivalent of peaceful resolution of Quebec’s secessionist movement. No one would describe interethnic relations in Ulster or Belgium as “velvet” or “quiet.” In France, third-generation Maghrebi immigrants are less integrated into French society than first-generation ones. Terrorism by Muslims in France over the previous decade, combined with large-scale Maghrebi immigration, elevated immigration as the dominant theme of the 2022 French presidential election.

The exceptionalism of (usually) respectful relations between Québécois and the rest of Canada is worth emphasizing. Many cases can be cited in which interethnic conflicts over the last half century have escalated beyond tension to civil war.

Immediately following collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia erupted in civil war. Africa and the Middle East contain multiple festering ethnic and religious conflicts motivated by communities that perceive themselves as exploited. The Igbo in southeastern Nigeria harbour bitter memories from the Biafran genocide 50 years ago (see my review of Wole Soyinka’s novel elsewhere in this issue). Rural Muslim nomads and villagers throughout the west African Sahel resent more prosperous urban elites, in countries from Mauritania to Nigeria.

The Tutsi, victims of the Hutu-inspired genocide in the 1990s, now control Rwanda via an astute dictator who has been in power for nearly three decades. Since the death of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1975, Ethiopia has known a Marxist military dictator, a war culminating in Eritrean separation, Tigray dominance for a quarter century and currently a second civil war pitting Tigray against the central government in Addis Adaba. With the exception of Somaliland, Somalia has degenerated into an anarchic dystopia. One could name many other such conflicts – from Mozambique to Sudan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In 1759, Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Had Polèse read Gary Caldwell’s 2001 review article in Inroads, he might have discussed the crucial role of Sir Guy Carleton, an Anglo-Irish Protestant who was governor of Quebec between 1768 and 1778. Carleton was in London in 1774 and his advice prevailed in drafting the Quebec Act: the Catholic Church preserved its status.⁶ The major argument of Carleton and his allies was that London needed to avoid a repeat of the “imbroglio” of Protestant rule imposed on Catholic Ireland. Support for the Quebec Act was far from universal. A century earlier, James II had attempted a Catholic restoration and the Whigs agreed with the American revolutionaries that a law legitimizing “papist intolerance” should not be enacted. Passage of the act depended on royalist members of Parliament opposed to liberal Whig sentiment.

Polèse discusses the response of the Continental Congress, for which the Quebec Act was one more reason to reject British rule. Benjamin Franklin, a sophisticated diplomat fluent in French, headed the delegation that visited Quebec in 1775, with the intent of gaining Québécois support for the forthcoming revolution. Carleton praised the sophistication of the Catholic bishops who led resistance to Franklin’s proposal. The Quebec Act was, for them, a “bird in the hand” relative to Franklin’s promise of “two in the bush.”

Similarly, in 1812, American elites considered the war with Britain an opportune moment to eliminate all British presence in North America. In correspondence in 1812, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching; & will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, & the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” Again, the Catholic bishops made a pragmatic decision. They sided with the Loyalists in Upper Canada in opposition to the Americans.

Lord Durham was a Whig. He had no animus toward Québécois but assumed they were constrained by papist intolerance of modernity. His report in response to the Patriote rebellion of 1837 recommended unification of Lower and Upper Canada, which would dilute the influence of the Catholic bishops and prove beneficial for both Loyalists and Québécois. Polèse poses the question, “In the 19th century, could Quebec indulge the luxury of a liberal Quebec, laïc in the French anticlerical tradition? My blunt response is ‘no.’” However noble the Patriote revolt, Polèse is relieved that it failed. Had it succeeded, the Americans would inevitably have subjugated Lower Canada – and probably Upper Canada. Once again, Québécois pragmatism prevailed.

And again in 1867. The bishops supported the British North America Act, which replaced Durham’s union with a federation. Confederation restored a provincial government dominated by Québécois, a government with substantial – if constrained – powers. Polèse does not discuss a relevant detail: pre-1949, the ultimate court of appeal on constitutional matters was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Much to the distaste of John A. Macdonald, in several important cases the Judicial Committee strengthened interpretation of provincial powers under section 92.

The consistent theme of Quebec history from 1759 to 1960 is that the Catholic Church was the sole powerful institution committed to the national survival of the Québécois. Neither the British nor the Americans could be trusted, but the British proved more willing to accept Quebec autonomy than the Americans would have been, had Quebec chosen American allies.

Polèse admits that, over the 200-year period, Quebec women paid a price for loyalty to the church. The local priests advocated “la revanche des berceaux” – good Catholics should have large families to maintain Quebec’s population relative to English-speaking Canadians. At the turn of the 20th century, the total fertility rate in Quebec was an average of 4 children born per woman. By 1960 it had fallen to 3, but it was still well above the Canadian average. The political revolution in Quebec in the 1960s was accompanied by dramatic changes in cultural expectations. Quebecers abandoned the church en masse; by 1970 the fertility rate was 2, and it is now below 1.5.

Polèse supported the Oui in two referendums, but, in retrospect he is not bitter over the fact that Quebec remains a unit within a federal state as opposed to a sovereign country. Québécois pragmatically appreciate their accomplishments since 1960 and acknowledge the advantages of an alliance with the rest of Canada. Belonging to a country of 40 million, as opposed to one of nine million, probably provides Québécois with a better chance of national survival than would a rancorous separation. Polèse concludes with a caveat:

Does the undeniable success of Bill 101 as an instrument of integration mean that the battle for French hegemony in Quebec has been won? No. It will never be won definitively … English, the language with which French is competing, is not just any language. It has become the dominant world language in commerce and science, as well as being the majority language in Canada and North America. Any Québécois with the slightest ambition to undertake international professional activity must learn the language of Shakespeare … To refer to my country of birth, any self-respecting Dutch person speaks English and does so well.⁷

The caveat is timely. This spring, the Quebec government enacted Bill 96, legislation intended to limit the share of places in English-language cegeps accessible to those whose education has been in French and to strengthen requirements for use of French in large firms. Predictably, the anglophone community in Quebec and editorialists at the Globe and Mail and National Post oppose the bill. Perhaps details of the bill should be amended, perhaps not. Canada is a successful federation that the majority of Québécois support – provided that the rest of Canada accepts jurisdiction of the Quebec National Assembly over language policy and resists the temptation to create a fuss based on Charter language rights promoted by Pierre Trudeau.⁸

If there is a major omission by Polèse, it is absence of discussion of these language rights. In its enthusiasm to invoke the Charter, the Supreme Court expanded French-English rights in a commercial context in its 1988 Ford decision. That decision generated militant Québécois opposition to Quebec’s federal status and catalyzed the dynamic leading to the second secession referendum in 1995.⁹

Le miracle québécois is an excellent summary of Canadian history as understood by the majority of Québécois. It is a book that non-francophone Canadians should read. Hopefully, there will be an English translation.


¹ As does Polèse, I use Québécois as shorthand for those living in Quebec whose home language is French.

² Un sentiment puissant, sous-jacent à toutes les pensées, étreint les Canadiens français: celui de leur état d’infériorité dans la province que leurs pères ont créée. Car l’infériorité est réelle: les vrais leviers de commande, dans la finance, l’industrie, le grand commerce, sont aux mains d’étrangers, confondus sous le nom d’Anglais.

³ Le miracle est d’abord celui de la cohabitation de deux peuples sur un même territoire et dans une même ville, deux peuples à l’origine séparés par la religion et par la langue. C’est l’histoire de l’effacement du gouffre social entre ces deux peuples, le renversement d’une relation historique de domination. C’est enfin l’histoire d’une révolution culturelle, d’un people qui s’est littéralement métamorphosé – qui a transformé ses institutions, changé de moeurs et changé la définition même de la nation.

⁴ See my “Remembering Kierans,” Inroads, 2001, pp. 204–09, reviewing Kierans’s memoir Remembering, co-written with Walter Stewart.

⁵ Charles Castonguay, “Quebec’s New Language Dynamic: French Fading Fast,” Language Problems and Language Planning, Vol. 43, No. 2 (2019), pp. 113–34.

⁶ Gary Caldwell, “How an Anglo-Irish Aristocrat Saved Quebec – and Why No One Knows about It,” Inroads, 2001, pp. 196–99, reviewing Philip Lawson’s The Imperial Challenge: Quebec and Britain in the Age of the American Revolution.

⁷ Cependant, le succès indéniable de la loi 101 comme véhicule d’intégration signife-t-il pour autant que la bataille du français au Québec est gagnée? Non; elle ne le sera jamais définitivement … L’anglais, avec lequel le français se trouve en concurrence, n’est pas une langue comme les autres: il est devenu la langue mondiale du commerce et de la science, en plus d’être la langue majoritaire du Canada et du continent … Tout Québécois ayant le moindrement d’ambitions internationales n’a d’autre choix aujourd’hui que d’apprendre la langue de Shakespeare. … Pour revenir à mon pays natal, tout Hollandais qui se respecte parle anglais et le parle bien.

⁸ For a thorough discussion of Bill 96, I recommend Anne Michèle Meggs, Quebec’s Language Debate, 2021-22 Edition, Inroads, Winter/Spring 2022.

⁹ I doubt any reader is interested in the convoluted legal debate following the Ford decision. However, I offer my interpretation in “Breaking the ‘Vicious Cycle’: A Retrospective and Prospective Examination of Quebec/Canada Relations,” in Michael Murphy, ed., Canada: The State of the Federation 2005: Quebec and Canada in the New Century: New Dynamics, New Opportunities (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), pp. 233–54.