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Duplessis’ Debacle

For the week of Monday September 19, 2011

On September 24, 1939, then-Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis called a snap election, hoping to win a second majority government for his party, the Union Nationale. A month later, it was instead trounced at the polls, losing most of its seats and handing Adélard Godbout, a Liberal, the premiership. How did this happen?

Duplessis’ election call came at a precarious time. Only two weeks earlier, Canada had declared war on Germany, joining Great Britain and France at the onset of the Second World War. Conscription, the issue which had so divided English- and French-speaking Canadians during the First World War, was not yet being considered, but nonetheless Duplessis hoped to capitalize on the threat of a military draft. He accused Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s federal government of planning to impose conscription and of exploiting the war in Europe to “annihilate” the autonomy of the provinces. In an October 3 speech, he declared that a vote for Duplessis would be a vote against “conscription” as well as “participation, assimilation, and centralization.”


Hon. Maurice L. Duplessis. ca. 1930
© Library and Archives Canada / C-031052

That statement cost him dearly. Duplessis’ federalist opponents seized on the word “participation” as evidence he intended to subvert Canada’s war effort. An outraged Mackenzie King called the premier’s attempt to drive a wedge between the province and federal policy a “diabolical act.” His government responded swiftly to the provocation. In a statement, four of his cabinet ministers from Quebec, including Ernest Lapointe, the Minister of Justice, declared their intention to resign should the Union Nationale win the election. This threatened the province’s representation in cabinet and, implicitly, its best protection against conscription.

The announcement was cataclysmic to the premier’s re-election bid. The Quebec electorate faced a new choice. In the event of a Liberal victory, the federal government was willing to limit conscription to home defence. But given a Union Nationale victory, and the attendant loss of cabinet-level representation for Quebec, the risk of federal retaliation was high. For Duplessis, the irony of being the de facto conscription candidate could not have escaped him. The October 25 election was decisive: soon after the polling stations closed, it became clear the Liberals had won an overwhelming majority in the provincial legislature. The premier had lost.

Undaunted, Duplessis remained leader of the Union Nationale throughout the war. He returned to power in 1944—the same year Mackenzie King introduced limited conscription—and after surviving three subsequent election cycles, died in office in 1959. Maurice Duplessis was designated a person of national historic significance in 1974, as were Ernest Lapointe in 1954 and William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1967. The archived This Week in History article titled Maurice Duplessis outlines the broader story of his career.

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