This Week in History


Maurice Duplessis

This story was initially published in 2000

On April 20, 1890, one of Quebec's most successful yet controversial Premiers, Maurice Duplessis, was born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec.

Duplessis shaking hands with Mitchell Hepburn, Premier of Ontario
© Library and Archives Canada / C-19527

Destined for politics, Duplessis began his climb to power in 1927 by winning the first of nine consecutive elections to represent Trois-Rivières in Quebec's Legislature. Even then,  Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau said, "Watch this young man. He will go far."

In 1933, Duplessis became leader of Quebec's Conservatives. After nearly 40 years of Liberal rule, he felt change was needed. Uniting his Conservative Party with the Action libérale nationale, he formed the Union nationale in 1935. One year later, Duplessis exposed widespread Liberal corruption, which forced Taschereau to resign. By defeating Joseph-Adélard Godbout, Taschereau's successor, Duplessis brought his Union nationale to power.

A brilliant orator with a profound love for his province, Duplessis's passion kept him in tune with the electorate. In 1939, however, the conscription controversy lost him the election. Federal ministers from Quebec saw another Duplessis victory as a rejection of the national war policy, and threatened to resign their seats. Most Québécois felt that without representation in the federal government, no one would oppose conscription on their behalf.

Returning to power in 1944, Duplessis remained Premier of Quebec until his death in 1959. Seen by English-speaking Canada as a power- hungry dictator, he often disregarded civil liberties to achieve his objectives. Depending heavily on "contributions" from big business, Duplessis declared most strikes illegal and often accused organized labour of being Communist. His Padlock Law allowed people to be arrested and barred from their homes if suspected of Communist activity. Once, he asked a minister in his cabinet to resign and, when he refused, dissolved his government only to re-appoint everyone except that one minister!

"Gerry, passez-moi 33 123,53$!"
© Library and Archives Canada / Norman Hudon / C-19527

Nevertheless, the Quebec electorate chose Duplessis time and again because he championed provincial autonomy. He defended the rights, language, religion and traditions of French-Canadians and gave them a distinctive flag. The introduction of a provincial income tax and his fight against federal centralization, brought Quebec to an unprecedented level of power and influence in relation to the federal government. By opposing all federal initiatives, no matter how greatly needed, Duplessis was seen as protecting the rights of Quebec. To French-Canadians, Duplessis was a saviour - at least until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

Maurice Duplessis was designated a National Historic Person in 1974.

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