In Search of Quebec Conservatives

Review by Damien-Claude Bélanger *


Le conservatisme au Québec. Retour sur une tradition oubliée. Frédéric Boily. Presses de l’Université Laval, 2010.


* originally published in the print edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Spring-Summer 2011, pp. 54-57.


IT IS OFTEN assumed, in English-speaking Canada, that Quebec’s political culture is fundamentally left-leaning. The existence, in Quebec, of a state-subsidized childcare programme or the fact that a credit union, the Caisses Desjardins, is the province’s largest financial institution are regularly cited as proof of this inclination, as are the Bloc Québécois’ twenty-year dominance over federal politics in Quebec and, more recently, the NDP’s extraordinary sweep in the 2011 election. The province’s progressive politicians and intellectuals, indeed, often highlight these examples, and others, to confirm that the vital centre of Quebec politics lies on the left of the political spectrum.

The extent to which these claims are true, however, is debatable. Quebec childcare was set up, first and foremost, to promote natalism. The caisses populaires were established with the support of the Roman Catholic clergy in order to provide financial services to a population that was poorly served by Canada’s largely English-speaking banking sector and that often fell prey to loan sharks and usury. The Bloc Québécois was founded, for the most part, by disillusioned Tories and even the party’s core supporters did not necessarily embrace the left-wing ideas championed by Gilles Duceppe. As for the NDP’s recent breakthrough, I would argue above all that it expressed a yearning among many voters, and most notably among those who had supported the Bloc Québécois in the past, to reconnect with Canada. The NDP was able to harness this desire not because it is left-wing, but because, unlike the Liberal Party and the Harper Conservatives, it is not viewed as potentially hostile or unresponsive to Quebec’s aspirations by an important segment of the electorate.

If anything, it is nationalism, not supposed left-of-centre proclivities, that accounts for Quebec’s distinctive political culture. The collectivist ethos of nationalism, in fact, is often confused, deliberately by some, with progressive ideals. Quebec political culture is indeed marked by a degree of mistrust regarding individualism that is not as prevalent in Ontario, for instance. This mistrust, moreover, did not emerge with Quebec’s left during the 1960s; its roots can be traced back to the conservative nationalism that dominated the province’s intellectual culture from the mid-nineteenth century to the Quiet Revolution. 

Quebec’s conservative tradition is deftly examined in this new book by Frédéric Boily. A Quebecer and a professor of political science at the University of Alberta’s Faculté Saint-Jean, he has published widely on the subject of conservatism in Quebec and Canada. His time in Alberta has given him a unique perspective on Quebec politics. Boily is indeed adept at placing Quebec in a wider Canadian context. He notes, for instance, regarding the supposed “unanimism” that characterizes Quebec politics, that the province is not a political monolith. “In fact,” he writes, “the Canadian province that most closely approaches unanimity is not so much Quebec but rather Alberta, where more than in any other part of Canada, a single party dominates political affairs.”

Boily’s slender tome seeks to challenge the notion that conservatism essentially disappeared from Quebec’s political and intellectual cultures during the 1960s or that province’s contemporary conservatism is a transient import from the United States, France, or English-speaking Canada. To this end, he traces the evolution of conservatism in Quebec since the early twentieth century and insists on its persistence beyond the Quiet Revolution. Boily’s examination of Quebec conservatism begins with the Action Française movement, which emerged during the conscription crisis of the first world war. He describes the movement’s leading figure, Lionel Groulx, as Quebec’s Burke or de Maistre, as the abbé played a key role in the evolution of French Canadian conservatism and nationalism.

Boily is not wrong to insist on Groulx’s importance. His mistake, however, is to begin his analysis of Quebec’s conservative tradition with Groulx and the Action Française. In doing so, he fails to acknowledge conservatism’s much deeper historical roots in Quebec. Conservatism emerged during the crucible of Canadian discourse, the American Revolution, when rebel and loyalist elements struggled for control over the British Province of Quebec. The appearance of republican ideas in the St. Lawrence Valley spurred a conservative counter-discourse which rejected revolution and democracy and affirmed the importance of maintaining traditional values and institutions, including monarchy. To a large extent, this nascent conservatism was expressed by Quebec’s Roman Catholic clergy and its seigneurial class, groups which tended to benefit from the political and social status quo.

Their conservatism deepened in the 1790s, as many clerics and seigneurs began to argue that the British Conquest had preserved the St. Lawrence Valley from the horror and turmoil of the French Revolution. In the 1830s, conservative warnings regarding the dangers of revolutionism became increasingly strident as Lower Canada lurched towards rebellion. The republican ideals of Papineau and the Patriots were popular, especially in the District of Montreal, and clerical censure could not prevent the outbreak of the Lower Canada Rebellions of 1837-38, though it likely helped limit the scope and intensity of the disturbances.

Loyalism and a firm attachment to monarchical institutions were among the principal hallmarks of French Canadian conservatism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth ­centuries. The nationalist impulse tended to express itself through republicanism in the lead-up to the Lower Canada Rebellions, and conservatism acted, in practice, as an anti-nationalist force. All this would change in the 1840s and 1850s. During these decades, clerical loyalism diminished in intensity. This shift was the result of two major factors. On the one hand, legislation was passed that strengthened the Roman Catholic Church’s legal status and lessened, on the part of the clergy, the need to ensure the constant goodwill of the colonial authorities. On the other hand, the Union Act and Lord Durham’s plans to assimilate the French Canadian population struck a hard blow to loyalist assumptions regarding British benevolence.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a new conservative nationalism had emerged. It was ­championed by various clerics, but devout laymen could also be counted among its leading proponents. Ultramontane ideas, rather than republicanism, now underpinned nationalism in Quebec and, for the next century or so, French Canadian nationalism was essentially a conservative doctrine. The struggle against republicanism that had absorbed conservative energies earlier in the nineteenth century continued, though it would steadily taper off in the 1880s and 1890s as republican ideas became increasingly marginal. The failure of the Lower Canada Rebellions and their disastrous aftermath, indeed, had significantly discredited republican nationalism among Quebec’s French-speaking population who, in turn, increasingly embraced conservative forms of nationalism.


IT WAS THE conservative nationalism of the mid- to late-nineteenth century that laid the intellectual foundation for the emergence of the Action Française movement of the early twentieth century. Groulx, for instance, was heavily influenced by the thought of Msgr. Louis-­François Laflèche, whose 1866 Quelques considérations sur les rapports de la société civile avec la religion et la famille (“On the linkages between civil society and religion and the family”) should be listed, along with such works George Grant’s 1965 Lament for a Nation, as one of Canada’s most influential conservative texts.

By the interwar years, the conservative struggle to preserve traditional values and institutions was in full swing. The lack of respect afforded to minority rights outside of Quebec, the influx of American culture, and the economic inferiority of the French Canadian population were major preoccupations for Quebec’s right during the 1920s and 1930s. Boily notes indeed that the approach to politics that prevailed among Quebec’s interwar conservatives was “meta-political” in that they sought to “win the cultural war, which was fought over values, before considering victory at the ballot box.” In this regard, he challenges the work of André-J. Bélanger, who considers the conservative nationalism of Lionel Groulx and his disciples to have been essentially apolitical.

The conservative discussion of political institutions, to be sure, did not disappear with the advent of the republican challenge in the late nineteenth century. On the contrary, during the 1930s and 1940s, many Quebec conservatives embraced corporatism as an alternative to capitalism and liberal democracy. Though it was never implemented, the form of corporatism that appealed to conservatives in Quebec was very different from the top-down model of corporatism championed by fascists during the 1930s. Boily indeed draws a clear distinction between fascist and Catholic forms of corporatism and notes that the latter, by virtue of its desire to decentralise political and economic power, precludes totalitarianism.

A number of authors, including Esther Delisle, whose 1992 The Traitor and the Jew was widely discussed in English-speaking Canada, have argued that conservative nationalism in interwar Quebec possessed, at the very least, fascist tendencies. Boily refutes this suggestion, arguing instead that the revolutionary nature of fascism made it unattractive to Quebec’s fundamentally conservative right. He does suggest, however, that intellectuals like Lionel Groulx “experienced the attraction of fascism’s magnetic field,” largely as a result of the doctrine’s anti-communism. Boily is not wrong to point this out — Quebec’s interwar right certainly believed that communism constituted a far greater threat to Western society than fascism — but, in a more important sense, he fails to acknowledge that the profound attachment to tradition and Catholic values that characterised Quebec’s conservative right likely played a role in preventing the emergence of a powerful fascist movement in the province.

The 1930s witnessed the return to power of the provincial conservative party, repackaged as the Union Nationale, after almost forty years in opposition. Boily, like many other scholars, questions the extent to which Maurice Duplessis’ regime can be labelled as conservative. He notes that Duplessis’ economic policies and his conception of the state were liberal in the classic sense. Indeed, in the 1930s and 1940s, Duplessis’ attachment to laissez-faire orthodoxy was a powerful stumbling block to the implementation of economic reforms inspired by corporatism.

Quebec’s conservative intellectual movement was generally critical of Duplessis’ economic policies, though it did approve of his struggle for provincial autonomy. Duplessis’ betrayal of his coalition partner, Paul Gouin, leader of the Action Libérale Nationale, in the lead-up to the 1936 provincial election resulted in the intellectual right’s effective exclusion from power under the Union Nationale. During the mid-1930s, many of the intellectuals associated with the conservative Ligue d’Action Nationale and École Sociale Populaire had backed Gouin’s party, which had adopted the traditionalist Programme de restauration sociale (Programme for Social Restoration) as its political platform, but these intellectuals would be profoundly disillusioned by Duplessis’ ability to co-opt and sideline the Action Libérale Nationale.


THE DISCONNECT between political and intellectual conservatism is indeed something of a theme in Quebec history. In 1871, the ultramontanes failed miserably in their bid to take over the provincial wing of the Conservative party. More recently, two right-wing parties, the Ralliement Créditiste and the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), achieved notable successes with little to no support from the intellectual right. Indeed, few of the intellectuals associated with the nouvelle sensibilité historique, a loose collection of conservative-leaning scholars who, in recent years, have criticised aspects of the Quiet Revolution’s legacy, openly supported Mario Dumont’s ADQ.

The ADQ’s populism, like that of the Ralliement Créditiste, was no doubt off-putting to the intellectual right. Moreover, the ADQ’s success at the polls, most notably when the party achieved official opposition status in 2007, was more a function of the party’s charismatic leader and its ambiguous policies regarding Quebec’s political future than its neoconservative agenda per se. The party’s opposition to large-scale immigration and “reasonable accommodations” was relatively popular among the electorate, but many other ADQ policies, including its support for a flat tax and its desire to abolish Quebec’s school boards, were not well received.

Boily describes the ADQ’s ideology as “conservative neo-liberalism.” The party founded by Mario Dumont and Jean Allaire thus shares an affinity with the right-wing of Quebec’s Liberal party, which is hardly surprising since the ADQ, like many of the provincial political parties that have emerged since the late nineteenth century, can trace its political lineage back to the Liberal party. The Liberal party cannot be considered conservative in any strict sense of the word. However, the Liberals became increasingly comfortable with the political and social status quo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, by the late 1970s, with the simultaneous disintegration of Quebec’s two right-wing parties, the Union Nationale and the Ralliement Créditiste, and the rise to power of the Parti Québécois, the Liberal party began to occupy the right-of-­centre of the province’s political spectrum. Some neoconservative intellectuals, indeed, have been drawn into the party’s orbit and Quebec’s version of the Fraser Institute, the Institut Économique de Montréal, has often granted tacit support to Liberal policies.

It should be noted, however, that the Parti Québécois also possesses a conservative faction, whose leading figures in recent years have included Joseph Facal and François Legault. Boily underlines that one of the key characteristics of contemporary Quebec conservatism is indeed its lack of cohesion. Quebec’s conservatives are involved in a number of competing parties and groups, which inevitably lessens the impact and influence of conservative ideas. The national question, to be sure, complicates the political spectrum in Quebec and has ­prevented the emergence of a united conservative party or movement in recent decades.


NATIONALISM HAS created a distinctive political dynamic in Quebec, as has the province’s Catholic heritage, though few observers understand or are willing to accept the extent to which the latter has exerted an enduring influence over the province. English-speaking Tories are often puzzled by contemporary Quebec conservatism. Quebec’s conservatives, indeed, often embrace aspects of statism and regulation. The spirit of corporatism, moreover, has left an imprint on Quebec’s political and intellectual culture. Neoconservative individualism will not readily find fertile ground in a historically Catholic society that has experienced significant discrimination and economic marginalization. Quebec conservatism does not draw its historical roots from Bay Street or the Orange Lodge, and alliances between English- and French-speaking conservatives have historically been shaky in Canada.

Boily’s overall assessment of Quebec conservatism is spot on. Though politically divided, the movement is alive and well. The 2005 conservative manifesto, Pour un Québec lucide (“for a clear-eyed vision of Quebec”), which Boily unfortunately does not discuss in his book, will help frame political and social debate in Quebec for years to come. Quebec’s conservatives, moreover, are not servile imitators. The ADQ is not the Front National and the nouvelle sensibilité historique is not a neoconservative import. Both draw much of their inspiration from domestic sources. The nouvelle sensibilité, for instance, bears the notable influence of Fernand Dumont, an intellectual who often self-identified as a socialist, but whose attachment to Catholicism and critique of the Quiet Revolution manifested a conservative soul. Quebec’s conservative tradition is not unrelated to those of France, the United States, or English-­speaking Canada, but it is also distinctive in many regards. Quebec conservatism, in short, cannot be understood (or harnessed) without taking nationalism into consideration.

This article was originally published in the print edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Spring-Summer 2011, pp. 54-57.


Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published