________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 10 . . . .January 20, 2006


Maurice Duplessis: Powerbroker, Politician. (Quest Library, No. 26).

Marguerite Paulin.
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 2002/2005.
239 pp., pbk., $15.95.
ISBN 1-894852-17-6.

Subject Headings:
Duplessis, Maurice, 1890-1959.
Québec (Province)-Politics and government-1936-1960.
Prime ministers-Québec (Province)-Biography.

Grades 10-12 / Ages 15-17.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

**½ /4



In the morning when he wakes up, Maurice Duplessis always listens to the radio. In his suite at the Château Frontenac, he gathers up the newspapers he leaves lying around so that he can read them at any time. He is passionate about current affairs. With his friends, he can discuss the international political situation for hours. Cynical, he sees dark days ahead for Canada. “De Gaulle is in league with Winston Churchill. You’ll see these two bounce back. And when the United Kingdom needs men, she’ll come here to get her cannon fodder.”


Paulin, a radio host and producer in Montreal, biographer and lecturer at McGill University, relies upon secondary sources to construct this biography of the controversial figure who was the longest-governing premier in Quebec’s history. Paulin strives to be non-partisan but casts a critical eye upon Duplessis’s methods that included extensive use of patronage and envelopes of cash for journalists who wrote favourable copy.

     Maurice Duplessis was born in 1890 into a political family in Trois-Rivières. His father, Nérée, was a Conservative member of the Quebec Legislative Assembly for 14 years and later became a judge. Maurice was sent to boarding school in Montreal and went on to law school at the Université de Laval where he impressed his classmates with his oratorical skills. He continued to hone these skills after opening a law practice in his hometown. His first foray before the electorate ended in defeat in 1923, but at the age of 37, he was elected in 1927 as the member for Trois-Rivières, a position that he held until his death in office in 1959.

     Paulin makes extensive use of imagined dialogue as well as an authoritative narrative voice to tell the story of Duplessis’s political and private life. She makes many references to contemporary Quebec society in order to capture the flavour of the time. The occasional footnote is used to explain a term or short form that may be unfamiliar to modern, especially non-Quebec readers. Many other mysteries remain unexplained such as the laws that permitted Duplessis’s rival, Montreal mayor Camillien Houde, to hold the mayoralty and a seat in the Legislative Assembly simultaneously and then to run in two ridings in the 1931 election.

     Much of the text deals with the Machiavellian world of politics. Duplessis shored up support amongst his constituents and the Catholic Church while pursuing political power. He became leader of the Québec Conservative Party in 1933 but prudently formed an unlikely alliance with members of the reform-minded Action Libérale Nationale to create a new party, the Union Nationale, shortly before an election in 1935. Although still in opposition, Duplessis exposed corruption in the entrenched Liberal government of the day and swept into power in 1936. He also managed to sweep his former allies from the Action Libérale Nationale to the periphery or out of the new party entirely. His government proved to be short-lived, going down to defeat in 1939.

     When the Union Nationale formed the new government in 1944, Premier Duplessis was also something of a new man. Formerly a heavy drinker and smoker, health problems including diabetes had forced him to stop drinking alcohol. Unfortunately, Duplessis’s second, 15-year term as premier, that included re-elections in 1948, 1952, and 1956, receives relatively little coverage in Paulin’s biography, accounting for only one fourth of the text. Nevertheless, she manages to highlight many of the controversies and achievements of the Duplessis regime, including its use of the Padlock Laws to suppress communists, persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the adoption of the Fleur-de-lis as provincial flag, and the use of the provincial police to crush the strike in the town of Asbestos in 1949. Duplessis’s use or abuse of power at Asbestos and elsewhere encouraged activists like Gérard Pelletier and Pierre Elliot Trudeau to speak out in defense of civil liberties. The Asbestos strike also marked a growing rift between Duplessis and the Catholic Church, as the archbishop of Montreal supported the workers. Was Monsignor Charbonneau’s resignation shortly afterward due to Duplessis’s influence?

     Duplessis’s support for greater provincial autonomy led to Quebec’s ability to collect income taxes directly in 1954. Paulin could have devoted more space to changes in social legislation and public works that marked these years in office. In September 1959, during a visit to Shefferville, Duplessis died. Paul Sauvé, his successor as premier and leader of the Union Nationale, also died after only one hundred days in office. Antonio Barrette, the new leader, was defeated by the Liberals in the summer of 1960. The party’s loss of its chief had marked the end of an era.

     The book includes an assortment of black and white photos of Duplessis and his parents, but none of his mistresses. The index is very serviceable with entries for Duplessis and his father containing sub-entries by subject. A few other named individuals, including Camillien Houde, whose first name is misspelled in the index, would have benefitted from sub-entries. Like other works in the series the “Quest Library” series, this volume contains a useful chronology in two columns: “Maurice Duplessis and Quebec” and “Canada and the World.” This work is a translation of Maurice Duplessis: Le noblet, le petit roi that was first published in 2002. All but three of the sources in the bibliography are in French.

Recommended with reservations.

Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and member of the Collection Services Team at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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