Canada’s Own Donald Trump
We had our own Donald Trump, an authoritarian braggart with a taste for fascism, an admiration for despots, and little regard for the truth. Like Trump, he was a womanizer, and like Trump, luck broke his way more often than not. Like Trump, he was said to have a hypnotic, cultish power over his followers.
Maurice Duplessis was Premier of Quebec from 1936 to 1939 and from 1944 to 1959. Harnessing the power of the religious establishment of the province and a fear of outsiders, Duplessis created his own political movement, the Union Nationale, and reigned virtually as king for eighteen dark years, taking orders from nobody except the moneyed class and the clergy. He was known simply as Le Chef-- “the Boss”.
After a five year interregnum, Duplessis returned to power in 1944 entirely on the back of a Big Lie. He raged around the Province of Quebec, particularly in rural and small town ridings, warning of a plot by the International Zionist Brotherhood to bribe Quebec and Canadian politicians to allow the settlement of a hundred thousand wartime-displaced European Jews in Quebec. Notwithstanding that the story was one hundred percent BS, enough voters were sufficiently enraged to elect* Duplessis to fifteen more years of unbridled power, a period known as La Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness).
During Duplessis’ second reign he rigged the law so that he could do exactly as he pleased. The provincial police became his bully-boys, often being used to terrorize opposition and out-of-favour individuals and groups. His power to grant or withhold licenses and permits ensured that “his kind of people” were preferred, and his enemies were punished. Budget power meant that he could tax those he hated and bless those he favoured.
But mostly it was local power brokers and the church who enabled Duplessis, the clergy reminding the faithful that “Le ciel est bleu; l'enfer est rouge.” (Heaven is blue; Hell is red.). Duplessis said of a leading clergyman, “I kiss his ring and he kisses my ass.”
Ultimately it was lawyers and the courts who triggered the end of Duplessis’ power. A restaurant owner named Roncarelli sued the Premier on the footing that he had had his liquor license revoked on the sole and obvious basis that he was a Jehovah’s Witness and a virulent opponent of the Premier. Duplessis didn’t even pretend it was for any other reason.
The Supreme Court of Canada in Roncarelli v Duplessis overturned the Quebec Court of Appeal and reinstated the Superior Court ruling in favour of Roncarelli, ordering that the plaintiff's license be reinstated and that he be awarded damages and court costs. It was the first tangible signal that Duplessis could successfully be challenged.
By the time Roncarelli had made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, the underpinnings of Duplessis’ power were also beginning to erode as more and more Quebecers obtained modern education and began to see a larger world outside the parish. In September, 1959 Duplessis suffered a series of strokes and died. The next year, Jean Lesage swept to power and initiated the Quiet Revolution, ultimately turning Quebec into one of the most secular jurisdictions on the planet.
You may be able to slow history, but you can’t stop it.
*Duplessis’ opponent won more votes, but fewer seats in the National Assembly. So much for rigged elections.
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