The Quiet Revolution (La révolution tranquille) refers to a period of cultural and political change that occurred in Quebec throughout the 1960s. It began as a response to the traditional and conservative values held by the Catholic Church that dominated Quebec in the post-war period and after, resulting in rapid and significant social, political, and economic changes in the province.
Prior to the Quiet Revolution, Quebec was a predominantly rural and conservative society, dominated by the Catholic Church and traditional social hierarchies. The province’s economy was largely based on agriculture and resource extraction, and its cultural identity was defined by a strong sense of French-Canadian nationalism. At the time, much of Quebec’s francophone population lived below the poverty line.
From 1944 until the 1960s, the Union Nationale party had been the leading power in Quebec, under the leadership of Maurice Duplessis. Duplessis viewed Quebec as a Catholic province, and sought to allow Catholic leadership to engage in the organization of education, health services, and social assistance, co-constructing and affirming the idea that to be Quebecois was to be Catholic.
There was backlash, however, to Duplessis’ traditional and religious approach to governing Quebec, and during this period, critics began to voice their discontent. Notably, Gérard Pelletier and (future Prime Minister) Pierre Elliot Trudeau founded a dissident journal, the Cité libre, which ended up serving as a home to Quebecois intellectuals and a place to voice opposition. Calls for pluralism, participation in democratic decision making, urbanization, and the creation of a modern educational system were mounting.
The Liberal Party’s victory over the incumbent Union Nationale Party in the June 1960 election marked a turning point in the history of Quebec. The new government, under the leadership of Jean Lesage, set out to replace the outdated conservative ideologies of Duplessis and modernize the province with a variety of reforms. This began the Quiet Revolution period which would last for the next 20 years. And as Lesage’s government was laying out their plans, attendance at churches in the province dropped precipitously; 30% in a matter of a few years. The province was beginning its move away from the traditional values of the Catholic Church and towards a more secular society.
While the changes that took place in Quebec society during this time are too numerous to list here, among the most important was the reorganization of the education system, occurring at the recommendation of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Education. The government established a provincial Ministry of Education in 1964, taking control over education away from the Catholic Church, in addition to creating the CEGEP system and the Université du Québec network.
The government also implemented many important reforms affecting the status of women. Notably, women were conferred the same right to higher education as men, and prominent feminists including Thérèse Casgrain drew attention to a more contemporary form of thinking within Quebec and ultimately caused people to place less value on conventional gender roles.
During this time, the government began Quebec’s economic transformation into a welfare state. It extended control over social services by establishing a new public hospital network and the Quebec Pension Plan. New infrastructure such as highways, schools and other public buildings were constructed as well. In 1963, all private hydroelectric companies were nationalized and incorporated into Hydro-Quebec, a state-owned utility that would become one of the largest producers of electricity in North America. Quebec also nationalized the other natural resources, including steel, mining, forestry, and oil working to shift Quebec’s economy from agriculture to a very successful site of industry and resource extraction. Further, the changes to education and infrastructure also enabled significant growth and leadership in both the aerospace and telecommunications industries.
Finally, a new wave of Quebecois artists, writers, and musicians celebrated the province’s unique cultural identity and pushed back against dominant Anglophone culture. Through film, literature, art, and music, they asserted that Quebecois identity was not only unique, but thriving on its own terms.
The Quiet Revolution represented a time of vast changes in Quebec. Although the Union Nationale defeated the Liberals in the 1966 election, the direction of Quebec modernization established by Lesage’s government continued well into the 1980s. Throughout this long period, following the changes of the 1960s including a stronger economy, and decreased dependence on the Church, a sense of Quebec nationalism took root. The Quiet Revolution was a harbinger of the challenges Quebec would face in the 1970s and 1980s in asserting its identity, as would be seen in Lesage’s withdrawal from several federal-provincial cost-sharing programs, the passing of the Official Languages Act in 1969, and the introduction of Bill 101. Quebec has continued to march on, perhaps to the beat of its own drummer.
- Digital exhibit from the Musée québécois de culture populaire about the Quiet Revolution
- The Welcome to Canadian Politics article on Bill 21 (including a brief history of secularism in Quebec)
- Link to information about the film Quebec: My Country, Mon Pays on the “aftermath of the Quiet Revolution”
Contributors: Ben Allan, Oliver Cambridge, Ellis Ford, Maia Hutton, Yasseen Mobada, Jasvin Ruvendra, Adithi Venkateswaran, Gavin Seeley-Baechler