General Articles

Maurice the Magnificent

He's been called a fascist, a jester who wanted to be king — and made it. But the habitant loves Duplessis and even those who hate him fear his genius

STUART KEATE September 1 1948
General Articles

Maurice the Magnificent

He's been called a fascist, a jester who wanted to be king — and made it. But the habitant loves Duplessis and even those who hate him fear his genius

STUART KEATE September 1 1948

Maurice the Magnificent

He's been called a fascist, a jester who wanted to be king — and made it. But the habitant loves Duplessis and even those who hate him fear his genius


THERE were a lot of exuberant French Canadians in the City of Three Rivers on the night of July 28, but none more so than Monsieur Dollard Bacon. M. Bacon, appropriately enough, is a butcher. On election night he was thrashing about the handsome basement study of the Hon. Maurice Duplessis at 240 Bonaventure Avenue, pounding fellow members of the Union Nationale on the back, flashing a gold-toothed grin and shrieking: “We goes up!”

As reports of the Duplessis landslide poured in over jangling telephones, Monsieur Bacon paused briefly to state his views about, his chief. “Maurice,” he cried, “is the 1M*H we ever had. He is-the best in the world. l*'or FrencJi, EnglisJi, Polish and all kinds citizens, he is the best. He has fought for us all over the world. (Tosh, that Maurice!”

The object of his affections was seated beliind a large mahogany desk, chomping on a cigar, reading congratulatory telegrams, occasionally sipping from a tall glass of orange juice with his name inscribed thereon. A steady stream of callers party workers, politicians, farmers, mechanics, dark-eyed young matrons, bare-chested youths, a policeman stepfjed up to pump his hand.

Maurice the Magnificent, he of the Bourbon nose and twinkling brown eyes, was incontestably Canada’s man of the hour that night. His party had scored one of the most amazing political triumphs in history, winning 82 out of 92 seats and leaving the Iaberal opposition all cut and bleeding. He had routed the combined forces of those highly regarded Ottawa Liberals, IvOuis St. Laurent and “Chubby” Power. If there was ever to be the much-discussed “Drew-Duplessis Axis” in the federal field, he had set the stage for it.

Duplessis romped home affer one of the most gaudy, rambunctious political hoe-downs in Quebec history. French Canadians, who take their politics seriously, reveled at the prospect of a $50,000 libel suit íby a candidate who was sure he’d been called a Communist), at least one abrupt and stunning political marriage which was patently indecent and some campaign oratory that would have done credit to graduation exercises at the local reform school. Hundreds of

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Maurice the Magnificent

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highway workers and “special police” were bustled onto the provincial payrolls a few days before the election. There were bands and movies and ice cream for the kiddies.

A qualified Liberal observer estimated that his party spent $500,000, and that the National Union dispensed at least five times that much. The rival politicians bombarded poor Jean Baptiste until he was groggy. To glorify that NU look, the Duplessis henchmen assailed the public with 40 broadcasts a day, full-paged advertisements in every throwaway paper in the province, neon lights, match books, direct mail, bilingual billboards, personal calls on householders, and—so help us—an airplane which swept low over hamlets with a loudspeaker bellowing; “Duplessis! Duplessis! Duplessis!”

At Three Rivers, the Premier’s home

constituency, a wondrous “miracle of the bells” was performed. At the precise moment when Mr. Duplessis got up to dedicate a new bridge, cathedral bells tolled and their rolling nuances were duly picked up by a battery of microphones and broadcast province-wide.

Two months before the election, members of the Quebec Press Gallery had been softened up with an allexpenses-paid trip to New York. Campaign reporters accepted modest handouts ($10 for meetings of le chef, $5 for minor-league candidates) which were dispensed in plain brown envelopes, the party being almost as ashamed of them as the scribes. The daily press was overwhelmingly Duplessiste.

It was this colossal organization, fashioned and executed by party zealots, plus a spectacular talent for misrepresenting the issues, which returned Maurice Duplessis to power. The question of Confederation, which many had regarded as settled in 1867,

was fought all over again, as was the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Taking a dramatic stand in front of Quebec’s new flag, the drapeau fleurdelisé, Mr. Duplessis screamed that this was "a fight for survival.” He cussed out the Ottawa Liberals as “meddlers” who had no business in the affairs of the province. He rumbled that if Newfoundland were brought into Confederation it would only mean “another 300,000 British” in the country. He chastised Ottawa for “giving billions to foreigners,” which made the Liberals wonder aloud if he I meant our erstwhile allies, the British,

1 French and Dutch? He screamed I about Communists in northern Quebec I with “thousands of machine guns” hidden in the bushes. When a conI stituent asked him about the $65 million subsidy he rejected, rather than sign the Dominion-Provincial tax agreement with Ottawa, he bellowed: “I would not sell my soul for 30 pieces of silver, or 65 millions.” Did it make sense? Not always. But did the public eat it up? They roared out the French equivalent of “Pour it on, Maurice!” and dissolved in lusty choruses of “Il a gagné ses épaulettes!”

Which brings up the question: Is Mr. Duplessis monster or martyr? One of his own ministers once called him a “dictator,” hastening to add the prefix “benevolent.” His opponents call him a “sawdust Caesar” and “Maurice Duplicity.” They insist he is a demagogue, an autocrat, a rabble-rouser, a j tyrant, a labor-baiter and a Fascist. Few would deny, however, that he is the most dynamic personality to burst on the Quebec political scene in half a ; century. He gives off sparks. He’s a i showman.

Credits and Debits

One Quebec political analyst explains him thus: “The one fact you must realize is that Mr. Duplessis is not i serious. All he wants to do is play out his hour on the stage, getting off a few quotable cracks now and then for i the press and the gallery. He’s the : perfect example of the court jester who wanted to be king. The only trouble is that he made it.”

This estimate is undoubtedly harsh, j Even Duplessis’ worst enemies, who ¡ say “you have to know him to dislike him,” concede that he is probably the j smartest parliamentarian in the House, i He knows his law. He is a superb, if ruthless, campaigner. He has brought along a number of bright young men ¡ in his party, made some excellent appointments to the bench and courts. He was the first premier in Canada to create a Youth Ministry.

Never a polished or particularly consistent orator, he is nonetheless a clever rough-and-tumble debater and a fast man with an ad lib. When a stray child wandered onto the platform at St. Jerome in the recent campaign, the Premier wondered audibly if its name could be Godbout? When a heckler cried “What about St. Laurent?” the Prime Minister grinned and retorted: “Never yet has the St.

Laurent overflowed the St. Maurice.” Too, Maurice Duplessis seems to have profited by past mistakes. Many of his detractors concede that his 1944-48 government showed a vast improvement over his prewar tenure. The Montreal Star has praised editorially his doctrine that “free enterprise will get a chance to develop” in Quebec. His forest policy, affecting more workers than any other industry, is generally conceded to be sound. He’s spent millions on hospitals, sanatoriums and schools. His long-term concession to the company developing Ungava iron ore, criticized by many, is defended

on the not unreasonable grounds that few capitalists are sufficiently affluent, or daring, to gamble $250 millions on a largely unknown country. The Prime Minister has argued that Quebec will emerge from this venture with a new railroad, a new frontier and jobs for thousands, and current indications are that he is right.

Much of the Government’s good works were made possible by the fact that the Government is tax-rich. The provincial sales tax of two per cent on most articles other than food has been retained, and the federal wartime impost of three cents a gallon on gasoline has been taken over. The beer tax has been increased nine cents a gallon. Company taxes have been raised two per cent. Liquor licenses, with attendant party “benefits,” were issued last year at the rate of almost three a day. Government revenues for 1947 touched $167 millions, compared to $64 millions in 1939.

He’s on the Wagon

Critics of his 1936-39 regime concede that Mr. Duplessis is today a better man himself. His jousts with the grape in early days are almost legendary. When he reflects ruefully: “I guess I drank more than my share,” those who know him insist that this is one of the great understatements in the history of the English (or French) tongue. A former political ally recalls that the Premier sometimes braced himself for the ordeal of eating lunch by first knocking back seven or eight Tom Collinses.

Today things are different. Mr. Duplessis now drinks orange juice and says he’s a better man for it. He chain smokes at his desk, puffs Havana cigars at banquets.

A bachelor, Mr. Duplessis enjoys the company of, and is frequently seen with, handsome women. He is also fond of ball-park spectacles, with powerful spotlights and tall columns of nationalist flags. If not an antiSemite, the Premier has allowed followers to slander Jews in the Assembly without a reproving word or gesture. (So bitter did many Jews in Outremont, a Montreal residential suburb, feel about the matter that they cut short vacations to return to Montreal for the sole purpose of voting against Duplessis’ candidate. He was beaten.)

The Duplessis day begins around seven in the morning, when he rises in his two-room Chateau Frontenac suite, orders a hearty breakfast and calls for the newspapers. At eight-thirty he goes below for his daily shave in the Chateau barbershop, waving cheery greetings to assorted bellboys, shoeshines and manicurists, who regard him as a prince of good fellows. The Premier is a fastidious dresser but unhappily addicted to double-breasted suits, which accentuate his growing obesity, and to expensive cravats which he invariably wears at half-mast, midway down his semihard collars.

Shortly after nine he is ready for his walk to the Legislative buildings, about 10 minutes away. On Wednesdays and Sundays he unfailingly attends Mass.

At the Legislative buildings, he occupies a handsome office, furnished with a bleached mahogany desk about 15 feet long, deep leather chairs and a cocoa-brown rug. Behind him and to his left are massive windows which give him a commanding view of the winding St. Lawrence River. On the wall are paintings of Quebec scenes and a large framed portrait of Their Majesties.

Mr. Duplessis works speedily, romping through large stacks of mail which

have been winnowed by his secretaries. He frequently takes lunch at his desk, on which a large carafe of orange juice is somewhat ostentatiously placed. A press conference once a week affords him an opportunity to indulge his passion for repartee and bad puns. He is genuinely fond of newspapermen, but pillories his critics unmercifully.

At these sessions, too, Mr. Duplessis likes to spring his latest “Mackenzie King*’ joke, of which he has a store. Sample: a man goes into court,

petitioning to have his name changed.

Judge: Yes, that can be done. What’s your name?

A: Mackenzie King Stink.

Judge: Yes, and what do you wish to have it changed to?

A: Joe Stink.

It is sometimes several minutes before Mr. Duplessis is sufficiently recovered from his spasms of laughter to carry on with the day’s business.

Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis was born in Three Rivers in 1890, the only son of Mr. Justice Louis Theodule Neree Le Noblet Duplessis, a Superior Court judge and arch Tory. By a coincidence, which his political opponents insist is not without significance, the young Maurice was born on the same day (April 20) as the late Adolph Hitler.

(A Duplessis estimate of Hitler was expressed at the time of the Munich crisis when the Quebec Premier, on return from a visit to the British Isles, told a Montreal editor: “This Hitler will beat them all!”)

The Gay Life

Duplessis grew up in a town noted, before the turn of the century, as the hotbed of Conservatism in Quebec. This conservatism, however, was not too noticeable in the life of young Maurice, who rapidly established himself as the Peck’s Bad Boy of his neighborhood. A frequent visitor to maison Duplessis in those days was the grand old man of French-Canadian historical letters, the late Sir Thomas Chapais, who lived long enough to congratulate Maurice on his successful holdout at the Dominion-Provincial relations conference. In relaxed moments with newsmen, Duplessis describes those visits affectionately: how he amused himself by making spitballs and pinking Monsieur Chapais as he engaged in weighty discussions with Duplessis père on the future of Conservatism in Canada.

As a young man, Maurice was widely renowned as a bon vivant (French for the old English word, heller) and manager of the local shipyard’s baseball team. A portent of his later cunning came in the 1920 championships when Vernon (“Swede”) Johnson, now woods manager of Canadian International Paper’s 17,000 square miles of Quebec forests, hit a home run with the bases full to win the title for Grand’Mère. Defeated on the playing field, Duplessis did not quit. Screaming that the Grand’Mère team was loaded with “ ringers ” (although at least two of his own players were reported to be enjoying a brief vacation from the Boston Braves), Duplessis carried the protest to committee rooms. The league president, a sympathetic priest, awarded Duplessis the cup. He kept it 16 years, in spite of the quiet ribbing of “Swede” Johnson, and finally promised to return it “when he became Prime Minister of Quebec.” With becoming modesty, he sent it along six weeks before the election.

With a family tradition of Conservatism, a law degree (from Laval in Montreal), a gregarious disposition and a great affinity for the limelight, it was

inevitable that the young Mr. Duplessis should turn to politics. Although he did not participate in World War l, he had his say about it; there are reports, dimmed with the passing of years, that he came out on the side of conscription in 1917. In his first attempt to represent Three Rivers in the provincial house, in 1923, he was defeated. He came back, however, in 1927 and has never been defeated since. Maurice has repaid his fellow citizens handsomely for this show of faith. Trifluvians rejoice in spanking new, toll-free bridges; they have a baseball stadium at least five times as good as that of Vancouver, a city eight times larger; they have new hospitals and schools; they have a stylish civic swimming pool where, alas, husbands and wives may not bathe together because of the municipal bugaboos concerning “immorality.”

Maurice demonstrated early in life that he was to be a wily and robust political infighter. His first important coup came in October, 1933, at a Conservative party convention in Sherbrooke. What went on behind closed doors in that city remains largely a secret, but when the convention was over the party leadership had been wrested away from that hilarious tactician, Camillien Houde, and handed to Duplessis. Thus was launched a bitter feud which caused Houde to declaim “Either they will perish or I,” and to predict that Quebec would secede from Canada under Maurice’s guidance. This vendetta ended touchingly a few weeks ago when Houde threw his considerable bulk behind Duplessis’ campaign for some seats on Montreal Island.

Shorn of his legislative powers as mayor of Montreal, Houde hopped aboard the Duplessis band wagon with the promise, apparently, of a bright new world, after election. The wedding ceremonies were observed before 5,000 steaming partisans in Montreal’s St. James market hall. Like a trained bear, Houde danced on Duplessis’ string, went through all his tricks for an adoring audience that cried: “Camillien! Camillien! Camillien!” Houde added to the gaiety of the campaign with the statement that Mackenzie King started World War II by “provoking” Hitler in 1937!

Rise to the Top

The event which projected Maurice Duplessis as a major political force in the Dominion, however, occurred in his coup d'état of 1935. The Taschereau Liberal Government had been in power almost 40 years. Gradually and imperceptibly the ruling clique had contracted until admittance of new blood to the inner circle was virtually impossible. Ambitious young members of the Liberal party grew restive. Rallying around the cultured and popular Paul Gouin, son of the longtime Liberal Premier, Sir Lomer Gouin, they broke with the elder statesmen to form l’Action Liberale. At the insistence of such rabid nationalists as Dr. Phillipe Hamel and Rene Chaloult, the title was subsequently expanded to l'Action Liberale Nationale.

Duplessis saw an opportunity here and cashed in on it. In the general election of 1935, he made a deal with Gouin that neither would contest identical seats. Gouin won 26 seats, Duplessis 16—almost enough to topple the Taschereau Government from power. In the single session of Parliament, they teamed up to block passage of the 1936-37 budget. Meanwhile, Duplessis lit a fire under the public accounts committee and uncovered some evidence of hanky-panky in the

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accounts. The combination of circumstances forced the retirement of Taschereau and a dissolution of Parliament.

Duplessis, having tasted blood, was red-hot for the kill. Already Paul Gouin had been swallowed up. Duplessis commandeered both Gouin’s program and his followers, some of whom were Tories at heart, and wedded them to his own Conservative party. Promptly he announced that the old party lines had been dissolved, that the new movement would operate under the name of “ Union Nationale." Let no one imagine, however, that this was to be a “national,” in the sense of Canadian, movement; it was nationale in the jingoistic sense of Quebec first and down with the “trusts”! It routed the Liberals in August, 1936, by taking 76 seats out of 90.

The wine of power proved heady for Maurice, who gulped it in huge draughts. The 1936-39 term of office was full of ferment, as was Mr. Duplessis. Quebec ran into debt at the alarming rate of $1 million a week; when war broke over Canada, the province’s credit was tottering and the thrifty habitants began to ask questions. In spite of this, Duplessis might have retained a majority had it. not been for an unaccountably bad guess on the war temper of his people.

In a famous Three Rivers speech, the Premier thundered that Quebec’s autonomy was being jeopardized by the Wat Measures Act and that if that was the way the boys in Ottawa were going to play, he wouldn’t support their nasty old war. Duplessis subsequently denied that he had issued a “no-participation” statement but a responsible Gazette reporter, sensing that he had a big story, took the trouble to call him and, in the presence of witnesses, asked him to repeat the statement. Duplessis obliged. rI his gaffe, coupled with the oratorical appeals of Quebec’s “big three” in Ottawa— Rinfret, Cardin and Lapointe —was enough to turn the Premier out. Lapointe, in particular, is often credited with defeating Duplessis by writing three lines: if the Premier didn’t like those in power at Ottawa, whom did he want? (Some nice, conscriptionloving Tory, for instance, like Lord Bennett?) The French Canadians got the point.

The Farmers’ Friend

Thus the Union Nationale went into eclipse. Rut it was only temporary. In the reinforcement crisis of 1944, Duplessis saw another chance and pounced on it. The province was now prospering; Quebec had done a good job of turning out war material; aircraft plants, shipyards and munitions works were humming. Duplessis had now qualified his early-war stand and proclaimed his belief in “moderate participation.” In the middle of the campaign, a prize piece of political ammunition was dropped in Duplessis’ lap when a French-Canadian draft dodger was shot and killed by the RUMP. Maurice made the most of it. By capitalizing on the semiconscription muddle and raising the old “autonomy” cry, he won a curious election: 25,000 more persons voted against him than for him, but he squeaked in.

This was possible under the slightly fantastic electoral divisions of the province. Although almost half of Quebec’s people live in the District of Montreal—and usually vote against Duplessis—they hold only 15 of the province’s 92 seats.

The result is that the farm vote is top-heavy and it is to the habitant, whose main intellectual stimuli are the

pulpit and the political platform, that | Duplessis has made his most fervent pitch. Realistically, the Premier asks them: “Do you want a new hospital? Do you want a new bridge? Electric lights? A new school? Then vote LTnion Nationale. I would hate to force gifts on you that wouldn’t be appreciated.” This is talk any man can understand. The habitant glows all over, too, when le grand orateur talks about those evil men in Ottawa, trying to rob him of his culture and his language and believes that Louis St. Laurent really should have gone around to the nunnery himself after those Polish art treasures, instead of sending the Mounties.

While ensuring free access to the polls in the hinterland, the Government has placed petty obstacles in the way of city voters. A new election act, passed in 1945, compels urban electors to carry a certificate of registration to the polls, an imposition not shared by those in the country. At least one district hostile to Duplessis has been gerrymandered. In the cities, where the large population shifts occur, thousands have been rendered ineligible to vote by a 1947 law which decrees citizens must have lived in Quebec for at least two years.

The hard fact is that many Liberals find it a bit difficult to breathe in the current political climate of Quebec. At least three of the four freedoms have taken a sharp kicking around since Duplessis came to power. While paying lip service to freedom of worship, the Government has persecuted and jailed literally hundreds of those fervent religious door-to-door salesmen, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Witnesses have been stoned and beaten. Young girls have been drenched in crankcase oil. The prosperous restaurateur who came to their aid with bail money, Frank Roncarelli, had his liquor license revoked and was finally forced to give up, at a loss of more than $250,000.

The Padlock Law, which was written 1 into the statutes by Duplessis in 1937 I (and not repealed by the God bout I regime of 1939-44) permits the attorneyj general to close, without court action, premises “suspected” of fomenting subversive ideas or propaganda. Persons j attacked can get no redress unless they prove themselves innocent; they are denied open accusation and a fair trial. And who bobs up as attorneygeneral of the province? Maurice Duplessis.

This law has been invoked twice in recent months. It was used in a raid on a downtown Montreal bookstore and to close an ineffectual Communist weekly called Combat.

Many democratically-minded citizens in Quebec hold the view that Duplessis has made a mockery of civil liberties. They have seen labor pickets at Sorel, Vallevfield and Laehute worked over by club-swinging provincial police. They have noted with anxiety the tightening of censorship (on 16-mm. movies and even “ham” radio operators), and the increasing number of bans, on everything from bingo to two-piece bathing suits.

But these issues meant little at the polls. On election night an Englishspeaking Canadian who has lived in Three Rivers almost 40 years delivered this opinion on the NIJ landslide: “These people voted with their blood, not their brains. If other Canadians look upon them as pea-soups, secondclass Canadians, they have shown tonight that, by God, they are bound to be first-class Canadians in their own bailiwick.”

And Mr. Duplessis smiles the smile of a genial barracuda as he prophesies: “I’m good for at least another 25 years.” ★