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Duplessis: Battle of the historians

Maurice Duplessis's death was a rare historical marker, forever discussed in terms of before and after. Before his death, the province basked in the postwar boom but strikers were punished, communists were hounded and the province's resources were sold to American big business. After his death, the province rallied its way into modernity with the not so Quiet Revolution. But over the past fifty years, historians and Quebecers have been constantly re-evaluating Duplessis and have drawn no certain conclusions.

Historians Conrad Black and Léandre Bergeron couldn't disagree more about the controversial legacy of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis. Was he a dictator? Did he have original ideas or was he merely a carbon copy of his predecessors? In this CBC Radio debate, Black and Bergeron argue about Duplessis's handling of the Asbestos strike and the Padlock Act. Insults of "cliché!" and "bourgeois!" are volleyed back and forth as the two historians bicker and banter. 
• In this debate, Bergeron titles Duplessis a "Negro king." This moniker was first coined by journalist and politician André Laurendeau in an editorial in Le Devoir on July 4, 1958. Laurendeau explained that the "Negro kings," who ruled throughout the British Empire, were puppet rulers for imperial authorities. "The British have political sense; they rarely destroy the political institutions of a conquered country," Laurendeau wrote. "They dominate the Negro-king but they allow him fantasies. On occasion they permit him to cut off a few heads: these are the mores of the country. One thing never comes to their minds, and that is to demand that the Negro-king conform to the high moral and political standards of the British. The Negro-king must collaborate with and protect British interests. This collaboration assured, everything else goes by the boards. The kinglet violates democratic rules. Nothing else is expected from a primitive..." (translation by Claude Bélanger.

• In his editorial, Laurendeau further argued that Duplessis was like a "Negro king" because he sold Quebec's natural resources and manpower to American big business at the expense of his people. Black actively dismissed the roi nègre theory in his biography Duplessis (1977), but many academics like Léon Dion continued to argue its significance. "He sold iron ore [to the United States] for a pittance and was anti-labor. His government acted as a dam against Quebec's evolution," said Dion in a Globe and Mail article "Quebec starts reassessment of Duplessis," Aug. 23, 1986.

• Conrad Black earned his master's degree in history from McGill University in 1973. He wrote his thesis on Maurice Duplessis and it was published in 1977 to mixed reviews. Journalist Peter C. Newman wrote, "Black's style is surprisingly eloquent and witty - just right for his subject," in a review for Maclean's, Dec. 27, 1976.

• On balance, historian Ramsay Cook wrote, "Conrad Black's study of Maurice Duplessis is an occasionally entertaining, verbally inflated, badly organized and above all unjustifiably long chronicle of Quebec history from the 1920s to the 1960s." - Globe and Mail, Dec. 18, 1976.
Medium: Radio
Program: This Country in the Morning
Broadcast Date: Sept. 27, 1974
Guest(s): Léandre Bergeron, Conrad Black
Host: Michael Enright
Duration: 22:44

Last updated: July 18, 2013

Page consulted on December 5, 2013

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