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Duplessis: The Roncarelli Affair

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.

In 1946, Premier Maurice Duplessis ordered the arrest of a group of Jehovah's Witnesses who had distributed leaflets boldly criticizing the powerful Roman Catholic Church. Duplessis reasoned that the religious sect's rhetoric was clearly a threat to public order. Frank Roncarelli, owner of the Montreal restaurant Quaff, supplied tens of thousands of dollars in bail for his fellow Jehovah's Witnesses. He was similarly made to suffer. Quaff's liquor licence was invalidated, throwing the restaurant into ruin, as heard in this Front Page Challenge interview with Roncarelli.

Roncarelli fought back and sued the premier. The case explored the intricacies of civil liberties and was heard before the courts for twelve and a half years. Finally, in January 1959, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Roncarelli. Premier Duplessis was ordered to pay $46,132 personally. "Would your case be the only one where a person had sued the premier of a province," a Front Page Challenge panellist asks Roncarelli in this interview. "That's right -- dictator I prefer," Roncarelli corrects before adding, "and won." 
. During the trial, Premier Duplessis indicated that Roncarelli had not violated any liquor regulations. The revocation of the licence was directly attributed to Roncarelli's posting of bail for the Jehovah's Witnesses. Roncarelli shut down Quaff after his liquor licence was revoked.
. The Supreme Court of Canada found that Duplessis had punished Roncarelli arbitrarily, and ruled in his favour. Following his victory, ROncarelli moved to the United States and worked for a highway construction company. Roncarelli died on Sept. 26, 1981 in Groton, Conn.

. Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian group whose faith revolves around the Second Coming of Christ. There are more than 100,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Canada and approximately six million worldwide.
Medium: Television
Program: Front Page Challenge
Broadcast Date: May 25, 1965
Guest(s): Frank Roncarelli
Host: Fred Davis
Panellist: Pierre Berton, Betty Kennedy, Gordon Sinclair, Doris Clark
Duration: 5:30

Last updated: March 28, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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