The Quiet Revolution
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The Quiet Revolution
The provincial government spearheads revolution in Quebec
In the early 1960s, Quebec's church-based education system became a focal point in a series of rapid, sweeping government reforms. The changes would transform Quebec and mark the peak of the Quiet Revolution.
Broadcaster turned politician, Ren Lvesque, was a key member of the Quebec Liberal government, which initiated sweeping reforms in province in the early 1960s.
Broadcaster turned politician, René Lévesque, was a key member of the Quebec Liberal government, which initiated sweeping reforms in province in the early 1960s.

Since the first days of New France, the Catholic Church had assumed the task of educating the young. In the early 1960s, the system - and the curriculum - were archaic, obsolete and produced one of the highest dropout rates in the country; half of all Quebec students were leaving school by the age of fifteen.

Those who wanted a higher education found a system designed for a few chosen souls.

"Our mission was to train the elite," said Claude Brouillet who taught at a classical college near Montreal. "We had some sons of working-class people. To be able to get (financial) help, they had to have a recommendation from the parish priest."

In rural Quebec, education was a low priority.

"Here, in the country, it was the exception that could go on beyond sixth grade," said teacher Juliette Gagnon. "People said that to pick up rocks and work the land, they didn't need an education."

In 1960, Jean-Paul Desbiens, a teaching brother, denounced the school system in a book entitled The Impertinences of Brother - Anonymous. It was based on a series of letters hed written to the influential newspaper, Le Devoir.

"Lets give all the (education) officials all the medals there are," Desbiens wrote. "Lets create some special ones, such as one for Solemn Mediocrity. Lets give them all a comfortable and well-paid retirement and send them home to their mamas."

Desbiens struck a chord with Quebecers. The book was an unprecedented success, selling over 100,000 copies. As for Desbiens, the Church did not appreciate his criticisms. His Catholic order sent him off to Europe for three years of reflection.

But the floodgates were open. The book's popularity revealed a Quebec society that was ripe for change after years of post-war prosperity and industrialization.

The year the book was released, Quebecers elected a new reform-minded premier, Liberal Jean Lesage. Lesage was determined to fully modernize the province, which had been controlled for 18 years by the iron authority of Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis.

The Lesage government set about nationalizing the hydro-electric utilities. It also set up the Quebec pension plan and created new ministries for cultural affairs and federal/provincial relations. Brian Upton, a Montreal Star journalist, coined the phrase "Quiet Revolution" to describe the changes being wrought in Quebec.

Lesages most radical reform, however, was in education. Youth Minister Paul Gérin-Lajoie was assigned the task of wresting control of education from the Catholic Church and making it a modern institution.

"We were concerned by the reality of the moment and this reality was brutal and easy to see: Quebec's education system was not up to the needs of the twentieth century."

Archbishop Maurice Roy, the primate of the Canadian Catholic Church, defended the church's historic hold on education.

"There are, in this great enterprise established a hundred years ago, guiding principles that cannot be changed without endangering its solidity."

But the government refused to back down. By 1964, the province had an education ministry which was highly government controlled. Within a few years, Quebec created secondary schools and a network of junior colleges.

Claude Brouillet had left his small classical college and now taught in Montreal.

"I arrived at Édouard-Montpetit high schoolthe year it opened. I was coming from a school of 300 students to one where there were almost 2,000 of them. What a difference!"

But not everyone seemed prepared for the huge changes that Lesage had unleashed. The education reforms had upset a way of life that was centuries old.

Lesage's government would be defeated in the 1966 election by Duplessis old party The Union Nationale. But the new premier Daniel Johnson would not try to turn back the clock. The Quiet Revolution would continue.


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