1939: Duplessis and Godbout Rescue UdeM & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “Shadows and Revolution”, 1900-1960

The Duplessis government’s law to aide the construction of UdeM. It would be followed by a similar law by the Godbout government. Photo credit: Assemblée nationale. The Duplessis government’s law to aide the construction of UdeM. It would be followed by a similar law by the Godbout government. Photo credit: Assemblée nationale.

Despite Maurice Duplessis and Adélard Godbout’s many disagreements, the two governments indirectly worked towards the same goal in the late 1930s: ensuring the Université de Montréal’s survival.

The Université de Montréal started out as an offshoot of the Université Laval, a second campus located on Montreal Island. Important decisions were made initially by the Catholic Church and once the University received its charter in 1919, by top administrators in Quebec City, making things complicated. Coupled with that, the Université de Montréal moved a few times since its inception, and in the 1930s, acquired land on Mont-Royal to build new buildings after three fires badly damaged their old campus. Maurice Duplessis, a graduate of the Université de Montréal’s law faculty, made it one of his missions during his first term as Premier to look after the well-being and the University’s transition to Mont-Royal. He formed a commission that would ensure that the Université de Montréal would have a smooth transition to their new Mont-Royal campus. One of his last acts as Premier was passing the Loi pour venir en aide à l’Université de Montréal (this is the actual name). Coming into force in April 1939, this law seems like a good idea, until you notice that the law probably meant that the Université de Montréal would have been in dire financial needs.

Québec was hit hard by the Great Depression and construction of the Université de Montréal’s campus, notably its iconic tower (now Pavillon Roger-Gaudry), stopped entirely. It is Duplessis’ law that managed to grant funds to the Université de Montréal, up to five million dollars. This came at a price: they would be under a tutorship, meaning all decisions would not be taken by the Université de Montréal but by a combination of administrators from the University, a priest, and other councillors named by the Lieutenant-Governor. These councillors formed the Société d’administration de l’Université de Montréal.

These councillors continued to make decisions even after Adélard Godbout was appointed Premier in 1939. Also conscious of the University’s problem and also a believer in education, in May 1941, the Godbout government passed another law that injected another two and a half million dollars to ensure the completion of the buildings as well as an additional funds each year until the buildings could be completed. Called the Loi pour assurer le parachèvement de l’immeuble de l’Université de Montréal (this is also the actual name), the law served as an add-on to Duplessis’ law. Once again, the Société would manage the University’s funds to ensure that the new campus would be completed.

Duplessis and Godbout’s motives were very different from one another’s, and yet the goal was the same. For Duplessis, the Université de Montréal was a university that was associated with the Catholic faith and thus needed government help to ensure its completion. Godbout, however, was a believer in compulsory, though secular, education, and at the time, one of the University’s administrators, Édouard Montpetit, was a layman. With the help of Maurice Duplessis and Adélard Godbout, the Université de Montréal’s Mont-Royal campus opened its doors in 1941.

Read Duplessis’ law here and Godbout’s law here (both available in the archives of the Assemblée nationale).

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