1936: Padlocks and Propaganda & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “Shadows and Revolution”, 1900-1960

The Duplessis cabinet, 1936. Maurice Duplessis would serve four more terms as Premier of Québec. The Duplessis cabinet, 1936. Maurice Duplessis would serve four more terms as Premier of Québec.

Maurice Duplessis sat at the forefront of the Legislative Assembly by the time he was in his mid-forties; Québec was virtually at his command. His memory was long, and he had grievances against people he did not like and who would oppose him.

In his second year as Premier of Québec, Duplessis would pass a law, commonly known as the Padlock Law (Loi du cadenas), that would make disseminating Communist and Bolshevik propaganda by any means and would permit authorities to lock down buildings that would allow these materials passed on to other people and permitted a trial without the possibility for an appeal. This law was primarily used to get back at Duplessis’ political opponents, most notably the left-wing Jewish communities, some of whom were quite open about their affiliation to the Communist Party of Canada and Marxist groups, as well as trade unionists. From the start, some people dared to debate whether or not the Padlock Law was constitutional. Duplessis used the law to shut down trade union strikes and newspaper offices, most notably a Communist newspaper in French, La Clareté. One man, Mr. John Switzman, would take his issue all the way to the Supreme Court, where nine judges would pronounce on the legality of the law in in 1957, more than two decades after the law had been passed.

Jehovah’s Witnesses also did not escape Duplessis’ radar, but instead of passing legislation, he allowed municipalities to use and abuse their by-laws to prevent dissemination of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ material and arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses who attempted to give out material. An active Jehovah’s Witnesses opponent, Duplessis would use his power later on in his life to revoke a man’s licence to serve liquor in his establishment, bringing on one of the most notable Supreme Court decisions towards the middle of the century.

And yet Duplessis also passed policies in his first term that would favour the rural areas, promoting farm credit and making it more accessible than ever. Duplessis would appoint himself the guardian of roadway contracts. Managing to secure public works contracts with the aid of the federal government, Duplessis worked to bring Québec back from the tumultuous consequences that the Great Depression left in its wake. Enabling the construction of botanist Frère Marie-Victorin’s dream, the Botanical Gardens, his support created jobs that would drag the Québec people out of unemployment.

Over-confident and believing that he knew what the Québec people were thinking, Duplessis made one mistake in 1939: calling an election.