1939: The Return of Godbout & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “Shadows and Revolution”, 1900-1960

The Godbout cabinet, 1939. Godbout's second term as Premier of Québec and final win against the political giant Duplessis. The Godbout cabinet, 1939. Godbout's second term as Premier of Québec and final win against the political giant Duplessis.

The world continued marching on. As Maurice Duplessis fought his way to the top, Adolf Hitler had gained control over Germany and in September of 1939, Nazi forces invaded Poland, breaking the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact that had been formed by Nazi Germany and the USSR. Duplessis, conscious of the French-Canadian opposition to World War I, decided to capitalise on this outbreak of war to call an election on the matter. His gamble would be one of his greatest losses.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada, had some choice words for Duplessis upon hearing that he had called an election, calling him a “little Hitler” in his diary. It seemed, at least from the outside, that Duplessis was trying to provoke another “us versus them” sentiment that could entrap the Canadian confederation into another debate about Quebec. The 1939 elections saw the return of a familiar face, that of Paul Gouin, who ran once again as the leader of the Action libérale nationale. It was clear, however, that his day as a leader was unfortunately over for the ALN, and though he received about 4.5% of the vote, he was unable to win a seat at the Legislative Assembly. Most surprisingly, it was not Duplessis that won. It was Adélard Godbout, a man that seemed less imposing and certainly without the rhetoric and oratorical skills that made Duplessis a crowd pleader, the old Liberal from the Taschereau era, that won. He formed a majority government of seventy people, himself included, essentially flipping the result of Duplessis’ win in 1936 on its head.

Godbout’s campaign ran on a promise that he knew the history of the French-Canadians and their resistance to fight what by all accounts someone else’s war and that he would refuse any call for conscription should such a request from the federal government come to his office. However, by July of 1940, Great Britain was under attack by Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, with large-scale bombings of residential areas of Britain intended to terrorise civilians and force Britain to surrender to Nazi Germany. Prime Minister Mackenzie King, newly re-elected in what is to this day the largest Liberal win in Canadian history, had to make a decision.