1959: Mr. Roncarelli, Speaking & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “Shadows and Revolution”, 1900-1960

The 1954 Maurice Duplessis cabinet. Note the Québec flag in the background. The 1954 Maurice Duplessis cabinet. Note the Québec flag in the background.

Frank Roncarelli was a businessman. The owner of a highly successful restaurant on Crescent Street, Quaff Café, Roncarelli had accumulated a certain wealth. He was also a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sect of Christianity that were notorious for proselytising and a sect that were often the target of Québec Premier Maurice Duplessis. Sympathetic to his religion’s cause, Roncarelli would bail out his fellow members who were often arrested for handing out religious propaganda without a permit. Caught up in the deluge of prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses, the chief prosecutor for Montreal reached out to Maurice Duplessis. Then, one day, Mr. Roncarelli found out that his alcohol license had been revoked by the Liquor Commission. The license gone, Mr. Roncarelli’s business no longer became profitable and he was forced to sell off the business within six months. Angered, he turned to the Courts, and in an interesting move, decided to sue the Premier of Québec himself.

A victory of about eight thousand dollars in the lower courts was overturned by the Québec Court of Appeal. Not one to be outdone, Mr. Roncarelli turned his sights to the Supreme Court of Canada. Two articles of law were at play in his final appeal. The first, article 1053 of the Civil Code of Lower Canada, dealt with the concept of a person committing a fault in law. The second was article 88 of the (now twice-replaced) Civil Code of Procedure, an article that stated that a notice must be given to a state representative in order for the state representative to be sued due to an action he performed during the completion of his duties. Duplessis argued that as he had been and was at the time the head of the Québec government, he was entitled to such a notice, whereas Roncarelli stated that Duplessis needed no such warning because he was suing Duplessis personally. Roncarelli wanted to argue that Duplessis abused his power to personally condemn his business and as a result, Duplessis committed a fault that he ought to pay for.

The majority of the Court sided with Mr. Roncarelli. In a creative decision, Justice Ivan Rand stated that not only had Maurice Duplessis was not acting within the limits as Premier of Québec, he was also bound to a principle called the rule of law, stating that state officials were bound to the same rules as normal citizens and as such, Duplessis was not above reproach. The majority concluded that Duplessis’ actions were enough to prove that he was acting not in the best interests of his people but out of bad faith when he revoked the license, and as such was liable to pay Mr. Roncarelli for the damages he had done to Mr. Roncarelli and his business.

While the majority believed that Duplessis was ultimately the sold instigator behind the process of the revocation of Mr. Roncarelli’s liquor license, not all of the judges agreed. Three judges dissented with the decision, saying that the decision to revoke Mr. Roncarelli’s alcohol license lay not within the hands of Maurice Duplessis but instead at the Commission’s general manager, Édouard Archambault, who had telephoned Duplessis to suggest that Mr. Roncarelli’s license be revoked. In consequence, they believed that Maurice Duplessis could not be held personally responsible for the revocation of the license.

Six out of three, however, was enough to overturn the judgement of Québec Court of Appeal and to order Maurice Duplessis, personally, to pay Mr. Roncarelli a sum of over 33 000$ in the money of the day, a sum that would be just a few thousand under 290 000$ in today’s dollars. Mr. Roncarelli fought Maurice Duplessis and won. The end result, however, was bittersweet, as Mr. Roncarelli’s restaurant never saw its second chance to reopen and Roncarelli himself moved to Connecticut shortly after the Supreme Court’s verdict.