1959: The End of Duplessis & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “Shadows and Revolution”, 1900-1960

Photo credit: National Post. Photo credit: National Post.

By the end of the 1950s, Maurice Duplessis had been in politics for thirty-two years of his life, eighteen of which had been as Premier of Québec. From humble beginnings as a politician’s son and a lawyer in Trois-Rivières, his rise to the top was not easy. With the exception of a brief loss of his ultimate seat in politics, Duplessis was known to generations as Le Chef, the Chief of Québec politics, if not Québec itself. Conservative and religious by his upbringing and a nationalist in his blood, he acted in ways he saw as consistent to his worldview and for the good of the Québec population. With the sixties rapidly approaching, Duplessis would not let a minor thing such as a Supreme Court decision ruin his days. The Chief, while not above the law, had other things in mind.

On the Labour Day weekend in 1959, the Ion Ore Company of Canada invited Duplessis to spend some time visiting their mines and to talk about potential projects that they might be able to develop. Though tired, Duplessis agreed to take the long plane ride to Schefferville, a small town very close to Labrador. Accompanied by three of his ministers and his nephew, Duplessis arrived at the hotel cabin exhausted, but seemed to be fine the next morning.

In the afternoon of September 3, Duplessis had even announced to one of his ministers that he would make plans to visit the local priest, Marcel Champagne, after the Mass that was to be held the following day. This plan would be a promise that would remain unkept. Moments after he had announced his intentions, he collapsed and was quickly brought to his chambers, where doctors treated him. His ministers telephoned his personal secretary to tell her the news, giving her the strict orders to not divulge this information to the public, but after Duplessis did not seem to be recovering, they reversed their decision. The Québec public heard the news of Duplessis’ failing health over the radio. In the early hours of the morning of September 7, Maurice Duplessis succumbed to the stroke that had left him bedridden. Paul Sauvé, who had been with Maurice Duplessis from the very beginnings of Union nationale, announced the news.

Maurice Duplessis’ body lay in repose in Québec City and he was given a state funeral befitting for the Premier. Among the people attending the state funeral was the Prime Minister of Canada, Duplessis’ old rival John Diefenbaker. His body was transported to Trois-Rivières for burial, the place that he always considered his home. To the very end, Duplessis drew crowds, with over one hundred thousand people visiting him in Québec City and over fifty thousand coming for his burial.

Politics, however, needed to roll on with or without Duplessis. Though loved and respected by many, Duplessis also had his enemies, political and intellectual. With Duplessis’ death, Québec mourned the loss of their province’s leader. At the same time, some believed that it would be the end of an era, an era which did not yet have a name but whose social and political policies were seen as stifling by some, especially the new generation of young francophone intellectuals coming out of the Université de Montréal, one of the universities that Duplessis helped create. Duplessis’ hold on the government ended, it would be Paul Sauvé that succeeded Duplessis as Premier, and even he decided that change would perhaps not be such a bad idea at all. Sauvé, whose political career was bred out of the creation of Union nationale, was the man that stood between the Duplessis decades and the days leading up to the next decade, and he had some very interesting ideas. Despite this fact, tragedy would soon strike the office of the Premier of Québec once more.

1 Comment on 1959: The End of Duplessis & Other Quebec Curios

  1. I love this series, thank you so much.

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