Quebec Sovereignist Movement Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Under the reformist program of the Canadian Liberal Party in Quebec, a serious separatist movement began to emerge, leading eventually to the establishment of a new Canadian political party, the Parti Québécois, which advocated the secession of Quebec from Canada.

Summary of Event

In 1960, Canada’s Liberal Party, Liberal Party, Canadian led by Jean Lesage, won a narrow victory in Quebec’s provincial election. Once in power, the Liberals initiated a period of considerable reform and unintentionally unleashed nationalist forces that would bring the issue of sovereignty for Quebec to the forefront. For much of the period between 1944 and 1960, this province, where 85 percent of the people spoke French, had been in the grip of Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale Party Union Nationale Party, Québécois . The Duplessis regime was marked by political corruption and ruthless intimidation of opponents. A powerful combination of political bosses, the Roman Catholic church, and big business successfully suppressed trade unions, radical organizations, and any liberating ideas that challenged the established conservative order. Liberal intellectuals later labeled this era the Great Darkness. Quebec sovereignist movement Canada;Quebec sovereignist movement Nationalism;Quebec [kw]Quebec Sovereignist Movement Begins (1960) [kw]Sovereignist Movement Begins, Quebec (1960) Quebec sovereignist movement Canada;Quebec sovereignist movement Nationalism;Quebec [g]North America;1960: Quebec Sovereignist Movement Begins[06400] [g]Canada;1960: Quebec Sovereignist Movement Begins[06400] [c]Independence movements;1960: Quebec Sovereignist Movement Begins[06400] [c]Government and politics;1960: Quebec Sovereignist Movement Begins[06400] Gaulle, Charles de [p]Gaulle, Charles de;international relations Duplessis, Maurice Lapalme, Georges-Émile[Lapalme, Georges Emile] Lesage, Jean Lévesque, René Parizeau, Jacques

Anglo-Canadians and the United States controlled the economy, while most French-speaking Quebecers (Québécois) were relegated to a subservient status within their homeland. While the province became increasingly urban, industrial, and secular, Duplessis still defended the values of a rural, religious, traditional-minded people. In short, Quebec’s institutions had become outmoded and no longer conformed to social and economic reality.

Although Georges-Émile Lapalme was the intellectual inspiration behind the Liberal program, it was the pragmatic and energetic Jean Lesage who, as premier, instituted the reforms that were to transform Quebec completely. His cabinet introduced numerous electoral reforms, which included reducing the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, attacking political corruption and patronage, and providing for better representation of urban areas, previously dramatically underrepresented.

Social welfare programs were created, expanded, and better funded, particularly in the crucial areas of health care and old age pensions. The labor code was modernized; many workers were empowered to form trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike under limited conditions. Quebec’s educational system, previously dominated by a rigid Catholicism that emphasized classical education, was completely revamped. The government created a modern, secular school system and put in motion plans to create a new University of Quebec and a number of regional colleges. This new educational system was now capable of producing the elites needed to run a modern state, well skilled in the fields of science, technology, and business.

In the crucial economic sector, the state became the engine responsible for economic expansion. Under René Lévesque, minister of hydraulic resources, private power companies were nationalized, creating the giant corporation Hydro-Québec, which provided superior service and reasonable rates to the entire province. The government established the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement, which held government pension funds and provided capital to help Quebec industries. Within the growing public sector, the government systematically inserted an increasing number of French-speaking Quebecers into positions of authority. In all its decisions, the government attempted to ensure that jobs, profits, and raw materials stayed within the province to benefit the people of Quebec rather than foreign interests. Their motto was “maître chez nous” (“masters of our own house”).

René Lévesque, founder of the Parti Québécois.

(Library of Congress)

The Liberals won reelection easily in 1962 but were upset in the election of 1966; the Union Nationale returned to power, thus ending one of the most dynamic periods in Quebec’s history. The Liberal achievement has been labeled the Quiet Revolution Quiet Revolution (Quebec) , a revolution that was accomplished not by bloody insurrection in the streets, but rather in the confines of government agencies, business offices, and school classrooms. Perhaps the real revolution was a change in values, attitude, and mentality. Quebecers emerged from this period confident, self-assertive, and taking immense pride in their accomplishments. It was inevitable that unleashing such forces would ultimately lead the Québécois to question the constitutional relationship with the rest of Canada, if they were to preserve their French language and unique Québécois culture.

Some, like the radical youth who joined the Front de Libération du Québec, employed violence to achieve Quebec’s separation from Canada. The vast majority took the democratic path, like René Lévesque. He had been a popular leader of the Liberal government, an immensely gifted statesman who was both a crafty politician and a profound thinker. Now freed of government responsibility, he came to the conclusion that Quebec must be sovereign in the political sphere, although he desired to retain a close economic association with the rest of Canada.

After the Liberal Party rejected his sovereignist ideas at its 1967 conference, Lévesque quit the party in order to found a new movement. Further galvanizing sovereignist sentiment that year was the visit of the French president, Charles de Gaulle, to Quebec. On July 24, in Montreal, de Gaulle issued his famous cry, “Vive le Québec libre!” (“Long live a free Quebec!”), thereby suggesting that Quebec’s sovereignists had a powerful international ally in France.

There already were two small sovereignist parties on the scene, the Rassemblement pour L’Indépendance Nationale Rassemblement pour L’Indépendance Nationale[Rassemblement pour LIndépendance Nationale] (Union for National Independence, or RIN), a left-wing party, and the Ralliement Nationale Ralliement Nationale (National Rally, or RN), which tended to be conservative. Together, these two parties had won almost 9 percent of the vote in the previous election. In November, 1967, Lévesque founded the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association Mouvement Souveraineté-Association[Mouvement Souveraineté Association] (MSA), committed to promoting political sovereignty for Quebec and economic association with Canada. The RIN and RN began to discuss the prospect of merger with Lévesque’s new movement, and within a year they, in effect, merged with the MSA. The larger Quebec trade unions also showed keen interest in this project.

The year 1968 was decisive. In January, Lévesque published his best-selling book, Option Québec, Option Québec (Lévesque) which promoted the idea of sovereignty association. In April, the MSA voted to become a provincial political party. The first convention was held in Quebec City from October 11 to 14, and delegates adopted the name of Parti Québécois Parti Québécois (PQ). The party’s program was more radical than its leaders would have preferred, giving the PQ a decided left-of-center orientation on social and economic issues and an even more aggressive stance against the Canadian government than PQ’s leaders thought wise. Commentators across Canada were impressed by the quality of the party’s debates, and many Anglo-Canadians found René Lévesque a fresh and fascinating figure, honest, passionate, and flamboyant.

The new party generated much enthusiasm and grew quickly. It attracted teachers, students, trade unionists, civil servants, liberal priests, and the new business elites. By the following spring, public opinion polls showed that 26 percent of the electorate would vote for the Parti Québécois. The party was particularly successful with Québécois youth. At its second convention in October, 1969, approximately two-thirds of the delegates were less than thirty-five years of age. The party received a further boost when Jacques Parizeau, a highly respected economist, announced his intention to run as a PQ candidate, thereby legitimizing the party’s contention that separation was economically feasible.


The 1960’s saw the emergence of a new Quebec nationalism that differed sharply from that of the past. The old nationalism was defensive and insular, suspicious of the state and the city, believing that both were the enemy of a simple, religious, agrarian folk. This nationalism had valued traditionalism, Catholicism, and even race. It had sprung from feelings of inferiority and a ferocious desire to preserve the past. The new nationalism of the 1960’s was confident and assertive. Liberal, secular, and reformist, it revolved more around language and economics than race or religion. It embraced modernity, recognized the crucial importance of a technological society, and viewed the state as a benevolent partner in creating a just and affluent society. This nationalism was to be a prominent feature of the controversial sovereignist movement in the decades to come, as Quebecois struggled within the province and in Canadian-wide politics to define themselves. Quebec sovereignist movement Canada;Quebec sovereignist movement Nationalism;Quebec

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Behiels, Michael. Prelude to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution: Liberalism Versus Neo-Nationalism 1945-1960. Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985. Examines the intellectual origins of the Quiet Revolution and the separatist, or sovereignist, movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Ramsay. Watching Quebec: Selected Essays. Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. Collection of essays on the development of Quebecois nationalism from the earliest colonial days through the end of the twentieth century. The essays were written over a forty-year period by a leading Canadian scholar. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, Graham. René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power. Toronto, Ont.: Macmillan, 1984. Offers a penetrating insight into Lévesque’s personality and political style. Although concentrating on the years of power, the early chapters deal with the founding of the PQ.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gagnon, Alain-G., and Mary Beth Montcalm. Quebec Beyond the Quiet Revolution. Scarborough, Ont.: Nelson Canada, 1990. Examines the subsequent impact of the policies, legislation, and trends initiated during the Quiet Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gougeon, Gilles. A History of Quebec Nationalism. Translated by Louisa Blair, Robert Chodos, and Jane Obertino. Toronto, Ont.: James Lorimer, 1994. A fascinating series of interviews with seven leading Québécois scholars. Chapter 3 gives an expert analysis of the 1960’s by Richard Desrosiers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saywell, John. The Rise of the Parti Québécois, 1967-1976. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1977. Arguably the best introductory account of the party’s early years. Written by a leading Canadian historian for a general audience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, Dale C. Jean Lesage and the Quiet Revolution. Toronto, Ont.: Macmillan, 1984. The definitive work on the subject, ably researched by a respected Canadian scholar, but chapters on economic development are challenging.

Canada’s Citizenship Act Is Passed

Newfoundland Becomes Canada’s Tenth Province

Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General

Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian Prime Minister

Canada’s Official Languages Act

Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists

Categories: History Content