Saturday, December 13, 2014

Our Lives: Quebec and Ontario (4)

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In September, 1959, the Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis died. His tenure in office included a short three-year stint prior to WWII from 1936 to 1939 and a lengthy rule from 1944 to 1959. His death allowed the provincial Liberals to capitalize on the 'Quiet Revolution,' a cultural movement which marched in step with the gradual secularization of education, health care and social services.

Still, Quebec remained a religiously observant society into the 1960s. In the City of Montreal, 60% of the population were regular attendees at weekly services. Rates were even higher in rural areas. A large part of the reason was the near ubiquity of the Church in Quebec society. Public presence, however should not be confused with direct political influence. The rest of Canada might believe that Premier Duplessis marched in lock-step with the Church. The reality of the situation was not quite so straight-forward. Duplessis held the purse-strings, and if clergy dared to criticize the government's policy, he was not above cutting funding to their different projects. At one time, the Church had opposed compulsory education for children. By the 1940s, it recognized that compulsory education was necessary for Francophones to keep up with their Anglophone counterparts. Duplessis' own stance on the issue was nowhere near as clear. He publicly supported a parent's right to choose just how much education their children received. Behind the scenes, he resisted federal assistance. His own rural networks of patronage, however, enabled him to take certain steps in the direction of regularizing the educational programs. The job market was increasingly demanding an educated work-force.

The education of girls lagged in the province, by comparison with the rest of Canada. Though parents increasingly demanded a college education for both their sons and daughters, the Church implemented programs focused on domestic training for girls. The Church regarded the social limitations on women and girls as divinely ordained, and loudly opposed the establishment of day-programs for working mothers. The provincial government set up a few day-cares during WWII to alleviate the labour shortage. These were immediately closed at the war's end.

In the 1950s, a new class of intellectual, who would become especially influential during the Quiet Revolution, worked to formulate an alternate vision of Quebec. The English-language CBC was fairly conformist at the time, but the French-language network, operating out of Montreal, was a forum for revolutionary thoughts. The future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, editor of the Cite Libre, was a vigorous opponent of the Duplessis regime. He worried that secular Quebec nationalism, like its pastoral Catholic counterpart, was a danger to individual freedoms and to the development of a dynamic Quebecois society open to external influences.

The province of Ontario was a very different matter. Its success during the post-war economic boom was the envy of the rest of the country. Toronto pulled ahead of Montreal as the country's financial center. Within a radius of 400 km from Toronto could be found 50% of Canada's industrial output. The automobile was key to economic success, fueling the production of rubber, glass, plastics, and steel. Most of the plants were branches of American operations. Though they did not employ design experts or research scientists, they did have a well-paid unionized workforce. The cost of letting machines run idle was incentive to corporations to give favorable terms of settlement to unions. Fordism had come to Canada. It brought with it high-paying jobs for a broad portion of the population, usually with little more than a high-school degree, with the virtual guarantee of a life-time job.

Not everyone, of course, participated in the new-found prosperity. Those workers without union representation tended to move from job to job without the security of an old-age pension. Ontario could afford to look after its poor better than other provinces, but largely choose not to do so. Social assistance for widows, deserted wives, and unmarried mothers was well below calculated poverty levels. Though daycare centers opened during the war were not closed down, fees were raised to the point of being useless to middle-class women and no new centers were opened through the 1950s. Little money was spent on mental health care. The old and feeble found themselves consigned in poorly run institutions.

Neither the government nor business leaders wanted to hear about the poor. Social workers were divided over the proper course of action. Some feared leftist radicalism, while others believed that social workers must join with labor and other progressive forces working for structural changes. But social work was women's work, and so hardly a profession at all. Their concerns were not heard in the male echelons of power. In the words of one historian, 'Quite simply, in postwar Ontario the poor went hungry to pay the rent.'

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