Quebec’s ‘Great Darkness’ not so dark

In Quebec history books, the period from 1945 to 1960 has been labelled the "Great Darkness" because of the province's alleged backwardness compared with its North American neighbours. Quebec society at the time is commonly thought to have been less economically dynamic and prosperous, less culturally and socially enlightened, influenced by an obscurantist Roman Catholic Church, dominated by anglophone capital, and governed by corrupt, authoritarian political elites.

But many of these claims do not hold up under a closer examination of the statistics of the era.

For example, most historians claim that Quebec grew increasingly backward with regard to education in the postwar years. The evidence shows just the opposite: There was a gap between the level of education of young Quebecers and that of other young Canadians, but this gap was shrinking rapidly.

While the school-enrolment rate of children below 15 years of age in Quebec stood at 79 per cent of the level observed in Ontario in 1945, that proportion had jumped to 89 per cent by 1960. It reached 94 per cent in 1975. Quebec reduced the gap with Ontario by 10 points between 1945 and 1960, but by just five points between 1960 and 1975. Most of the catching up was achieved before, not during, the Quiet Revolution.

As for university education, the proportion of Quebecers who possessed a university degree in 1951 was 71 per cent of the number in Ontario. By 1961, that figure had risen to 85 per cent.

The progress was even starker for women: The proportion of them who had a university degree was less than half that in Ontario in 1951, at 44 per cent, but by 1961 Quebec’s figure was 82 per cent of that in Ontario. There are, in fact, some signs of relative decline during the Quiet Revolution: By 1981, the proportion of adult Quebecers (of both sexes) who had university degrees was down to 78 per cent of the Ontario figure. And, according to the most recent data, the ratio now is 80 per cent — less than in 1961, when the so-called Great Darkness had just ended.

In terms of standard of living, Quebec also converged with the rest of Canada during the periods 1945-60 and 1960-75, but not at the same pace.

Personal disposable income per capita in Quebec relative to that in Ontario rose by 9.7 percentage points between 1945 and 1960, but rose at a slower rate — 8.3 percentage points — between 1960 and 1975. The gap between Quebec and all of the rest of Canada was reduced by 8.8 percentage points between 1945 and 1960, but by just 3.7 points more between 1960 and 1975.

The obvious conclusion is that the more interventionist policies of the Quebec government in the 1960s and 1970s, compared with previous decades, did not bring about a faster rate of modernization of Quebec society. At best, the progress begun in the postwar years continued, but at a somewhat slower rate. At worst, some of the gains were being lost — as in the case of university education.

Considering the economic and social evolution of Quebec during these years, the label of “Great Darkness” for the period between 1945 and 1960 is inappropriate.

It was not a period of stagnation, but one of catching up with Canada’s richest provinces. It should rather be labelled the “Great Convergence,” both economically and socially.

Conversely, the Quiet Revolution that followed it, invariably described in contrast to the “Great Darkness” as a period of rapid modernization and enrichment thanks to the provincial government’s new activism, does not, in the end, show any marked positive break with previous trends when we look at the empirical evidence.

It is high time we questioned the clichés and myths associated with these periods and labelled them more appropriately.

Vincent Geloso is an Economist at the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.

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