Published by EH.Net (October 2017)
Vincent Geloso, Rethinking Canadian Economic Growth and Development since 1900: The Quebec Case. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. xxi + 212 pp. $129 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-3-319-49949-9.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Herb Emery, Department of Economics, University of New Brunswick.
Vincent Geloso, Post-Doctoral Fellow at Texas Tech University, adds to the literature arguing against historical narratives that Quebec’s economic development and modernization only started after 1960 with the Quiet Revolution. For Quebec, the fifteen years after World War II, dubbed “La Grande Noirceur” or “the Great Darkness,” is associated with the Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale government supported by the Catholic Church and Anglophone business, prone to corruption, suppression of civil liberties and labor unions, and defense of traditional values and rural interests. While historians have acknowledged that the postwar economy of Quebec had strong growth, and elements of modernization like rural electrification, Duplessis is also considered to have been a leader that held modernization and the development of a secular, multi-cultural state back by at least a decade. Overall, the goal of the author is to spur a reconsideration of “La Grand Noirceur” as “The Great Catch Up” and to recast the leadership of Duplessis in a positive light. Perhaps more controversial, the author seeks to bolster that case that the Quiet Revolution was at best a continuation of an evolution and may have actually been a drag on growth.
Geloso contributes new evidence in support of a revisionist argument as to Duplessis’s legacy. He shows that after decades of no convergence between Quebec and Ontario, during Duplessis’ leadership from 1945 to 1960, Quebec’s economy boomed and incomes converged with those of Ontario, Canada’s leading provincial economy. He seeks to make a case that during the “The Great Darkness” the conditions for future growth, notably through the increased educational attainment of francophones, were sowed. The author describes how the forces underlying the Quiet Revolution, including the declining role of the church and populist, rural attitudes which resisted modernization, were underway well before the 1960s. In contrast, the era from 1960 to 1976 exhibited no break from the trend set from 1945 to 1960, and during the Quiet Revolution convergence with Ontario slowed to a halt and the gap with the rest of Canada has remained more or less constant since.
Geloso’s revisionist view of the Duplessis period is based on the convergence of Quebec’s income with that of Ontario rather than on absolute gains in income which occurred before and after the Duplessis period. Did Duplessis have anything to do with the income convergence of the 1950s? It could be that Quebec’s gains happened in spite of Duplessis as the author argues that Quebec’s later gains occurred in spite of the Quiet Revolution. Quebec’s economic gains during the time of Duplessis were not unique to Quebec and the lack of comparative work is a major shortcoming of the book. Economic modernization similar to what Geloso describes for Quebec was also underway in Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick under three ideologically different governments. All balanced their books like Quebec, all invested in rural electrification and other massive resource projects. Unlike those provinces, however, Quebec would have had a much greater boost following World War II because of the location of wartime industry favoring Quebec. Mary Mackinnon and Daniel Parent have shown that linguistic and economic assimilation of francophones in New England accelerated after World War II suggesting that the developments Geloso describes for Quebec francophones were not specific to Quebec.
Equating success with convergence with Ontario is curious. Relative incomes across Canada’s provinces have shown remarkable stability since at least 1870. That suggests that income differentials across provinces are equilibrium differentials perhaps reflecting differing industrial/sectoral compositions of the provincial economies. This perspective would have been clearer if the author had drawn on Alan Green’s (1971) Gross Value Added estimates with information on sectoral employment and incomes. John McCallum’s (1979) “Unequal Beginnings” posits that Quebec and Ontario had differing processes of industrialization due to differences between the productivity of agriculture in the two provinces. Quebec had low wages that attracted low value added manufacturing based on external capital while Ontario had internal sources of capital, high wages and high value added manufacturing. These differences could explain why Quebec had a lower level of income than Ontario and convergence could reflect changes in the industrial make up of Quebec, perhaps due to the wartime industries of World War II.
It may be that the importance of the Quiet Revolution was not about growth and modernization of the Quebec economy, but about the distribution of income and wealth towards Francophones which accompanied the majority population’s increasing economic power. Duplessis benefited from Anglophone business and external capital to develop resource industries. He used the Church employing priests and nuns at low wages for schooling and hospitals to keep taxes low. But, as the Canadian welfare state grew through the 1960s, spurred by federal government cost sharing in areas like health care, an increasingly educated Francophone population emerged as a middle class wanting jobs which the low paid priests and nuns held. The relative slowdown, if not decline, of Quebec’s gains against Ontario after 1976 must be related to the rise of Quebec nationalism and sovereignty referendum. The political uncertainty of the times resulted in capital and Anglophone business elites moving to Ontario which while reducing incomes in the province, shifted economic control to Francophones. There is not much in the book about this pivotal political development which would seem to be an obvious starting point for understanding post-1970s growth in Quebec.
Given Geloso’s work, one could interpret the Quiet Revolution as a rejection of growth as the top priority for Quebec’s society for a balance between growth and the redistributive goals that the Duplessis era had failed to address. Quebec may have failed to gain economically against Ontario after 1960, but the Francophone majority gained a greater share of the wealth that the province did produce.
Herb Emery is the Vaughan Chair in Regional Economics at the University of New Brunswick. He is co-author (with Ron Kneebone) of “Socialists, Populists, Resources, and the Divergent Development of Alberta and Saskatchewan,” Canadian Public Policy/Analyse de politiques 34 (4): 419-440 (2008).
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