Place des Arts and Social Reforms

Place des Arts. Green Line. Opened: 1967.

The formula of political language doesn’t change: demonize one group, praise another, propose and justify a policy.  Political content, though, does change, and to find a way into to the political, social and economic concerns of Canadians in the 1960s, I’ve been looking at the newspapers of the day. They show an attitude and set of beliefs which seem inconceivable now in any leader currently elected and led to institutions which  now seem to be unravelling, in Canada and, to a far greater extent, elsewhere.

One weekend in particular stands out, that of 21-22 September 1963 and the opening of Place des Arts. Montrealers will not be surprised to learn that  the opening was delayed by construction problems, accompanied by a demonstration, and was, despite these, a great success. (In this respect Place des Arts set the tone for the rest of the decade, if not all other large-scale projects in Montreal since.)

The 1960s were a period of great re-invention for Canada, Quebec and Montreal. The Place des Arts was part of that re-invention and in the speeches to mark the occasion, Montreal was declared to have taken its place “among the cultural capitals of the world”. Among the guests at the opening was the then Premier, Jean Lesage. He did not speak at Place des Arts, but later that  gave a speech to the Liberal Party of Quebec. It is a startling mixture of  familiar rhetoric and values radically different to those of our neo–liberal age.

In the report of the  now defunct Montreal Star, Lesage starts off in the familiar form of an attack on the caterpillars of the state and by warning citizens against “relying on the state”.

All too often in history – and Quebec has not escaped this rule – governments have been considered as the dispenser of benefaction, as a fat cow which the craftiest, the most venturesome, the profiteers of every description, and the friends of the regime could milk at will in their own interest … a sentiment which still exists unfortunately among to many here. It is time that those who still think that way to revise their code of morals because the welfare of society and the greatness of the government demand of the citizens a far different behavior.

“Many changes have taken place”, he said, “but these are insufficient”. Constant change was to be expected to if Quebeckers were to “reap the full benefits of our peaceful revolution”. Hard work, sacrifice and the need for determination were all promised. More important though were “that the mentality of the population vis-a-vis the government and our political life will be radically modified so as to bring about a healthy climate without which the rebuilding of our Quebec would be impossible.”

Given the time, the deployment of Kennedy’s famous phrase is hardly surprising, and the reader is told that “a responsible citizen must ask himself not what the government can do for him but rather what he can do for his government”. But Lasage’s substitution of “country” with “government” in an address not to the nation but to the wealthy élite gathered in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel suggests a radically different conception of government and its functions.

That “peaceful revolution is for and by all the people of Quebec, regardless of ethnic, religious or social background” and as Quebec emerged from the narrow conservatism, cronyism and corrupt paternalism of the government of Maurice Duplessis, Lasage’s words, so clichéd and formulaic, offer something which it would be incredible to hear reported from any twenty-first century political leader, no matter how left leaning.

He said  that the government was doing “everything in its power to expand the economy and create jobs with the establishment of a Council of Economic Orientation, the General Investment Corporation, the nationalization of electricity and the floatation of Savings Bonds which allowed our small investors to invest a part of their savings in the future of our province.”

The next step, he said, was the setting up of the “provincial, public and universal portable pension plan which will not only constitute a necessary social security measure but which will in addition allow us as Quebecers to participate through its fund to the decisions which orientate our economic activity.”

“The people of Quebec have shown that they want to be masters in their own home,” he said,  “and it is the intention of the government to give them the means to achieve this”. He said in an aside at this point that the “fund would be run probably by a semi-governmental organization which would be set up in such a way that it could be free of government interference.”

And so  three years later, the Quebec Pension Plan, came into being, not just as form of social security but as an investment tool for the nation. Outside of the province, the plan was mirrored by the Canada Pension Plan and among the other social protections also introduced in 1966 was universal healthcare through Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s Medical Care Act.

So confident were Canadians in the idea that government had a role in progressively protecting all its citizens from economic hardship that in 1967 Senator Maurice Lamontagne could suggest, among other reforms, that “the war on poverty must be attacked from the view point of a  guaranteed annual income”.

That may not have come to pass, but after looking at the 1960s it is hard to turn to today’s political leaders, without thinking many of  the programmes and values instituted by the likes of Lesage and Pearson, all for good reason and for the long term interest, are indeed unravelling and that the time before the Quiet Revolution was called the “Great Darkness”.

One of the great things about old newspapers are the ads. This one, from the Saturday magazine of the Montreal Star of 16 September 1967, is for Chiquita bananas and, if it is to be believed,  suggests genetic engineering is not a new concern.

Consulted for this post

Montreal Star, 23 September 1963; Montreal Star, 16 September 1967.

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