Maurice Duplessis

Maurice Duplessis stands out. His tenure as premier of Quebec (1936–39, 1944–59) is referred to as Le Grande Noirceur  (The Great Darkness). Duplessis was born in Trois-Rivières in 1890, obtained a law degree at Université Laval in Quebec City, and worked as a lawyer in his hometown until he entered politics in 1927. Duplessis used a combination of patronage and repression to remain in power for nearly two decades. He introduced An Act Respecting Communist Propaganda  (the Padlock Act) in 1936, which prohibited printing or publishing any document (including newspapers or pamphlets) propagating communism. The Attorney General—Duplessis was both premier and Attorney General—could order the closing of any premises suspected of producing subversive material, and there was no process for appealing to the courts. Since the law did not define communism, Duplessis was able to use the law against anyone who criticized him. Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose attempts to proselytize (often on people’s doorsteps) earned them the enmity of most Quebeckers, were routinely prosecuted and jailed, often for seditious or blasphemous libel. After Frank Roncarelli provided bail to dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Duplessis charged him with sedition and later had his liquor licence revoked (the Supreme Court of Canada later fined Duplessis for abuse of power).

A bachelor who never had children, Duplessis ensured the church’s tight grip on education and social services throughout the province; he also used violence and intimidation to undermine organized labour. One of his most notorious acts involved transferring orphans to psychiatric hospitals to exploit federal policies that provided greater funding to hospitals. Healthy orphans were diagnosed as mentally unfit, and in some cases, entire orphanages were reclassified as psychiatric institutions. His audacity knew no bounds. When a 600-metre bridge in Trois-Rivières collapsed during –26 degree weather in February 1951, killing eight people, the premier, who had commissioned the bridge amidst charges of corruption and named it after himself, blamed the collapse on communists.

Duplessis was responsible for some of the most infamous acts of state abuse of civil liberties in Canada’s history. His actions generated intense criticism and contributed to the creation of the first civil liberties groups in the country. The postwar period was a significant moment in Canadian human rights history to be sure, but the rights revolution would come later. Instead, it was during this period that we see the first attempts to codify human rights in Canadian law. There were also new social movements dedicated to rights. Racial, ethnic, and religious minorities appropriated the language of rights to frame their opposition to discrimination in public policy and private practice. And their opposition bore fruit. Civil liberties— a concept historically associated with state abuse of rights—was slowly redefined during this period to include the principle of non-discrimination in the public and private spheres.

In 1937, Duplessis’s government passed An Act Respecting Workmen’s Wages and the Fair Wage Act. The legislation allowed the government to intervene in the internal affairs of unions—including the collective bargaining process and the rights of workers to choose their own unions. This permitted Duplessis to destabilize non-Catholic unions.

  • Adams, Eric. “Building a Law of Human Rights: Roncarelli V Duplessisin Canadian Constitutional Culture.” McGill Law Journal 55, no. 3 (2010): 437-60.
  • Behiels, Michael D. Prelude to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution: Liberalism Versus Neo-Nationalism 1945-1960.  Montreal & Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press, 1985.
  • Bélanger, Yves, Robert Comeau, and C. Métivier. La Revolution Tranquille, 40 Ans Plus Tard: Un Bilan.  Montréal: VLB Éditeur, 2000.
  • Fournier, Marcel. Communisme Et Anticomunisme Au Québec, 1920-50.  Laval: Les Éditions coopératives Albert Saint-Martin, 1979.
  • Igartua, José. The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945-1971.  Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.
  • Laporte, Pierre. The True Face of Duplessis. Moncton: Harvest House, 1970. Individual biography.
  • Paré, Nikolas, John J. Sigal, J. Christopher Perry, Sophie Boucher, and Marie Claude Ouimet. “Les Expériences Vécues Par Les Enfants De Duplessis Institutionnalisés: Les Conséquences Après Plus De 50 Ans.” Santé mentale au Québec 35, no. 1 (2010): 85-109.

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