The Quiet Revolution began with the enacted Liberal provincial government of Jean Lesage, who was elected in the June 1960 provincial election, shortly after the death of Premier Maurice Duplessis, whose reign was known by some as the Grande Noirceur (Great Darkness), but viewed by conservatives as epitomizing a religiously and culturally pure Quebec.
Prior to the 1960s, the government of Quebec was controlled by conservative Maurice Duplessis, leader of the Union Nationale party. Not all the Catholic Church supported Duplessis—some Catholic unions and members of the clergy criticized him, including Montreal Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau—but the bulk of the small-town and rural clergy supported him. Some quoted the Union Nationale slogan Le ciel est bleu, l'enfer est rouge (The sky (Heaven) is blue, Hell is red) as a reference to the colours of the Union Nationale (blue) and the Liberals (red), the latter accused often of being pro-communist. Radio Canada, the newspaper Le Devoir and political journal Cité Libre were intellectual forums for critics of the Duplessis government.
Prior to the Quiet Revolution, the province's natural resources were mainly developed by foreign investors. As an example, the process of mining iron ore was developed by the US-based Iron Ore Company of Canada. In the spring of 1949, a group of 5,000 asbestos miners went on strike for three months. The 1949 Asbestos Strike found Quebecer miners united against a nationalist foreign corporation. Those who supported the miners included Monsignor Charbonneau, Bishop of Montreal, the Québécois nationalist newspaper, Le Devoir, and a small group of intellectual individuals. Until the second half of the 20th century, the majority of Francophone Quebec workers lived below the poverty line, and Francophones did not join the executive ranks of the businesses of their own province. Singer and political activist Felix Leclerc described this phenomenon, writing, "Our people are the waterboys of their own country."
In many ways, Duplessis's death in 1959, quickly followed by the sudden death of his successor Paul Sauvé, triggered the Quiet Revolution. The Liberal Party, led by Jean Lesage and campaigning under the slogans Il faut que ça change ("Things have to change") and Maîtres chez nous ("Masters of our own house", a phrase coined by Le Devoir editor Andre Laurendeau), was voted into power within a year of Duplessis's death.
It is generally accepted that the revolution ended before the October Crisis of 1970, but Quebec's society has continued to change dramatically since then, notably with the rise of the sovereignty movement, evidenced by the election of the sovereignist Parti Québécois (first in 1976), the formation of a sovereignist political party representing Quebec on the federal level, the Bloc Québécois (formed in 1991), as well as the 1980 and 1995 Sovereignty Referendums. Some scholars argue that the rise of the Quebec sovereignty movement during the 1970s is also part of this period.
The Canadian Constitution of 1867 made education an area of provincial responsibility. Quebec set up a Ministry of Public Instruction in 1868 but abolished it in 1875 under pressure from the Catholic Church. The clergy believed it would be able to provide appropriate teaching to young people and that the province should not interfere. By the early 1960s, there were more than 1,500 school boards, each responsible for its own programs, textbooks and the recognition of diplomas according to its own criteria.
In addition, until the Quiet Revolution, higher education was accessible to only a minority of French Canadians because of the generally low level of formal education and the expense involved.
Following World War II, while most of the United States and Canada was enjoying a long period of prosperity and modernization, economic growth was slower in Quebec. The level of formal schooling among French Canadians was quite low: only 13% finished grade 11, as opposed to 36% of English Canadians. One of the most scathing attacks on the educational system was levelled by Brother Jean-Paul Desbiens, writing under the pseudonym of Frère Untel. The publication of his book Les insolences du Frère Untel (1960) quickly sold over 100,000 copies and has come to be recognized as having important impact on the beginning of the Quiet Revolution.
Alphonse-Marie Parent presided over a commission established in 1961 to study the education system and bring forth recommendations, which eventually led to the adoption of several reforms, the most important of which was secularization of the education system. In 1964 a Ministry of Education was established with Paul Gérin-Lajoie appointed the first Minister of Education since 1875. Although schools maintained their Catholic or Protestant character, in practice they became secular institutions. Reforms included: the age for compulsory schooling was raised from 14 to 16, free schooling until the 11th grade, school boards were reorganized, school curricula were standardized, and classical colleges were replaced with cégeps (publicly funded pre‑university colleges).
Also during this period the Ministry of Social Affairs was created, which in June 1985 became the Ministry of Health and Social Services, responsible for the administration of health and social services in the province.
The Quiet Revolution combined declericalization with the dramatic reforms of Vatican II. There was a dramatic change in the role of nuns, which previously had attracted 2–3% of Québec's young women. Many left the convent while very few young women entered. The Provincial government took over the nuns' traditional role as provider of many of Quebec's educational and social services. Often ex-nuns continued the same roles in civilian dress; and for the first time men started entering the teaching profession.
Also during the time of the Quiet Revolution, Quebec experienced a large drop in the Total Fertility Rate (known as TFR: the lifetime average number of live births per woman of child-bearing age) falling from 3.8 in 1960 to 1.9 in 1970. According to a study commissioned in 2007 by The Quebec Ministry of Families, Seniors and Status of Women on possible way to address problems related to a by then even lower TFR (1.6) "Starting in 1960, Québec experienced a drop in fertility that was so sharp and rapid, it was almost unparalleled in the developed countries."
In the 2003 article 'Where Have All the Children Gone?', published in the academic journal Canadian Studies in Population by Professor Catherine Krull of Queen's University and Professor Frank Trovato of The University of Alberta, point to the decline in influence of the Roman Catholic Church over the lives of French-Canadians as one of the causes of the great reduction in the TFR during the Quiet Revolution.
Seeking a mandate for its most daring reform, the nationalization of the province's electric companies under Hydro-Québec, the Liberal Party called for a new election in 1962. The Liberal party was returned to power with an increased majority in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec and within six months, René Lévesque, Minister of Natural Resources, enacted his plans for Hydro-Québec. The Hydro-Québec project grew to become an important symbol in Quebec. It demonstrated the strength and initiative of the Quebec government and was a symbol of the ingenuity of Québécois in their capability to complete such an ambitious project. The original Hydro-Québec project ushered in an era of "megaprojects" that would continue until 1984, seeing Quebec's hydroelectric network grow and become a strong pillar of the province. Today, Hydro-Québec remains a crucial element to the Quebec economy, with annual revenues of $12.7 billion Canadian dollars, $1.1 billion going directly into the province's coffers.
More public institutions were created to follow through with the desire to increase the province's economic autonomy. The public companies SIDBEC (iron and steel), SOQUEM (mining), REXFOR (forestry) and SOQUIP (petroleum) were created to exploit the province's natural resources. This was a massive shift away from the Duplessis era in which Quebec's abundant natural resources were hardly utilized. Duplessis' policy was to sell off untransformed natural resources at bargain prices in order to create more employment in Quebec's regions. This strategy, however, proved weak as Quebec's natural resources were exploited for little profit. The shift in mentality of the Quiet Revolution allowed Quebec to gain further financial autonomy by accessing this area of the economy which, as is evidenced by Hydro-Québec, is extremely profitable. The Société générale de financement (General financing corporation) was created in 1962 to encourage Québécois to invest in their economic future and to increase the profitability of small companies. In 1963, in conjunction with the Canada Pension Plan the government of Canada authorized the province to create its own Régie des Rentes du Québec (RRQ, Quebec Pension Plan); universal contributions came into effect in 1966. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ, Quebec Deposit and Investment Fund) was created in 1965 to manage the considerable revenues generated by the RRQ and to provide the capital necessary for various projects in the public and private sectors.
A new labour code (Code du Travail) was adopted in 1964. It made unionizing much easier and gave public employees the right to strike. It was during the same year that the Code Civil (Civil Code) was modified to recognize the legal equality of spouses. In case of divorce, the rules for administering the Divorce Act were retained using Quebec's old community property matrimonial regime until 1980, when new legislation brought an automatic equal division of certain basic family assets between spouses.
The societal and economic innovations of the Quiet Revolution, which empowered Quebec society, emboldened certain nationalists to push for political independence. While visiting Montreal for Expo 67, General Charles de Gaulle proclaimed Vive le Québec libre! in a speech at Montreal City Hall, which gave the Quebec independence movement further public credibility. In 1968, the sovereigntist Parti Québécois was created, with René Lévesque as its leader. A small faction of Marxist sovereignists began terrorist actions as the Front de libération du Québec, the zenith of their activities being the 1970 October Crisis, during which British diplomat James Cross as well as Labour Minister Pierre Laporte were both kidnapped by FLQ cells, with Laporte eventually being killed.
The Parti Québécois has twice led Quebecers through unsuccessful referendums, the first in 1980 on the question of political sovereignty with economic association to Canada, and the second in 1995 on full sovereignty.
In 1977, during their first term in office, the Parti Québécois enacted the Charter of the French Language, known in English as Bill 101, whose goal is to protect the French language by making it the language of business in Quebec, as well as restricting the use of English on signs. The bill also restricted the eligibility for elementary and high school students to attend school in English, allowing this only for children of parents who had studied in English in Quebec. Children may also be eligible for English education if their parents or grandparents received a certain amount of English education outside of the province (ex. another Canadian province). Once a child has been permitted to attend an English primary or high school, the remaining children in that family are also granted access.
Numerous historians have studied the Quiet Revolution, presenting somewhat different interpretations of the same basic facts. They ask, for example, was it an unexpected revolution or an inevitable evolution of society? How important are economic factors such as outside control of Quebec's finance and industry? Was the Motivating force one of liberalism or one of nationalism? What about the religious factors, and the changes going on inside the Catholic Church? Why did not the Catholic Church respond with a more vocal opposition?
Modern Quebec historians have brought some nuance to the importance of the Quiet Revolution. Though the improvements made to Quebec society during this era make it seem like an extremely innovative period, it has been posited that these changes follow a logical revolutionary movement occurring throughout North America in the 1960s. Noted Quebec historian Jacques Rouillard took this revisionist stance in arguing that the Quiet Revolution may have accelerated the natural evolution of Quebec’s francophone society rather than having turned it on its head.
Several arguments support this view. From an economic perspective, Quebec’s manufacturing sector had seen important growth since the Industrial Revolution. Buoyed by significant manufacturing demand during World War I and World War II, the Quebec economy was already expanding before the events of the Quiet Revolution.
Rouillard also argues that traditional portrayals of the Quiet Revolution falsely depict it as the rise of Liberalism in Quebec. He notes the popularity enjoyed by federal Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier as well as the Premiership of Adélard Godbout as examples of Québec Liberalism prior to the events of the Quiet Revolution. The Godbout administration was extremely innovative. Its notable achievements include nationalizing the electricity distribution network of the city of Montreal, granting universal suffrage, instituting mandatory schooling until the age of 14 and establishing various social programs in Quebec.
The perception of the Quiet Revolution as a great upheaval in Quebec society persists (with significant merit), but the revisionist argument that describes this period as a natural continuation of innovations already occurring in Québec cannot be omitted from any discussion on the merits of the Quiet Revolution. The historiography of the period has been notably explored by Ronald Rudin, who describes the legacy of the Lesage years in the depiction of what preceded them. Though criticized as apologists for Duplessis, Robert Rumilly and Conrad Black did add complexity to the narrative of neo-nationalists by contesting the concept of a "Grande Noirceur," the idea that Duplessis's tenure in office was one of reactionary policies and politics. Dale Thomson, for his part, noted that Jean Lesage, far from seeking to dismantle the traditional order, negotiated a transition with (and sought to accommodate) Quebec's Catholic Church. Several scholars have lately sought to mediate the neo-nationalist and revisionist schools by looking at grassroots Catholic activism and the Church's involvement in policy-making.
Politics at the federal level were also in flux. In 1957, the federal government passed the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act. This was, effectively, the beginning of a pan-Canadian system of public health insurance. In 1961, Prime Minister Diefenbaker instituted the National Hospital Insurance Plan, the first public health insurance plan adhered to by all the provinces. In 1966, the National Medicare program was created.
Federal politics were further influenced by the election of Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1968. The rise to power of arguably Canada's most influential Prime Minister was unique in Canadian politics. The charisma and charm he displayed throughout his whirlwind campaign swept up much of the country in what would be referred to as Trudeaumania. Before the end of the 1960s, Trudeau would pass the Official Languages Act (1969), which aimed to ensure that all federal government services were available in both of Canada's official languages. By the end of the 1960s, Trudeau had also passed legislation decriminalizing homosexuality and certain types of abortion.
Montreal municipal politics were also going through an important upheaval. Jean Drapeau became Montreal mayor on October 24, 1960. Within the first few years of his tenure, Drapeau oversaw a series of infrastructure projects, including the expansion of Dorval airport (now Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport), the opening of the Champlain bridge and the renaissance of Old Montreal. He also oversaw the construction and inauguration of Place des Arts. Drapeau was also instrumental in the construction of the Montreal metro system, which was inaugurated on October 14, 1966. Under Drapeau, Montreal was awarded the 1967 International and Universal Exposition (Expo 67), whose construction he oversaw. He was also one of the key politicians responsible for National League of baseball granting Montreal a franchise, the now-defunct Montreal Expos. Another of Drapeau's major projects was obtaining and holding the 1976 Summer Olympics.Pierre Bourgault