By now, anyone who is remotely interested knows that Quebec voters elected themselves a minority government last month. Learned commentators reminded their audiences that this was a rarity, with a lonely precedent buried in the misty darkness, more than a century and a quarter ago.
The precise year was 1878 and the circumstances are worth recalling, When else has a lieutenant governor committed a partisan coup d’état? Why was the memory of that coup so lost in the mists of time? In fact, it had a huge and unexpected impact on the political history of Quebec and of Canada.
Confederation created new govern- ments in both Toronto and Quebec City, as most veteran politicians switched to Ottawa. In Quebec, provin- cial Liberals and even the dominant Conservatives were deeply divided. While Liberals tried to muzzle their anti-clerical rouge faction, Conservatives split between moderate, pragmatic bleus and so-called Castors, bent on extend- ing the secular power of the Catholic Church. George-EÌtienne Cartier, John A. Macdonald’s partner in negotiating Confederation, tried to manage his old party from Ottawa, persuading Quebec’s veteran school commissioner, Pierre Chauveau, to become premier, and keeping the Castors away from positions of influence.
By 1874, when Cartier died, the Castors had lined up behind a Catholic program and gave themselves yet another name, Programmistes. They rose in influence in Conservative ranks as once-dominant moderates were tarred by recurrent scandals. By 1876, Chauveau was long gone. A new pre- mier, Charles Boucher de Boucherville, simply handed Chauveau’s life work, Quebec’s public school system, over to the Catholic Church and to a Protestant committee.
Instead, Boucher focused his province’s meagre means on railway con- struction, particularly a line that would run along the north shore of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers, from Ottawa to Quebec City. Predictably, that priority outraged voters and communities on the south side of the St. Lawrence. The din grew even louder when Boucherville threatened to force impoverished north shore municipalities to pay the fast-rising construction costs of the new railway
In the wake of Macdonald’s Pacific Railway scandal, Canadians had elected their first Liberal government under Alexander Mackenzie. In turn, Mackenzie appointed an ardent Liberal, Luc Letellier St-Just, as Quebec’s lieu- tenant governor. Quebec’s bitter railway disputes and Boucher de Boucherville’s fulminations struck St-Just as the right setting to create a Liberal government. On the pretext of gross misgovernment, St-Just fired Boucherville and, on March 2, 1878, invited Quebec’s Liberal leader, Henri-Gustave Joly, to replace him. Since Joly had only 20 supporters, he called an election. The result was a tie: 32 Liberals and 32 Conservatives, plus two dissident but pro-Joly bleus. Joly got another seat by making Conservative Arthur Turcotte from Trois-Rivié€res the Speaker.
It was not a propitious time to be in power. A worldwide depression slammed into Canada just as the federal Liberals won power, and it soon made even the scandal-ridden Macdonald era seem blessed, particularly when the Tories adopted a National Policy of railways and high tariffs to save the economy. In March, 1878, Canadians voted for the first time with a secret ballot, and hand- ed Canada back to Macdonald. Immediately, Quebec Tories demanded vengeance on Letellier St-Just. ”œKing Luc” must be deposed.
Initially, Macdonald hesitated, seek- ing British advice. Whitehall sensibly dumped the problem back on Canadian laps. On March 14, 1879, Tory MPs passed a motion to dismiss the author of what they and historians would call ”œLetellier St-Just’s coup.” A successor, as partisan as Letellier, took over. Joly’s embattled government cut its own salaries and civil service wages to limit a budget deficit ballooning from railway costs. It attempted little else. From the press to Quebec’s appointed Legislative Council to the new lieutenant governor, the embattled Liberals faced enemies. On October 29, 1879, five Liberals wilted under the pressure and defected to the bleus. Joly’s power passed to an energetic new Conservative leader, Joseph Chapleau.
Meanwhile, Honoré Mercier, a foe of Confederation in 1864, became Joly’s successor, with a pledge to stand up for francophones anywhere in Canada. When John A. Macdonald’s government hanged Louis Riel, Mercier announced that ”œRiel, our brother, is dead.” He switched his label to Parti National and stirred Quebecers to rage with a year of pro-Riel rallies and speeches against Ottawa. In 1886, Mercier swept the provincial election. Far from rouge anti- clericalism, the new premier headed straight to Rome to ask the Pope to set- tle a tangled and venerable dispute about who owned Jesuit property in Quebec. He detoured to Paris to collect a Légion d’honneur, and returned a hero, even to devout Quebec Catholics.
By 1891, gross scandals and fiscal mismanagement undermined Mercier, but his bleu successors made themselves and Quebecers miserable trying to clean up the huge fiscal mess they inherited. In 1897, Liberals regained power under their own name and, as in Canada, would hold it for most of the 20th cen- tury. Minorities can make history.