Gary Caldwell is a sociologist and farmer living in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.
Is there a healthy civil society in Quebec, and if so, how is it faring? The question is important because social development occurs where civil society is effective. Moreover, democracy is dependent upon the existence of a healthy civil society: otherwise, there is no forum for debate even if individuals are formally free to dissent.
In our fixation on the functioning of the nation state (in its federal and provincial incarnations) and the market economy, we have tended to overlook the non-political, non-economic sphere of our social life--the sphere that does not resonate to the beat of either the state or the market. In so doing, we have lost the perspective on our democratic well-being as expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, both of whom insisted upon the importance of "civil society."
This civil society includes family, local organizations (school, church, town hall, co-operatives, etc.), voluntary associations and spontaneous groupings (neighbourhoods, for example), as well as the local media. Popular culture and morality, social norms, values and behaviour patterns are all part and parcel of civil society. And they are learned and transmitted by means of civil society.
Civil society is effective where it has at its disposal considerable material (family or institutional) resources and effective communication networks. Combined with this infrastructure, there must also exist a shared and internalized social ethic, itself inspired by the "ethos" of a civilization. For all these elements to function together, there must be a certain economic surplus achieved, as well as effective childhood socialization into the ethos.
Civil society in Quebec since World War II
Until the late 1950s, there existed in Quebec a civil society of considerable "density." This density was the product of essentially three characteristics: the extended kin networks resulting from large families; the territorial complementarity of school, church and municipal organizations; and well established local media. Easier communication--recently available telephone lines, widespread automobile ownership and the shared experience of French-language television beginning in the mid-1950s--harnessed and catalyzed the potential of already well established civil society networks.
This very dense civil society led to an extraordinary expansion of civil society activities in the 1960s and 1970s. Here I include active school committees, new financial and producer co-operatives, new recreational and civic activities (such as Kiwanis and ski-doo clubs). Out of this effervescence emerged a new generation of leaders: school committee members who became commissioners, farmers who became presidents of forestry management co-operatives or of credit unions, etc. This new leadership could, potentially, have been the successor to the old professional elite of classical college graduates who still dominated political and professional milieux.
However, by the mid-1970s, the level of civil society activity crested. We have two empirical indications of this: the rate of participation in general elections; and the the number of active voluntary associations. In the late 1950s, the rate of participation in general elections hovered around 80 percent, reaching 85 percent in 1976 and 1980. It declined through the three general elections of the 1980s, falling to 76 percent in 1985. In the 1994 general election voter turnout recovered to 82 percent, but was still well below the 1980 high of 86 percent. The second indicator, the number of registered active voluntary associations, exploded in the early 1970s, from approximately 6,000 in 1973 to a peak of approximately 26,000 in 1987, after which a decline immediately set in. (1)
The explanation, I believe, for this leveling off of civil society in the late 1970s and 1980s was a weakening of the "density of the civil society infrastructure." One notable measure of this weakening is to be found in the declining number of individuals per household and the declining proportion of the adult population available full time in these households--that is, adults not in the work force.
The average household size in Quebec has gone from four and a half persons in 1961 to two and a half in 1990, and the decline continues. (2) The decline was greatest in the 1970s: average household size fell by a half person in the decade of the 1960s but by a full person in the 1970s, to be followed by a drop of another half person in the 1980s. As for the number of adults available to man (or woman) these households on a full-time basis, we have a good indicator in the total participation rate in the workforce. Despite increased high school and university attendance and more early retirements, the total Quebec participation rate among men and women aged 15 to 64 rose from 59 percent in 1975 to 65 percent in 1990. (3)
These indicators all reflect a plateauing of civil society in the late 1970s and 1980s, followed by an incipient decline in the current decade. Simply put, civil society is faltering: Quebec schools are experiencing great difficulty in finding a full complement of parents for school committees; churches are closing and local social activities no longer draw a large enough crowd to merit the efforts to carry them on. Debate on local issues is less vigorous, and there are fewer and fewer local leaders willing to engage them. Gradually, thus, democracy is undermined.
A revealing instance was the recent changes leading to obligatory secularization of public education and the progressive withdrawal of public financing from semi-public schools ("les ecoles privees d'interet public"). Neither were demanded by the public--quite the contrary--but the opposition produced little sustained protest. We shall return to these examples.
Inhibition and constriction of civil society inevitably compromise social development. The human and material resources for this can never be supplied by the state or the market. Without a vital civil society we cannot hope to improve, or even maintain, the level of social development we have attained. To state the matter most dramatically, suicide and violence in schools, insecurity on our streets and even in our homes are inevitable once a vital civil society no longer makes itself felt.
There are, I suggest, at least four factors that have combined to bring us to this state.
Why has civil society become weaker?
The first and most obvious factor is economic stagnation. Civil society in a liberal economy depends very much upon the personal availability and cultural resources of the middle class. The middle class was expanding and flourishing in post-war Quebec, boosted by the threefold wartime increase in the industrial capacity of the Quebec economy and carried forward by the continued industrialization and furious consumer spending of the 1950s and 1960s. Compared with Ontario's growth, Quebec in the late 1960s began to lose ground for the first time in a century. Continued expansion of the public sector, financed by a line of credit not yet at its upper limit, sustained middle-class expansion until the late 1970s. Since that time, the difficulties attendant upon economic slowdown have led to a much less optimistic mood and reduced availability of the middle class for activities bearing on civil society. The middle class has been devoting more and more time, attention and resources to getting by economically. Bear in mind that real, personal, disposable after-tax income has been in decline since 1990. (4)
The second factor is the vertiginous destabilization of the family as an institution. In a single generation we have, in Quebec, undercut this major substratum of civil society. Nuptiality and fertility are now lower than, for instance, in Ontario (and have been for some time), and divorce is higher. In contemporary Quebec, only half of young adults marry, and among them, half divorce! The result is a still-declining birth rate, leading to population decline--within the decade--in all regions of Quebec except the Montreal area and the Ottawa valley. Ironically, the fertility of English Quebec is now higher than that of French Quebec.
Third is the confusion which prevails in Quebec as to the consecrated social ethic; in this respect Quebec is not unique in the modern world. When individuals do not know what to do in public situations, they effectively do nothing. This means not assuming a post in a voluntary association, not acting to prevent conflicts of interest, or not coming to the aid of a fellow citizen in distress.
Although there is a widespread recognition of the need to clarify our languishing public culture (culture publique commune), no one feels sufficiently confident to take on the task. The failure of more than a hundred young men in the flower of their youth to react during the Polytechnique massacre of 1989 is revealing in this respect. Indeed, one of them committed suicide shortly afterwards because of the remorse he felt at having done nothing. (5) The subsequent suicide of his parents (both of them professionals) is a tragic symbol of the collapse of family (he was their only child) and the erosion of a social fabric capable of sustaining them. Once the "ethos" of a civilization is lost, because it has not been internalized, there remains little to provide hope in circumstances of stress.
There is a fourth factor that has exacerbated problems within Quebec's civil society and has contributed to its fragility. This is the emergence and crystallization of a new social formation: the state technocracy.
The state technocracy
The defining characteristic of this technocracy is its capacity to exact a financial tribute from the population by virtue of a state-mandated monopoly. In Quebec, for instance, you cannot set up a credit and savings co-operative without going through the Caisse Populaire movement which has a state-enforced monopoly. You literally cannot be a farmer without paying financial tribute to the Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA) which has a legislated monopoly on farm professional unions. Farmers in marketing boards administered by the UPA cannot get the audited financial statements of their marketing boards, as provided for in the law regulating such boards. Regulations resulting from collective bargaining make it virtually impossible for parent volunteers to help in schools--for tasks like keeping libraries open after school hours to provide a place for children to go.
Non-unionized labour cannot be used in construction with the result that, unless one lives in a rural area, one cannot build a house for one's family by calling upon family and friends for help. A councillor in a rural municipality who has been entrusted by council colleagues with responsibility for roads cannot order a load of gravel late Friday afternoon to fill a dangerous hole that might present a serious hazard over the weekend. Only the chief employee of the municipality (or, in his or her absence, the mayor) can act on behalf of the municipality.
This technocracy includes all those who work in the public, para-public, and "politicized" sectors. This new social formation has control over the means of production of modern Quebec (via taxation and statesanctioned monopolies). It has produced a well articulated "superstructure" (rationalization of its material interest as being in the "public interest") and has power at its disposal (via the political class who are either members of this technocracy or come from the professional classes that provide services to the technocracy). This technocracy has created a compliant "false consciousness" in the minds of citizens. It has, in the full Gramscian sense of the term, become a hegemonic social class.
This technocracy has infiltrated and exacted tribute throughout the institutions of civil society--including schools, credit unions and municipal governments. It has done so to the point that what once were workable and efficient organizations have become costly and bureaucratic. For instance, in the space of 15 years, one municipality with a population of 500 increased staffing from a part-time secretary-treasurer at $5,000 a year to a full-time secretary-treasurer (with part-time secretarial help and an arsenal of computer programs) at an annual cost of $50,000. Once computerized and bureaucratized, it makes no sense to maintain small, "inefficient" structures: consolidations and rationalizations become the order of the day. This has been the fate of very profitable credit unions, very good school, and well administered municipal governments. Once "consolidated" they are beyond the reach of civil society, although the jobs and pensions of the technocrats are carefully conserved.
Apart from the evisceration of civil society, transforming local institutions into state- or market-based bureaucracies (mostly the former), the technocracy has had another baleful consequence: the silencing of civil society leadership. This silencing is largely a matter of self-censorship. Many people are either part of the technocracy, or are its state clients (social welfare recipients) or market clients (suppliers of goods or services, farmers, construction workers, etc.).
A dramatic instance is to be found in the widespread conflicts of interest in the credit union sector. For 25 years there has been ample evidence of a major problem. (6) Yet the "movement," with the complicity of the state, has managed to suppress the issue, and marginalize (by threat of lawsuits) those who protest. Another instance is the silencing of those who question the wisdom of Quebec's various farm income stabilization programs. Most agricultural economists and many farmers in Quebec are aware that price insurance, agricultural credit and various quotas have blunted innovations and response to market signals, but no UPA member dares say so. Many Quebec farm families would be much better off financially today--as would the environment--if, instead of investing 25 years ago in heavily subsidized beef or sheep farming, they had planted the entire farm in trees!
In short, slow economic growth, destabilization of the family, an ethical vacuum, and hegemony of the state technocracy are all factors nipping in the bud the new civil society that emerged in the immediate post-war period.
This inhibition of civil society was very much evident in the course of the recent "reform" of the educational system that took place between 1995 and 1997. This period was marked by two major events, the Estates General on Education in 1995-1996 and the abrogation of Section 93 of the Canadian Constitution as it applies to Quebec, a change finalized in December 1997. I was involved in both these events. In the remainder of this article I want to discuss these two events as illustration of what happens when civil society is in decay.
The Estates General on Education
In the course of the province-wide public consultation phase of the Estates General, the population clearly established its priorities. Among these were more autonomy at the school level; evaluation of teachers; continued access to denominational public schools and to the alternative semi-public schools ("ecoles privees d'interet public) to which 15 percent of secondary school clientele had recourse at the time. All of these priorities are laid out in "The State of Education in Quebec," the initial report of the commission set up to run the Estates General. (7) This report--and the consultation process that produced it--was one of the most effective civil society manifestations Quebec has known.
The second phase of the Estates General, under Education Minister Pauline Marois (the first phase was inspired by her predecessor Jean Garon), was to elicit specific recommendations for a general reform of the educational system. This phase relied on regional conferences of "community leaders" chosen by regional committees and the commission. Unfortunately, all but one of the regional committees were presided over by educational bureaucrats (either in service or retired), and 60 percent of the participants in the regional conferences were from the educational establishment (teachers unions, non-teaching staff unions, CEGEPs, school boards, parent or student associations, etc.).
The recommendations of this second phase, and the policy response by the commission and the Minister of Education eviscerated the above four priorities that arose from the first phase. Requiring that half the members of the new school councils be unionized teachers vitiated the desire for more school autonomy. Teacher evaluation was changed to institutional evaluation; and continued access to denominational and semi-public schools was thwarted by recommendations in the final report and by the subsequent constitutional amendment.
Abrogation of section 93
The role of various actors in amending section 93 of the Constitution was particularly revealing. Section 93 protected the right to Catholic and Protestant schools in Montreal and Quebec City, and for minority Catholic and Protestant communities elsewhere in the province. The government of Quebec, with the complicity of the political class and the compliance of the Catholic Church, successfully misrepresented the situation. There was no adequate comprehension or criticism by the media, nor sustained and organized protest by the citizenry.
The misrepresentation can be summarized by the following five affirmations: there was a consensus in the population as to the necessity of the amendment; the government needed the amendment to set up a "linguistic" or secular school system; the Roman Catholic Church of Quebec was in agreement with the constitutional change; Quebecers would continue to have access to denominational schools if they wanted them; and the constitutional amendment could be made bilaterally by agreement between Quebec and Ottawa.
All of these affirmations have been shown to be unfounded, or are in the process of being shown to be so. Consensus existed on the desirability of opening up a secular or linguistic system, not on suppression of the right to denominational schools for those wanting them. This was obvious by reference to the report of the Estates General or to public opinion surveys. The claim that the amendment was necessary to set up a "linguistic" system had been explicitly put to rest by the Canadian Supreme Court in a previous judgment. The Quebec government abandoned the third claim, that the Church was in favour, after the secretary of the Quebec Conference of Bishops informed Mme Marois that such was not the case. The Church's position was that they were not against the amendment, as long as continued access to denominational public schools was ensured.
As to the assurance of continued access to denominational schools, all constitutionalists who were asked to pronounce on the question were adamant: removal of section 93 would open the way to application of the Canadian Charter unless the "notwithstanding" provision was invoked. Experience in other provinces has conclusively shown that, once the Charter applies, all public funding of education in denominational schools is impossible because it constitutes "discrimination." Would Quebec continue to invoke the "notwithstanding" clause to protect "discriminatory" denominational schools from a Charter challenge?
The last time the matter arose was in 1993 when the Liberal government amended the Education Act. The PQ was in opposition, and opposed further application of the "notwithstanding" clause. The PQ government did not include the "notwithstanding" provision in its Education Act, and Mme Marois and M. Brossard declined to commit themselves--despite pointed questioning--on protection of denominational funding from a Charter challenge when they appeared before the Commons-Senate joint committee set up to consider the constitutional amendment.
After the discussion in the federal parliament, the Catholic Committee of the Quebec Superior Council of Education published its opinion ("avis") to the effect that the constitutional amendment is a time bomb, and that the population was never informed about the issues and that there will likely be stupefaction when they become aware of the consequences. According to the Committee minutes, its members came to this conclusion a month before the final vote in Ottawa but did not make public their position for fear of "embarrassing the government" or "alarming the population."
There remains the fifth claim, that the constitutional amendment could be carried out bilaterally under section 43 of the 1982 Canadian Constitution. The Justice Department in Ottawa was well aware that this claim was extremely weak. Section 93 was part of the historical reciprocal compromise that paved the way for Confederation, and its modification required, according to the opinion of several constitutionalists and several Supreme Court judgments, consultation with at least five other provinces. But because acquiescing to Quebec's demand for the amendment was part of their political agenda--showing that the 1982 Constitution is flexible enough to accommodate Quebec--the federal government gambled that there would not be significant protest. This has so far proven to be the case, however a serious court challenge is beginning its progression through the judicial system.
The crucial point here is that the Quebec parliamentary opposition, the media, and the intellectuals emitted little more than a squeak. (8) If they did not protest, it is because there was insufficient pressure from below, from civil society. The unavoidable conclusion is that civil society is faltering and that the democratic process in Quebec is weakening. Most liberal democratic societies are currently doing their utmost to diversify the delivery of educational services. They are aware of the perverse effects of state monopoly over education: that it increases costs and reduces quality. The Quebec technocracy, under guise of "modernization," is going in the opposite direction. It is consolidating the state monopoly, a reactionary step that only a more healthy democratic process could have prevented.
The upshot is that Quebecers will have less choice of schools than in France (where the state funds Catholic schools which are attended by one-quarter of all students) or in Ontario (where nearly one-third of the public school clientele choose "separate," i.e. Catholic, schools).
And civil society, whose vitality determines our social capacity to exercise choice, becomes ever more inhibited.
(1) . Simon Langlois, ed., La societe quebecoise en tendances 1960-1990, Quebec: Institut quebecois de recherche sur la culture, 1990, 289, 109. (English version available).
(2) . Simon Langlois, ed., La societe quebecoise en tendances 1960-1990; 33; and Household Facilities and Equipment, Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1968, 68-202.
(3) . Simon Langlois, "Tendances de la societe quebecoise, 1998." in Roch Cote, ed., Quebec 1998, Montreal: Le Devoir and Fides, 1997, p. 27.
(4) . Simon Langlois, "Tendances de la societe quebecoise, 1998."
(5) . Gary Caldwell, "Polytechnique, 6 decembre, une analyse a poursuivre," in L'Agora. I:3, November 1993.
(6) . See Gary Caldwell, "Evolution du pouvoir dans le mouvement des Caisses Populaires: technocrates et notables dans le meme lit, sous la couverture de la morale cooperative, pendant que les intellectuels ferment les yeux," in La transformation du pouvoir au Quebec, Quebec: Editions Albert Saint Martin, 1980; or consult "Regroupement des victimes des Caisses populaires inc." (Internet: http//pages.infinit.net/victdesj/letbaril.htm).
(7) . The Estates General on Education 1995-1996, "The State of Education in Quebec," Quebec: Ministry of Education, 1996.
(8) . In The Ethics of Catholicism and the Consecration of the Intellectual, Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997. Andre Belanger provides a clue as to why this was so, although he barely mentions the relevance to Quebec.…