Student Leaders at the University of Montreal during the Early 1950s: What Did Catholics Want? (Quiet Revolution)

By Neatby, Nicole | Historical Studies, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Student Leaders at the University of Montreal during the Early 1950s: What Did Catholics Want? (Quiet Revolution)


Neatby, Nicole, Historical Studies


It has long been the fate of Quebec society of the 1950s to be overshadowed by the decade of the 1960s and the Quiet Revolution. The 1950s have been associated in the popular mind with the reactionary Duplessis regime. A parallel assumption has been that this regime drew strong support from the province's Catholic faithful, most of whom shared Duplessis' hostility to social change. In the last decade, scholars of the Quiet Revolution phenomenon have challenged this view of a society dominated by reactionary leaders adverse to social change and of Catholic supporters defending the status quo. Detailed research on Quebec society during the 1950s suggests that this decade was the "drum roll" period of the Quiet Revolution, a foreshadowing of developments leading up to the great social transformations of the 1960s. (1) More specifically, in the area of Church history, scholars have established that Catholics did not form a monolithic group of social conservatives in Quebec society in the 1950s. A growing number of Catholics both lay and clerics were questioning the Church's authority. (2)

Quebecers in the 1950s however could not predict the developments and transformations associated with the Quiet Revolution. They had no sense of being either precursors or impediments to future social change. What were they saying about social change? Turning to the attitudes and activities of university student leaders at the University of Montreal during the early 1950s provides useful insights into the way in which some Catholics in Quebec society envisaged social reform.

According to sociologists, French-Quebec university students in the early 1950s had a marked tendency to conform to their elders' expectations. These students, in their view, also lacked social commitments and were apolitical. Students devoted their free time to entertainment. As Richard Simoneau explains, they characterized themselves mainly by "strong tastes for aesthetics, erudition, leisure activities, humour and entertainment, social relations." (3)

In the view of sociologists, (4) one also gathers that being religious provided a tangible illustration of students' conformity and conservatism. Richard Simoneau explains that the students' traditional ideology had a "strong religious and cultural flavour." (5) In fact, it is entirely "tributary to the ideology of religious nationalism dominant in the society of the time." (6)

Yet, these scholars show no interest in students' religious beliefs per se. They appear to point out students' Catholicism in order to confirm students' support of the status quo. In this perspective, Catholicism is reduced to a measure of students' compliance.

There is no doubt that French Quebec university students were Catholic during the early 1950s (7). Yet, to assume that this religious affiliation precluded any form of questioning of the status quo does not take into account many aspects of student attitudes and initiatives before the onslaught of the Quiet Revolution. Sources of information on student leaders at the University of Montreal during the early 1950s suggest that not only did these young people concern themselves with events and debates taking place beyond the university walls, but their social activism was in many ways fuelled by their Catholicism.

These findings force us to reconsider the idea of French Quebec university students in the early fifties as apolitical and devoid of a social conscience. They also invite us to understand the impact of their Catholicism in a less unidimensional way. As this case study of student leaders' attitudes and activities will reveal, Catholicism served the interests of reform both in its traditional and modernist manifestations.

In this study we will focus on the areas in which student leaders at the University of Montreal brought into play their Catholic beliefs most directly. (8)

This means analyzing the way student leaders responded to what they identified as the problems of Quebec society as a whole and how they believed they could contribute to solve them.

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