Decay of Civil Society in Contemporary Quebec: Causes and Consequences

By Caldwell, Gary | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Decay of Civil Society in Contemporary Quebec: Causes and Consequences


Caldwell, Gary, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


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. …

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