Voluntary associations and state expansion in Quebec

Voluntary associations and state expansion in Quebec – 1955-1970

Couton, Phillippe


The political importance of voluntary groups has been the subject of classic works of sociology.2 The complex relationship between the state and voluntary groups has furthermore attracted renewed theoretical and empirical interest in recent years (Cohen & Arato, 1992; Hall,1994; Gellner 1994). Fundamental to much of this work is an attempt to determine the exact impact that rapid state and governmental bureaucratic expansion have on the larger society within which the state functions. Such considerations lead immediately to the formulation of certain questions: Is state expansion basically detrimental or beneficial to the flourishing of a healthy civic culture? Does state expansion discourage or nurture voluntary associations? What is the role of nationalism in civil society, and how are the two related?

The present article will discuss the theoretical underpinning of these questions and suggest answers drawn from a historical case study of the province of Quebec. Theoretically, we will concentrate on the works of Ernest Gellner and Jirgen Habermas, two social theorists who epitomize distinct positions on the general question of the consequence of state expansion for associational life. Clearly, both theorists have very different ideas about the implications of rapid state expansion, and we intend to elucidate some of them here. Empirically, the 1960s in Quebec (a period commonly referred to as the Quiet Revolution) provide fertile ground upon which to examine some of the hypotheses we draw from the work of Gellner and Habermas. One of the major characteristics of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was the expansion and extension of the provincial state’s power. The government that took power in Quebec in 1960 was anxious to accelerate the political, social, and economic development of the province after an extended period of some stagnation. Our goal will be to understand how this process affected civil society and the voluntary groups that made their appearance at this time.

The paper will proceed in the following manner: First we will outline the work of Gellner and Habermas on the impact of state expansion on civil society. From there we will state several hypotheses drawn from these broad theoretical positions in order to test them with data describing the evolution of association-creation in Quebec. This will be followed by a more detailed discussion of an illustrative case and concluding comments on voluntary groups and the state in Quebec.


Theorists working from a variety of perspectives have recurrently attempted to unravel the threads that link the state apparatus to selforganized social groups. Some of these authors observe that a dynamic interaction exists between the state and voluntary groups. Theda Skocpol (1993; 1992) shows, for instance, that American women’s groups played a significant role in the enactment of social policy in the early 20th century. Maurice Agulhon (1977) has documented the role of cercles bourgeois in the democratization of 19th century France, and Philip Nord (1955) has confirmed that the emergence of the Third Republic was made possible by a reawakening of civil society. Baumgartner and Walker (1988) show that, in the United States, greater activity in voluntary groups leads to more political involvement. Non-governmental organizations have been shown to play a significant role in the democratization of contemporary non-western societies as well (see Eldridge, 1995).

Others point to more negative evidence, noting that the recent erosion of civic involvement is due in part to the growing political bureaucracy. Evidence has been accumulating that civic engagement, particularly as measured by membership in community groups and associations, is declining in North America and other developed countries (Putnam, 1995; Putnam, Casanova and Sato, 1995). Putnam specifies that the social disconnectedness and erosion of social trust that this trend reflects are ultimately dangerous for the stability of democratic institutions. This decline is blamed on a variety of causes, including suburbanization and the popularity of electronic media, but Putnam also states that “distant, centralized bureaucracies” undermine local civic involvement (Putnam, Casanova, and Sato, 1995:75). These concerns have been echoed in Quebec where, sociologist Gary Caldwell contends, the crystallization of a massive state technocracy has done much to stifle associational engagement (Caldwell, 1998:179). The relatively new, highly professionalized bureaucracy has, according to Caldwell, infiltrated civil society and effectively silenced many of the important collective actors that serve as buffers between the state and individuals.

The theoretical disagreement underpinning conflicting views of the relationship between the state and civil society has been most clearly articulated in the works of Jurgen Habermas and Ernest Gellner who have given important consideration to the role of the state and its interaction with self-organizing groups. Both theorists have very different views about the nature and effect of state action; in fact, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that their views are diametrically opposed in very important ways.3

In general, Habermas argues that before the process of mass industrialization and bureaucratic state expansion (which occurred in the West between the 18th and 19th centuries) there existed a healthy flourishing civil society with a “public sphere” able to counteract the forces of monarchical state domination (Habermas, 1991). Civil society, of which the public sphere was an integral part, was a public space where private individuals could come together in a public setting (e.g., coffee houses, salons, cultural centers), to debate, discuss, and decide important issues of the day (Habermas, 1991:27-88). This phenomenon, which Habermas labels the “bourgeois public sphere of civil society,” was important because it acted as a necessary catalyst for opposition to state (at this time chiefly monarchical) authority. Individuals would often come together to criticize state policies in a civil rational forum. In some instances, and in part because of the press, these ideas became public, increasing the number of individuals who could have access to this “critical” material. The growing inclusiveness of this arena of public debate, originally restricted to the rising property-owning class, led, according to Habermas, to the moderation of political power and the democratization of European states.

This public sphere of civil society did not retain its ideal historical form and function for long however. One of the major reasons for its erosion was the imposition and expansion of the bureaucratic state. Much of Habermas’ argument in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989 [1962]) and in his influential Legitimation Crisis (1975) deals directly with this issue. We have witnessed, these works suggest, the virtual “collapse” and “decomposition” of the public sphere of civil society. The end of mercantilism (i.e., the growing involvement of the state in industrial and commercial policy), meant the disappearance of clear boundaries between associations of property-owning private individuals and strictly political institutions.4 This process gained momentum especially following the Second World War. The rapid growth of market economies necessitated a sort of “new interventionism” (read: welfare state), argues Habermas, whereby the state intervened in almost all aspects of civil life. Public power is now concentrated in national and territorial states which, with their necessarily huge bureaucracies, have come to “stateify” [Habermas’ word] civil society. The expanding state has not only undermined free association among erstwhile autonomous, critical individuals, but it has also, somewhat perversely, corrupted rationality itself by spreading its instrumental version to all realms of social life.’ These structural state changes, which include as well the movement of financial capitalism, have wreaked havoc on the public sphere, rendering it ineffective and passive.6

Two changes are of particular import here.’ Habermas is convinced that we have seen a marked depoliticization of civil society as a result of state intervention. As sectors of society have been increasingly absorbed by state institutions, private individuals lose their ability and faculty for rational critical debate within an associational framework. In a sense, state activity takes power and initiative away from civil society. The second change is what Habermas calls the refeudalization of the public sphere. As a result of the invasion of the social and cultural by the political, the public sphere became a rather passive social mass staged for show or manipulation (Habermas, 1989:247). After the desiccation of the public sphere, large, impersonal organizations vied for the state’s attention but without any significant direct input from the public. The result is that the public sphere becomes “refeudalized” (Habermas, 1974b) and depoliticized. Herein lies the point of departure for much of Habermas’ later critical theorizing: The anti– absolutist promise of the public sphere was suppressed by the growth of technocratic statism, preventing the emergence of a rationally defined generalizable interest; and

[…] since a depoliticized public sphere is essential to the stability of state-regulated capitalism and since this depoliticization is legitimated and sustained by the technocratic ideology, the critique of contemporary society must go beyond the analysis of particular interest positions to reveal the basic human interest in communication free from domination. (McCarthy, 1978:383)

Unlike Habermas, Gellner holds a decidedly more sanguine view of the impact of the state on civil society under industrialism. Once the coercive power of the political center is held in check, argues Gellner along Weberian lines, its institutions can actually greatly foster the development of non-state groups and organized dissent:

The state, and other institutions, are parts of a social structure which perpetuates itself, among other ways, by moulding the consent of the participants, and also by providing the alternatives to which they can give or withhold consent… ([italics added], Gellner, 1974:34)

Before industrialism, human societies were more or less locked into tightknit insular communities endowed with little to no social or cognitive mobility (Gellner, 1988). A confluence of forces that are still not fully understood led to an enormous shift to industrialism, which had an unprecedented effect on the way state and society interacted, to their mutual benefit. Indeed, the very factors that have led to the stifling of civil society for Habermas – namely industrialization and state expansion – are, for Gellner, the very preconditions for the emergence of a strong civil society (Gellner, 1994:61-80).

Gellner argues that civil society needs, at base, three things in order to flourish: political coercion has to be centralized but tempered with some accountability; there needs to be a rotation of the central political authority; and some kind of economic pluralism must exist at the societal level. Gellner observes that many of these preconditions have been met, however imperfectly, in most Western countries especially since the 1950s. Where these conditions did not obtain, civil society was absent, or, as in some command-control economies, destroyed (Gellner, 1994).

Two very different visions of the relationship between civil society and the state emerge from this outline. Habermas is of the view that there was a time when, in the developed world, the public sphere of civil society thrived. Gradual state expansion, culminating in the current incarnations of the massive welfare state, effectively condemned the public sphere. In fact it could be argued that much of Habermas’ later work (cf. A Theory of Communicative Action Volumes I and II) has been an attempt to rescue some semblance of ‘civil rational society’ from the oppressive force of state imperatives. Gellner, on the other hand, has argued that things are actually getting better; industrialization has necessitated state expansion. These two forces have in turn produced a civil society capable of interacting with the state and when necessary, acting as a counterbalance to abuses of state power (Gellner, 1994). The coevolution of state and civil society also fosters national integration, in the sense of encouraging the congruence of political and cultural boundaries.


Two sets of specific hypotheses have been derived from these general theoretical considerations to help explain the evidence presented below. Our intention at this point is to outline certain predictions that may be drawn from Gellner and Habermas’ discussion of the relationship between state growth and civil society. Many other possibilities exist as points of comparison between these two theoretical positions; however, the following hypotheses have been distilled in the interest of parsimony. They will then be tested against the empirical evidence collected from Quebec’s political and social life between 1950 and 1970.

Both Gellner and Habermas would agree that state expansion is an important ingredient in initiating changes within civil society, but they diverge significantly when it comes to the direction of this change. If Habermas is correct, as the state expands we would expect to witness a marked decrease in the number of associations and organizations representing civil society. As the bureaucracy of the state encroaches upon a larger section of the public sphere, the need for private individuals to gather in associations to foster some collective interest should diminish.

The opposite would be true if Gellner is correct. If Gellner is right, as the state expands we would expect to see a significant increase in activity within civil society. This line of reasoning posits that state expansion encourages individuals to join and form groups to interact, battle, and negotiate with the newly expanded state structure.

A word of caution about this first set of hypotheses: civil society has been operationalized here as ‘the overall number of associations created in any given year.’ Such a general measure does not permit any nuanced distinctions between, for example, “rational-critical” and purely “instrumental” associations, important to Habermas. It also does not reflect the propensity of these groups to engage in “context-free” communication, described by Gellner. Still, it is a good indication of the willingness of individuals to participate in associative, non-state activity.

It might be argued that Habermas is less concerned about the overall size of the public sphere than about its function, yet he often points to the general damage caused by the various impositions of state expansion (Habermas, 1989:141-158). He argues, for instance, that a “progressive ‘societalization’ of the state” has happened “simultaneously with an increasing ‘stateification’ of society” which has “gradually destroyed the basis of the bourgeois public sphere – the separation of state and society” (Habermas, 1989:142). Habermas maintains that state interventionism is a serious threat to civil society. The administrative system, as he puts it, “erodes” the public sphere (Habermas, 1987:325).

Habermas also makes much mention of the “utter collapse” (Habermas, 1989:202) of the public sphere of civil society, adding that it has “disappeared” (216) and is otherwise “lost” (203). As well, he argues that “[i]nsofar as they are big, bureaucratized organizations, parties and special interest associations under public law enjoy an oligopoly of the publicistically effective and politically relevant formation of assemblies and associations.” (Habermas, 1989:228). Setting aside, for a moment, the issue of whether one can quantify “authentic” as opposed to other forms of civil society, it must be admitted that Habermas is describing two phenomena: the first is the disappearance of civil society, and the other is the increased oligarchicalization of those groups already in existence. It seems reasonable to suggest that a numerical increase or decrease in the number of associations might at least help us establish whether or not civil society was, in fact, disappearing and/or centralizing in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution.

The second set of hypotheses addresses qualitative issues more directly. Habermas argues that, along with a decrease in the overall activity of the public sphere of civil society, groups become depoliticized and neutralized by state growth. In such a case we would expect to find evidence that groups and associations turn away from the state and become politically passive or inactive. On the contrary, Gellner proposes that the inverse is true: associations increasingly interact with the state, and in so doing become more “national”. Civil society expands and looks increasingly to the newly expanding national state for political and cultural support.


The six years that stretch between 1960 and 1966 proved to be a time of major political, social, and economic change in the province of Quebec (Posgate & McRoberts, 1976). Undoubtedly one of the driving forces of this change, and much of the change that was to follow, was the election on June 22, 1960, of Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party (Pelletier, 1989). For a little over 15 years, Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale had pursued a policy of determined anti-statism: government intervention was viewed suspiciously and used sparingly.

However, this stance was to receive major revisions with the death of Duplessis in 1959 and the election one year later of Lesage’s Liberal Party. The Liberal government was more ambitious about the intervention of the Quebec state in the economic and social life of Quebec. As Gagnon and Montcalm (1990) point out, this was “a time of unparalleled state activity,” both within the government itself and within society at large. The goals were twofold: first, to use the power of the state to provoke economic growth within the province, and second, to ensure that the fruits of this growth would go to the French-Canadian majority.

Much work needed to be done to transform the government bureaucracy before any gains could be made within the larger society. Lesage started with civil service reform, attempting to sweep away the inefficient, corrupt patronage system in place while Duplessis was premier. One of the first initiatives Lesage undertook was to establish a system of competitive exams for civil service positions. This system drew heavily upon the many young individuals emerging from the faculties of social science at Laval and University of Montreal to form the nucleus of a technologically sophisticated group of skilled bureaucrats (Brooks & Gagnon, 1988). As a result, the public sector nearly doubled between 1960 and 1970 (see Table 1).

Along with this expansion of the civil service, the actual structure of government went through immense changes under the Lesage Liberals. Between 1960 and 1966 no less than five new government ministries were created: Natural Resources (1961), Cultural Affairs (1961), Revenue (1961), Federal-Provincial Affairs (1961), and Education (1964). The whole framework for making policy decisions was reorganized; it is estimated that between 1960 and 1978 some 176 study commissions were formed to examine everything from rural development to educational reform. The goal was to lay the foundations for a modern, bureaucratic state, able to make rational well-planned decisions in all relevant social and economic domains. Previously, a certain mistrust existed between the population and the Quebec state; the Lesage Liberals attempted to alleviate that mistrust through direct presence in many areas of Quebec life.

In culture, politics and the economy, the Quebec Liberals did not hesitate to use the state to intervene and penetrate most areas of Quebec life. Even sacred bastions of clerical power like education were not immune. As Latouche (1974) demonstrates, the years between 1960 and 1966 saw a considerable increase in the capacity of the Quebec state to work within the larger society. This fact is borne out by the increase in state spending from 1960 onwards, which was particularly significant in the mid-60s (see Table 2).


What changes, if any, accompanied this expansion of the Quebec state within the realm of civil society? In other words, what effect did the rapid expansion of the Quebec state have on the viability and vibrancy of civil society during the 1960s and 1970s? These questions take us to the central theoretical issues underlying this paper: Does rapid state expansion foster or inhibit the growth of civil society? We have already outlined the state expansion that took place in the 1960s; it is now time to turn our attention to the changes in civil society during the 1960s and 1970s.

With the possible exception of the work of Levasseur (1990) and Langlois (1990) – who have documented the long term trends in Quebec’s associational life in somewhat general terms – there has been very little detailed collection and analysis of data on associations during the time period that interests us (i.e., the years that stretch between 1955 and 1970). Official numbers on Quebec associations were not published until the early 1970s. To fill this gap, we have therefore computed the number of association-creations from the government publication the Quebec Gazette, for the years that most concern us (see Table 3). The number of associations that are created annually stands as a good indicator of civil society because it demonstrates the willingness of individuals and groups to come together to form a voluntary association outside government and bureaucratic initiatives. Table 3 then, provides us with descriptive statistics on the number of new associations registered,per annum, for the fifteen years between 1955 and 1970.

Three observations present themselves when one examines Table 3. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that there exists a general trend toward an ever increasing number of association foundings for the years under examination. For instance, the number of newly registered associations in 1955 was 288, while fifteen years later, in 1970, the number had jumped to 848, a nearly threefold increase. Second, during the last full five years of the Duplessis administration (1955-1959) 1,583 new associations were created, while during the first full five years of the Lesage government (1961-1965) 3,441 new associations were created. And finally, a significant point is the change that took place for the years 1959 and 1960, which we might consider the ‘crucial point’ simply because those were the years of regime shift from Duplessis to Lesage. Here we witness a full 37 per cent change between the two years in the number of new associations formed.

This change is even more striking when considering the 1958-1961 increase, shown in Table 4, which is both very large (127% over three years) and unique in the recent history of Quebec associationalism. Table 4 extends the data collected for this paper by grafting onto them the series collected by Langlois (1990). It shows that, in relative terms, the 1958-1961 increase never occurred again. This rapid growth cannot be fully explained in these pages, but it may be indicative of a phenomenon our hypotheses fail to capture fully. We assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the state has an independent effect on association-formation. The empirical reality is of course more complex. The late 1950s were a time of great social change. Many sectors of Quebec society were expressing their dissatisfaction with what they perceived as the stifling regime of Duplessis and his Union Nationale government.

Spearheading this dissent were different associations: Chambers of commerce, the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society, labor unions, and others which expressed their dissent along different neo-nationalist or liberal ideological lines (see Behiels, 1986). These groups and associations closely resemble the collective actors most commonly associated with the public sphere or civil society: intermediary bodies that moderate or otherwise modify the action of the state. Indeed, many of these groups directly addressed state-related issues through newspapers and reviews like Le Devoir or Cite Libre. Unions, both Catholic and secular, played a central role in this growing anti-Union Nationale coalition, as Vadeboncoeur (1969:207) notes.8 The unifying aim of all these often overlapping groups was reforming the obsolete conservatism of the Duplessis government.9

This transition period was also, according to our numbers, one of associational enthusiasm at the local level. What our numbers reflect is not the political involvement of well-established groups but the creation of a wide range of new sites of sociability that may have helped transmit many of the new political and cultural ideas that were emerging at the time. After several years of stagnation, the overall number of new associations reported in The Quebec Gazette more than doubled between 1958 and 1962. Indeed, the annual rate of association-creationonly slowed down and even decreased at the end of the 1980s, as Caldwell (1998) and Table 4 show. That is precisely at the time when, in Quebec and elsewhere in the world, public spending started to level-off.10

All this points to an aspect of the state-civil society relation that the case study below documents more clearly: voluntary associations, even of the apparently apolitical variety, are not passive before the state. They may express collective demands for more state-provided services or state intervention and select which level of government is most appropriate, an ability that would prove crucial when both federal and provincial governments were expanding. Although the data is incomplete, it is clear that the relationship between the state and self-organized groups during this period was not clear-cut and unidirectional, a conclusion that also fits with what is known about the growing importance of associations in the emergence of a more vocal French middle-class in Quebec at the time (Levasseur & Seguin, 1990). As Gold (1973) also shows, voluntary associations played a key role in the emergence of a new and assertive entrepreneurial Francophone elite in Quebec.

The upsurge of new associations at the turn of the 1950s and the continued robust level of association-creation during the following decade must not obstruct from view the fact that there was associational life in Quebec before those years. The voluntary sector nevertheless underwent changes during that period that were more than numerical. Up until the 1950s, the vast majority of associational life in Quebec was parish-based. In addition to religious and spiritual matters, the Church and its hierarchy actively participated in social and political issues of the day, which it believed to be within its rightful providence to do (Linteau et al., 1991; Lachapelle et al., 1993).

The strength of the church largely rested on its ability to provide parish-based social services. For example, sociologist Jean Falardeau found in the parishes he studied during the 1950s that “a great number of subsidiary social services are organized by the parish priest, such as the recreational center, the local library, and a weekly newspaper” (Falardeau, 1968:534). Furthermore, he discovered at least fifty associations in one parish devoted not only to spiritual betterment but to non-religious, patriotic, and cultural activities as well. The leaders of these associations, while on the surface appearing to be annually elected by the association members, were in fact part of a larger “parochial associational network” of individuals who had a direct and lasting relationship with the parish priest.

Gradually, however, the parish power base began to wane as the influence of the Catholic Church started its inevitable decline of the 1960s. For instance, the Confederation des travailleurs catholiques du Canada mentioned earlier became secularized, changing its name to the Confederation des syndicate nationaux (Lachapelle et al., 1993). The Union catholique des cultivateurs secularized and changed its name to the Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA).

One of the most striking instances of this secularization was the rather sudden emergence of several local comites de citoyen that formed between 1963 and 1968 in the larger urban centers around Quebec, such as was witnessed in Montreal, Hull, Quebec city, and Sherbrooke. By the early 1970s, several rural community associations had flourished, often based on the model of the urban comites (Bdlanger & Ikvesque, 1992, Dion, 1976). These grouper populaires, as they were called, pushed for solutions to specifically rural problems such as the massive migration to large cities and the displacement of jobs as a result of the mechanization of agriculture. Both the comite citoyen and the grouper populaires were essentially grassroots in nature, bringing together individuals anxious to empower themselves and their community to act as a counter-balance to the power of the growing Quebec state bureaucracy.

In 1968, the various comites de citoyen from across Quebec decided to join forces to create a political action committee, hence the Front d’action politique (FRAP) formed in May of that year. The goal of FRAP was to act as a political pressure group by building a popular power base from within the various communities it represented (Lesemann & Thienot, 1972; Hamel, 1991). Around the same time a coalition of several other community groups, students, and members of the three major unions in Quebec, the CSN, the FTQ, and the CEQ joined together to form another political action group called the Regroupement des associations populaires (RAP). Together these two organizations continued to struggle, in similar fashion, for increased low income housing, the rights of the poor, educational and community centers, and open access to health and social services (Favreau, 1989).

However, along with this increasing unification and power of community groups and unions during the late 1960s and early 1970s came an increase in their radicalization. Without question the most extreme form was the Front Liberation du Quebec (FLQ), a terrorist group pushing for the liberation and independence of Quebec through the use of violent means; they, for instance, pursued over the course of several years, a bombing campaign in and around Montreal that began in 1963 (Fournier, 1984).

Overall then, there was during the 1960s and 1970s a distinct general shift away from the 1950s notion that the parish was the base of community activity to that of the quartier or neighborhood providing that foundation. This shift was in part prompted by growing dissatisfaction with the services provided by the church. As one comite de citoyen member recalled of the 1950s: “In 1955 I was living in Centre-Sud. All that existed at the time were a boys’ choir, Saturday morning movies in the parish basement, wrestling, the Missionary School, and for adults-the Sacred Heart league and the Ladies of Saint-Anne, an incredible poverty of popular and cultural institutions” (quoted in Favreau, 1989:18). The dramatic increase in the number of associations created for recreational and sporting purposes in Table 3b demonstrates the difference between the 1950s and the 1960s quite clearly. After 1963, the number of associations and organizations created for that purpose never really dropped below 100 per year. Many of these groups, as will be shown below, needed direct or indirect (e.g., infrastructural) support from public institutions.

Clearly, the period under consideration was one of shifting allegiance for the voluntary sector in Quebec. While previously centered on the parish and largely dependent on the church, many of these groups increasingly turned their attention to the organizational and spending power of the state. Some of the more militant became overtly political and restive, pushing for radical social and political changes. For most, however, the central issue was to get improved services, and, in many cases, the only institution able to provide that improvement was the provincial state.


The numerical evidence adduced above and the synoptic description of the trend toward associational secularization have partly addressed the simple quantitative hypothesis and the question concerning the political result of state expansion. This section discusses one significant case in more detail in order to illustrate the evolution of the relationship between some of these groups and the Quebec state during the period.

Published research on Quebec associations is scarce, but the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalismproduced a report on “ethnic relations” (meaning French-English relations) within voluntary associations in Canada (Meisel & Lemieux, 1972). Given the richness of Meisel and Lemieux’s unique work, and the impossibility of duplicating their investigation, we have chosen to use it as the starting point of our investigation. Their primary research has been complemented with additional secondary sources on Quebec’s largest student federation: L’Union generate des etudiants du Quebec (UGEQ), representing increasingly vocal student groups.

The formation of the UGEQ in 1964 was intimately tied to the political developments in Quebec. It was no coincidence that the association appeared the same year the Lesage government created the Ministry of Education and its advisory body, the Superior Council of Education. The formation of the Quebec student union was partly the result of a rupture with the Canadian Union of Students. As two student militants of that period put it, creating a Quebec union, separate from any pan-Canadian organization, became inevitable because of “the necessity of negotiating at the national level with the ministry of education (then being created), which seemed to want to control the various educational means throughout Quebec” (quoted in Belanger, 1983:10).

The major question that occupied the various student unions during the early 1960s was: Who is best able to protect the cultural and political interests of Francophone students? In 1963, the universities of Sherbrooke, Montreal, and Laval met in Sherbrooke to discuss the structure of the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS) and its inability to meet the needs of Francophone students. A consensus was formed and expressed in a communique; the message was simple: major reforms were necessary if the Francophone universities were to continue participating in the pan-Canadian student union. After nearly a year of special committees and reports, no solution was offered that would satisfy the Francophone universities. Finally, on November 15, 1964, the UGEQ was formed with the University of Montreal taking a leading role in its constitution. One year later the Canadian Union of Students (formerly the NFCUS), officially recognized the QGEQ as a “national” student union with a role to play on an international level (Meisel & Lemieux, 1972:88). By 1965 the UGEQ, by its own account the first true province-wide federated student union in Quebec, already represented 55,000 students belonging to smaller university or college-based associations from across the province (Bdlanger, 1984:8).

There were many factors underlying this split. The first was that the goals of Quebec university students were very different from their Anglophone counterparts. Students in Quebec during the 1960s perceived themselves as a distinct social class. They believed that they had a special social role to play within Quebec society. They supported, for instance, the notion of true student unionism, partly influenced by French student syndicalism (Belanger, 1983:8). As many documents produced by students at the time demonstrate, their objectives were clear: “to act as a pressure group towards governments and to form an intermediary group able to effectively contribute to a thriving Quebec community” (Meisel & Lemieux, 1972:79). Through demonstrations, strikes, and various manifestos, Quebec students hoped to effect change within Quebec’s political, economic, and social spheres.

A second factor is also important in this regard. Quebec students and the UGEQ increasingly turned to Lesage’s provincial Liberal government when issues dealing with educational policy arose. The best example of this was the proposal, tabled in 1960, that would require students to apply to the federal government for scholarships, bursaries, and fellowships (i.e., student aid). Quebec Francophone students and their student unions were violently opposed to the proposal because they believed it impinged upon responsibilities guaranteed under the BNA Act as solely provincial. At the Federal-Provincial Conference held in Quebec City in 1964, Francophone students demonstrated not only against the federal student aid proposal but also for increased taxation powers for Lesage. In a sense, by the mid 1960s, Quebec students were highly politicized, often capitalizing on the Lesage government’s intentions of revamping Quebec’s educational system. Finally, Quebec students in general-and by association the UGEQ-were in many instances at the forefront of the Quebec nationalist movement. Association with the UGEQ was virtually synonymous with support for Quebec nationalism and independence.


The collected evidence shows that the number of new associations created yearly in Quebec actually increased significantly between 1955 and 1970. This is only one possible measure of the vitality of civil society or the public sphere, but it is clear that this dimension of active citizen engagement in public life did not decrease as the Quebec bureaucracy expanded. In effect, both the provincial state and civil society increased quantitatively during the years of the Quiet Revolution. There was no detectable “collapse” of the public sphere as the provincial administration expanded.

Nor was there any trend toward associational oligarchies or the emergence of specialized, instrumental interest groups. The Quebec public sphere remained diversified, reflecting a plurality of interests and objectives. Whether or not these groups remained authentic or became subservient to the state, as Habermas feared, is difficult to determine, but there is no clear evidence,at the aggregate level, of a deterioration of the ability of these groups to reflect multiple social interests. The main identifiable quantitative shift (Table 3b) is not the increasing number of “instrumental” groups predicted by Habermas, but a growing number of expressive groups (sports, recreation, social clubs, etc.).

This trend, incidentally, does not fit well with either theoretical approach. A civil society that becomes increasingly expressive is neither “refeudalized” nor obviously politically national. It could be argued, in concert with Habermas, that given its large apolitical component, the public sphere is unable to wield any significant power (although the historical and qualitative evidence presented in this article suggests otherwise). But then there is no clear evidence that the public sphere ever played a political role of the magnitude Habermas envisions. This was obviously not the case in Quebec prior to the 1960s. Voluntary groups seem decidedly more vocal, and evidently more numerous, after the Quiet Revolution.

Yet, does this mean that Gellner’s position is thereby supported by the evidence? Here we must be somewhat more guarded. While we do witness an absolute increase over the fifteen years in the number of associations created, the relationship between our measure of civil society and our measure of state expansion is weak. In other words, we cannot give any positive endorsement to Gellner’s hypothesis that the state simply creates the environment in which a healthy civil society thrives. For one thing, there may be many other explanations for the increase we witness in civil society (i.e., increased leisure time, more disposable income, etc.). While there is no clear evidence that civil society suffers under state expansion, the exact nature of the relationship between the voluntary sector and growing public bureaucracy remains to be explored. The data presented in this article suggests that there is a two-way relationship between the state and civil society. Voluntary groups may support and foster state intervention and in turn be positively affected by it. The precise details of this relationship remain to be elucidated.

In particular, ideological conditions may be as important as sheer state size. Not only was the state growing in Quebec, but it was also liberalizing. It is the interaction between state and civil society which allowed both expansion and liberalization. There are historical instances when civil society, faced with an ineffectual state, turned to illiberal political ideologies, as was the case in Weimar Germany (see Berman, 1995). Conversely, the expansion of the Soviet state after the 1917 revolution was the work of a highly centralized party-state, with no input from civil society (see Skocpol, 1979:206-18). This points to the importance of regime type in determining the impact of state expansion and the political role of civil society.

Turning now to our second set of hypotheses. The development of the student federation, as well as the evidence drawn from the larger trends of Quebec’s associational life up to and including the early 1970s, demonstrates that qualitatively Quebec’s civil life was experiencing great change. First, there was a marked shift away from church and parish based associational life to more secularized, community-centered and statedependent voluntary groups. Second, by the early 1970s, certain groups (usually very small and isolated) became more radicalized, more politicized, and more vocal about their concerns (see Raboy, 1984, and Chodos & Auf der Maur, 1972).

This evidence is also informative about Habermas’ and Gellner’s respective theoretical positions on our second set of hypotheses. Habermas’ prediction that as the state expands civil society becomes depoliticized and quiescent seems unsupported by our evidence, and does not apply in Quebec. In fact, what seems to have happened in the case of Quebec during the 1970s is that small, extremely radicalized groups stood out to directly challenge the provincial state, and most others sought to benefit from its increasing social importance. Not only did some groups look to the state for financial and moral support but they also fought long and hard for what they perceived to be increasing government largess. Furthermore, Gellner seems better able to direct us to a second social and political phenomenon that moves almost in tandem with state expansion: namely, nationalism.

This is borne out particularly strongly by our case study. The UGEQ shifted its focus of attention away from interaction with the federal Canadian government towards the growing Quebec provincial government. This is an aspect of the state-society relationship that Habermas leaves, in his work on the public sphere, virtually untheorized. Gellner, on the other hand, spent a great deal of time describing the processes of state and society interaction as they relate to the development of national integration (Gellner, 1984; 1998). The state plays a major role in fostering not only a civil culture but a civic national culture as well. Our evidence seems to support Gellner in this respect; with the support of a range of associations, the Quebec state during the 1960s and 1970s pushed to homogenize many aspects of Quebec society, thereby fostering and strengthening a civic national culture.

In sum, Habermas’ claim about the stifling of the public sphere in the face of rapid state expansion is probably too pessimistic. Quebec’s civil society did not contract quantitatively or qualitatively during the Quiet Revolution. The voluntary sector expanded, retained its diversity, and in many cases directly challenged or pressed demands upon the state. This trend partially supports Gellner’s opposite claim that the state fosters civil society. When dealing with issues related to the rise and development of a national civic culture, Gellner’s work on nationalism is far more fruitful.


It is clear that the concept of the public sphere accurately describes the channels that become open between populations and states during periods of political liberalization. It is not clear, however, that these channels close off when the state expands beyond a certain point. This was not the case in Quebec. As Behiels (1986) has shown, numerous groups were actively involved in increasing the role of the state before the Quiet Revolution. This was accompanied, we have shown, by an upsurge in the creation of new voluntary associations before the Lesage government undertook its major reforms. The level of yearly foundings of new associations remained high in the following years and decades, while the overall bulk of the provincial state continued to grow. We have also shown that certain associations were actively involved in the direction and extent of this expansion of state activities.

Indeed, far from becoming depoliticized, numerous associations became involved in the debate over Quebec’s increasing political assertiveness. Recent evidence of this may be found in the coalition of unions, professional groups, student groups, women’s groups, and associations of artists that was constituted in January 1995 to help with the referendum campaign on the separation of Quebec held later that year.11

Whether or not our conclusions are applicable to larger trends taking place in the rest of Canada, however, is difficult to establish, in large part because very little work has been done on the relationship between the Canadian state and civil society at this time (cf. Cook, 1995:181). There is evidence that in the case of the Canadian labour union movement there was a marked shift towards newly established political parties such as the New Democratic Party (NDP) during the 1960s and into the 1970s, while in Quebec labour generally tended to push for increased provincial state power (Bothwell, Drummond, & English, 1982:316). This fact reinforces the point that the co-evolution of nationalism and civil society was unique to Quebec.

This leads to a larger consideration of the importance of the work of Habermas and Gellner. Their theories are theories of communication. One of the most vital challenges facing industrial society, according to Habermas, is communication about collective values (Wuthnow, 1991). Communicative rationality, according to his historical account, once practiced in the budding groups and institutions of the public sphere, has increasingly been replaced by socially detrimental instrumental rationality. This is the result of the encroachment of states and markets on the lifeworld. Not so according to Gellner. Communication and cognition were once the preserve of clerics. Their usage only served to confirm the fixity of statuses and the social and political dominance of a tiny elite. Freed of political control, context-free communication allows the formation of multiple groups able to constructively engage in social and political debates, i.e.. civil society.

We make an empirically restricted but significant contribution to this debate: multiple channels of communication with political authorities were opened by voluntary groups during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Different political and non-political groups were involved at different stages of state expansion in domains including health care, education, sports, and culture. The analysis presented here is supported by Turgeon’s (1999:37) argument that the Quiet Revolution, traditionally considered a chiefly elite– driven phenomenon, was also in large part “an adaptation of the governmental apparatus to changes taking place within civil society”. The late 1950s, according to his research, was marked by the emergence of a stronger, more diverse, and more autonomous civil society. In the same vein, Lustiger-Thaler (1993) shows that this period of Quebec’s history marked a transition toward a more active, grassroots, urban citizenship, spurred in part by emerging welfare-statism (see also Hasson & Ley, 1997).

2 Tocqueville is of course credited with first remarking that selforganizing groups could usefully counterbalance state power. More recently, the findings of Edward C. Banfield’s (1958) field-work in a small southern Italian town suggested that there was a relationship between political action and associational density. The ‘amoral familism’ he observed in Potenza undermined civic cooperation and stunted political and economic development.

3 We must mention as well that Habermas and Gellner did not engage directly on the topic of the relationship between the state and civil society. Part of our project here is to bring together two theoretical trends that have otherwise not directly confronted each other.

4 As Geof Eley puts it (in his essay in Calhoun, 1989): “The relations between state and society are reordered to the advantage of the former and to the detriment of a free political life” (p. 294).

5 See for instance his critique of the Hegelian notion that the state is the ultimate identity-forming entity in the modern world (Habermas, 1974).

6 In his more recent work, Habermas is less concerned about the detrimental effect of large welfare-states, which he sees as having by and large achieved some measure of equality and inclusiveness for their citizens. But the democratic deficit he feared was occurring at the nation-state level has now been displaced, he argues, to supra-national political units, particularly the European Union. Europe now needs “interlinked national public spheres” to form a “European civil society with its interest groups, non-governmental organizations, civic initiatives and so on” (Habermas 1999:58).

7 It must be keep in mind that much of Habermas! observations about the collapse of the public sphere of civil society appeared in his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere which was originally published in the early sixties.

8 Pierre Vadeboncoeur was an active participant of some of the intellectual movements of the time.

9 The editors of the fiercely anti-DuplessisLe Devoir were, for instance, Gerard Filion, former leader of the Quebec Farmers’ Union, and Andrd Laurendeau, former leader of the defunct protest party, the Bloc Populaire (Wade, 1968:1109).

to The Quebec state followed the global pattern of expansion during the 1960s and 1970s and fiscal crisis and retrenchment during the 1980s and 1990s. In constant 1996 dollars per capita, Quebec state spending rose from 3,064 in 1971 to 5,399 in 1986, leveled-off at 5,326 in 1991, and grew to a modest 5,714 in 1996 (Fr6chet, 1998:53).

10 The coalition continued to exist after the referendum defeat and is still active today. See the first volume of Partenaires Express, le bulletin des Partenaires pour la souverainete, Vol. 1, No. 1, May 15th 1996 and beyond. See also their website: http://www.cam.org/~parsouv/index.html.


Banfield, Edward C.

1958 The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Glencoe: Free Press.

Baumgartner, Frank R., & Jack L. Walker

1988 “Survey Research and Membership in Voluntary Associations.” American Journal of Political Science 32(4):908-928.

Behiels, Michael D.

1984 “Quebec: Social Transformation and Ideological Renewal1940-1976.” Modern Canada 1930-1980s. Michael Cross & Gregory S. Kealey (eds.). Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

1986 Prelude to the Quiet Revolution. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Belanger, Paul R., & Benoit Lvesque

1987 “Le Mouvement Social au Qudbec: Continuite et Rupture (1960-1985).” Animation et Culture en Mouvement: Fin ou debut dune epoque. Paul R. Belanger, Benoit LUvesque, R. Mathieu, & F. Midy (eds.). Quebec: Presses de l’Universite du Quebec.

1992 “Le mouvement populaire et communautaire: de la revendication au partenariat (1963-1992)”. Le Quebec en jeu: Comprendre less Brands defis. Gerard Daigle & Guy Rocher (eds.). Montrdal: Les Presses de l’Universite de Montreal.

Belanger, Pierre

1984 Le mouvement etudiant quebecois: son passe, ses revendications et ses luttes (1960-1983). Montreal: ANEQ. Berman, Sheri

1995 “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic.” World Politics 49:401-29.

Bernier, G6rald, & Robert Boily

1986 Le Quebec en chiffres, de 1850 ta nos fours. Montreal: ACFAS.

Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, & John English

1982 Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, and Provincialism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Caldwell, Gary

1998 “The Decay of Civil Society in Contemporary Quebec.” Inroads 7:176-184.

Calhoun, Craig (ed.)

1992 Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chodos, Robert, & Nick Auf der Maur

1972 Quebec: A Chronicle 1968-1972. Montreal: James Lewis and Samuel.

Cohen, Jean L., & Andrew Arato

1992 Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cook, Ramsay

1995 Canada, Quebec, and the Uses of Nationalism (2nd ed.) Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Dion, Leon

1976 Quebec: The Unfinished Revolution. Montreal: McGillQueen’s University Press.

Eldridge, Philip J.

1995 Non-Govemment Organizations and Democratic Participation in Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Falardeau, Jean C.

1968 “The Parish as an Institutional Type.” Canadian Society: Sociological Perspectives. Bernard Blishen, Frank Jones, Kaspar Naegele, & John Porter (eds.). Toronto: MacMillan of Canada.

Favreau, Louis

1989 Mouvement Populaire et Intervention Communautaire de 1960 ii nos fours. Quebec: Les Editions du Fleuve. Fournier, Louis

1984 F.L. Q: The Anatomy of an Underground Movement. Edward Baxter (trans.). Toronto: NC Press Limited.

Frdchet, Guy

1998 “La presence de l’tat au QuBbec.” In Roch C6t6 (ed.) Quebec 1998. Montreal: Le Devoir/Fides.

Gagnon, Alain, & Mary Beth Montcalm

1990 Quebec: Beyond the Quiet Revolution. Canada: Nelson.

Gellner, Ernest

1964 Thought and Change. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

1974 Contemporary Thought and Politics. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.

1988 Plough, Sword, and Book. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1994 Conditions of Liberty. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Gold, Gerald L.

1973 “Voluntary Associations and a New Economic Elite in a French-Canadian Town.” In Gerald L. Gould & Marc– Addlard Tremblay (eds.) Communities and Culture in French Canada. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada.

Guindon, Hubert

1988 Quebec Society. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Habermas, Jirgen

1974 “On Social Identity.” Telos 19:91-103.

1974b “The Public Sphere.” New German Critique 3:54.

1975 Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press.

1984 The Theory of Communicative Action (2 vols.) Boston: Beacon Press.

1989 The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Cambridge: MIT Press.

1991 Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge: MIT Press.

1992 “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere.” In Craig Calhoun (ed.). Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.

1999 “The European Nation-State and the Pressures of Globalization.” New Left Review 235:46-59.

Hall, John A. (ed.)

1995 Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hamel, Pierre

1991 Action Collective et Dimocratie Locale: Les Mouvements Urbains Montrialais. Montreal: Les Presses de L’Universite de Montreal.

Hann, Chris, & Elizabeth Dunn (eds.)

1996 Civil Society: Challenging Western Models. London: Routledge.

Hasson, Shlomo, & David Ley

1997 “Neighborhood Organizations, the Welfare State and Citizenship Rights” Urban Affairs Review 33:28-58.

Keane, John (ed.)

1988 Civil Society and the State: New European Perspectives. New York: Verso.

Lachapelle, Guy, Gerald Bernier, Daniel Sallde, & Luc Bernier

1993 The Quebec Democracy: Structures, Processes, and Policies. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Linteau, Paul-Andr6, Rend Durocher, Jean-Claude Robert, & Francois Ricard

1991 Quebec Since 1930. Toronto: James Lormier & Company. Langlois, Simon (ed.)

1990 La societe quebecoise en tendances, 1960-1990. Quebec: Institut qu6b6cois de recherche sur la culture.

Latouche, Daniel

1974 “La vraie nature de la Revolution tranquille.” Canadian Journal of Political Science. Revue canadienne de science politique 7(3):523-536.

Leseman, Frederic, & Michel Thienot

1972 Animations sociales au Quebec. Montreal: University de Montreal, Ecole de service social.

Levasseur, Roger

1990 “La dynamique des associations au Quebec: d6mographie et morphologie, 1942-1981.” In Marie-Marthe T. Brault & Lise Saint-Jean (eds.) Entraide et Associations. Quebec: IQRC

Levasseur, Roger, & Normand S6guin

1990 “Mouvement associatif et r6seaux informels A Trois– Rivieres, 1940-1980.” In Roger Levasseur (ed.) De la sociabilite. Specificite et mutations. Montreal: Boreal.

Linteau, Paul-Andre, Rend Durocher, Jean-Claude Robert, & Francois Ricard

1991 Quebec Since 1930. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company. Lustiger-Thaler, Henri

1993 “Social Citizenship and Urban Citizenship: The Composition of Local Practices.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 2:115-129.

McCarthy, Thomas

1994 “Kantian Constructivism and Reconstructivism: Rawls and Habermas in Dialogue.” Ethics 105:44-63.

Meisel, John, & Vincent Lemieux

1972 Ethnic Relations in Voluntary Associations. Ottawa: Documents of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

Nord, Philip

1995 The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pelletier, R6jean

1989 “La democratisation du parti libral au tours des anndes 1960: un travail inacheve?” In Jean Lesage et rived dune nation. Robert Comeau (ed.). Quebec: Presses de l’Universite du Quebec.

Putnam, Robert D.

1995 “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” Journal of Democracy 6(1):65-78.

Putnam, Robert D., Jean-Claude Casanova, & Seizaburo Sato

1995 Revitalizing Trilateral Democracies. The Trilateral Commission.

Raboy, Marc

1984 Movements and Messages: Media and Radical Politics in Quebec. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Skocpol, Theda

1979 States and Social Revolutions. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

1993 Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Skocpol, Theda, Marjorie Abend-Wein, Christopher Howard, & Susan Goodrich Lehmann

1992 “Women’s Associations and the Enactment of Mothers! Pensions in the United States” American Political Science Review 87(3):686-701.

Thomson, Dale C.

1984 Jean Lesage and the Quiet Revolution. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.

Turgeon, Luc

1999 “La grande absente. La societe civile au coeur des changements de la R6volution tranquille” Globe. Revue internationale d’etudes quibicoises 2(1):35-56.

Vadeboncoeur, P.

1969 La ligne du risque. Montreal: Editions HMH. Wade, Mason

1968 The French Canadians, 1760-1967 (2 vols.). Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.

Wuthnow, Robert

1991 “The Voluntary Sector: Legacy of the Past, Hope for the Future (Chapter 1, pp.3-29). In Robert Wuthnow (ed.) Between States and Markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



McGill University

Journal of Political and Military Sociology 2001, Vol. 29 (Summer): 19-45

The debate about the relationship between the state and voluntary groups has been formally expressed in the distinct theoretical positions of Ernest Gellner and Jargen Habermas. These authors’ respective views on civil society and the public sphere give rise to conflicting expectations about the effect of state expansion on associationalism. In light of this debate, the evolution of voluntary associations in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution is empirically documented and its theoretical significance discussed. Using numerical and historical evidence, it is concluded that in Quebec, during the period considered, the provincial state and self-organized groups evolved jointly and in synergy rather than at the detriment of one another.

1 This is a fully co-authored article. Both authors contributed equally. The authors would like to thank Geraint Osborne, Martin Hermary, and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.

Copyright Dr. George Kourvetaris Summer 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved