José E. Igartua
Université du Québec à Montréal
1999 CANADIAN ECONOMIC HISTORY MEETING
Kananaskis, Alberta, April 23-25 1999
Posted 9 April 1999
This paper surveys the state of historical writing on twentieth-century Quebec economic history. It notes the marked absence of historians in this field and proposes some socioeconomic explanations for this situation.
The paper is updated from a paper delivered at the conference in honour of Jean Hamelin which was held at Université Laval in November 1994. The bibliographical survey prepared for the first version of this paper was updated through a systematic compilation of titles and graduate work in twentieth-century Quebec economic history since 1994.
Jean Hamelin died in May 1998, a few days before volume XIV of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography was to be published. The Laval University historian had given the last twenty-five years of his life to this project and no doubt considered it his most important historical work. Yet Hamelin was a man of wide-ranging historiographical interests. I met him first in 1965 when I was a student at Université Laval. He was then working on his Histoire économique du Québec, 1850-1896 (Hamelin and Roby 1971) and hired me as a research assistant to do some preliminary work for a twentieth-century sequel. Hamelin was deeply concerned with the training and job placement of young historians. He encouraged me to pursue studies in economics and history and was responsible for my obtaining a graduate assistantship to Michigan State University. He also had a hand in my getting my first university job at Sir George Williams in 1968. He helped a number of other students in my cohort at Laval get started in the profession. His historiographical influence is no doubt less well known in English-speaking Canada than in Quebec, and I would like to dedicate this paper to his memory, in the hope that this will change somewhat. The first version of this paper was given at a conference in his honour in 1994 and was later published in the conference proceedings (Roby and Voisine 1996).
The organizers of the 1994 conference defined a number of broad conference themes reflective of Hamelin's professional and scholarly interests. Hamelin had published in political and economic history, in labour history, in the history of the press, in religious history, and was later to publish a controversial history of Laval University (Hamelin 1995).(1) I was asked to contribute an assessment of scholarly production on Quebec's post-1929 economic history, excluding labour history, which was the object of a separate assessment contributed by Jacques Rouillard, while Paul-André Linteau surveyed historical production on the 1867-1929 period.
I took the expression "economic history" in its broad meaning, to include, at the macro-economic level, the analysis of the evolution of factors of production, economic structure, markets and economic cycles, wealth levels, savings and investment; at the micro-economic level, the history of business and businessmen, of financial institutions and patterns of consumption; at the public level, fiscal policies, economic development policies; and finally, the whole area of institutional arrangements. I've left out of my purview the history of economic thought, since this fitted better under another of Hamelin's scholarly interests, the history of ideologies. Yet the simple act of defining in such a rough and ready way what is understood under the rubric "economic history" highlights how thin scholarly production has been in the field of economic history in Quebec over the last twenty years.
While Quebec historiography in general has undergone an efflorescence during that period, and cultural and ethnic studies as well as political history were added to more established themes such as the history of ideologies, feminist history, and social history in its multifaceted aspects, economic history actually declined as a field of scholarly production. Major works in Quebec economic history - studies by Fernand Ouellet and Gilles Paquet and Jean-Pierre Wallot on the 1760-1850 period, and by Jean Hamelin on the 1850-1896 period - are already more than twenty years old. Apart from the chapters on the Quebec economy in Linteau, Durocher, Robert and Ricard (1991), one looks in vain for substantial works of analysis on Quebec's twentieth-century economic history or for more than a handful of names of historians active in the field.(2) Confirmation of this is not hard to find. Take for instance the radio series which Gilles Paquet hosted on the French-language CBC network in 1980-1981. Six of the 25 hours of the series were devoted to the post-1929 period. Among the thirty of so specialists whom Paquet interviewed on the air, only three were Quebec economic historians: Robert Armstrong, Gilles Piédalue, and Yves Saint-Germain. None of the three are still in the business. Or take the third volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada: none of the plates covering the post-1929 period were authored by Quebec economic historians. Or take a look at bibliographies of Quebec history for the same period: both in Linteau et al.'s Quebec Since 1930 (1991) and in the Guide d'histoire du Québec du Régime français jusqu'à nos jours (1991) compiled by Jacques Rouillard, one can see how little of the scholarly production is the work of historians; economists, sociologists, political scientists and geographers are the ones writing on economic history.
One could argue that the post-1929 period is too recent for historians to investigate. If that were the case, then one would expect that interest in twentieth-century history would increase as we reach the end of the century. But in fact the opposite seems truer, as our historiographical survey has shown.(3) Historians' interest in contemporary economic history was greatest in the 1960's and 1970's; interest waned in the 1980's and 1990's. A number of historians trained in economic history in the 1970's: Gilles Piédalue (1975), Yves Saint-Germain (1975), Paul Larocque (1978), and Marc Vallières (1973, 1980), even though their doctoral theses rarely touched upon the post-1929 period. Besides the historians, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and geographers were eager to do scholarly work on the contemporary period (for instance, Daneau 1966, Dumais 1969, 1971, Dostaler 1972, Armstrong 1978, Sales 1974, 1979, Brunelle 1975, Niosi 1978, 1980, Gold 1971, Lessard 1974, Tremblay 1976, Fournier 1975, 1978, Durand 1977). Among the major themes of interest are regional development, natural resources, or the bourgeoisie and its ethnic cleavages; such themes reflected current-day preoccupations. Other work dealt with typically 'Quebec' topics such as agriculture and the Desjardins movement. Still, this production concentrated on a very limited range of topics within economic history.
The 1980's saw even less production on economic history. In general, historians worked on a widening array of topics but this array did not include economic history. Only a few historians (Lanthier 1983; Létourneau 1985) chose economic history topics; other social scientists (Boismenu 1981, Choko 1981, Niosi 1982, Brouillette 1983, Brouillette and Lanthier 1983, Hamel, Houde and Sabourin 1984, Dupré 1984, Bélanger and Fournier 1987) were both more numerous and explored a greater variety of themes.
In the 1990's, a slightly larger number of historians published on economic themes. Here again, themes of particular interest to Quebec held more attraction than general themes in economic history. The credit union movement held the greatest attraction both for historians (Rudin 1990, Poulin 1992, Poirier 1992, Deschênes 1996) and for other social scientists (Lévesque 1997). Natural resources, and in particular hydro-electricity, stimulated some work among historians (Charland 1990, Tremblay 1993, Bellavance 1994, 1998, Bélanger and Comeau 1995) and non-historians (Faucher 1992) alike. Retail trade was the topic of a Ph.D. thesis (Taschereau 1992) and two articles (Taschereau 1993, Comeau 1995), while Charland (1992) looked at patterns of consumption. Collin's (1991, 1995) study of the evolution of the pharmaceutical profession contains some valuable insights into the transformation of pharmacy as a retail trade. The very thorough comprehensive assessments of the evolution of Quebec society since the 1960's include overviews of a number of economic topics (Dumont 1990, Langlois 1990, Daigle and Rocher 1992).
But the future does not appear promising. In my own department, where economic history had been part of our undergraduate offerings since the 1970's, student interest has all but disappeared. Graduate work is also extremely scarce: currently, only two M.A. theses and one Ph.D. dissertation may be counted as having an economic slant. The situation is not much better elsewhere in Quebec and has not improved much since the early part of the decade. According to the 1993 edition of the Register of Post-Graduate Dissertations published by the Canadian Historical Association (Aubin 1993), 16 out of 357 M.A. thesis or Ph.D. dissertation topics, or less than 5%, dealt with twentieth-century economic history. Only 11 of the 16 were being pursued in History departments. Laval University had the largest number of students in the field, with six, not all of whom were registered in the History department. Four graduate students had registered such topics at Université de Montréal, three at the University of Ottawa, two at Sherbrooke and one at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.
The latest edition of the Register (Aubin 1997) shows a similar picture. Out of 260 M.A. theses or Ph.D. dissertations listed under "Canada Since Confederation - Québec" that deal significantly with the post-1929 period, only 17, or 6.5%, may be said to deal with topics that have a clear economic component. Of these, only eight are registered in history departments, of which four are being done at Laval, another four are being done in the Quebec studies program at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and the remainder are registered in anthropology and sociology departments. No department lists more than four theses or dissertations.(4)
Yet, as Jean Hamelin would say, it is not for a lack of topics in economic history important for an understanding of the nature and the future of Quebec society. For instance, the role of the state in shaping economic development is a core issue of contemporary society and politics; yet we have no systematic assessment of the effect of government policies upon the economic development either of the whole of the province or of specific regions. We have no diachronic analyses of post-1960 Quebec fiscal policies; (5) there are no studies of the long-run linkages between education, the labour market and occupational mobility. Quebec businessmen have been the object of some popular work (for instance, Chabot 1986 and Simard 1996 on Péladeau, or Bélanger 1996 on J.Louis Lévesque), and recent litigation between the estate of the owner of a hardware chain and the journalist hired to write his biography has become a public issue, but scholarly business history has very few adepts(6) even though there would be a lot to learn from studies of business capitalization, of management practices, of labour relations or of market development. The caisse populaire network has been studied more as a cooperative movement than as an economic institution, if we except Rudin's book (1990). Other Quebec financial institutions still await their historian.
Studies of critical periods in the economic history of the twentieth century are also rare. The impact of the Depression of the 1930's has been studied for a number of communities, from Montréal and Verdun to Drummondville and Chicoutimi (Baillargeon 1991, Larivière 1977, Clavette 1986, Martin 1983, Ringuette 1980), but the World War II boom's influence on Quebec's economic structure and upon its standard of living remain obscure. François Ricard's work on the Lyric Generation (1994) offers an assessment of the influence of the first wave of Quebec's post-war baby boom generation which barely mentions its economic clout.
The brevity of this review of the literature on twentieth-century Quebec economic history only highlights how little we know about the topic, and how few historians have been drawn to it. To quote Andy Rooney, "why is that?" The first answer that springs to a historian's mind is the lack of sources. This is true enough for private sector archives, and especially for the contemporary period; few businesses have adequate archives services and most prefer to keep this resource for the exclusive use of their public relations department. Government records pose the opposite problem: archives are much too bulky and often lack even rudimentary finding aids, although electronic finding aids can now alleviate this problem.(7) Official statistical data compiled by Statistics Canada or the Quebec Institut de la statistique seldom have a time span of interest to the historian: changes in definitions, in measurement, in sampling or in frequency all hamper the establishment of reliable long-term series. This is quite evident in the second edition of Historical Statistics of Canada (Leacy 1983): very few series in this work begin before 1966. Other official data such as the census remain essentially unavailable for the period after 1901. The state of statistical documentation thus makes it near impossible to deal with certain topics.
Yet one must note that social scientists have been drawn to twentieth-century economic history topics much more than historians, in spite of the condition of documentary sources. Historians' reticence has a lot to do, to be sure, with their rapport to theory and evidence, which often differs from that of other social scientists, and from that of economists in particular. Confronted with complex (or overly simplistic) models and elaborate statistical testing, historians tend to walk away from the challenge, arguing that economic theory is far removed from the preoccupations of "real" people and that it tends towards logico-mathematical game playing grounded in a mechanistic conception of human activity.(8) Historians would rather invest their energies elsewhere than in comprehending these games. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, for it deprives historians of rigorous models of analysis, and it deprives economists of some salutary "reality checks."
However, beyond the sheer technical difficulties of doing economic history - difficulties which are after all not so different from those one encounters doing demographic or sociological research, which historians often find more congenial - there are issues of academic supply and demand which keep historians away from economic history. The supply issue is quite clear: in Quebec there are almost no economic historians training graduate students in economic history in history departments. Very few Quebec historians possess sufficient training in history, in economic theory, and in statistical methods to feel secure in directing students in the field.(9) No graduate students are training in economic history outside the province, according the Register of Post-Graduate Dissertations (Aubin 1997). The absence of Quebec role models, as well as the heavy investment required to master economic theory and statistical methods as well as archival research, together with the daunting reputation of the field itself, no doubt affect the supply of scholars in the field of economic history.
The demand issue probably has an even greater impact on the situation. For one thing, other fields of history, such as labour history, women's history, the history of ideologies, the history of science and technology, cultural history, and a renewed, vigorous interest in political history, have held more attraction for recent graduate students. This has had, of course, a direct impact upon the direction of scholarly production and upon the very few job openings in history departments in Quebec in recent years.(10) And in this respect, Quebec does not seem to be different from the rest of Canada.
How does one account for this lack of demand? It is not simply that the "opportunity cost" of doing economic history might be greater than alternative fields. It may well have to do with the declining attraction of economics as a discipline in contemporary society. Economics was an attractive discipline in the 1950's and 1960's as the post-war prosperity of the Western world seemed to have vanquished the recurrent doom of economic cycles. An economist could write in 1970 that "over the last few years we have become more and more confident that we can avoid serious cyclical crises" (Lebel 1970: 89; my translation). This immodest assurance was washed away by the cyclical crises of the 1970's, 1980's, and 1990's, the problems of stagflation, and persistently high unemployment. Inasmuch as economics could offer some explanation for these problems, it usually pointed to Canada's and Quebec's vulnerability to international economic trends over which we had little control. There was little there, at the theoretical level, to entice young graduate students eager to have some purchase upon the world in which they lived.
For all its superficial appeal, the concept of interdisciplinary work has failed to induce much interaction between historians and economists. Historical research, in Quebec as elsewhere, has followed a number of fads as well as substantive new areas of research, most of which have turned away from the 'hard core' methodologies of quantitative social science. Economists, on the other hand, have by and large remained committed to the econometric formalism prevalent in scholarly writing in economics in North America (Bélanger 1985: 363). Methodologies and substantive interests seemed to draw economists and historians apart rather than together.
These trends apply to the relationship between history and economics in general in the North American context. In the particular case of Quebec, is not our knowledge of the economic history of the province sufficient for our current purposes? Do we really need to go beyond what we can read in Linteau, Durocher, Robert, and Ricard (1991)? Over a decade ago, Fernand Ouellet could write that "historians and other scholars have resorted to economic history only as it was directly relevant to their contemporary preoccupations, namely the 'national question' and the 'social question'" (Ouellet 1985: 36). Was this really true then? Is it still true nowadays? Can we say that economic history has lost its relevance in the current debates about the 'national question' and the 'social question' in Quebec?
To answer the question, one would have to draw a systematic inventory of the areas of Quebec economic history which remain obscure and then pass judgement on their relevance to contemporary political and social debates. Such an enterprise is beyond the scope of this paper. Let me nevertheless suggest three broad areas which should attract scholarly attention. First, we need studies at the macroeconomic level. What do we know about capital formation in Quebec, trends in savings and investment, in return on investment, or internal and external capital flows? These are after all basic questions about wealth formation which a society can ill ignore. The same can be said of manpower issues such as the role of unions in shaping the labour market, or about the effectiveness of so-called regional development programs in fostering economic growth in Quebec's regions.
Secondly, at the microeconomic level, we need to understand the precise historical and economic context of the rise of Québécois entrepreneurs and to pay attention to the way in which they have structured and managed their businesses. The age-old debate about the quality of French-Canadian entrepreneurship has produced little more than commentary (Caldwell 1983, Paquet 1986). Instead of raising sterile questions as to whether French Canadians make good entrepreneurs or whether they are unrepentant "pre-capitalists," it might be more fruitful to start from the premise that in this area as in others there is a wide range of behaviour patterns and to look at specific success or failure factors. This might help in clearing up persistent stereotypes, both within Quebec and without.
Finally, Quebec labour historians could pay more concrete attention to the socioeconomic conditions of the working class. Some recent and current work makes use of the 1901 census manuscripts and links this information to other sources, such as assessment rolls or city directories, to look at specific categories of workers (for building contractors, see Langlois 1999; Soucy 1998 looked at Jewish families). In other cases, researchers have been able to obtain access to employee files of important businesses and have produced detailed analyses of occupational mobility, of hirings and quits, of wage policies and of the division of labour (for instance, Légaré 1991; Igartua 1996, as well as MacKinnon's work on Canadian Pacific workers). Such nominal data can be used to test sociological and economic models of worker behaviour at the individual rather than the aggregate level. Labour history would also gain from a more precise knowledge of business history, of the structural contexts of the relations between capital and labour as well as of the short-term trends that also affect them. There is no epistemological justification for the scholarly gulf between labour and business history.
These few examples should suffice to show that economic history has a direct relevance to our everyday concerns, in Quebec as elsewhere. How then do we bridge the gap between history and economics, and between historians and economists? First, historians should stop feeling apprehensive when faced with the theoretical and statistical apparatus of economists. These are, as McCloskey has reminded us (1985, 1990, 1994), rhetorical devices which historians familiar with discourse analysis should have no difficulty in laying bare. To say that historians and economists can benefit from contact with one another is obviously a platitude, but it bears repeating. There is room for both in the field of Quebec history, as Quebec reassesses its political structures and its social policies in the context of reduced public resources. The choices that Quebeckers will be called upon to make to shape the future of their society would be enlightened by a greater knowledge of their economic history. As Gagnon and Hamelin wrote (1979: 27), "historiographical discourse is born of present-day concerns." Let us hope that historians and economists together can harness their scholarly talents to take part in debates arising our of these concerns.
N O T E S
3. In preparing the original paper, bibliographic information was compiled from Paul Aubin's Bbiliographie de l'histoire du Québec and from the major historical journals likely to publish articles on post-1929 Canadian economic history. I wish to thank Nathalie Savaria for this compilation. I surveyed the last five years' production through searches in electronic finding aids such as America: History and Life, EconLit, SocioFile, Current Contents, and Uncover, and by going through the bibliographies published in the Revue d'histoire de l'Amérique française and the Canadian Historical Review.
7. See the Pistard finding aid for the Archives nationales du Québec at http://www.anq.gouv.qc.ca/. The National Archives of Canada is also putting its electronic finding aids on Internet through ArchiviaNet. For information, contact Denise Rioux <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
9. I can only count three: Joanne Burgess, at UQAM, has an undergraduate degree in economics and a Ph.D. in history, but her research interests have turned towards social history; Michael Huberman, now with the Université de Montréal History department, previously worked as an economist both at the university level and in the private sector; and Ruth Dupré, trained as an economist, teaches economic history at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales, a business school.
Armstrong, Robert (1978), The Asbestos Industry in Quebec 1878-1929, Ph.D. dissertation, economics, Université Laval.
Armstrong, Robert (1984), Structure and Change: An Economic History of Quebec, Toronto, Gage.
Aubin, Paul (1993), Register of Post-Graduate Dissertations in Progress in History and Related Subjects-Répertoire des thèses en cours portant sur des sujets d'histoire et autres sujets connexes, no 27, Ottawa, Société historique du Canada.
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Baillargeon, Denise (1991), Ménagères au temps de la Crise, Montreal: Éditions du remue-ménage.
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Brouillette, Normand and Pierre Lanthier (1983), "Contributions à l'étude du dynamisme des localisations industrielles : la stratégie des groupes industriels en Mauricie, 1900-1975", Annales de l'ACFAS, 50, p, 113.
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Campbell, Duncan C. (1985, 1990), Global Mission: The Story of Alcan. Don Mills, Ont.: Ontario Pub. Co.
Chabot, Colette (1986), Péladeau. Montreal: Libre Expression.
Charland, Jean-Pierre (1990), Les pâtes et papiers au Québec 1880-1980. Technologies, travail et travailleurs, Québec: Institut québécois de la recherche sur la culture (coll. Documents de recherche, 23).
Charland, Jean-Pierre (1992), Système technique et bonheur domestique : rémunération, consommation et pauvreté au Québec, 1920-1960, Québec: Institut québécois de la recherche sur la culture (coll. Documents de recherche, 28).
Choko, Marc-Henri (1981), Crise du logement et capital immobilier : Montréal. Le redéveloppement du centre-ville de 1957 à nos jours et ses conséquences. Ph.D. thesis, Paris VIII.
Clavette, Suzanne (1986), Des bons aux chèques : aide aux chômeurs et crise des années 1930 à Verdun. M.A. thesis, history, Université du Québec à Montréal.
Collin, Johanne (1991), Évolution de la profession pharmaceutique au Québec au XXe siècle : une analyse du rapport entre les transformations de la pratique et la féminisation du corps professionnel. Ph.D. thesis, history, Université du Québec à Montréal.
Collin, Johanne (1995), Changement d'ordonnance. Mutations professionnelles, identité sociale et féminisation de la profession pharmaceutique au Québec, 1940-1980. Montreal: Boréal.
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Dostaler, Gilles (1972), Le crédit à la consommation et son évolution au Canada de 1938 à 1970, M.Sc. thesis, Université McGill.
Dumais, Mario (1969), "L'évolution économique du Québec 1940-1965", in Robert Comeau (ed.), Économie québécoise, Montreal: Presses de l'Université du Québec, p. 219-231.
Dumais, Mario (1971), Étude sur l'histoire de l'industrie hydro-électrique (1940-1965) et son influence sur le développement industriel du Québec, M.A. thesis, economics, Université de Montréal.
Dumont, Fernand (ed.) (1990), La société québécoise après 30 ans de changements, Québec: Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture.
Dupré, Ruth (1985), A Politico-Economic Model of Quebec Government Spending, 1867-1969, Montreal: École des Hautes Études Commerciales.
Durand, Guy (1977), "Le tissu urbain québécois, 1941-1961 : évolution des structures urbaines de l'industrie et des occupations", Recherches sociographiques, XVIII, 1, p. 133-157.
Fournier, Pierre (1975), A Study of Business in Quebec Politics. Ph.D. thesis, political science, University of Toronto.
Fournier, Pierre (1978), "Les nouveaux paramètres de la bourgeoisie québécoise", in Pierre Fournier (ed.), Le capitalisme au Québec, Montreal: Éditions co-opératives Albert St-Martin, p. 137-181.
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Gold, Gerald L. (1971), The Emergence of a Commercial Bourgeoisie in a French Canadian Town. Ph.D. thesis, anthropology, University of Minnesota.
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Lessard, Diane (1974), Les rapports de production dans l'agriculture québécoise. M.Sc. thesis, anthropology, Université de Montréal.
Létourneau, Jocelyn (1985), Accumulation, régulation et sécurité du revenu au Québec au début des années 1960. Ph.D. thesis, history, Université Laval.
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Massell, David (1997). Amassing Power in a Northern Landscape: J.B. Duke and the Development of the Saguenay River 1897-1927. Ph.D. dissertation, history, Duke University.
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