Guest Commentary

Heward Grafftey, In Memoriam

The Chief

(Editor’s note: Heward Grafftey, seven-term MP for Brome-Missisquoi, Que., died in 2010 at 81. He was first elected in 1958 in the heyday of one of the country’s last political machines, Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale. In an October 24, 2007 interview with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan, Grafftey recalled those years. Following is a transcription of his remarks)

I was at a hockey game in 1958. Premier Duplessis invited me to come to his box at the old Montréal Forum. He waited for the siren to end the second period, and turned to me and said he knew a Union Nationale organizer who wanted a federal judgeship very, very badly. He looked at me and said, “Look, I’m the premier of Québec and Mr. Diefenbaker is the prime minister of Canada, and I have no right to interfere with his job, but would you tell him I’d like to see this man made a judge?” Of course I did, and he was made a judge.

Duplessis wrote out a nice cheque to my 1958 campaign. I wasn’t beholden to him, but the Premier asked me and I produced, simple as that. That’s the way it went.

There were often kickbacks on road contracts, that sort of thing. Somebody would get a contract, maybe there wasn’t open bidding, and it was determined you better give something back to the Party. It wasn’t very pleasant, but it was done. It was pervasive.

Duplessis was quite a dominating presence. He was The Chief, a tub-thumper, a very charismatic speaker. He was in control of the Party, the whole thing. Politics is kind of an addiction; it gets in your blood, and I guess he just had that.

In those days the Union Nationale had a tacit agreement with the Church, and the Church was pretty well pro-Duplessis all the time. At election time The Chief always made sure the parish driveways were paved. Every time they opened a new school the local bishop would turn up, a big performance, and they’d put a crucifix in every classroom I suppose some people thought it was sinister, but it really wasn’t.

Rural, small-town Québec, that’s where the majorities were. They liked Duplessis, and they liked what he did, and they supported him. Here in Montréal it wasn’t quite the same, but he got his majorities in small-town Québec.

I think the English media were unfair to Duplessis. He was no worse patronage-wise than the Big Blue Machine in Ontario, and certainly no worse than Joey Smallwood in Newfoundland. But they demonize Duplessis.

Sure, he ruled with an iron fist. What he said went. He was a one-man show. I never got excited about it. Every leader has his style, so there you go. Politics was his vocation. He didn’t have children, didn’t have hobbies. He liked hockey and was a baseball fan – he loved baseball – but that was it. Duplessis was just a very full-time politician.

I remember Duplessis came up to Ottawa and said he was very proud of me because I was the first elected Anglo in a French riding. He called me “mon petit Anglais”. That’s the last time I saw him.

I think people should think of Duplessis as a powerful figure, an autocratic leader, not as corrupt as the media said he was, but he was in charge. He didn’t delegate authority, I’ll tell you that, and he didn’t die rich. Power was what he wanted, not money.

There’s a famous story: Duplessis in small-town Québec making a speech. “Vote for my candidate and we’re going to build you a bridge.” And somebody shouts from the crowd, “But Mr. Duplessis, we don’t have a river.” “Well,” he said, “I’ll give you that too!”

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