The Padlock Act (1937–1957) in Quebec

Paul Benoît, head of the Provincial Police’s anti-subversion squad, “Padlocking” the U.J.P.O. Cultural Centre, January 1950 © Libraries and Archives Canada/OCLC 15851865 p.18

For the week of January 24, 2022

On January 27, 1950, a group of police officers from the Quebec Provincial Police’s anti subversion squad went to the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) headquarters to lock it up, forcing the closure of the Morris Winchevsky Cultural Centre in Montréal’s Mile End. This was just one of many examples of the government shutting down organizations, deemed ‘undesirable’ under the terms of the Act to Protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda (commonly known as the Padlock Act). 

Following the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the Federal Conservative government of Sir Robert Borden introduced repressive legislation to intimidate and reduce the political influence of labour and leftist groups in Canada. These changes included the addition of section 41 to the Immigration Act, which allowed for the deportation of workers considered radicals, and section 98 of the Criminal Code, defining unlawful organizations and prohibiting the promotion of economic or industrial change by force. 

After the repeal of section 98 in 1936, the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis in Quebec unanimously passed the Act to Protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda in 1937. This law made it illegal to print, publish, or distribute any literature that seemed to promote radical political ideas, particularly those associated with Communism, but provided no definition. This allowed Duplessis to imprison, intimidate, and fine anyone he considered a threat. 

The law also granted Duplessis, as attorney general, the power to order the closure of facilities used to disseminate “propaganda.” No evidence was required to make arrests, cases did not always reach court, with many individuals remaining in prison for months, penalties could be as severe as 20 years’ imprisonment, and there was no appeal process.

These violations of civil liberties were initially focused on Communists, like the publishers of the newspaper La Clarté, but soon targeted more moderate left-leaning organizations, including trade unionists, the United Jewish People’s Order—a secular left-wing fraternal group—and political parties, such as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)—predecessor to the New Democratic Party (NDP).

The Padlock Act faced strong opposition across Canada from political parties, churches, municipal councils, newspapers, unions, intellectuals, and civil liberties organizations, not least because it infringed on civil liberties and human rights. However, there was support for the law in Quebec and, as a result, it was not repealed after Adélard Godbout led the Liberals to victory in the provincial election of 1939. Only in 1957 did the Supreme Court of Canada rule in Switzman v. Elbling that the Padlock Act was unconstitutional because it encroached on areas of federal jurisdiction. 

Maurice Duplessis and Sir Robert Laird Borden are designated persons of national historic significance. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

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