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Vol. 78/No. 20       May 26, 2014

Working class in Canada strengthened as decades
of struggle push back oppression of Quebecois
(feature article)
MONTREAL — For most of Canadian history, the owners of the mines, mills and factories have been able to foster divisions among working people based on systematic discrimination of the French-speaking majority in Quebec. Through decades of struggle, the working class in Canada has dealt major blows to this cornerstone of the rulers’ divide-and-rule strategy. The suppression of language and culture and inequalities in employment, wages, education and health imposed on workers who are Quebecois have been largely overcome today. This has strengthened the prospects for independent working-class political action in Canada.

The progress made in the fight against national oppression and its impact on working people of all backgrounds was brought home April 7 when the governing Parti Québécois lost the provincial elections by a wide margin. Most workers, whether English-speaking, foreign-born or Quebecois, were turned off by the party’s brazenly anti-working-class platform — which included an assault on the rights of immigrants and religious freedoms, couched in demagogic appeals to Quebecois nationalism. And many were repulsed by the party’s lead candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau, a capitalist popularly known among working people as the “lockout king” for leading more than a dozen union-busting lockouts, including one that lasted 764 days against workers at Journal de Montréal in 2009-2011.

This historic strengthening of the working class in Canada has also reinforced the possibilities for building a revolutionary party rooted in the industrial working class across the country. This is the course charted over several decades by the Communist League in Canada, a party whose goal as stated in its constitution is the establishment of a “workers and farmers government, which will abolish capitalism in Canada and join the worldwide struggle for socialism.”

For more than a century and a half the ruling class in Canada has used the national oppression of the Quebecois to reap superprofits and pit workers whose first language was English against fellow workers who spoke French. Discrimination against French speakers in Quebec was institutionalized following the defeat of a 1937-38 rebellion against British colonial domination by farmers and other working people in Ontario and Quebec.

In 1961 those who spoke French in Quebec had on average incomes 35 percent lower than English speakers, according to government figures. Quebecois had an average schooling of eight years, compared to 12 years for those who spoke English. There were two English-language universities in Montreal and only one in French. In the factories of Quebec the vast majority of workers were Quebecois, while bosses and management were English speakers. Union contracts were written in English, public signs were often only in English. New immigrants would overwhelmingly send their children to English-speaking public schools, which usually enjoyed superior facilities.

The growing mass struggle for Black rights in the U.S., as well as the revolutions in Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam had a big impact on workers and youth throughout Canada. Supporters of the Cuban Revolution organized defense committees and thousands marched to protest Ottawa’s complicity in the Vietnam War and demand U.S. troops out.

Starting in the late 1960s in Canada, as in the United States, women began to organize to fight for their liberation — with the struggle for the right to choose abortion and repeal the federal anti-abortion law at the center of the campaign.

Struggles strengthened working class

Over the next two decades in Quebec, a movement that would grow to involve hundreds of thousands of workers and youth began to mobilize in the streets against the national oppression of Quebecois. Throughout the decade, hospital workers and teachers led strikes to win the right to unionize and better their conditions. In 1968, pre-university and university students occupied campuses for weeks, demanding the creation of a second French-language university in Montreal. The movement also found expression in factories and other workplaces. In September 1970, for example, some 2,300 workers at a GM plant near Montreal went on strike for better wages and the right to speak French at work.

In October 1970, the federal government seized on provocations by the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ), an armed ultra-left pro-independence group, to move against the rising struggles in Quebec, which at the time included steps toward forming a labor party based on the unions in Montreal. In response to the FLQ’s kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner James Cross and of Pierre Laporte, labor minister and vice-premier of Quebec, who was subsequently killed, the Canadian government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and deployed 8,000 army troops to Montreal.

In response, large rallies took place in several cities across English Canada to demand the withdrawal of soldiers from Montreal and the release of more than 500 political prisoners — among them two members of the Ligue socialiste ouvrière/League for Socialist Action, the predecessor organization of the Communist League — rounded up without a warrant in thousands of raids by soldiers and cops. Under the military occupation, mobilizations of workers and students were banned. The military occupation of Quebec failed to quell the fight. In May 1972, a spontaneous general strike broke out across Quebec after three union leaders were imprisoned for refusing to obey a decree ordering back to work some 210,000 government workers on strike for a minimum wage of $100 per week. It was the biggest union action in North America since the post-World War II strike wave.

Bosses’ anti-worker offensive

By the mid-1970s, the long post-World War II capitalist economic boom had ended, prompting a new assault by bosses on the living standards and working conditions of working people throughout the country. These attacks provoked a response that drew English- and French-speaking workers together in common struggles, helping to break down national divisions and strengthen the confidence of working people of all backgrounds.

Workers took to the streets against the new system of wage controls imposed by the federal government limiting pay increases to less than inflation and effectively tearing apart union contracts. In 1976 up to a million workers throughout the country participated in a union-organized day of protest against the wage caps. In several industrial cities, such as Saint John, New Brunswick; Sept Iles, Quebec; Sudbury, Ontario; and Thompson, Manitoba; workers responded to the call for a one-day general strike.

In 1981, 100,000 people demonstrated in Ottawa in an action called by the Canadian Labour Congress against skyrocketing inflation and rising unemployment. As workers from Quebec marched across the Ottawa River bridge, cheers went up as workers from English Canada assembled on Parliament Hill greeted them enthusiastically.

In another powerful expression of working-class solidarity, in 1981 members of the United Steelworkers at Stelco steel in Hamilton, Ontario, refused to sign an agreement until bosses at the company’s three smaller plants in Quebec agreed to terms with the union.

Because workers in Quebec were at the forefront of many of these labor battles, several pan-Canadian unions elected Quebecois to leadership positions.

The Quebecois’ fight for their national rights continued throughout this period, leading to the election for the first time of the Quebec nationalist Parti Québécois in November 1976, one month after the countrywide protests against Ottawa’s wage freeze. The first PQ government adopted a series of measures that codified the gains of the Quebecois struggle.

These include Law 101, which made French the language of work, government and law in Quebec; imposed French on signs; and enrolled children of new immigrants in French public schools. They also passed a law that made it illegal for bosses to hire scabs during labor conflicts.

And the PQ government refused to implement the federal anti-abortion law, strengthening the fight for woman’s rights across the country and leading to the law’s repeal in 1988.

The PQ organized two referendums on Quebec sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. In both cases, the three main union federations in Quebec took their campaign for the “yes” into workplaces throughout the province.

The prominent place of Quebecois workers in labor battles and their fight for national rights, which directly challenged the prerogatives of the capitalist owners, helped undercut the chauvinist anti-Quebec campaign waged by the Liberal Party government in Ottawa among workers across the country.

For example, in the months leading to the 1980 referendum vote, four major pan-Canadian unions — the United Autoworkers Union, the Steelworkers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers — adopted resolutions recognizing Quebec’s right to self-determination without interference by the federal government.

At the Canadian Labour Congress convention in May that year in Winnipeg, Manitoba, almost all delegates from Quebec wore the “oui” button pinned to their lapels. They were joined by many delegates from English Canada, who wore the buttons in solidarity with the fight against discrimination and in support for the Quebecois people’s right to self-determination, including independence.

Both the 1980 and 1995 referendums were narrowly defeated. The close results and what they showed about the resolute struggle of the Quebecois shook up Canada’s rulers and eventually led to concessions from the federal government, which included recognition in 2006 that Quebec constitutes a distinct nation within Canada.

Inequalities largely overcome

According to the 2006 census, the median income among French-speaking men was $30,854, compared to $27,008 for English speakers; the mean average is about $4,000 higher for Anglophones. While English speakers still comprise a greater proportion of capitalists and highly paid professionals, the disparity in living standards among working people no longer exists. Differences in average years of schooling have also largely been overcome.

Today, French is the common language of communication in Quebec. By 2006, nearly 70 percent of those whose first language is English also spoke French. As a result of these conquests and the self-confidence earned in struggle, English is no longer viewed as a language of oppression. Bilingualism among Quebecois is growing fast, particularly among young people.

In the 1960s communist workers in Canada, then members of the League for Socialist Action, threw themselves into the struggles developing in Quebec. After years of having an organized presence in Toronto and Vancouver, they opened a branch in Montreal in 1964 under the name of Ligue socialiste ouvrière, and began publishing a newspaper in French, Lutte ouvrière (Workers Struggle).

Shortly before the proclamation of the War Measures Act, the LSO/LSA included in its program the call for Quebec independence as thousands of workers and youth in the province were taking to the streets demanding their rights and winning support across the country. A door was opening that created new possibilities for the working class across Canada to come together in a common struggle for workers power.

Fusion strengthens workers party

In 1977, the LSO/LSA and three other revolutionary organizations — the Groupe marxiste révolutionnaire in Quebec, the Revolutionary Marxist Group in English Canada, and the pan-Canadian Young Socialists League/Ligue des jeunes socialistes — fused into a single new organization, the Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue ouvrière révolutionnaire. The fusion in Canada was part of a positive response by revolutionaries in North America in the late 1970s to increased openings to build proletarian parties, as labor struggles and changing attitudes among workers about the ability of capitalism to meet the needs of working people deepened around the world.

In the U.S. the Revolutionary Marxist Committee fused with the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. The fusion brought together two organizations determined to build a revolutionary proletarian party to fight for working-class political power in the United States. And three revolutionary workers parties also fused in Mexico.

The coming together of revolutionary forces in Canada was the result of growing common action in the fights of the working class, like the Oct. 14, 1976, cross-country Labor Day of Protest against Ottawa’s wage freeze, and the deepening national struggle in Quebec.

In the years following its founding, the Revolutionary Workers League clarified that its goal was the establishment of a revolutionary workers government in Canada as part of a united struggle for power by working people across the country against Ottawa, with the call for Quebec independence strengthening that fight.

As the international economic crisis spread beginning in the mid-1970s, the league decided in 1979 to organize the vast majority of its members to get jobs in basic industry in response to new opportunities to join in the battles of working people.

The perspective of building a revolutionary workers party with a presence across the whole country made it possible for communist workers to carry out unified political work with the same goals throughout Canada. This included solidarity with labor struggles, campaigning for Quebec’s right to self-determination, supporting women’s rights, defending the revolutions then unfolding in Grenada and Nicaragua, and circulating newspapers and books on revolutionary working-class politics.

At the beginning of the 1980s, with fights in Quebec still at the center of the class struggle in Canada, the Revolutionary Workers League decided to establish its political center in Montreal. Along with that decision, the party took several steps for a significant layer of leaders and cadres to become bilingual in English and French.

In the mid-1980s the party undertook a sustained program of publishing communist books in French, an effort that became over time Pathfinder Press’ stock of French-language titles.

In December 1989, the Revolutionary Workers League changed its name to the Communist League. It made that decision as the Stalinist regimes that had falsely claimed to represent the continuity of communism were collapsing in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But above all the name marks the progress over the previous decades in building a centralized countrywide organization — never before accomplished by the communist movement in Canada — of revolutionaries fighting for workers political power.

By rejecting, as working people recently did, the Parti Québécois’ chauvinist, xenophobic campaign, workers in Quebec have shown that they won’t be diverted by reactionary bourgeois demagogy. The blows dealt to the capitalist rulers’ ability to wield the club of discrimination against Quebecois has made it easier for working people in Canada to more clearly see their common interests as a class. The demand for independence is no longer needed to address an oppression that has been largely overcome.

This strengthening of the working class has opened new opportunities for revolutionary action, the building of a party of communist workers, and the fight for socialism in Canada and North America.  
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