Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Constitutional Politics of Labour: From Confederation to the Quiet Revolution - Part Four

The Canadian Labour Congress and the New Democratic Party

The merger of the TLC and CCL into the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) paved the way for the creation of a new political vision for organized labour in Canada. In 1961, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Canadian Labour Congress came together to create the New Democratic Party (NDP), which was modeled after the British Labour Party. It was hoped that the presence of a social democratic labour party would realign Canadian politics on a left-right basis, as had occurred in Britain.[1] However, class politics have never been particularly effective in Canada’s electoral arena. Divisions among anglophones and francophones, orders of government, and regions have been far more prominent.[2] This is partially explained by Canadian federalism’s proclivity to reinforce the traditional cleavages of language, region, and culture at the federal level. Despite its lasting presence in Ottawa, the Federal NDP has never been a serious contender in federal elections and has never managed to win much more than 20% of the popular vote. Its dream of forming the Official Opposition, let alone Government, has never been realized and as of late, the NDP has had to concern itself primarily with maintaining official party status in the House of Commons.[3]

Despite the appearance of a strong link between the CLC and the NDP, union members have certainly not flocked to the party in large numbers. Political scientists Keith Archer and Alan Whitehorn have demonstrated that low rates of direct union affiliation have plagued the NDP since its inception. Specifically, Archer and Whitehorn have noted that “never have more than 15% of union members belonged to NDP-affiliated unions. In fact, the proportions of union members in Canada affiliated with the NDP have consistently declined since the early 1960s.” [4] Unions most closely aligned with the NDP throughout its history include the United Steelworkers of America, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Canadian Auto Workers Union. The regional imbalance of union affiliation is also noteworthy. In 1987, approximately 75% of union affiliates were based in Ontario, while only 2% were based in Quebec.[5] Archer has argued that the party’s low rate of direct union affiliation can be explained by a simple cost-benefit analysis. Because the NDP is seen as a perennial third party, the benefits associated with direct affiliation never seem to outweigh the costs associated with affiliation. In terms of the electoral success of the NDP-CLC alliance, there is little evidence to suggest that it has yielded significant results. The institutional and structural failure of the NDP and the CLC to mobilize working people into a dependable voting bloc has long frustrated the leadership of both the party and the Congress. Nevertheless, the modest ties which exist between the CLC and the NDP seem strong compared to the relationship between the NDP and the FTQ.

The New Democrats, the Quebec Federation of Labour, and Quebec Politics

While the CLC helped to create the NDP in 1961, the FTQ passed a resolution endorsing the new party, with only one delegate in opposition. In fact, the FTQ’s constitution mandated the Federation to support the NDP in every federal election; until delegates voted to remove that provision in 1971.[6] Much to the chagrin of the CLC’s Eugene Forsey, the FTQ played a pivotal role at the NDP’s founding convention by forcefully pushing for the “Two Nations” conception of Canada.[7] Weeks before the NDP convention, the FTQ released its “Déclaration sur la Confédération et les droits provinciaux”. In it, the FTQ affirmed its support for the “Two Nations” conception of Canada and asserted that Quebec represented the political expression of French Canada. The FTQ declaration also called for self-determination and encouraged the Quebec government to more fully assert its jurisdictional authority with a view to improving Canada’s federal system.[8] FTQ delegates along with other Quebec delegates to the NDP’s founding convention promoted their “Two Nations” position effectively by convincing the party leadership to replace the word “national” with the word “federal” in all official party documents. The CSN’s Michel Chartrand, speaking on behalf of the Quebec delegation, argued that Quebec represented a nation within Canada, and therefore, use of the word “national” in party documents would not only be confusing, but assimilationist. The position of the Quebec delegation won out and the NDP’s party program was amended to read: “The New Democratic Party declares its belief in federalism, the only system that can assure the joint development of the two nations which originally joined together to create Canadian society, as well as the development of other ethnic groups in Canada.”[9] The NDP’s founding convention also adopted the following statement:

"Our pride in Canada as a nation is enhanced by our consciousness of the two national cultures which form the basis of Canadian life. We are indeed aware that those who have had their roots in the French-speaking community frequently and legitimately use the word 'nation' to describe French Canada itself. The New Democratic Party believes that true Canadian unity depends upon equal recognition and respect for both the main cultures of our country."[10]

These statements, in addition to appeasing Quebec nationalist delegates, reflected the strong influence of intellectuals like Charles Taylor and Michael Oliver, but these influences did not last. The party's western base was never really sympathetic to the notion of dualism presented at the party's founding convention. For his part, Eugene Forsey resigned from the party shortly after the founding convention in protest over its “Two Nations” policy. In his memoirs he lamented, “This is probably the only occasion in history when some thousands of people met to form a new national political party and began by resolving that there was no nation to form it in.”[11] The FTQ and its allies had scored an important victory but the Federation’s show of support for the NDP was peculiar given the party’s overwhelmingly anglophone character.

During this period, the FTQ seemed to relate to both the NDP and the CLC in the same manner; push for reform from within. The FTQ passed resolutions at its 1963 and 1965 conventions reaffirming its support for the party and encouraging its affiliated locals and individual trade union activists to join the party.[12] The Steelworkers Union, in particular, was fervently pro-NDP. Six Steelworkers ran for the party in Quebec in the 1962 federal election and five carried the NDP banner in Quebec ridings in the 1963 federal election.[13] The FTQ worked closely with the Steelworkers and other affiliates to establish a Quebec section of the party which contested federal elections between 1962 and 1988. However, the Quebec labour movement’s support for the federal NDP waned significantly in the late 1960s when trade union activists instead turned their attention to provincial politics. The Quiet Revolution had fostered a new sense of progressive nationalism among trade union activists in particular, and Quebec City, rather than Ottawa, had become the focal point of social change.[14]

At a 1961 Quebec City symposium, organized by a law student named Brian
Mulroney, NDP MP Doug Fisher responded to René Lévesque’s assertion that “you [English Canada] need us more than we need you” by stating that, “for us, the greatest impact of French-Canadian culture has been made by Maurice Richard and Lili St. Cyr.”[15] Maurice Richard was a hockey legend and St. Cyr a stripper (she was also an American). Fisher’s tasteless statement about French-Canadian culture, although admittedly only symptomatic of much deeper problems, certainly had a lasting impact on the party's fortunes in Quebec. The newly minted provincial section of the NDP in Quebec circulated a press release calling on federal NDP leader Tommy Douglas to discipline Fisher, the MP from Port Arthur, and reaffirm the party’s commitment to the “Two Nations” concept.[16]

Despite Fisher’s harmful gaffe, the federal NDP has generally tried to meet the political demands of Quebec. The party opposed the implementation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of 1970, endorsed the Meech Lake Accord, and recognized Quebec's right to self-determination.[17] However, it has become abundantly clear that a centralist, Anglophone party like the NDP, despite its occasional overtures to Quebec, could not possibly act as an effective political vehicle for the province’s labour movement. Culturally, neither the CCF nor the NDP could effectively relate to Quebec’s francophone majority. The party’s ethnic composition was, and continues to be, overwhelmingly white and anglo-saxon. This reality not only alienated francophones, but also pockets of progressives in smaller ethnic groups. During WWII, some immigrant communities in Quebec rejected the social democracy of the CCF in favour of the more culturally diverse politics of communism. In a 1943 by-election, the Labour Progressive Party’s Fred Rose convincingly defeated the CCF’s David Lewis and a host of other candidates in an ethnically diverse Montreal riding. Even after the communists fell off the electoral map in the 1950s, the CCF, and later the NDP, was never able to forge a reliable electoral niche in Quebec. As a result, the party has come to be associated exclusively with English Canada.

The NDP’s suspicion of Quebec nationalism has also prevented the party from working closely with the province’s labour movement in any meaningful way. In Quebec, where a growing nationalist movement was emerging, the FTQ yearned for more autonomy and an independent voice in Canada and within the Canadian labour movement. The FTQ and the CLC, despite the language barrier, seemed united along class lines. However, the powerful cleavage of language politics and the intertwining forces of class and nation in Quebec did weaken the bonds of class solidarity which kept the two labour bodies together. The growing gap between the politics of the FTQ and the politics of the CLC was first exposed when the CLC made a brief to the Laurendeau Commission in 1965.
[1] Dennis Smith “Prairie Revolt, Federalism and the Party System,” in Party Politics in Canada, 2nd ed., in Hugh G. Thorburn, ed., (Toronto: Prentice Hall, 1967), 190.
[2] Alan C. Cairns “The Governments and Societies of Canadian Federalism,” in Perspectives on Canadian Federalism, R.D. Olling and M.W. Westmacott, eds., (Toronto: Prentice-Hall, 1988), 114.
[3] Ian McLeod, Under Siege: The Federal NDP in the Nineties, (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1994), v.
[4] Keith Archer and Alan Whitehorn, Political Activists: The NDP in Convention, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997), 49-51.
[5] Archer and Whitehorn (1997), 51
[6] Jacques Rouillard, Le syndicalisme québécois: Deux siècle d’histoire, (Montréal: Boréal, 2004), 175.
[7] Louis Fournier, Louis Laberge: La Syndicalisme C’est ma Vie, (Montréal: Dossiers Document, 1992), 130.
[8] FTQ, Déclaration sur la Confédération et les droits provinciaux, 14 juin 1961.
[9] Kenneth McRoberts, Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997), 51.
[10] New Democratic Party, Federal Programme of the New Democratic Party, (Ottawa: July 31-August 4, 1961), 20-21.
[11] Eugene Forsey, A Life on the Fringe, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990), 206.
[12] FTQ, Politique de la FTQ 1960-1967, 58.
[13] Jean Gérin-Lajoie, Les Métallos 1936-1981, (Montréal: Boréal Express, 1982), 174.
[14] Rouillard (2004), 175.
[15] Doug Fisher and René Lévesque quoted in Canadian Political Babble, David Oliver, ed., (Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 1993), 181.
[16] NPD Québec “Le NPD du Québec demande: Des mesures disciplinaires contre M. Douglas Fisher,” Montréal, 1 décembre, 1961.
[17] Archer and Whitehorn (1997), 69.