Monday, February 5, 2007

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

Bilingualism, Biculturalism and the Politics of Labour

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) was one of the many organizations that submitted a brief to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Surprisingly, however, the Congress did not consult the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) before presenting its brief – which made bold pronouncements on the status of English and French in Canada. The CLC addressed the issue of Quebec in economic terms – condemning uneven regional development in Canada. According to the CLC’s brief, “the breeding ground for nationalism in its more extreme forms is exploitation, social and economic inequality, ignorance and insularity.”[1] As a remedy, the Congress argued in favour of a regional redistribution of wealth and a policy focus on narrowing the economic wage gap between francophone workers and anglophone workers in Canada . The CLC also made known its preference for a policy of official bilingualism in Canada, and trumpeted the fact that the Congress had adopted such a policy within its own organization in 1962. However, what was most interesting about the CLC’s brief to the Laurendeau Commission was what it did not contain. The two nations paradigm, which had won the endorsement of the FTQ and the NDP, did not find its way into the CLC brief. In fact, by characterizing French Canada as a “series of French-speaking islands large and small throughout Canada”[2], the Congress seemed to be rejecting the popularly held notion that Quebec represented a French-Canadian nation within the Canadian state. The CLC was also silent on the issue of constitutional reform, special status for Quebec, and the province’s right to self-determination. These glaring omissions obviously reflected the political bias of the CLC’s research director, Eugene Forsey. As a recognized expert on constitutional politics, Forsey used his position within the Canadian labour movement to advance his particular vision of Canada. Forsey’s clear distaste for Quebec nationalism did not sit well with the FTQ.

When the Federation protested that it had neither been asked for input, nor even received a copy of the CLC’s submission to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the Congress responded by reminding the FTQ that it was the CLC that had exclusive jurisdiction over making presentations to the federal government. The CLC could not understand why the FTQ was so upset. After all, according to the Congress, the presentation was made on behalf of the Canadian labour movement – a movement which, according to the CLC, included rank-and-file members of the FTQ.[3] The CLC’s unapologetic stand unquestionably raised the ire of the FTQ and reinforced the Quebec labour movement’s sense of nationalism.

During the 1960s, the Quebec labour movement could be characterized as both nationalist and federalist. Nationalist because it advocated self-determination and more autonomy for Quebec, and federalist because it rejected independence as a political alternative. The FTQ's Montreal regional council declared in 1961 “Le régime fédéral... doit être maintenu. Il a été un des instruments qui ont permis a la nation canadienne-française de se développer, d'affermir son charactère et de maintenir et répandre sa culture et sa langue.”[4] In 1962, delegates to the CSN convention “prononce contre le séparatisme, à moins qu’on le lui prouve que cette mesure soit nécessaire pour la salut économique, social et culturel de la nation.”[5] For its part, the CEQ, was the first significant trade union organization in Quebec to adopt a firmly nationalist position on constitutional questions. In 1965, the CEQ was advocating special status, although not sovereignty, for Quebec. The CEQ was unique in that its members were united by a common national community.[6] In addition, unlike their counterparts in the CSN and FTQ, CEQ members were somewhat shielded from the powerful economic arguments against separatism by virtue of their concentration in the public education sector. These factors allowed the CEQ to advance more developed positions on the National Question.[7]

At the FTQ’s 1963 convention, the Federation’s Vice-President Louis Laberge declared, “le séparatisme serait une catastrophe pour tous ceux qui sont obligés de gagner leur vie.” The delegates agreed and passed a resolution asserting that “la secession risque de provoquer une baisse du niveau de vie.”[8] In the same year, Laberge wrote the preface to an anti-separatist brochure entitled “Le Travailleur Face au Séparatisme.” In it, he wrote, “La presque totalité des syndiqués de langue française sont opposés au séparatisme.” Laberge continued his assault on Quebec separatism by suggesting that, “Le sort du Québec deviendrait identique à celui de certaines républiques des Antilles. Ce serait une aventure désastreuses dont les travailleurs feraient les frais.”[9] Laberge took over the leadership of the FTQ in 1964 and continued in that post until 1991, while also serving as a Vice-President of the CLC during that same period. Laberge first became active in the labour movement as a rank-and-file member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) in the 1940s. In the fifties, Laberge expanded the scope of his activities by participating in the Trades and Labour Council of Montréal (TLCM), where he served as President from 1955 to 1964. Laberge left that post to become organizing director for the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Quebec, a position which he kept despite being appointed to the Presidency of the FTQ after the death of Roger Provost in 1964.

Over the course of his trade union career, Louis Laberge came to symbolize the Quebec labour movement’s gradual conversion to nationalist politics and ultimately, sovereignty. Initially a New Democrat, Laberge eventually came to embrace the péquiste politics of the PQ and the Bloc Québécois (BQ). The intersection of class and nation in Quebec during the 1960s and 1970s transformed Laberge’s attitude towards Canada’s federal system. In 1980, he cautiously endorsed a OUI vote in Quebec’s referendum on sovereignty-association. By the 1990s, Laberge, and indeed the entire Quebec labour movement, was solidly in the sovereignist camp.

However, in the early 1960s, Laberge, like many trade unionists, was concerned about the economic implications of sovereignty. Concerned about the economic well-being of its union affiliates and their members, the FTQ leadership skillfully kept a lid on separatism throughout the decade. The second and third largest labour centrals, the CSN and the CEQ, also had reservations about separatism. Separatism, during this period, was viewed solely in economic terms, and the vast majority of workers were not willing to take the economic gamble. However, a significant current of Quebec nationalism was building strength within the Quebec labour movement.

[1] Canadian Labour Congress, Submission to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, (December 13, 1967), 7.
[2] Canadian Labour Congress (1967), 8.
[3] François Cyr et Rémi Roy, Eléments d’histoire de la FTQ: La FTQ et la question nationale, (Laval: Editions coopératives Albert St. Martin, 1981), 113-114
[4] Conseil des travailleuses et travailleures du Montréal Metropolitain, Cent ans de solidarité: Histoire du CTM 1886-1986, (Montréal, 1987) 106.
[5] 1962 CSN convention resolution reprinted in Louis Le Borgne, La CSN et la question nationale depuis 1960, (Québec: Les éditions Albert-Martin, 1976), 45.
[6] Unlike the FTQ or the CSN, the CEQ’s members were exclusively Québécois and worked in the education sector.
[7] Guntzel (1997), 428-429.
[8] Fournier (1992), 132.
[9] Fournier (1992), 130.