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Documents in Quebec History


Last revised:
20 August 2001

Documents sur la grève de l’amiante de 1949 / Documents on the 1949 Asbestos Strike


La Grève de l'amiante: une étape de la révolution industrielle au Québec.

M. TRUDEAU and his co-authors have put in their debt not only all students of Canadian labour relations but all students of French-Canadian society as well. For this volume is more than a study of the Quebec asbestos strike of 1949; in relating the strike to the society out of which it grew, the authors have produced a vigorous and sustained analysis of the whole institutional and ideological development of French Canada in this century. The publication of this work affords convincing evidence -- if further evidence were required after the Essais sur le Québec contemporain edited by Falardeau in 1953 -- that a growing number of French-Canadian scholars and scholarly men of action have broken out of the ethnocentric closed circle which had for so long debilitated French-Canadian social thought and action. The authors of La Grève de l'amiante include two members of the Faculty of Social Sciences of Laval University (Gérard Dion and Fernand Dumont), and three leading trade unionists ( Jean Gérin-Lajoie, Gérard Pelletier, and Maurice Sauvé ) as well as independent journalists and lawyers. Pierre Trudeau, who contributes two chapters, is (with G. Pelletier) co-editor of the vigorous critical quarterly Cité libre, and one of the most penetrating social analysts now writing in French Canada.

The value of this book to students of labour relations can be indicated simply: no other industrial dispute in Canada has ever been so fully documented and analysed, and the quality of documentation and analysis is high. Separate chapters are devoted to: the financial history of the asbestos industry; the history of trade unionism in the industry; a day-to-day chronicle of the strike, followed by a discussion of the several constructions that were or could be put upon its purposes; a supplementary account of the negotiations between union, company, and government, before, during, and after the strike; a careful analysis of the role of the church in the conflict; a remarkable study of the legal aspects, which brings out the illegalities committed by all the parties to the dispute; an account of the newspaper treatment of the strike; an account of the fortunes of the asbestos union in the six years after the strike; and a discussion of the bearing of the strike on the development of, and relations within, the whole Quebec trade union movement. If the volume had contained no more than these chapters, it would still have been a unique contribution to the literature of Canadian labour relations, and a fresh contribution to the under standing of the place of church, state, and press in Quebec.

What makes it, beyond this, a most impressive addition to the literature on French Canada is M. Trudeau's sweeping analysis of the patterns of social change in twentieth-century Quebec. His ninety-page opening chapter, and the briefer epilogue, are brilliantly written and often sharply controversial. He dissects the tissue of established institutions and ideas that we think of as the essential French Canada, and shows how far they fall short of being so.

M. Trudeau clearly knows the establishment very well, but he neither shares its economic postulates nor admires its techniques. He is therefore able to analyse, with unusual clarity, the extent and the sources of its failure. Thus he can argue, for instance, that the social doctrine of the church, no matter how often modernized, remained inadequate because of the unreality of its economic analysis, and so failed repeatedly to hold the industrialized working class. Institutions, likewise, failed in their self-appointed task of protecting and making life meaningful for French Canadians. They failed, he argues, for different reasons. The church and the universities, having to live by ideas and yet respond to realities, were unable to bridge the gap between their incompetent economic ideas and the realities of industrialization, and so lost their dynamic force. Nationalist societies and movements, faced with the same divergence, abandoned reality and lost themselves in grandiose abstractions. Political parties abandoned theory and led a life of opportunism. In the end, the French-Canadian people have owed their survival not to any of the institutions that had undertaken to defend the French-Canadian way of life, but to the "materialism" and empiricism of new institutions that they made their own -- the trade unions. The Quebec union movement is shown as growing by its own internal logic, concerned with human values in French Canada rather than with traditional French-Canadian values.

The asbestos strike is seen as the end of an era -- the era of the submission of the French-Canadian working class to an ineffective and humiliating superstructure of official ideology and institutions. The strike broke through the cake of custom and compelled old institutions to re-align themselves. Some of them, caught up in something more far-reaching than they had anticipated, began to retreat, after the strike, to their former positions. But full retreat was impossible, for the new consciousness consolidated by the strike had changed the terms on which they, could hope to retain a position of leadership or influence.

The epilogue ends with a vindication of the new spirit within the Catholic unions. M. Trudeau scornfully turns the tables on those who accuse the unions of materialism. The materialists, he suggests, are perhaps those who still preach the old modes of French-Canadian survival, modes so ineffective that they could only continue to let the bulk of the French-Canadian people be submerged in a really dehumanizing materialism.

La Grève de l'amiante is clearly a contentious book. One might almost say it is contentious because its analysis is so clear. But its clarity and its contentiousness both spring from the same qualities of its authors: their skill in the social sciences, and their courage in pursuing the implications of their understanding. This combination of qualities has produced a work that gives unrivalled insight both into the problems of Quebec today and into the new spirit and intelligence that are at work there.

Source: C. B. Macpherson, " Review of books : La grève de l’amiante", in Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. 23, 1957, pp. 268-269.

© 2001 For the web edition, Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College