Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Documents in Quebec History


Last revised:
20 August 2001

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

Turning New Leaves

by H. Blair Neatby

The province of Quebec has become highly industrialized. In the last two decades its rate of industrialization has been higher than that of Canada as a whole, with vast unexploited hydro-electric and mineral resources which promise a long term development for the future. This industrialization has followed a pattern familiar to all North Americans: large-scale monopolistic enterprises using advanced technological techniques and dependent upon national, continental or even world markets. There is nothing remarkable in the nature of this industrialization and even the undeveloped potential resources are no more staggering than those of Ontario or British Columbia. But in Quebec this industrialization has been a more seriously disruptive factor than in any other part of North America.

Quebec is unique because the predominantly French Canadian society has a philosophy and aspirations based on the determination to survive as a distinct society and so is antipathetic, even antagonistic, to the prevailing North American "materialism" and "progress." In the political sphere in the nineteenth century, the danger to survival led to opposition by the French Canadians to union with Upper Canada and to Confederation but leaders such as Lafontaine and Cartier convinced their compatriots that there was little danger as long as the French Canadian remained united and acted as a political bloc. To French Canadians, responsible government was a means of survival and the theories of double majority and provincial rights were natural corollaries. In the economic sphere an analogous situation has developed. There has been opposition to the adoption of new economic techniques, just as there was to political change, because it would involve a compromise, an alteration in the structure of French Canadian society. Scholars, especially sociologists and economists, have attempted to analyse the situation in contemporary Quebec and have shown that, despite this opposition by leaders in church and state, French Canada has become industrialized, and that the opposition to industrialization has resulted in an almost schizophrenic society with lip-service paid to the old traditions by people who have in practice adopted the North American "way of life." To continue the analogy with the political situation of a century ago, Quebec needs another Lafontaine or Cartier to lead the way to a compromise in the economic sphere which is compatible with the economic reality but which will still preserve the unique characteristics of French Canadian society.

La Grève de l'amiante (1) is an attempt to lay the foundations for such a compromise. The ten essays in the volume deal with the Asbestos strike of 1949 but to the collaborators the strike "marque une étape dans toute l'histoire religieuse, politique, sociale et économique de la province de Québec" (379) and so the emphasis is on the intellectual and institutional context in which the strike occurred. It is this approach which makes the book important.

The introduction by the editor, P. E. Trudeau, an essay of some ninety pages, is a masterly analysis of the reaction of the French Canadian intellectuals to the deplorable fact of the industrialization of Quebec since the turn of the century. It is the best essay in the volume; it is also the best study of this topic yet published. Trudeau shows how the nationaliste ideal has led prominent laymen and clerics sometimes to ignore industrialization and at other times to combat it by appeals to their compatriots to remain on or return to the rural parish, the only place where French Canadian society can preserve its ethos intact. Even the schemes to adapt society to the new economic developments are shown to be unrealistic panaceas, still based on a rejection of large-scale enterprise; that French Canadians should restrict their economic activities to small enterprises or cooperatives, that French Canadians should rely upon the effect of achat chez nous, and that French Canadian laborers should be organized in Catholic trade unions and should accept the theories of a corporate state. French Canadian institutions such as la Société Saint-Jean Baptiste, l'École sociale populaire and l'Action nationale, as well as the educational institutions, have directed their activities to preserve a French Canadian society which no longer exists. Even the Roman Catholic Church has interpreted the doctrines of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno to foster this obsolescent form of French Canadian nationalism. The political parties in Quebec have further confused the situation by demagogic appeals to nationalist prejudices and so have suppressed any rational discussion of the new social and economic problems.

There is a scholarly array of quotations from such men as Groulx, Montpetit, Mgr. Gauthier and Duplessis to support this iconoclastic interpretation. That Catholic trade unions, dominated by clerical and nationalist ideas, could only develop by rejecting the official social philosophy and adopting a more realistic approach. Thus in 1949 the stage was set and a new act began with the Asbestos strike.

The subsequent essays support this analysis by describing conditions in the asbestos industry; showing the financial complexity of an industry controlled by American corporations who also provided the market for the asbestos fibres, and the confusion within the Catholic trade union frustrated in its bargaining by clerical and political pressure and by rivalry with international unions. The account of the strike itself and the negotiations leading to a settlement emphasize the changing outlook of the French Canadian unionists and the moral support given to the workers by French Canadian university students, some of the clergy and the clerical newspapers, in spite of the theoretical illegality of the strike. In the words of Le Devoir, "nous commençons au jourd'hui à posséder une conscience sociale" (287). Réginald Boisvert in another able essay analyses the effect of the strike on trade unionism in the province and the recognition by other trade unions that the C.T.C.C. has become a militant union which puts the interests of its members above nationalism and confessionalism, concluding that the federation of all Canadian trade unions is possible despite the differences in policy which still exist.

The conclusions drawn by Trudeau in his "Epilogue" are tempered by a refreshing realism. In spite of the significance attributed to the Asbestos strike there is no deterministic assumption that French Canada has completed a philosophical revolution. Labor legislation is still unreformed, the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec is divided and possibly becoming more conservative, and the nationalist school has learned nothing. But the strike has shown that Quebec is adjusting to the fact of industrialization and, despite the aridity of the social philosophy provided by the traditional leaders of French Canadian society, that the French Canadian workers are developing a philosophy more compatible with the contemporary economic foundations of their society.

La Grève de l'amiante is the most important contribution of recent years to the study of French Canada in transition. No reviewer could resist pointing out that in such a study the essays are not of equal merit, but this volume has a unity based on agreement as to the crucial nature of the social problem presented by a working class which has no place in the traditional social philosophy of French Canada. There are differences of opinion as, for example, Gérard Dion and Gérard Pelletier on the attitude of the church towards labor (261, 315), but these differences are inevitable in such an analytical study. The major qualification is that the book seems to have exaggerated the degree of reorientation of the French Canadian working class. It is claimed that this class has exchanged the old nationalist philosophy for a new one -- but the results of the recent provincial election suggest that the old shibboleths still have a strong appeal.

A word of warning may be necessary for English Canadian readers. Wishful thinking might lead to the conclusion that this book represents a rejection of the idea of French Canadian survival and that it advocates the adoption of the North American trade union philosophy to meet the challenge of North American capitalism in Quebec, and so it is a step towards the assimilation of French Canadian society. The authors have rejected the outmoded ideas of a rural society but they have not adopted a materialistic or anti-nationalist philosophy. Without drawing up a blueprint for the future they have still accepted implicitly the fundamental principle of the survival of a French Canadian society, not the society of the nineteenth century but nonetheless a society with a philosophy which will distinguish it from the rest of North America. Only if their challenge to outmoded concepts is ignored by French Canadian leaders is there a danger that these men will become increasingly radical and follow the pattern of the Rouges of a century ago.

(1) Pierre Elliott Trudeau, (ed.), La Grève de l’amiante. Montréal, les éditions Cité libre, 1956.

Source : H. Blair Neatby, "Turning New Leaves", in Canadian Forum, Vol. 35, October 1956, pp. 162-163. Some typographical errors have been corrected. The editor gratefully acknowledges the cooperation of the publishers of Canadian Forum who have agreed that this article be reproduced at the Quebec history web site.

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