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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

A New French Canadian Outlook

by Michael Oliver

[Note from the editor: A Quebecker, Michael Oliver was a prominent academic writer at the time this book review was published. Intellectually, he was close to the ideas of Cité libre but without the bitter anti-nationalist overtone that dominated the review. In 1956, he completed a doctorate at McGill University, in Montreal. In his thesis, he studied the social and political ideas of Quebec nationalists in the period of 1920 to 1945. Eventually this thesis was published under the title The Passionate Debate (Vehicle Press, 1991, 284p.). Michael Oliver was appointed Research Director to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1967). He was prominent in the New Democratic Party from 1961-1963. He was also the founder of the French Canada’s Studies programme of McGill University.]

Strikes are stirring events. Their disturbing effect spreads out in circles of lessening intensity throughout an entire community. Frequently they produce real hardship and misery, but just as often their turbulence has the salutary result of a spring breaking into stagnant water. With his unfortunate gift for overstatement, Proudhon called war a "divine fact" but he was really only elaborating Kant's belief in the fruitfulness of discord. And even Anglicans, in their gentlemanly way, celebrate "Stir-up" Sunday, with its collect which strongly suggests the productive value of disruption.

In 1949, the workers in Quebec's asbestos mines fought a bitter six-months strike which upset social equilibrium across the province. Catholic syndicates had always been considered a rather passive, even timid, section of Canadian labour, yet here a Catholic syndicate called a strike in contravention of Quebec's labour laws, and sustained its action against the violent intervention of the provincial police and the most vigorous strike-breaking tactics of the mine owners. The Roman Catholic Church itself had always been associated with a most conservative regard for established social and political authority in the province, yet during the strike, the top-most members of the hierarchy pronounced unequivocally in favour of the strikers and organized parish collections to aid them in continuing their struggle. This strike made it impossible for many French Canadians to ignore any longer Quebec's immersion in all the complexities of an industrialized community; it shook old values and created a receptiveness to new ones.

A book which appeared last year describing the strike is perhaps as significant as the event itself. The authors of La Grève de l'amiante (1) maintain, as their central thesis, that the strike ushered in a new stage in provincial history -- religious, political, social and economic. In spite of the element of exaggeration which always attends the identification of historical watersheds, this is probably true; and if it is, one of the important texts of the new epoch has already been written. La Grève de l'amiante is important not only for what it says, but because of the people who wrote it and what they represent. Viewed in isolation, as a contribution to the study of industrial relations, the book has great value. It examines exhaustively the financial history of the asbestos industry in Canada, and the history of its trade unions. There is a detailed account of the negotiations which preceded and concluded the strike and a day by day (almost hour by hour!) description of the strike itself. The parts played by the Roman Catholic Church, by the press and by the courts each receive a separate chapter; and the section on the industry six years after the strike provides a particularly worthwhile comparison. The book is also open to some criticism. It has that spotty quality which is inevitable in any work by nine authors, not including those who wrote the foreword and the preface. This not only produces some repetition and striking inconsistency (was Bishop Charbonneau's transfer connected with his role in the strike or was it not?), but a contrast between unimaginative statistics (Chapter 2) and highly imaginative speculation (Chapter 10). Yet the authors themselves cannot help being conscious of the revolutionary character of their analysis, and they share such enthusiasm for their mode of interpreting Quebec's society and its recent history, that an enormous vitality enlivens even the weaker and more pedestrian sections of the book.

La Grève de l'amiante is like no other piece of writing which has come out of French Canada. Four of the contributors are professionally trained economists; their essays constitute a break with the deductive and speculative tradition of French Canadian writing in the direction of empiricism. But this is hardly unique, considering the quality of the studies produced by Laval's Social Science Faculty, to name only the most obvious example. Rather, La Grève de l'amiante's real novelty lies in its highly radical social criticism. M. Duplessis' Union Nationale régime takes some heavy blows. The list of illegalities with which it is charged is formidable: the Provincial Labour Relations Board is accused of abusing its jurisdiction and of acting without jursdiction; of "aberrations, illogicalities, juridical antinomies and deviation towards a political role" (p. 276); the Minister of Labour of taking judicial and legislative functions into his own hands and of neglecting his proper executive functions. The claim that the strike itself was illegal pales into insignificance. More basically, the book challenges the very economic and social system of the province. Quebec's social philosophy, writes Pierre Trudeau,

recognizes as proprietors only those who hold today a stock certificate which tomorrow they will sell on the market; while the workers, who have invested the richest years of their lives, their labour and their hopes in a task or a trade, have no property rights whatsoever in their occupation and can be expropriated without compensation by a strike, a lockout, a business recession or simply because of old age. (pp. 403-8). (This quotation, and all subsequent ones, are my own translations from the original French.)

It is difficult to conceive of such a book being written by English Canadian authors today. Twenty-five years ago, comparable things were happening. Rhodes scholars like David Lewis, Frank Scott and Eugene Forsey threw themselves into radical politics or into trade union work with a similar vigour. They produced books like Social Planning for Canada. They and others like them made the Canadian Forum much more the voice of social criticism than it is today. The collaborators in La Grève de l'amiante have this quality. Jean Gérin-Lajoie went from the Université de Montreal to Oxford to McGill and thence to a job as organizer for the steelworkers. Pierre Trudeau, an economist and labour lawyer, and Gérard Pelletier, editor of a trade union weekly, are co-directors of Cité libre -- a review which publishes crisp, spiced fare contrasting markedly with the tepid porridge of comparable English Canadian periodicals.

The most brilliant sections of La Grève de l'amiante, and those which recall the social critique of English Canadian radicals two decades ago, are the first chapter and the epilogue written by Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The introductory chapter is a review of the past, the first clear and incisive account of the social, political and economic ideas of his province's élite and of the institutions which they have manned. Inevitably this essay becomes a study of French Canadian nationalism, and just as inevitably, given M. Trudeau's purpose, it becomes an indictment. M. Trudeau and his colleagues stand for equality, and in the society of the immediate past they find elitism and leader-worship; they stand for a just appreciation of economic data, and among the nationalists they find a-priorism and a metaphysical mist; they stand for a future moulded by conscious human purpose, and in the earlier era they find a glorification of tradition and widespread allegiance to "notre maître, le passé". In Trudeau's opinion, an important effect of the whole array of nationalist books, pamphlets and periodicals was to cripple French Canadians in their attempts to cope with their province's industrial revolution and to hinder them from participating effectively in politics.

This is a fascinating and well-documented piece of work; but M. Trudeau's natural revulsion against the predominantly reactionary aspects of past nationalism makes it polemic as well as analysis. M. Trudeau obviously feels that until French Canadians can remove their nationalist blinkers there is little possibility that the view of Quebec which he believes to be the true one will penetrate. His insistence on proving the ineptness of nationalism in giving any sensible answers to Quebec's economic and social problems leads him to abstract from nationalist thought those elements which "encumber the present and stand in the way of free and forthright action". (p. 13) M. Trudeau does not pretend to be completely exhaustive in his treatment of the nationalist tradition, and perhaps it is carping criticism which takes an author to task for failing to do something he has clearly stated he has no intention of doing. But the lack of differentiation in M. Trudeau's portrait of nationalism has an effect on the story of the strike itself. The elements which he largely ignores were not numerically important; and they were neither consistently different from the dominant nationalism which he has described so well, nor a force of real import in the pre-1949 era with which he deals. Yet, having read M. Trudeau's characterization of nationalist ideas, most readers would be puzzled to account for the role of Montreal's thoroughly nationalist daily, Le Devoir, during the asbestos strike. M. Gérard Pelletier's analysis of press reactions assigns a special section to Le Devoir for a number of reasons. First of all, Le Devoir was the only newspaper in Canada to keep a reporter at the scene of the strike from its beginning to its end -- that reporter being M. Pelletier himself. Secondly, it gave more consistent, unqualified support to the strikers than any other daily. Thirdly, and this is surely of crucial importance, its motives for supporting the strike were not nationalist. It did not present the issues in terms of French Canadians exploited by American intruders; the social and economic aspects of the strike held the spotlight. Finally, M. Pelletier suggests that the firm, determined, aggressive stand taken by Le Devoir made it necessary for other newspapers to define their attitudes, and thus spread the impact of the strike far beyond Le Devoir subscribers.

Why if it belonged to a tradition interested in nothing more concrete than the divine mission of the French Canadian nation did Le Devoir support the strike so fervently? Why did its editors, men prominent in nationalist movements since the thirties, have at their finger-tips the most cogent arguments to support the workers' viewpoint if this had not been for a considerable time an object of thought and study?

Events since the strike also bring into question M. Trudeau's claim that Quebec nationalism is a bankrupt tradition. One such indication is a recent book or, more properly, brochure: Robert Rumilly's L'Infiltration gauchiste au Canada français. (Edité par l'auteur, Montréal, 118, avenue Lazard, 1958, pp. 147). This appalling little volume deserves an early interment, and one hesitates to prolong or extend its influence by referring to it. But it is, in a sense, the reductio ad absurdum of Pierre Trudeau's stress on the reactionary character of French Canadian nationalism. M. Rumilly has proved himself a master of the McCarthy technique. One sample of his "reasoning" will suffice. He cites a French Dominican to the effect that "Catholics for the most part align themselves politically with the right." M. Rumilly comments:

He could just as well have written that men of the right are in very large majority Catholics. But left-wing Catholics devote themselves exclusively to the battle against this Catholic majority, which they treat as the enemy. Far from fighting against anti-Catholic parties, they [in France] ally themselves with the Radical party and the Socialist party, the political expressions of free-masonry, even the Communist party, which is systematically and violently anti-religious .... They have the same adversaries -- the same enemies! -- as the Communists, which leads them into sympathy with then and even into a tight alliance. (p. 10)

In a few brief lines, M. Rumilly has established his pattern. In the remainder of the book it is assumed that, for all significant purposes, any French Canadian Catholic who is an opponent of the political right need not be distinguished from a Communist. Yet to a surprising extent, the "leftist conspiracy" which M. Rumilly so busily unearths seems to be centred in French Canadian nationalist groups. Le Devoir is his primary target; but L'Action Nationale and the Association de la Jeunesse canadienne-française are attacked for a similar taint. A nationalist leftist is an even more horrifying spectacle for M. Rumilly than an ordinary Catholic leftist. He is thus forced to narrow his definition of a nationalist to just the same degree as he broadened his definition of a "leftist". He says:

A nationalist cannot be "of the left". The term "left-wing nationalist" implies a contradiction in terms. The left-wing Catholics in France became more leftist than Catholics. The "left-wing nationalists" in Canada will become more leftist than nationalist. (pp.121-2)

There is little point in trying to make sense out of M. Rumilly's tirade. The most amazing people are charged with direct or indirect support of leftist subversion -- the Rector of the Université de Montréal, Father Lévesque of the Massey Commission and the Canada Council; Abbé Dion; the entire editorial board of Le Devoir, and so the list goes on. But, of course, once one discards the ridiculous definition of "the left" used by such an unregenerate right-winger as M. Rumilly; and particularly once one divorces the men and the ideas he discusses from that negligible and pitiful handful of Communists who lead their peculiarly unreal existence in Quebec, a kernel of truth remains. Quebec is seeing the development of an indigenous body of left-wing opinion and some, though by no means all, of those discussed in L'Infiltration gauchiste are connected with it. And this development is not as totally dissociated from Quebec's nationalist tradition as M. Pierre Trudeau's introduction to La Grève de l'amiante would suggest.

It may in fact be true that certain very ardent nationalists are much closer to the general thesis of La Grève de l'amiante, and to the left-wing social criticism of M. Trudeau, than one, at least, of those who collaborated in the book itself. Abbé Gérard Dion, a director of the Department of Industrial Relations at Laval, wrote the chapter on "The Church and the Asbestos Conflict". His is a name which has become familiar across Canada, for shortly after last summer's Quebec election, the denunciation of corruption which he and Abbé O'Neill hurled at the people of Quebec and their political leaders was blazoned in every newspaper. Both in his contribution to the book on the strike and in the famous Dion-O'Neill report, Abbé Dion was speaking as a priest. In the first case he was anxious to prove that his Church was not always allied to the industrial status quo and in the second case he sought to dissociate the Church from what he alleged was a corrupt political system. In the strike report, he showed that Catholics could apply their moral judgment to a social situation; in the election report, he called on Catholics to apply their moral judgment to a political situation. In both he associated himself with forces for change, forces of protest -- but his emphasis was primarily a moral one, and just as his espousal of the workers' cause in the strike did not mean a permanent commitment to any one class in society, so his attack on the venality of the 1956 election did not mean a commitment to any single political viewpoint.

In this he differed from other authors of La Grève de l'amiante. To them, a response to Quebec's political and social conditions in terms only of moral indignation was quite inadequate. The Dion-O'Neill statement led to the foundation all over Quebec of political morality leagues, but these did not become the vehicles of action for most of Abbé Dion's former colleagues in La Grève de l'amiante. Rather, Pierre Trudeau in September 1956 became vice-president of Le Rassemblement, a new phenomenon in Quebec political life which describes itself as a movement for democratic education and action, "neither a political party nor simply a morality league". Its targets are both of the major parties in Quebec, Union Nationale and Liberal, and it condemns them not only on grounds of corruption, but because they are totally undemocratic in their internal structure, and are quite incapable of providing the social equality, security and justice which a modern democracy demands. The Rassemblement's statement of principles indicates clearly enough its social-democratic flavour. It announces that it seeks its chief support from the working class, although it demands respect for all classes of society. It insists that a citizen's freedom of choice and action necessitates, as protector and servant, a state strong enough to regulate all subordinate institutions and order them for the common good. It recognizes the validity of private, co-operative and nationalized economic enterprises, but it maintains that private initiative left to itself cannot guarantee the community's prosperity, that only planning can insure this prosperity. It looks to the democratization of industrial enterprises to prevent the dehumanization of the worker; to a society in which all are assured a reasonable standard of living and where there is the greatest possible equality in the distribution of the fruits and the burdens of economic activity among all members of society. (For the constitution of Le Rassemblement see Le Devoir, 14 September 1956, where it is printed in full).

It is not difficult to see that the Rassemblement was inspired by a point of view in many ways similar to that which found expression in the study of the asbestos strike. But Pierre Trudeau, Gérard Pelletier and a number of others were joined as founders of Le Rassemblement by André Laurendeau, associate editor-in-chief of Le Devoir. Let there be no mistake about it, M. Laurendeau is a French Canadian nationalist. He was provincial leader of the Bloc Populaire party in the 1940s and he takes second place to no one in his insistence on Quebec's autonomy within Canadian federalism. But his presence in the Rassemblement is surely proof enough that the potentialities of Quebec nationalism are not exclusively rightist.

It would be most unfair to cite these developments among French Canadian nationalists -- their willingness to take a position on the left -- solely as proofs that M. Trudeau's analysis of nationalism in the introductory chapter to La Grève de l'amiante is slightly misleading. This is hardly the essential point. Much more important is the influence of La Grève de l'amiante itself on French Canadians, including nationalists, and the fact that the same currents of thought, the same reactions to Quebec's social and political conditions, can be found both among the authors of La Grève de l'amiante and in other, rather different, circles.

The reactions to M. Rumilly's slanders are particularly significant. Enough has been said about the omnibus quality of the term "leftist", as used by M. Rumilly, to make it obvious that certain outright denials had to be made. But just as often, his most ludicrous charges were greeted with the hilarity they deserved; and his glorification of the extreme right evoked a warm defence of "leftism".

The reply of R. P. Antonin Lamarche, director of La Revue Dominicaine, is noteworthy. M. Rumilly attacks the Dominicans of France, denounces their influence in the worker-priest movement and refers reprovingly to their strained relations with the Papacy in 1954. ( pp. 27-9 ) . In Canada, he implies, a similar situation is imminent: "It may be asked, moreover, if Canadian Dominicans are not tempted to enter the leftist network, following the example of the French Dominicans whom the Holy See had to restrain." (p. 109) Père Lamarche does not mince matters in response:

Les assis, les arriérés, les enlisés dans leurs traditions immobiles n’ont sûrement pas besoin d'être refrénés. Au contraire, ils ont besoin d'un bon coup de pied . . . Ceux qui marchent avec élan, ceux qui avancent comme des apôtres au coeur de feu, ceux qui combattent ardemment pour la triomphe de Jésus-Christ par son Église, sous toutes ses dimensions, ceux-là seuls ont besoin d'être refrénés, parce qu'ils ont du coeur et c'est un hommage à leur zèle. Alors ils s'arrêtent, ils font halte, et cet arrêt est tout à leur honneur. Ils s'arrêtent pour refaire leur plein d’essence. Et demain vous les retrouverez de nouveau sur la ligne de feu, la première, loin des embusqués qui tirent dans le dos des braves. (2)

André Laurendeau's reply came indirectly, without mention of the Rumilly brochure, in an address to friends and readers of Le Devoir on February 2, 1957. His title was "Le diable est-il à gauche?" and his main point was that Quebec needed the left just as much as the right if its politics were to be healthy. There was no lack of right-wing opinion, but "I am personally of the opinion that in French Canada in 1957 we still lack a sufficiently dynamic and developed left-wing." And to support this claim he continued:

It seems to me to go without saying that a rejuvenation is required not only of the state but of the institutions which support it and of the spirit which animates society. It is for this reason that the progress of what we have seen fit to call a left-wing would be a blessing for French Canada. It would provide or stimulate those qualities, of audacity which have thus far lain dormant. (Le Devoir, 4 February 1957).

Perhaps these two citations provide some evidence that both in the church and among certain representatives of the long-standing nationalist tradition can be found ideas and attitudes not too dissimilar from those which are so clearly and forthrightly expressed in the pages of La Grève de l'amiante.

(1) En collaboration sous la direction de Pierre Elliott Trudeau, La Grève de l'amiante, Montréal, Les éditions Cité libre, 1968, pp. 480.

(2) Père Antonin's reply to M. Rumilly appeared first in la Revue Dominicaine, March 1957. It was reproduced in Le Devoir, 12 March 1957, and it is from the latter text that these lines are taken. Too much would be lost in translation.

Source: Michael Oliver, "A New French Canadian Outlook", in Queen’s Quarterly, summer 1957, pp. 269-276. The editor gratefully acknowledges the cooperation of the publishers of Queen’s Quarterly who have agreed that this article be reproduced at the Quebec history web site. Some small typographical errors have been corrected from the original text.


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