Book Review of La Grève de l’amiante
H. C. Pentland
THE asbestos strike of 1949 shook French Canada as no other industrial dispute has done. The employers enjoyed substantial support from the position taken by the Duplessis Government. The asbestos miners, members of the Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Labour, were seconded morally and materially by the Roman Catholic Church and important segments of French-Canadian society. The strike, therefore, besides providing the conditions of a social laboratory for examining the workings of society which any major strike yields, appeared to be one of those exceptional strikes that amounts to a crisis for a whole society. The significance attached to the event by the sponsors of this study seems originally to have gone further: it was supposed that this "crisis of social conscience" marked French Canada's acknowledgement of its destiny as an industrial society. But, though many changes can be shown, it is conceded that myopia remains widespread in 1956; and to this extent, the study does not come off. Alternatively, however, we savour the poignancy of the crisis that failed to cure.
The nine authors (aside from Professors F. R. Scott and Jean-C. Falardeau who contribute Foreword and Preface) are journalists, union officials, lawyers, and university men. They are French-Canadian nationalists of liberal view, convinced that Quebec must recognize its industrialization and its industrial context, and that labour must have a larger voice in it. Their exploration of the strike, its background, its ramifications and significance, provides a very thorough social documentation. The authors do not let their sympathies overpower their objectivity, and if judgments are sometimes harsh, as in Gérard Pelletier's chapter on "The Strike and the Press," so much the worse for the press. The most difficult assignment, on the position of the Church, was undertaken by Abbé Gérard Dion. He argues that if the Church had failed to give open support to labour in 1949, it would have placed itself as an open supporter of the other side. There are only oblique references in the book to the possible consequences: that the defeated asbestos miners might have turned to the "international" unions; that other syndicates might have followed; that the Quebec worker might have come to regard the Church as just another enemy. Direct as they are, the authors do not care to contemplate these possibilities. They are labour sympathizers within a nationalist context: they want to save not just the Quebec worker but a whole society.
Much the best writing in the book appears in editor Trudeau's Introduction and Epilogue, products of a penetrating mind driven by a fierce but disciplined rage against injustice. The Introduction is a devastating demonstration that French Canada, turning backward and inward, has spent its energies on "solutions" that do not solve, while denying the existence of its real problems. Only the labour movement, exposed continually to the facts of life, has faced reality; but its position is precarious because the recognition given it by its society has no relation to its real importance. The Epilogue is less sure, for Trudeau cannot show after all that French Canada learned the lesson of the asbestos strike, and has instead to plead that the lesson be heeded now. Still, he is full of brilliant insights. Labour specialists, inclined to forget fundamentals in their preoccupation with the minutiae of the status quo, should not overlook a discussion of the "myth of judicial equality" as applied in collective bargaining legislation (pp. 388--90). For economic historians, there is the provocative remark that the insatiability of the workers, no less than of the capitalists, has been indispensable for rapid industrial advance (p. 391).
It is scarcely possible to pass a judgment on this book. Its subject is essentially ephemeral, and its authors are essentially unrepresentative. On the other hand, one does not often find so penetrating a study of so remarkable a specimen of an industrial society. English Canadians may wonder, apprehensively, what an equally direct examination of their own complacent society would turn up. They may consider, too, that if French Canada develops as these authors urge, it will be a good deal easier for English Canada to live with.
This is a paper-bound volume, in the French style, with uncut pages, and no index. But the footnotes are on the pages to which they have reference.
Source: H. C. Pentland, "Book review of La Grève de l’amiante" in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 38, 1957, pp. 155-156. The editor gratefully acknowledges the cooperation of the publishers of the Canadian Historical Review who have agreed that this article be reproduced at the Quebec History web site.
© 2001 For the web edition, Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College