Contemporary International Context

In order to further understand Madeleine Parent and her work within the Canadian labour movement, some understanding of the economic context and the state of the international post-war world is necessary. Madeleine Parent fought for workers rights in what has come to be known as the “Golden Age of Capitalism”[1]; though the power of Unions was on the rise, Cold War anti-communist suspicion was not far behind.  Regardless of this, Unions quickly became an integral part of economic as well as social life for their members, with significant influence over governments, workers, and private-sector actors.

The mid-twentieth century was a time of great economic change across the globe. With international economic integration and globalization on the rise, the world was becoming smaller and nations more dependent on each other. The desolation in Europe as a result of the Second World War led to the development of the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods System, which set the stage for long-lasting international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These agencies would transform European-North American economic relations, as they attempted to repair and rebuild the European nations affected by the war through American and Canadian financing of industrial development and the removal of pre-war trade barriers. While Canada and the USA both benefitted from economic boosts due to the sustained demand for raw materials and manufactured goods from Europe, this enhanced relationship between many European nations and North America was also politically motivated, as The United States was eager to prevent devastated European countries from succumbing to the lure of communism touted by the USSR (the other global powerhouse of the time).

After the turbulence of the war years, the adoption of Keynesian economic policies (increased government spending during economic slowdown in an attempt to stimulate the economy) was a significant contributor to the global economic stability and steady growth that followed. Particularly in the United States, the distribution of wealth was felt across all classes, which added to the strength of the Unions at the time, as did increasing urbanization, with people moving from rural communities into the cities to take up the plentiful manufacturing jobs. Having experienced the economic benefits of the war effort but suffering none of the destruction, both the American and Canadian economies were booming throughout and following the war. Canada, having built up its manufacturing sector during the war, transformed wartime industries into businesses dedicated to producing goods to be exported to the rebuilding nations in Europe. In the immediate post-war period Canada implemented an official policy of High Employment. The economy had been at essentially full employment during the war, as all hands were needed on deck to either fight, or help fill the demand for wartime supplies and commodities. There were fears that once the war ended an influx of returning soldiers would upset the balance, and economic depression, followed by the collapse of democracy and a turn to communism, would ensue; therefore ensuring unemployment rates stayed low was a top priority.

The years following the war also saw a significant increase in immigration to Canada, partially a result of the “tap on/tap off”[2] approach to immigration policy by the Canadian government. While the economy was booming, it reasoned, the introduction of skilled workers from abroad would help perpetuate that growth; while a reduction in new workers during an economic slowdown would help protect Canadians from excessive competition and job loss. This policy was believed to challenge the commonly held notion that immigrants were a threat to Canadians getting jobs, though due to the economic prosperity of the time public opinion wasn’t particularly against an influx of immigrants.

The post-war period was a bright time for the Canadian economy, with high employment rates and high demand yielding high profits in the private sector as well as for the government. This was also a period of societal transformation, with the development of suburbs, expanding urbanization, and advancements in public utilities and social facilities changing the landscape of Canadian society. This societal shift towards more concentrated urban communities with a high proportion of industrial, blue-collar workers increased the importance of Unions in Canada. Unions represented far more than labour associations and collective bargaining organizations; for many they were the centre of social and community life. Unions frequently held events, such as parties, dances, and social evenings; they ran choirs and classes; dedicated members referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”. They created through their membership a close-knit community of people with not only shared economic interests, but shared social lives, friends, and families. Madeleine Parent, as an active Union organizer, subsequently became an integral part of that social fabric. Strikes and labour movements weren’t just about jobs, they were about people’s way of life; the livelihoods of their community, neighbours, colleagues, and friends, as well as their own. Their intrinsic role in people’s lives translated into palpable power over their members and influence at the bargaining table with governments and private-sector executives. A full-page profile of Claude Jodoin, the frontrunner in a Trades and Labour Congress leadership election in a August 1954 copy of the Montreal Star[3], demonstrates the relevance of Union business to a large proportion of the population.

The pervasive presence of Unions in civil society gave them undeniable power, but creeping Cold War anxieties made them a threat to western governments and private sector actors afraid of the leftist agendas of organized labour. There is a distinct irony to the suspicions many had that Unions were hotbeds of illicit communist activity, as Unions themselves were quick to mock the absurdity prevalent on other side of the Iron Curtain. Union journals frequently published stories sent to them by “the embassies of certain Iron Curtain countries”[4] in purported “hopeful innocence or blind stupidity”[5]; these tales revolved around fabricated stories of the success and happiness of various characters achieved through proper communist living, and were ridiculed relentlessly by the publications. That communist nations made the effort to reach out to what they perceived to by sympathetic organizations in the western world attests to the cross–national influence unity of many larger Unions. However, it makes it clear that unions (and by extension the work of Madeleine Parent and Kent Rowley), were profoundly misunderstood by both sides of the struggle in a severely polarized Cold War world. The post-war world was not the same one in which the Canadian labour movement had been operating a few years prior; globalization and the red scare put leftist organized labour into a new perspective for many. The place of Unions, and the work of Madeleine Parent, was suddenly in a more prosperous but hostile world.

 

Sources

 

Canada History, “Prosperity.” Last modified 2013. Accessed March 25, 2014. http://www.canadahistory.com/sections/eras/the peace/Prosperity.html.

 

Canadian History , “Immigrant Voices; Post-War Years: Reconstruction.” Last modified 2000. Accessed March 25, 2014. http://www.canadianhistory.ca/iv/1945-1967/postwar/.

 

CBC Learning, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “The Canadian Dream.” Last modified 2001. Accessed March 25, 2014. http://www.cbc.ca/history/SECTIONSE1EP15CH3LE.html.

 

“Claude Jodoin: Top Candidate in Today’s TLC Election.”Montreal Star, sec. II, August 26, 1954.

 

F., K. “Life in Paradise.” Textile Labour: Canadian Edition, , sec. Editorial, July 11, 1953.

 

French, Michael. US Economic History Since 1945. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

 

Gibson, J. Douglas. “Post-War Economic Development and Policy in Canada.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. vol. 20 no. 4 (1954): 439-455. 10.2307/138554 (accessed March 25, 2014).

 

Goldfield, Michael, and Bryan D. Palmer. “Canada’s Workers Movement: Uneven Developments.”Labour/Le Travail. (2007): 149-177. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25149758 . (accessed March 25, 2014).

 

“Red Robin (and Riding) Hood.” Textile Labour: Canadian Edition, , sec. Editorial, November 21, 1953.

 


[1] Michael French, US Economic History Since 1945, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).

 

[2] J. Douglas Gibson, “Post-War Economic Development and Policy in Canada,” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 20, no. 4 (1954): 149-177, 10.2307/138554 (accessed March 25, 2014).

[3] (“Claude Jodoin: Top Candidate in Today’s TLC Election” 1954)

[4] (F. 1953)

[5] (F. 1953)

 

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