National & International Connections

What partially renders Madeleine Parent so unique as an activist is the sheer number of categories of activism or social movements that her reach extends to. This aspect of her life simultaneously renders her an extraordinarily unique figure in Canadian and union history as well as serving to connect her life’s work to numerous other labour-strike movements, ideological conflicts within international unions, a nationalistic separation from the United States and comparable activists within Canada. Madeleine’s dual emphasis in her activism to focus on a specific union or demographic and attempt to unite the nation’s unions under one umbrella organization – the Confederation of Canadian Unions – displays both how she is integrally tied to union action across Canada between 1940 and 1969, but also the extent to which she wanted Canadian unions, and thereby their history, to be autonomous from the previously dominant Americans. The creation of the CCU also displays the fundamental relation between the struggles of the majority of Canadian unions and Madeleine Parent’s activism.

 

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National Strikes:

While Parent and her partner Kent Rowley focused their attentions primarily on Quebec, and by extension Ontario with well-known strikes occurring in Valleyfield in 1946 and 1952 opposing Dominion Textiles, in Welland in 1952 opposing Harding Carpets[1] and in the Sudbury area in the 1960s opposing miner’s conditions, there were various other strikes occurring throughout every province in Canada during this period. Between 1941 and 1950 there were 4886 strikes in Canada involving approximately 1 654 000 strikers, 36% of which occurred in Ontario, 23% in Quebec, 20% in the Maritimes, 16% in British Columbia and Alberta and 4% in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.[2] The majority of these strikes were in protest of both wages and conditions in the mass production sectors,[3] although some were within natural resource sectors such as the woodworkers or miners unions as well, displaying the breadth of nationally transcendent union activism. The predominant causal factors for this surge in national workers’ strikes are partially in relation to the two great wars of the century, the latter having just concluded, creating both national opportunities for manufacturing employment, but also more opportunities for managerial positions of worker exploit.

 

Notable Provincial Strikes:

  • Kirkland Lake, Ontario – 1941-2

Commencing alongside a boom in war-industrial growth, this strike was one of many to unite against the War Boards and their proposed Orders in Council which were predominantly anti-labour, pro-wage-control and ignored the unions’ right to collective bargaining.[4]  This particular strike involved the mine owners refusing to negotiate or arbitrate with the corresponding union, whose actions were implicitly supported by the federal government as they refused to intervene.[5] Kirkland Lake holds importance within the Canadian workers’ movement as directly leading to PC 1003 – an Order in Council – enforcing the ability and duty of the federal government to ensure collective bargaining, establish union recognition and investigate unfair labour practices.[6]

  • Windsor, ON – Ford – 1945

A 90-day strike took place against the Ford automotive plant and caused what has been deemed the worst traffic jam in Canadian history as workers used automobiles to draw attention and inconvenience. The situation in Windsor resulted in what was later entitled the “Rand Formula” – named after Justice Irvin Rand – for collective bargaining that ensured union security.[7] This victory inspired unions across Canada to attempt to emulate a similar success, working in tandem with federal legislation.

  • Hamilton, ON – Stelco – 1946

One of the key strikes directly preceding the outpouring of demonstrations in 1946-47 – including Parent and Rowley’s – workers pressed the United States Steel Corporation Canada (formerly known as Stelco) for higher wages, a shorter work week and ultimately union recognition resulting in an 85-day strike.[8] Their success would continue to pave the way for Parent in the following years.

  • British Columbia – Intl. Woodworkers of America – 1946

A province-wide strike by the Canadian branch of the International Woodworkers of America was seen by many as an attempt by the CCL (Canadian Congress of Labour) to establish a nationalized system for wages.[9]

 

Aside from these aforementioned strikes occurring within the same period as Parent’s activism, there were also smaller movements outside of Quebec that she and Rowley advocated for workers in the steel industry (Mine Mill v. INCO in 1958), the British Columbia Pulp unions (challenging corrupt behaviours) and operating engineers in Ontario striving for autonomy from their partnered American organization.[10] Ultimately, this array of Canadian strikes can be seen as working towards a common goal of unification away from American dominance under Parent’s guidance.

 

Interaction with the American Unions:

American dominance within the organization and control of Canadian unions had been fundamentally established in 1902 with the TLC becoming a subordinate partner of the AFL,[11] eventually spurring this later conflict in the 1940s and 1950s, in which, “union conflict with management and government took a backseat to the battles within the movement over control of organized labour in Canada.”[12] This half-century of integrated union history is clearly seen through the sheer volume of letters of communication between affiliated North American organizations,[13] many of which emphasize that the decision-making powers were south of the border. By the 1940s, Canada’s three major labour centers were either completely dominated by Americans or less explicitly dominated, with no clear alternative.[14] Following the strike against Harding Carpets in 1952, in which the American union affiliates were perceived to have “sold out” their Canadian counterpart to the management, Rowley attempted to organize an independent labour central, “free from American domination,”[15] which while primarily did not find success, led to the successful creation of the Council of Canadian Unions in 1969 – later renamed as the Confederation of Canadian unions. The organization’s mission statement as printed within their cannon of newsletters was opposed to, “the systematic attempt by the Canadian Labour Congress, pushed by American business unions to smash the rising tide of democratic Canadian unionism,”[16] in which they found success seeing that prior to the inauguration of the CCU over 70% of Canadian unionists belonged to American based unions and following the creation, over 70% of Canadians belonged to predominantly Canadian unions.[17] The interdependence of American and Canadian union history was significantly altered by Rowley and Parent’s efforts to ensure the rights of Canadian workers.

 

Communist Fears in North America:

Another unfortunate manner in which Parent and Canadian union activism was tethered to the United States was through the wave of anti-communist suspicions and persecution occurring across North America following the end of the war in 1945 and displaying the roots for forthcoming Cold War sentiments. The specific fears surrounding communism within American unions permeated Canadian unions, as unions with strong American affiliates corresponded with strongly worded letters focusing on the expulsion of communist members. For instance, a letter from J.A. Sullivan explains his resignation from the presidency of the Canadian Seaman’s Union due to his organization being “dominated by communists.”[18] It was within this climate of fear that Parent and other activists were forced to operate, facing not only a struggle for wages and workers’ rights, but in addition being forced to defend themselves as capitalist patriots, placing an added strain yet unifying factor on this Canadian social movement.

 

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Though these obvious relations and comparable events within the realm of social justice for union workers clearly existed to Madeleine Parent’s work, none are truly comparable in the same way. There were pivotal strikes she was not directly involved in and other female activists, such as Lea Roback, championing a similar combination of workers’ and women’s rights, but through Parent and Rowley’s dedication to the notion of a unified struggle in Canada, any union reform during this period is indirectly related to their work as well. Their emphasis on a purely Canadian union organizational system also separates them from many of the more specifically focused international wage protests, although this era of protest post-WWII is one that Parent’s work is easily categorized under. Parent’s later focus on broader social issues, the roots of which can be seen in these decades, render her a unique part of Canadian history, fundamentally effecting nearly all of the comparable social events of the time.

 

 

 

 


[1] Levesque, Andree.  Madeleine Parent: Activist. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2005. 59.

[2] Kealey, Gregory S. Workers and Canadian History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995. Print.

[3] Williams, Jack. The Story of Unions in Canada. Canada: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1975. 169.

[4] Abella, Irving.  “The Canadian Labour Movement 1902-1960.” The Canadian Historical Association 28 (1975): 3-27. Web.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kealey, Gregory S. Workers and Canadian History

[9] Williams, Jack. The Story of Unions in Canada

[10] Levesque, Andree.  Madeleine Parent: Activist, 79.

[11] Abella, “The Canadian Labour Movement 1902-1960.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Letter from J.A. Sullivan, 1946, United Textile Workers of America, 1, 625, Madeleine Parent Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[14] Abella, “The Canadian Labour Movement 1902-1960.”

[15] Levesque, Andree.  Madeleine Parent: Activist, 76.

[16] Confederation of Canadian Unions Agenda, 1981, 1, 500, Madeleine Parent Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[17] Levesque, Andree.  Madeleine Parent: Activist, 77.

[18] Letter from the American Federation of Labour, 1946, United Textile Workers of America, 1, 625, Madeleine Parent Fonds, McGill University Archives.

 

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