Social Movements: The Labour Movement (1940s-1970s)


The labour movement as a social movement in in the Post-War world, during the years of Madeleine Parent’s Union years, was large and momentous and had a large impact on North America in a broad and wide context. The movement can be separated in the country of Canada itself in looking at English Canada and Quebec and looking at Labor relations and movements between the United States and Canadian Unions.


The Labour Movement in English Canada

During the Great Depression, about 1 in 4 workers in Canada were unemployed so the federal government under Prime Minister R.B. Bennett as an attempt to provide emergency relief, created unemployment relief camps where single men were offered room-and-board for physical labour[i]. A tactic seen by most as the government avoiding addressing fair wages and the need for reasonable work.  Protest soon erupted amongst unemployed BC camp workers who agitated the government for two months until their failed On to Ottawa Trek[ii].  Unemployed workers also fought for unemployment insurance reform, which they achieved in 1940. The depression demonstrated the need for these types of organizations spurring the creation of the CCL (Canadian Congress of labour) in 1940 and by 1949 when union membership in mass-production industries exceeded 1 million members[iii].


During the war, the government attempted to limit union power as much as possible. Many of the organizations did not want to wait until after the war to receive fair wages and recognition of their unions. Despite government opposition, strikes like the Kirkland Lake Strike of 1941 forced the government to change its policies and recognize unions under the Industrial Relations and Disputes Investigation Act which eventually came in 1948[iv]. After the war many people began to strike across the country (one notable strike for example the Ford strike which resulted in the compulsory check-off of union dues) gaining better hours and more financial rights for unions[v].


By the end of the war, Canadian workers started to become more politically active; this along with the stronger appeal for radical politics after the Great Depression spurred the rise of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which would go on to become the Official Opposition in several provinces and eventually become elected in Saskatchewan[vi]. The achievement of the ‘30s and ‘40s in helping Canadian workers and creating the welfarist state strengthened the labour movement again creating more organziations like the Canadian Labour Congress in 1956 and others[vii].  However many inequalities sill exist and existed in Canada after these events and many workers still work in unsatisfactory conditions.


The Labour Movement in Québec

In Québec unlike the rest of Canada, there was already a relatively high union membership in the early 1930s, approximately 72 000 members[viii]. During the end of the war, there were several different groups that fought for unionization in Québec like the unions of the Catholic Church but the real inroads came from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) but mostly from the dominance of the American Federation of Labour in North America[ix].


The unions in Quebec became a way of protesting against the Duplessis government in the 1950s during the proclaimed “Grand Noirceur”.  The unions not only fought legislation but also promoted a Québec government that should be active in its duties to the population[x]. Such is the case with the 1949 Asbestos protest which is seen as a turning point that helped start the Quiet Revolution after Francophone miners went on strike to demand several benefits and wage increases that seemed radical at the time[xi]. In this sense, the unions were very much an important component to the beginnings of the Quiet Revolution in which Madeleine Parent and her husband Kent Rowley would play a large role. Madeleine Parent had already been a dawning figure in the labour movement as early as 1954 when she ran to be the union head in District 1, Class B in Montreal being the sole woman out of ten candidates and only women to run out of all districts (1 out of 181)[xii].


By the Mid-1960s, public sector unions had been given collective bargaining rights by the government after two illegal strikes (one in 1963 and one in 1964) and by the early 1970s their unionization grew steadily in Québec[xiii].


Relations with American Unions

Later on, there seemed to have been a rift in between the social movements in the United States and that of Canada; some union activists in Canada perceived the encroaching influence of the AFL as threatening to the Canadian labour movement.


Parent and Rowley had been growing tired of the American unions that exerted control over the Canadian ones. Rowley and Parent constantly condemned them in the editorial for the bulletins they would write for the CTC (Canadian Textile Council): “For them (the Textile Worker’s Union of America), Canadians are like colonies good for serving the American metropolis.”[xiv] And again in an earlier issue: “It is not possible for us to associate with the American methods of gangsterism.”[xv]  A good partnership had begun to turn sour.


In 1952, Quebec workers felt betrayed by their American affiliates and international union as they signed an agreement with Dominon Textiles stipulating only the requirements listed by Duplessis and his government[xvi]. It was then clear to Parent and Rowley what must be done and the Canadian Textile Council had been created in opposition to the betrayal that they felt from their international union. In 1952 several other unions voted to become part of the CTC by a large majority instead of the International like the union for Empire Cottons in Welland for example[xvii].

Local unions were needed and Rowley and Parent were able to provide them for the workers of Canada during the early period and their organization still stands today. This early period of unionization and the social movement of labour was chaotic to start but eventually became a very organized and straightforward one that was able to articulately express their demands to gain rights for all workers and to do so locally with Canadian-born organizations.





[i] Madokoro, Laura. The Road to the Welfare State, Lecture given at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec. January 21s, 2014.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Working-Class History, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2006. (Retrieved Apr 3 2014)

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Abella, Irving. The Canadian Labour Movement: 1902-1960. (Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Organization, 1978). 23-26.

[vii] Ibid, 24.

[viii] Rouillard, Jacques. The History of the Labour Movement in Quebec, trans. Arnold Bennett. (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2014). 102

[ix] Ibid, 104

[x] Palmer, Bryan D. Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009). 235.

[xi] Ibid, 237-240.

[xii] Candidats”, La Presse, Vol. 9, No. 42. Montreal, 18 October 1954. From McGill University Archives.

[xiii] Working-Class History, 2006.

[xiv] Editorial in CTC Bulletin, Vol 1, No 1. Sept 22, 1952, 2. From McGill University Archives.

[xv] Ibid, 2.

[xvi] Madeleine Parent, union activist and reformer, Library and Archives Canada, 2004. (retrieved Apr 1 2014)

[xvii] Editorial in CTC Bulletin, 2.

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