Montreal's sixties heyday

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Anti-colonial, class, race and feminist struggles in the 1960s changed Montreal for the better

The 1960s was a turbulent period. Liberation movements in the Third World, anti-Vietnam war protests, China's cultural revolution and movement against racism and for a just society in the western world were there. However, the political turmoil in Montreal, the subject of Mills' book, The Empire Within, was unique, not only because of it was bigger than in any other Western Metropolis, but also because it combined its internal contradictions with anti-colonial struggles.

Mills' book meets the expectations of those who participated in the movements of 1960s and 70s; it could well be a companion to Jean-Phillipe Warren's Ils voulaient changer le monde. Le militantisme Marxiste-Léniniste au Québec.

The author presents a comprehensive and sympathetic narrative of those times and connects one event with another. Mills shows how the mixture of the rhetoric of struggle against the English-Canadian ruling class and third world struggles had a strong influence on Québec culture and psychology.

However, Québec was not a third world country. The most important factor was the commonality of the problems faced by the workers of Québec and Canada on one hand, and the brotherhood among the Québec, Canadian and U.S. corporate interests on the other. Sean Mills points to this dualism by narrating how the two important persons of that time, Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon, started as Québec nationalists but parted company.

Gagnon adopted a Marxist approach and concluded that "Québec's independence is not the solution." He saw the Québec society as being divided into classes and that the principle contradiction was not between the French and the English. He advocated "Pour le parti prolétarien" in October, 1972.

In contrast, Vallières' misinterpreted the message in Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth in his "Négres blancs d'Amérique" (White niggers of America) and voiced the sentiments of petty bourgeois youth best illustrated by enthusiastic approval of Michèle Lalonde's poem "Speak White" at a gathering on May 27, 1968.

While Mills points out that the activists of the 60s borrowed the language of anti-colonialism, he does not seem to recognize that even Québec bourgeoisie used the concept of decolonization in their struggle for economic power. Moreover, Québec nationalists ignored their own history as a colonial settler society that oppressed the first nation people and led people like Raoul Roy to see immigrants as "tools of imperial power."

The workers movement in Québec was more advanced than elsewhere in North America. Taxi drivers named their newly constituted union as "Mouvement de libération du Taxi." At a rally during the general strike of 1972, speakers stressed that the Québecois state protected the interest of both the English and French speaking bosses. Mills correctly points out that the more the movement addressed the issues faced by the workers, the more hollow became the theory of decolonization of Québec.

The founding of the two Marxist-Leninist (ML) organizations, En Lutte led by Gagnon and the Workers Communist Party (PCO/WCP) smashed the theory of the French/English dichotomy as the principle contradiction and brought to the fore the contradictions between Canadian working class against the Canadian bourgeoisie. Although En Lutte also stressed the role of U.S. imperialism, both trends thought that the demand for independence would divide the Canadian working class and people against the principal enemy although they did recognize Québec as "an oppressed nation." These two organizations could mobilize over 5,000 people for their activities, with over 2,000 members and organized sympathizers across Canada. Such was their influence that during the 1980 referendum, they were accused by the Parti Québecois (PQ) of sabotaging the Yes side by calling on the voters to spoil ballots.

The author traces the influence of third world and minority organizations and activists in Montréal on the unions and community organizations. The "decolonization" period of Québec took place alongside the "Quiet Revolution." One fed the other. Through the quiet revolution, the Québecois bourgeoisie became "maitre chez nous" and Québec Inc. was born. Many participants of decolonization politics folded easily into the sovereignty movement and the Parti-Québecois (PQ)/Bloc Québecois (Gerard Godin/Gilles Duceppe), with PQ becoming the ruling party after 1976 elections. Mills, however, does not show how a classical bourgeois nationalist party like PQ was a product of the popular nationalist sentiments.

The notion of Québec as an oppressed nation can be put to rest with the economic development of homegrown multinationals like Power Corp, Bombardier, Québecor and state enterprises like Hydro-Québec, which remains in conflict with marginalized Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mills takes note of the impact of black power movement by discussing the agitation by Caribbean students against racism, the highlight of which was the destruction of the computer centre at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) and by referring to the Black Writers conference.

Mills takes note of the fact that the movement in Québec was male dominated. Although Marxist-Leninist organizations had many woman members, only a few were in leadership positions. For example only three of the 17 member of the WCP Central Committee were women. Women activists mainly participated in the day to day functioning of family life, while men did the rest. The author does not reflect on the role of nationalist movement in deterring links between the women's movement in Quebec with similar movement in Canada and with women of colour.

The author does analyze how the politics of decolonization contributed to the ascent of PQ to power and to the strengthening of the Québec national bourgeoisie. However, Mills' analysis does not show how the language/national question also contributed to strengthening of the economic clout of Quebec bourgeoisie.

The "pure laine" character of Québec, especially of Montreal, was changing into a multi-national character. The author touches on the role that third world anti-imperialist groups played in moving the theory and practice of Québec organizations forward from narrow nationalism to internationalism.

Whatever might have been the strength and weakness of the Québec nationalist movement of 1960s, it changed Québec, and for the better. Québec was a conservative society dominated by the Church and the dark rule of Maurice Duplessis from 1944 until his death in 1959. The 1960s changed all that beyond recognition. Québec has emerged as one of the most socially emancipated centers of Canada, or perhaps North America. The Parti Québecois had to adopt social democratic program.

The generation that lived in Quebec through the 1960s Québec would find The Empire Within a narration of their own history and it would be worthwhile for the younger generation to discover what shaped their parents' consciousness. It is a rich account of the recent past and is worth studying by those linked with Canada and interested in socio-political history.William Dere and Daya Varma

William Ging Wee Dere, Chinese-Canadian activist and filmmaker. His films include: Moving the Mountain (La Montagne d'Or) and Gens du Pays: The Chinese of Quebec. He is presently working on another production in the aftermath of The Apology, The Head Tax, What's That?/La taxe d'entree, c'est quoi ca? to explore the effects of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act on today's youth.

Dr. Daya Varma is a long time political activist and currently editor of the South Asian journal INSAF Bulletin.

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