Labour Day weekend, 2007.
Canadian labour had a good moment two weeks ago at the Montebello protest. Union leader Dave Coles denounced three undercover cops posing as anarchists and cradling rocks to give the protest a bad name. They retreated behind police lines, not a normal anarchist tactic. But he went a step too far for my taste, in shouting, “This is a peaceful demonstration.” He sounded perhaps overeager to placate TV viewers or police or maybe the people who write editorials in places such as the Globe and Mail. To be sure, it was a peaceful protest, but radical movements such as labour have been most effective when they had a touch of menace.
Uh-oh, I’m having a Dave Coles moment. I don’t mean they should be violent or threaten violence. But they need a sense of implacable determination that takes them beyond any desire to seem respectable. The best example is the movement for Indian independence led by Gandhi. He more or less invented non-violence as a political tactic. Yet, he didn’t shun violence when it arose and, in cases, courted it. He wouldn’t instigate or retaliate, but lots of bloodshed was involved.
Here’s 90-year-old Baji Mohammed, “one of India’s last living freedom fighters,” interviewed recently: “On August 25, 1942, we were all arrested and held. Nineteen people died on the spot in police firing … Many died thereafter … Over 300 were injured. More than a thousand were jailed … Several were shot or executed. There were over a hundred shaheed (martyrs) …” Others, such as Nelson Mandela, went to jail for causes that did involve armed resistance. But I’m saying the key is not violence, it’s relentless determination.
A sense of commitment at any cost draws the attention of others, and sometimes their respect, especially if every normal recourse has failed, sometimes for centuries. I’m thinking of the case of Shawn Brant, the Mohawk leader who spoke eloquently for native protests that recently closed Highway 401 and the CN rail line. He was jailed and has twice been denied bail.
In an eloquent plea of her own, his wife, Sue Collis, compared his situation to labour protests against Mike Harris in Ontario 11 years ago. Then, she says, “economic repercussions … far surpassed” those of the recent one, “yet no labour leader was ever jailed, let alone charged.” So why is Shawn Brant in jail? I’d say there was an implacability in his expression; he cut his opponents no moral slack. He didn’t threaten, but he didn’t try to mollify, either.
In its heyday, the labour movement had this kind of single-minded, almost stoic conviction. Its main weapon, the strike, was non-violent but aroused feelings comparable to those during war, toward scabs or bosses. In that frame of mind, there is no need felt to placate the other side and none at all for respectability. What would you want it for?
I think a society benefits from this kind of challenge. It clarifies choices and discourages endless avoidance. Sue Collis writes that, after the Mohawk blockades in June, polls showed “71 per cent of Canadians wanting actions on land claims and 41 per cent of Ontarians prepared to acknowledge rail blockades as justi-fied.” There’s also a social loss when fierceness and passion vanish almost entirely from movements such as labour or the environment. I sympathize with the dismay of green veterans at the rise as a green icon of Al Gore—who couldn’t even beat George Bush in his home state in 2000 or fight the battle of the Florida recount with bloody-mindedness, despite its dire implications.
Sue Collis writes that, after the second bail hearing, she found herself “contemplating the best way to tell my children that they would have to wait an unknown period of time before seeing their dad, and wondering how to explain … why.” From a very minimally comparable experience, I’d recommend playing them a Peter, Paul and Mary song: “Have you been to jail for justice? I want to shake your hand …”
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