Quebec's movements for social transformation: An interview with historian Sean Mills

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Quebec's 2012 student uprising highlights a long history of social activism that continues to shape politics in both Quebec and Canada. Beyond simplistic nationalist notions, grassroots movements in Quebec have long organized with an internationalist spirit rooted in decolonization and social transformation.

Sean Mills is the author of The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal, an inspiring book that details social movements of generations past. Given the growing political distance between Quebec and Canada today at an official level and the major focus on Quebec activism due to the recent student strike, I sent Sean a series of questions on Quebec history of social activism and how it relates to our contemporary context. - Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff: Your book The Empire Within conveys moments from Quebec history often untold in mainstream political narratives in Canada. What importance do you feel there is today for progressives in Canada, within the context of a Conservative majority government, to develop deeper understandings of Quebec social movements?

Sean Mills: I think that the history of Quebec's social movements is often deeply misunderstood and reduced, especially in the English-Canadian media, to a singular logic. They are often seen to be no more than subsidiaries of the broader nationalist or sovereigntist movement in Quebec. It's true, of course, that one can't discount the importance of nationalism to the overall intellectual and political climate of Quebec, either today or in the 1960s. But what struck me in writing The Empire Within was the incredible richness and diversity of political and intellectual debates, and the impossibility of using easy classifications or simplistic formulas to understand the period. When thinking about the 1960s, I therefore came to realize that it's crucial to recall the many different currents of thought that influenced Quebec, from anti-colonialism to feminism to the power of ideas generated by the American Civil Rights/Black Power movement. I think that for progressives of today, especially in a context of a Conservative majority, we can learn from movements of the past about the need for rigorous debate and serious intellectual reflection on the Left, and that this reflection and debate, rather than weakening the movement, is an important ingredient to giving it strength and vibrancy.

SC: Looking beyond simplistic notions of Quebec nationalism, could you highlight ways your research and archival work illustrate Quebec nationalist groups and activism a generation ago within a global context of anti-colonial struggles?

 SM: In my mind, this question cuts to the very core of how we understand and think about history. Until recently, the dominant paradigm for understanding history was through the prism of the nation. By placing past historical events exclusively into the rubric of national understandings of history, we've been missing much of the complexity and richness of movements in the past. What I tried to do in The Empire Within is explore the broader global context in which Montreal's social movements emerged. When we're attentive to this larger global context, the importance of the decolonization of former European empires becomes evident. In Montreal, the theory generated by movements of global decolonization -- for example, the works of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Albert Memmi -- was absolutely central to the alternative worlds that Montreal radicals imagined. But radical writers and thinkers during the 1960s not only borrowed from this theory, they also adapted it and changed it to suit their own particular circumstances.

SC: Beyond basic demands around linguistic battles in Quebec can you highlight some ideas as to why Quebec's national struggles until today are much deeper than language?

SM: Well, in the 1960s the question of class was paramount. According to commonly cited statistics, French Canadians had significantly higher unemployment levels than Anglophones, they generally occupied the bottom rungs of the employment structure, and they were dramatically underrepresented at the higher levels of the economy. In many ways, therefore, the inequalities in the school system and in employment fuelled a form of nationalism that demanded redress to these basic injustices. Yet it also fuelled a movement that had a broader conception of social justice, one which grew out of the same frustrations, yet which had a vision of social transformation that stretched beyond that of Quebec neo-nationalism. We can see this ideology very clearly when re-reading Parti Pris or many of the other radical publications of the era, as well as in many of the labour revolts of the 1960s.

Also, along with their economic marginalization, French Canadians were made to feel culturally inferior. An important aspect of the political revolts of the 1960s was a revaluation of Quebecois culture, with artists and writers playing a very prominent role. Again, at its best, these cultural expressions articulated a form of national consciousness that had a much broader humanist politics than did mainstream nationalism, but were nonetheless connected to the 'national question,' broadly conceived.

SC: Can you offer any thoughts on the ways that you see the Quebec student strike of 2012 as rooted in past popular mobilizations around accessible education and social justice in Quebec?

SM: One thing that the student movement did extremely well is to make use of the symbolism of the Quiet Revolution and the political struggles of the 1960s. Before the reforms of the 1960s, the education system in Quebec was considered by many to be out of touch with the needs of a modern North American society, and only a relatively small number of Quebeckers had access to higher education.

With the reforms of the 1960s, the creation of CEGEPS, and the founding of the Université du Québec system, this began to change, and many began to believe that education was the means through which a society would be able to determine its own future. Just as reforms to the education system were part of the state-led changes of the 1960s, so too was education central to the demands of many social movements. In the fall of 1968 the newly-created CEGEP system had its first student strike. In 1969 a coalition of labour and student movements came together in Opération McGill français to demand that McGill be transformed into an institution that would serve the working class. Because the working class largely spoke French, the logic went, the institution would need to become French-speaking. The Opération McGill français protest was, at the time, the largest protest in the post-war period, and it marked the beginning of the mass protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Its central demand was access to higher education for non-elite members of society. The student movement was very conscious of this history, as well as of the history of subsequent struggles of the student movement from the 1970s to the present.

What I found quite remarkable when reading the various materials of the Quebec student strike was the extent to which the movement rooted itself in the struggles of the past. From the many publications that emerged in the lead-up to and during the strike, in videos such as 'Speak Red,' and in the speeches by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and others, we can see constant references both to the history of Quebec's student movement, as well as to other labour and popular struggles in Quebec's past. In my mind, this historical consciousness was central to the unfolding of the strike.

SC: In relation to Quebec history, could you highlight three relatively untold popular mobilizations in Quebec that you feel are essential to learn about today?

SM: Well the first, and I think one of the most essential and most forgotten, is the emergence of the women's liberation movement in Montreal in 1969. When the first major public women's liberation group emerged in the fall of 1969, it was formed of roughly half anglophone and half francophone women, and their central motto was 'No liberation of Quebec without the liberation of women, no liberation of women without the liberation of Quebec.' The group, known as the Front de libération des femmes, combined the insights of the nascent women's liberation movement in the rest of North America with the particular nature of the larger social justice movement in Quebec. The coalition didn't last, but that the movement emerged at a moment of collaboration across linguistic lines has rarely been emphasized.

In certain circles, the Congress of Black Writers of 1968 and the Sir George Williams Affair of 1969 are starting to be increasingly remembered. David Austin and others have done some very important historical work in this regard. But I found it a bit disappointing that in the long and detailed histories that the Quebec student movement produced about past struggles in Quebec, the Sir George Williams Affair was rarely mentioned.

Finally, I think that we have not made a lot of place in our historical consciousness for the various struggles around migrant rights in Quebec's past. And so the third popular mobilization that I'll bring up was the powerful mobilization of the Haitian community around the threatened deportation of 1500 Haitians in 1974. This mobilization succeeded in rallying much of Quebec's public opinion around their cause, and it had a lasting impact on understandings of migration and international solidarity.

SC: Can you offer a few ideas on the ways that artists and cultural workers have a long tradition of interacting with social movements in Quebec?

SM: Well, throughout the 1960s I think that it's fair to say that, at least to some degree, these worlds were intimately connected. The radical political and intellectual journal Parti Pris, for example, continually published poetry alongside its political analysis, and the publishing house associated with the journal published many of the most important fiction of the era.

Music, painting, poetry, novels, theatre, etc. were absolutely fundamental to the larger political renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, and we can point to example after example of collaborations and interactions. I'm currently in the process of reflecting on the role of art and activism, and hope to be able to speak at length about this relationship in my next book, which is about the ways in which ideas about Haiti, and Haitian migrants, shaped and transformed Quebec's political and cultural spheres.

SC: Often today in Quebec the nationalist discourse is presented with clearly racist tones, that paint immigrants and refugees as an attack on Quebec's aspirations, the so-called "debate" around "Reasonable Accommodation" can serve as a disturbing reminder. Can you comment on racism and the Quebec national question today?

SM: One crucial task of the moment is to build an understanding of past efforts and struggles to overcome racism in Quebec society. David Austin's excellent new book, Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal is an important starting point. What I have often found remarkable is the extent to which past struggles against racism -- which have had a real impact in shaping the contours of Quebec society -- have largely been forgotten. We can think of the Sir George Williams Affair of 1969, or the struggles of Haitian taxi drivers against racism in the taxi industry, just to mention two of the most prominent examples.

SC: An essential point that the Quebec national narrative often sidesteps is the colonial foundations to Quebec, lands colonized by European settlers. In ways indigenous narratives on colonial history and contemporary indigenous struggles are repressed by Quebec nationalists, can you comment on this?

SM: Well, this is certainly true in Quebec, as it is elsewhere in the world. Through my archival research on Quebec's social movements of the 1960s I was very attentive to the various ways in which indigenous issues were discussed and / or ignored. But I also looked to the ways that Indigenous activism and interventions could succeed in shifting the dominant language of dissent. As I point out in the book, by the early 1970s many troubling questions had begun to surface about the contradictions inherent to using anti-colonial theory in a Quebec context. The advent of Aboriginal politics throughout North America, as well as the interventions of the James Bay Cree in the early 1970s, had a significant impact on the language of the opposition. By the early 1970s, for many thinkers such as Pierre Vallières and Léandre Bergeron, as well as in organizations such as the Montreal Central Council of the CSN, Aboriginal questions would begin occupying an increasingly central place in how they understood Quebec and its struggles for democracy.

At one point, Quebec teachers in the province's north went on strike in defence of Aboriginal rights in the education system, and against what they saw to be the colonialist actions of the Quebec government. Many of these thinkers and movements thought deeply about what it meant to come to terms with the long history and legacy of empire in Quebec.

In the contemporary context, I think that the history of both Aboriginal activism in Quebec, as well as the complex ways in which some activists and movements thought about these questions in the past, could teach us a great deal about how to maneuver through these complex questions. They can also help remind us that there is nothing fixed or pre-determined about the reductive thinking of the present, and that there are -- and there have been in the past -- other ways of conceptualizing both Quebec's past and future.


Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based writer, musician and activist. 

Photo: Darren Ell

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