Magazine article Teach

For the Good of Society: An Historical Perspective of Civil Disobedience

Magazine article Teach

For the Good of Society: An Historical Perspective of Civil Disobedience

Article excerpt

Canada is not Utopia, but historians have tended to portray it in that light, perpetuating the notion that we are a peace-loving, consensus-seeking nation of moderate conservatives. The violent parts of our history are conveniently ignored, as if conflict were not part of our past. This is also true of the way in which our labour history has been presented. According to Stuart Jamieson in his 1968 study Times of Trouble: Labour Unrest and Industrial Conflict in Canada, 1960-66, "One is almost led to suspect that there has been a sort of 'conspiracy of silence' about the whole subject of labour unrest and industrial conflict, particularly of the more violent kind, in this country." In reality, Canada's record of labour unrest and violent industrial conflict in the twentieth century is almost as bad as that of the United States and much worse than that of most western European countries.

The first major confrontations between the Canadian people and their government took place in the mid-nineteenth century, with the short-lived rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada and the doomed Metis uprisings led by Louis Riel.

Following the First World War, the expectations of Canadian workers rose -- they demanded higher wages, better working conditions, and recognition of their unions. Canada's first general strike occurred in 1918, triggered by the killing of a union organizer by police on Vancouver island. The strike, involving about 70 percent of the organized work force in Vancouver and other parts of B.C., was swiftly crushed by a group of armed war veterans hired by local businessmen.

The Winnipeg general strike in May 1919 involved 35,000 workers and lasted six weeks. It started as a show of sympathy with those in the building and metal trades unions who had been denied the right to collective bargaining. The first response of the federal government was repression. Federal troops and specially recruited police were sent out to patrol the streets and break up peaceful demonstrations with violence. Finally, the federal government arrested and threatened to deport strike leaders under a new provision of the Criminal Code. The same tactics were used in other labour conflicts, most notably in the 1923 Sydney steelworkers' strike.

The government's actions in Winnipeg sparked sympathy strikes in towns and cities across western Canada. In Amherst, Nova Scotia workers waged a more successful three-week general strike. Altogether, from May to July 1919, more than 115,000 Canadian workers took part in 210 strikes, most of which resulted in bitter defeats for the workers.

In the 1940s and 1950s, teachers in several provinces created strong organizations. By law and natural inclination, the teachers were funneled into small bargaining units where militancy and strikes were generally unknown. However, in a rare act of rebellion, Montreal's Catholic teachers held an illegal strike in 1949.

In the 1970s, teachers, professors, and nurses, feeling that their relative prestige in the labour three was deteriorating, kept out of the wider labour movement. When really aroused, however, teachers turned to the picket lines, as they did in the two-month Metro Toronto secondary school teachers' strike in 1975.

In 1983, close to 100,000 Quebec teachers staged an illegal three-week strike to protest labour contracts that had been imposed on them by the government. The strike ended when the government introduced tough legislation that would have meant dismissal or loss of seniority to striking teachers.

The similarities between this strike and the recent province-wide walkout by Ontario teachers are more than passing. In Quebec, the Parti Quebecois government of the day surprised many with its stand against social democracy, in much the same way as the Harris government in Ontario shocked many with its hard line tactics. The Ontario government claimed that the teachers were law-breakers and that their actions constituted "civil disobedience. …

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