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The Winnipeg General Strike: from Revolt to Revolution?

by Medway Baker

This article was originally published by Cosmonaut.

May 15, 2019 marked the hundred-year anniversary of the beginning of the Winnipeg General Strike. An icon of the Canadian socialist mythology, the Winnipeg General Strike is emblematic of the 1919 Canadian labour revolt and the reformation of the Canadian left between 1917 and 1921. More broadly, it speaks to the spontaneism common to much of the revolutionary left worldwide at the time. It is a lesson in the need for a workers’ party able to command the allegiance of the majority of the working class, with a revolutionary strategy and a clear programme leading inexorably to a rupture with bourgeois society. 

The Canadian revolutionary left prior to 1917 was small, and had relatively little experience in labour struggles, but its message rang loud and clear to the Canadian proletariat. The Socialist Party of Canada (SPC), the first nominally nationwide revolutionary party, was formed in 1904 from a merger of several socialist clubs and sects, mostly concentrated in British Columbia, where it had its largest support. The leading current of the SPC was impossibilist: much like its sister party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, it rejected all kinds of reformism, which to many of the party’s leading intellectuals included economic struggles. The political struggle was limited to election campaigns, the purpose of which was to educate the working class so that it could ultimately emancipate itself. The role of the party was purely to propagandise, and until 1912 it remained aloof from the trade union movement. Nonetheless, the party held seats in the British Columbia legislature from 1903 to 1912, and did fight for and win important reforms to improve working conditions—even as E.T. Kingsley, one of the party’s primary theoreticians, derided conflicts between employers and workers as mere “commodity struggles,” rather than a part of the class struggle itself. This line was essentially a sort of ultraleftist spontaneism, which in the final case is not much different from reformism: socialists were meant to wait for the final upsurge, which would occur only when the material conditions necessitated it; when the forces of production had developed to the point that capitalism could no longer be sustained, and the socialists, through achieving majority support, could peacefully take power. 

This impossibilist line did not sit comfortably with some party branches, especially in Manitoba and Ontario, outside of the SPC’s western heartland. Beginning in 1907, branches gradually broke off from the SPC, until they formed the Social Democratic Party of Canada (SDP) in 1911. The SDP favoured alliances with non-Marxist groups in the labour movement. At the same time, a handful of SPC locals in southern Ontario split because they viewed the party as too reformist; these formed the Socialist Party of North America (SPNA). The SPNA, while anti-electoralist, concluded that its members should join the trade unions whenever possible in order to propagandise among the organised workers. Meanwhile, in 1912, a shift occurred in the SPC leadership, from doctrinaire intellectuals to active trade unionists. The SPC proceeded to win a majority of the executive positions in the BC Federation of Labor, which went on to endorse the SPC’s programme. 

Thus, on the eve of the First World War, three sects constituted Canada’s Marxist left: the Socialist Party of Canada, the Social Democratic Party, and the Socialist Party of North America. All three were involved in the labour movement in different parts of the country, while the SPC and SDP had some experience with electoral politics. The SDP, despite its rather reformist leadership, had a large number of language federations for immigrants from Eastern Europe, which tended to stand on the left of the party. All three of these sects suffered during the war, when their membership depleted and their activities ground to a halt under the weight of war propaganda and state repression. It was only in 1917 that the left was revived, and at the same time split over a single issue: Bolshevism. 

Majorities in the SPC and SPNA supported the October Revolution, while the left and right of the SDP progressed towards an all-out split, with the language federations supporting the revolution, while the English section largely began favouring their own party’s liquidation into an analogue of the British Labour Party. The SPC, the left of the SDP, and the SPNA began to speak of uniting around the programme of Bolshevism. However, despite these talks of the “party of a new type” and the Bolshevik programme, the revolutionary left remained spontaneist, and in these formative years worked to build not a mass party that could develop into a counter-hegemonic force in society, but rather a minoritarian “vanguard” party that would intervene in the class struggle in order to propagandise for socialism. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of ordinary workers attended public meetings, went on strike, and called for the nationalisation of the means of production. Trade union militants spoke of revolution, and the labour movement, which had fallen nearly silent during the first years of the war, ballooned beyond its prewar levels. 

Yet, despite clear support for socialist principles among the working class, the revolutionary Marxist sects did not grow to encompass a real contingent of the class. They began working, instead, to influence the working class, so that they would rise up and battle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marxists in Ontario told striking workers, “we don’t oppose your strike, but you have to take the next step to insurrection!” Many of them seem to have been more familiar with Pannekoek than with Lenin, even as they proudly proclaimed themselves Bolsheviks. The eastern labour movement thus remained dominated by conservatives, who went on to dominate the 1918 convention of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada (TLC). In the west, where the Marxists had a more organic connection to the labour movement, the left won leadership of the major workers’ organisations, and began to formulate a singular strategy for the 1919 TLC convention. This led to the Western Labour Conference in March 1919, where the left held a firm majority. 

The resolutions at this conference were explicitly revolutionary: calls for the abolition of private property, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, for a general strike. The TLC convention was forgotten, and in fact the conference voted to secede from the TLC and form a new, revolutionary industrial union: the One Big Union (OBU). While the OBU has been termed syndicalist by some historians, this charge is bizarre: its instigators came largely from the SPC, which had always been critical of the IWW’s syndicalism and was committed to political action through a revolutionary party. The OBU was not seen by its founders as the primary organ of revolution, but as one weapon among many to be used by the working class in its formation as a class for itself. In fact, it seems that it was not quite clear to the OBU’s founders what its practical function was to be. It was for the rank and file workers, not the political leadership, to wield the OBU for their own revolutionary ends. The SPC had no revolutionary strategy to guide the working class to power, no clear vision of what the tasks of revolutionaries were; as before the war, they saw their activities as consisting primarily of the education of the working class. 

Meanwhile, a strike wave was building across the country. 1919 would go down in Canadian history as the most militant year for labour, as nearly 150,000 strikers across the country fought for their rights and the rights of their fellow workers. The strikes of that year can be divided into three categories: first, local strikes addressing the usual issues of union recognition, pay, and work hours; second, general strikes called in support of such local strikes; and third, sympathy strikes called in support of the Winnipeg General Strike. All three of these occurred across the country, despite the east’s more conservative labour bureaucracy. 

The most famous of these strikes began in Winnipeg in May. Although the OBU had not yet officially been formed, Peter Campbell insists that “the idea of the One Big Union, which aimed at the linking of socialist theory and trade union protest” was an important factor in the progression of the strike, and further that “it was the interaction between trade unionists and Marxian socialists that made the labour revolt of 1919 as widespread and effective as it was.” In this sense, the SPC was moving towards the “merger formula,” that is, the notion that the socialist movement is the result of a meeting between socialist theory and the workers’ movement. However, it was not able to provide the workers’ movement with a clear strategy for taking power, and therefore failed to direct the 1919 labour revolt into a real revolutionary movement. 

The Winnipeg General Strike was a response to employers’ refusal to bargain with metal and building tradesmen—the metal, mining, and shipbuilding trades were at the forefront of class struggle in 1919. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called a general strike on May 15, with only 500 votes against the proposition versus over 11,000 in favour. Within 24 hours, over 22,000 workers had walked off the job, many of whom were not even unionised; the final number was over 30,000, a clear majority of the city’s working population. A Strike Committee was formed to manage the affairs of the striking workers, and found itself in control of the city’s labour: workers selectively performed only certain essential jobs in accordance with the Strike Committee’s will. In effect, it planned the city’s economy for the duration of the strike, at least in a partial sense. The police union also voted overwhelmingly for the strike, but at the request of the Strike Committee (in agreement with the mayor) they remained on the job—it was hinted that the army would be brought in to substitute the police if they walked off. Although the striking workers had no goal beyond union recognition and basic wage demands, they had effectively taken control of administration of the city. Winnipeg, whether the workers were aware of it or not, was ruled (at least in part) by a workers’ council—the Strike Committee. 

It is clear, therefore, that the formation of workers’ councils in itself is not a sign of impending revolution or mass class-consciousness. The vast majority of Winnipeg workers had no desire to install the dictatorship of the proletariat. The strike could not advance beyond the immediate aims of the workers without the leadership of a workers’ party with a revolutionary programme. The Strike Committee urged workers not to take to the streets, to avoid confrontation with the government. It was the veterans’ organisations, not the Strike Committee, that organised the street demonstrations that did occur. In fact, the SPC-led Vancouver General Strike (one of many across the country called in sympathy with the Winnipeg workers) made more radical demands than those being put forward by the Winnipeg Strike Committee, including the universal recognition of trade unions, the nationalisation of cold storage plants, slaughterhouses, and grain elevators (to end the hoarding of foodstuffs), and the enactment of the six-hour workday in industries suffering from large-scale unemployment. In spite of this, the Vancouver strike collapsed not long after the workers in Winnipeg were defeated: the SPC was not willing to continue fighting a battle that it knew it could not win. 

The bourgeoisie was not nearly so naïve as Winnipeg’s working class. In opposition to the Strike Committee, Winnipeg’s bourgeoisie formed a “Citizens’ Committee” made up of the city’s businessmen, lawyers, and officials, with the purpose of organising the maintenance of public utilities. The commander of Winnipeg’s military district, Major General Ketchen, was present at the creation of this organisation and would collaborate with them throughout the strike. They began circulating their own newspaper, which stated on the front page of the first edition that this was not a strike, but a revolution. 

The bourgeois press across the country repeated this sensationalist lie, and compared Winnipeg to Soviet Russia. Xenophobia was central to anti-Bolshevism in this period; Eastern European socialists were repressed far more harshly than anglophone socialists, and the Citizens’ Committee pushed a narrative that the strike was being led by these “foreigners.” The strikers and their comrades across the country waged war against the press: shortly after the beginning of the strike, Winnipeg’s six wire-services operators walked off the job, cutting short all transcontinental press communications until direct communication was established between Ontario and Saskatchewan. Telegraphers west of Winnipeg resisted this attempt to circumvent the Winnipeg strike, by refusing to handle items originating in Winnipeg or even altering stories directly. The Strike Committee proposed to have the operators return to work if all news items were passed by a special committee for approval, but the bourgeois press rejected the suggestion. The Winnipeg typographers were also pressured to join the strike, shutting down the city’s three newspapers; the Strike Committee began to produce its own daily newspaper in their place. The class struggle had spread to the domain of information: workers and the bourgeois press battled to present their respective narratives of the situation. 

The Strike Committee soon found that it had not prepared itself sufficiently for the task of administering a city. When, on the morning after the beginning of the strike, the bread and milk delivery wagons failed to do their rounds, there was widespread panic. The Strike Committee formed a special food subcommittee to organise the distribution of staples, and approached city council to work out a solution to the problem. This cooperation with the bourgeois state is emblematic of a working class lacking the ability to govern society, with no civic institutions of its own. Once again, the SPC and SDP had failed to prepare the working class to take power. 

It was decided, in consultation with the city council and industry, that the Strike Committee would authorise a number of wagons to distribute bread and milk, which would be given placards displaying, “Permitted by Authority of Strike Committee”. Subsequently, restaurants, bakeries, gasoline stations, and cinemas were reopened with the Strike Committee’s authorisation, and the work necessary to keep hospitals running resumed. But the mayor, Charles Gray, felt that the necessity of Strike Committee authorisation for the essential work of keeping the city running undermined the authority of the bourgeois state. The city council soon pressured the Strike Committee to remove the placards from the milk and bread carts, to be replaced with special cards carried by the cart operators. This was a victory for Mayor Gray and the forces of the bourgeoisie in the battle for legitimate control of civil society. Gray triumphantly stated that now there could be no further misunderstanding “that the legally constituted authority has been taken out of the hands of the civic authority.” 

The Strike Committee had demonstrated, even in its first week of existence, that it was incapable of serving as a counter-hegemonic force against the bourgeois state, incapable of serving as the basis for a workers’ republic. This, nonetheless, did not assuage the fears of Canadian and American capitalists, who continued to print sensationalist headlines about the strike. 

This was when the federal government sent representatives to Winnipeg. Even as the Strike Committee failed to contest the bourgeoisie’s grip on state power, to remain aloof any longer would signal a crisis of legitimacy for the Canadian state. Gideon Robertson, the Minister of Labour, and Arthur Meighen, Minister of the Interior and of Justice, arrived on May 21. Having already been exposed to the Citizens’ Committee’s narrative, they spoke to Manitoba’s Premier, Tobias Norris, to General Ketchen, and to various other officials. They refused to address the Strike Committee, despite the Committee’s invitation to attend their meeting. They insisted that the Strike Committee send a delegation to meet them the next day instead. 

The cabinet ministers and the Citizens’ Committee quickly began collaborating to undermine the strike. Their first target was the postal workers, who threatened to disrupt the postal service nationwide. They issued an ultimatum to the postal workers to return to work within three days or be dismissed. Even before waiting for the expiry of the three days, however, they had begun to gather volunteers to continue the work. All but 40 of the postal workers chose not to return to work, and were fired. The railway mail clerks struck in solidarity with the postal workers, but soon were forced to return to work or meet the same fate. Some of the fired postal workers asked to be allowed to go back to work and offered to give up their union memberships, but they were not rehired. 

In failing to retaliate for the dismissal of the postal workers, and letting the bourgeoisie retake control of certain means of production, the Strike Committee demonstrated that it presented no real threat to the “constitutional order.” The working class here was no fighting force struggling to control the means of production. Nevertheless, the government would not be satisfied until the total defeat of the working class. Paranoia of the influence of revolutionaries in the One Big Union surely fuelled this hostility. 

Robertson was firmly convinced that the Strike Committee and the OBU were connected, working to bring about revolution in Canada. He was convinced of the need to crush the strike in order to strangle the OBU in its cradle. Although his musings of a conspiracy are fantastical, he was likely correct that the success or defeat of the strike would affect the balance of class power in Canada for years to come. Supporters of the OBU came to the same ultimate conclusions that Robertson did. Meighen, while perhaps not sharing Robertson’s paranoias, was equally convinced of the need to crush the general strike, as its success might encourage the formation of vast industrial unions, capable of calling general strikes at a moment’s notice. 

The bourgeoisie soon turned its gaze to the police service, which was sympathetic to the strikers. They presented the police with an ultimatum: to renounce their connections to the unions and pledge their allegiance to the state, or be dismissed. In the end, only a small minority of the police force elected to take the vow. The city council was placed in a delicate situation at this point, because to carry out their threats, they would have to empty the streets of the police force. The Citizens’ Committee and the government forces immediately founded a special police force, and failed to follow up on the ultimatum. 

In response to the introduction of the special police, the Strike Committee ended the distribution of bread, milk, and ice. However, the Citizens’ Committee organised volunteers to distribute staples to the population, with the protection of the special police. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie continued to build up its special police force. Shortly after this, the 240 members of the official police force who refused to sign the pledge were dismissed. The regular head of police was additionally sent on leave. The armed wing of civil society had been almost fully replaced, in another victory for the bourgeoisie in the contest for legitimate authority. 

The special police force had practically no training, and through its brutality broke the tense peace that had hitherto persisted in the city. They attempted to break up crowds listening to public speakers, and were quick to resort to the baton or even the firearm. Brawls between strikers and police became relatively common occurrences. 

As sympathetic strikes spread, the bourgeoisie scrambled to find a peaceful conclusion in their own favour. They proposed to negotiate with the craft unions, the bureaucrats of which were opposed to the OBU’s radicalism and industrial unionism. This divided the Winnipeg workers’ movement, and the strikers were split over the issue of whether to settle on these terms. The Strike Committee opposed this move against it, but if it could not maintain control of the skilled labour force, then the strike would disintegrate. In this moment of weakness, in the early hours of June 17, the government made its move against Winnipeg’s radicals. 

Even without having charged them, state forces swiftly swept up the radical strike leaders and placed them in prison. The Labor Temple and other labour offices were broken into and ruthlessly searched by police for evidence of revolutionary plots. The Strike Committee condemned the arrests and demanded the release of the men, and the pro-strike veterans organised public meetings in protest. The state actors involved disagreed on how to proceed: Meighen, while recognising the dubious legality of the arrests, wished to deport the prisoners; Robertson felt that deportation of the British-born radicals would be deeply unpopular. Members of the Citizens’ Committee pushed for leniency and a fair trial. Ultimately, six of the radicals were released on bail on the condition that they play no further role in the conduct of the strike. The left wing of the strike movement had won its (at least temporary) freedom, but the damage was done. The strike was left under the sway of the moderates. 

In this environment of uncertainty, some strikers began to return to work. The streetcars resumed operation on June 18. This was perceived by many in the city as a sign that the strikers were losing the battle. The pro-strike veterans were incensed, and there was talk of violent retaliation even as the Strike Committee attempted to find a compromise with the bourgeoisie. 

The veterans insisted that streetcar service be ended and that the capitalists settle an agreement with the strikers, or they would hold a public march on Saturday, June 21. Mayor Gray was openly opposed to such a march, fearful that it would break the tense peace and lead to all-out conflict. He was unable to prevent it, however, and so he called in the Royal North-West Mounted Police to maintain order. 

The demonstrating workers and veterans pulled a streetcar off its wire and set it ablaze. The Mounties rode through the demonstration threateningly, and were met by jeers, then by bricks and bottles. One rider fell off his horse, and a demonstrator began beating him. The other Mounties decided to fire into the crowd. The firing continued for several minutes; one man was killed instantly, and many others wounded. The crowd scattered, and was met by the special police armed with clubs and revolvers. Mayor Gray asked General Ketchen to activate the militia, which had been significantly built up over the course of the strike, and militiamen armed with machine guns moved into downtown. This day would go down in Canadian labour history as Bloody Saturday. 

The streets remained occupied by the special police, Mounties, and militia for several days thereafter. Individual strikers began to return to work, and further public meetings were prohibited. The Strike Committee agreed to end the strike if the provincial government would appoint a royal commission to study labour conditions and the cause of the strike. Premier Norris assented to this condition, over the objections of the Citizens’ Committee. On Thursday morning, the vast majority of Winnipeg’s workforce returned to their jobs. Although a few small sections of labour continued the strike, the working class had been totally defeated. 

It is clear that the revolutionary left failed this test of its power entirely. The working class had no civic institutions of its own which could substitute the functions of the bourgeois state, and thus provide an alternative to it. Although the Strike Committee made decisions about what labour was to be performed, it was thoroughly unprepared for this task, thus its collaboration with the city council. The strikers had not prepared for a takeover of society. A revolutionary programme would have provided them with a roadmap for how to conquer state power and take ownership of the means of production; instead, the bourgeoisie won battle after battle for control of production and distribution. 

While it is not the goal of this essay to prove that the Canadian labour revolt was or was not a revolutionary situation passed by, it is necessary to reflect on how socialists in the past have succeeded or failed to advance their revolutionary political project, so that the communists of today can better formulate their own strategy. Even if Canada’s working class could not possibly have been prepared to take state power in 1919, the events of that year were pivotal in the reformation of the revolutionary left, and with the right direction could perhaps have resulted in the formation of a mass, militant revolutionary movement. Instead, the revolutionary left remained minoritarian, and ultimately failed to win leadership of the workers’ movement or present the working class with a strategy for taking power. 

General strikes and the formation of workers’ councils are not necessarily signs that the working class is conscious of its historic role and making a bid for state power. When the Russian workers and peasants formed soviets during the February Revolution, they were not yet prepared to govern society. It was the Bolshevik party and its programme that put forward the slogan, “All power to the soviets!”, and that led the workers and peasants to take power through the substitution of bourgeois political institutions with their own. Similarly, the Winnipeg workers did not ever seek to replace bourgeois institutions with their own. There was no party agitating for them to do so; no party pointing out that they were already administering the essential means of production to meet the needs of the people; no party agitating for the formation of workers’ militias so that the working class could defend itself against the bourgeois state and expropriate the capitalists. 

It is the purpose of the revolutionary workers’ party to organise the working class for such an eventuality. The workers’ party, through presenting the class with democratic alternatives to bourgeois civil society even before the revolution, can prepare the workers for exercising state power. The party must become a state within and without the bourgeois state, by forming its own civic institutions such as schools and recreational clubs. Workers’ militias must be organised and trained by the party to defend the working class from the bourgeois state, and ultimately go on the offensive and seize control of the means of production when the opportunity arises. The party must train the proletariat to govern itself, so that it can conquer and effectively wield state power. 

The party’s programme provides a roadmap to socialism. Without training the proletariat in self-governance, without preparing it for the conquest of state power, and without a political programme that leads, in no uncertain terms, to a rupture with the bourgeois state and the institution of the workers’ republic, the working class cannot become a real fighting force, capable of contesting bourgeois hegemony. As the example of the Winnipeg General Strike demonstrates, the working class cannot struggle in an organised fashion for socialism without such a party. Relying on spontaneous revolts of the working class will result only in disappointment and defeat. The struggle for socialism is the result of a merger between socialist theory and the workers’ movement. This merger is embodied in the mass communist party, which is uniquely capable of organising the proletariat to take state power and abolish the capitalist system of exploitation. Revolutionary unions and workers’ councils cannot substitute this essential instrument of class struggle; neither can a minoritarian party, limited to interventions in existing struggles. This lesson is essential if we are to avoid defeat, if we are to conquer power, if we are to bring about communism. 

“Conflict of Interest” is A Rich Man’s Game

by Barry Weisleder


  1. How do you know when a bourgeois politician is lying?
  2. When is a bourgeois politician in a conflict of interest?

In the era of decaying liberal democracy, the corporate mass media occasionally identifies rich people in high office who appear to benefit economically from the laws and budgets they craft.

Donald Trump, for one, defies his critics, and just flatly refuses even to post his tax returns.

Canada’s federal Finance Minister, Bill Morneau, takes a different tack.  After he was caught reaping benefits that resulted from changes he proposes to federal pension plans, Morneau moved to sell off his shares in the over $1 Billion family firm Morneau Shepell.  It is a leading Bay Street pension administration and human resources company, with 20,000 clients across North America.  He pledges to donate to charity the profits he made since coming into office in October 2015, estimated at $10 million.  Of course, for a multi-millionaire, that is a drop in the bucket. It’s much less than he will be paid annually when he ‘returns to the private sector.’

Four other government ministers, following intense pressure, reported that they do not hold any publicly traded assets.  A further 14 cabinet members issued a uniform statement that they are in compliance with recommendations of the Parliamentary Ethics Commissioner, who said they do not have to put their corporate wealth in a ‘blind trust’.  Finally, ten additional ministers simply refused to reply to media questions on the subject.

For its part, the Conservative Party Official Opposition claims to be clean; but in opposition, since they don’t regulate anything, a true test of financial conflict seems beyond reach.

Somehow, though, doesn’t this miss point?  Doesn’t it ignore the elephant in the room?  By serving and preserving the capitalist system, bourgeois politicians reap the rewards of the private profit system, sooner or later — regardless whether they administer, legislate, regulate, or just stand back and watch their assets grow under the current regime, of which they are shamelessly a part.

The historic conflict of interest that really matters is the one between Capital and Labour.  That’s a conflict that cannot be regulated out of existence.  It can be resolved only by social revolution.

In the meantime, arguments in the media and in parliament about the alleged conflicts of interest of office-holding politicians represents a relatively minor issue:  they reflect the disputes between different factions of the capitalist class.

They also serve to remind working people that operating and benefiting from the capitalist system is mainly a rich man’s game.

Answers to Questions:

  1. When their lips are moving.
  2. Once they take office.

Photo: Chris Wattie, Reuters

Canada Marches In Solidarity with Venezuela

Canada Marches In Solidarity with Venezuela
By Victoria Fleming

Dozens of people, equipped with signs, flags, their resonant voices, and plenty of determination, rallied in front of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto on Saturday, September 16, to protest imperialistic actions by the United States and Canada towards the democratically elected government in Venezuela.

With large, vibrantly-colored banners, and signs proclaiming “No to U.S. Backed Violence Against the Venezuelan people,” rally participants quickly took over the sidewalk forming an intimate circle, belting out songs, chants, and speeches in a beautiful blend of English and Spanish.

The chorus of protestors decried the history of western capitalist states intervening against democratically elected leftist Latin American governments.  They recited the list of U.S.-led coups and regime change in Chile, Bolivia, and Honduras as evidence for the West’s ulterior motives in Venezuela.

“We want people to demand that Ottawa and Washington keep their hands off Venezuela,” said Barry Weisleder, the Federal Secretary of Socialist Action.

“Venezuela has been under withering assault by Washington, Ottawa, and their allies who really want to get back control of the oil wealth in the country. Venezuela has suffered from the decline in the oil price, but the problems the Western media focuses on have been chiefly the work of big business groups inside and outside the country who have been attempting to overthrow the elected popular government of Venezuela,” he said.

The rally, organized by the Toronto Venezuela Solidarity Committee, as a part of an International Day of Action, comes as a response to Washington’s draconian economic sanctions and threats of military intervention in Venezuela.  These alarming actions by the United States occurred after the Venezuelan people democratically elected a new constituent assembly on July 30. The assembly has set out to rewrite the constitution in order to codify the rights of ordinary working people, women, and indigenous people, to restore peace to the country after months of ongoing protest, and to help solve the economic crisis, in large part prompted by dropping oil prices and acts of economic sabotage by business groups.

“We are asking the United States to really try and understand what their president is doing in their name. We are asking Prime Minister Trudeau not to follow the lead of this disreputable American president”, said Maria Paez Victor, one of the organizers of the rally and a member of the Canadian, Latin American and Caribbean Policy Center as well as the Louis Riel Bolivarian Circle.

“We are asking that international law be respected, and if not, we are in terrible trouble. International law means we respect the sovereignty of countries, their right to self-determination, and that countries have the right to write their own laws without foreign interference,” she says.

Protestors have one message for the governments of Canada and the United States:  Keep your hands off Venezuela.

Growing Inequality scars the Great White North

Last year Canada surpassed the United States to become the country with the most rapid growth of inequality. The U.S. still has the largest income gap, but Canada is quickly catching up.
Who controls Canada’s wealth?
The richest 20 per cent (the top quintile) of the population commands 67.4 per cent of the country’s wealth. Those in the bottom quintile own almost nothing; in fact, they are in negative territory.

Continue reading Growing Inequality scars the Great White North

The National Question in the Canadian State

by Robbie Mahood
National oppression and racism remain endemic features of capitalist states in the world today. In few, if any, does the national question play such a central role as in Canada. This is most clearly demonstrated in the case of Quebec, where national resentment periodically erupts to take centre stage in political life. It is seen in the rising national consciousness and demands of indigenous peoples in Canada and Quebec. The French-speaking communities outside Quebec who have survived anglo-assimilation, notably the Acadians, can also stake a claim to nationhood . And it applies, arguably, to Newfoundland, where a separate society existed for three hundred years before its incorporation into the Canadian state in 1949.
The Historical View
A walk through our common history will establish the weight of national oppression in the formation and subsequent development of the Canadian capitalist state.
The establishment of settler colonies in eastern North America by both France and Great Britain involved the dispossession and subjugation of the native inhabitants through war, theft, religious proselytizing, unequal terms of trade and the exploitation of the skilled labour of aboriginal men and women, notably in the lucrative fur trade.
The long struggle for colonial supremacy swung in Britain’s favour in the mid 1700’s. In 1755, after its military successes in Canada’s maritime region, the British expelled thousands of French Acadian settlers, an early example of brutal ethnic cleansing.
Larger concentrations of French settlers in Quebec required a different strategy. After their victory on the Plains of Abraham, the British imposed colonial rule on their new subjects through the active collaboration of the Roman Catholic Church and the landed seigneurial elite. They sought to build an English-speaking majority in both Upper and Lower Canada, aided in this respect by the influx of Empire Loyalists opposed to the American Revolution of 1776.

The Patriotes Rebellion. Quebec 1837-1839

In 1837, the British colonial administration suppressed armed uprisings in both French and English-speaking Canada after years of popular democratic agitation. The rebellion in Lower Canada (Quebec) was crushed with particular brutality because it was also a struggle for national rights.

The launch of the Canadian federal state in 1867 was a bid by the anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie for expansion into the vast northwest territory of British North America. It was the product of colonial elite consensus, rather than popular anti-colonial struggle, actively promoted by Britain to counter the threat of American annexation.
Only in Ontario was there any enthusiasm for the nation-building project. Quebec was granted provincial status but would be condemned to permanent minority status in federal institutions. As for the Metis and indigenous peoples of the West, John A. MacDonald’s National Policy envisaged their displacement by an influx of English-speaking immigrants from Eastern Canada, or from Europe, with a preference for those from the British Isles.
First in Manitoba in 1870, and then in Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1885, Ottawa deployed armed force to crush a Metis and Indian

Louis Riel, political leader of the Métis people. He led two resistance movements against the Canadian government

insurgency, securing anglo-Canadian supremacy and delivering a decisive blow to a French or indigenous people’s role in the development of the West. A colonial apartheid regime awaited the defeated native peoples, consisting of their relocation to reserves under the authority of the federal Department of Indian Affairs, while their language and culture (and even their children, literally) were under assault in the church-run school system. The legal status of the French language was suppressed in one province after another.

Thus, from the beginning, capitalist development in Canada took on a double form of inequality, not only in terms of the struggle of workers and small farmers against capitalists, but also between dominant and subordinate nations within the federation. The anglo-protestant ascendancy that was integral to the construction of the pan-Canadian state imposed a reality of economic marginalization and the threat of cultural and linguistic assimilation for French-speaking and First Nations peoples. But the denial of the national rights of Quebec and the other dominated nations came at the price of potentially explosive tensions and contradictions at the heart of the federal state.
Population density and a common language, culture and history, have given Quebec a strategic role in Canadian politics. Following the execution of Metis leader Louis Riel by the Conservative government in 1886, and for many decades thereafter, Quebecois favoured the Liberals. Thanks to their Quebec base, the Liberals were the dominant party of the Canadian bourgeoisie, exercising power at the federal level through most of the 20th century. Quebec’s bourgeoisie sought to advance its interests through an alliance with anglo-canadian capital. But Quebec as a whole remained a backward society characterized by the prominent power of the church, the marked subjugation of women, high levels of poverty with massive out-migration, and English as the language of preference in the workplace and amongst new immigrants. National consciousness took on a reactionary and parochial form, although it could also display an anti-imperialist dimension as it did in the Conscription crises of WWI and WWII.

Anti-conscription demonstration staged by Université de Montréal students, Champ de Mars. In Quebec, 72.9% of the population vote "no," whereas across the other provinces, 80% of the residents vote "yes."
Anti-conscription demonstration staged by Université de Montréal students, Champ de Mars. In Quebec, 72.9% of the population vote “no,” whereas across the other provinces, 80% of the residents vote “yes.”

All this was to change with the wave of nationalist and social agitation which swept Quebec in the 1960’s and 70’s. For the first time, the demand for Quebec independence was raised, creating panic in the Canadian ruling class and its political representatives. Ottawa mustered two distinct responses to this mortal threat to the Canadian capitalist state: an unrelenting hostility to Quebec’s national demands under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, followed by a softer more cooptative approach under Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Neither strategy was to succeed in putting the genie of separatism back into the bottle, even though the federalist side prevailed in the two referenda on independence.
National humiliation at the hands of the Canadian state the War Measures Act (1970), exclusion from the repatriated Canadian Constitution (1982), the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords (1990, 1992), the sponsorship scandal (1995) and the Clarity Act (1997) have driven a deeper wedge between Quebec and the Rest of Canada than ever before. The effect has been to weaken Quebecois attachment to the two parties of Anglo-Canadian capital, in particular, the Liberal Party.

Idle No More demonstration in Montreal

The example of Quebec has stimulated the national consciousness of aboriginal peoples, as well as the demands of the francophone minorities outside Quebec. The First Nations peoples of Canada and Quebec have demonstrated their determination to maintain their sovereign rights through the courts, in negotiation with Ottawa and the provinces, and by militant direct action to defend their traditional lands and treaty rights when these have been threatened.
The National Question and the Left in English-speaking Canada
The existence of national oppression in the Canadian state seems not to have been recognized, let alone become a preoccupation of the early workers movement. The 1933 Regina Manifesto, founding document of the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, social democratic precursor of the New Democratic Party) commits the party to “replace the current capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated.” But a thorough search of the elaborate program which follows will not reveal a single reference to Quebec or to aboriginal peoples. Neither did the early Communist Party take up the national question, despite the example provided by the Bolsheviks. Four delegates from Quebec are said to have attended the founding conference of the Workers Party in 1922, versus 43 from Ontario and 16 from western Canada.
During WW II, both the CCF and the then-Stalinized CPC, supported conscription, thus alienating them from the working class wing of the anti-conscription movement in Quebec. Stanley Ryerson, the CP’s leading intellectual, wrote the most authoritative Marxist account of the national question in the formation of the Canadian state in his book Unequal Union. But because of its orientation to an allegedly progressive wing of the Canadian bourgeoisie ready to break with the Ottawa-Washington axis, the CP did not tolerate nationalist leanings in its Quebec wing.

Canadian soldier in Montreal during 1970 FLQ crisis
Canadian soldier in Montreal during 1970 FLQ crisis

English-Canadian social democracy’s finest hour with respect to Quebec came when federal NDP leader T.C. Douglas opposed Trudeau’s War Measures Act during the 1970 FLQ crisis. Douglas argued from a strictly civil libertarian stance. Still, it took courage to swim against the hysteria that Ottawa drummed up to justify sending the army into Quebec and jailing over 400 activists without charge. For the most part, however, the NDP leadership has mirrored the chauvinism towards Quebec that operates across the political spectrum in English-speaking Canada. For example, now elder NDP statesman but then Saskatchewan Attorney General, Roy Romanow, was a key collaborator in Trudeau’s freezing-out of Quebec during the 1982 constitutional negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces, what is known in Quebec as ‘the night of the long knives.’

During the 1960’s and 70’s there was strong sympathy on the English Canadian left for Quebec’s aspirations, up to and including independence. By the 1990’s and into this century that sympathy had largely evaporated. The reasons offered for this change of heart are generally along similar lines. The Parti Quebecois had abandoned its alleged social democratic origins and transformed itself into a right-wing pro-capitalist party. The Quebecois had supported the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. They had succumbed to a reactionary ethno-centric nationalism intolerant of Quebec’s aboriginal and immigrant minorities. Francophone Quebeckers had successfully dismantled the system of English privilege and were now bending the stick too far the other way.
In contrast, in relation to First Nations peoples, the English Canadian left has retained a basic sympathy and recognition of the justice of

Canadian Soldier and Mohawk Warrior standoff at Oka

their struggles. This difference reflects a degree of liberal moralism, paternalism and superficiality to which many on the left in English-speaking Canada have retreated. It is enough for the Quebecois to have registered gains for their ongoing struggle to become suspect. Or because there is racism and xenophobia in Quebec we can no longer extend the hand of solidarity. Some on the progressive side of Canadian politics seem surprised to discover that Quebec is a capitalist society dominated by the bourgeoisie in which there is an ebb and flow in struggles, and where the possibility of social advance or retreat depends on the relationship of forces, as is the case for any other society in the world today.

To be sure, Quebec has undergone many changes since Pierre Vallières wrote Les Nègres Blanc d`Amerique. The gains for the francophone majority are tangible, but fragile, particularly in the crucial language battleground of Montréal. But these changes fall far short of national liberation. They do not include power over banking and finance, over the judiciary at the highest level, over the army and foreign policy. And Quebec is still the prisoner of a constitution which does not recognize its national rights, on which it was never consulted, and which it is next to impossible for it to amend.
2766141687_f219220ca5A certain left nationalist discourse still prevails in English-speaking Canada. It subscribes to the myth of Canada as a gentler, more civilized variant of capitalism. It is the land of medicare with all the trimmings. The Stephen Harper-led Tories are reviled for wanting to betray this vision and install a more brutish American-style model which would not be consistent with Canadian ‘values’. To be sure, this view suffers from the absence of a class analysis. Harper’s determined pursuit of capitalist austerity at home and imperialist militarism abroad is fully supported by the Canadian ruling class. Canada’s ruling rich have confidence in Harper and his team. They could even be said to share the same version of Canadian, and thoroughly capitalist, `values`. Defending alternative, progressive Canadian ‘values’ is not necessarily bad. It finds an echo in broad layers of working people in English Canada. In the final analysis, this reflects a more favourable balance in the relationship of class forces than has existed thus far in the United States. The problem with left nationalism (and its attendant ‘values’ discourse) is that it tends to obscure the class nature of the Canadian state and to oppose anything that would threaten the unity of that state, such as Quebec independence.
There is another barrier to understanding and opposing national oppression. In some parts of the socialist left, the central contradiction in460_0___30_0_0_0_0_0_clenched_fist_1 capitalist society is reduced to the antagonism between worker and capitalist in an abstract and ahistorical manner. Other contradictions of class society, such as national or gender oppression, are deemed non-class issues that are less important, or even diversions from the real struggle. In this framework, which we might term economist, Quebec’s national grievances might be recognized, but the solution proposed relies abstractly on uniting the workers of both nations in a common struggle against the bourgeoisie. Anything that throws the working class in the oppressed nation into the same camp as its bourgeoisie is to be resisted. For example, the demand for Quebec independence, and even upholding the province’s language law, could be opposed because they divide the bi-national working class.
Our Approach
For us in Socialist Action, national oppression is pre-eminently a class question. The national oppressor of an oppressed nation is not primarily another nation but the state as the instrument of an exploitative ruling class. The struggle of an oppressed nationality is against the state, in order to break its authority and control over the oppressed.
In the case of aboriginal peoples in Canada and Quebec, we support their right to self-government, to control of their resources above and

First Nations Idle No More protestors march and block the International Bridge between the Canada and U.S. border near Cornwall Ontario
First Nations Idle No More protestors march and block the International Bridge between the Canada and U.S. border near Cornwall Ontario

below ground and the right to develop their system of education, employment, health care and infrastructure according to their own values. We do not believe that the capitalist system can meet these aspirations. Since its importation from Europe, capitalism has reaped immense profits from the expropriation of the native peoples of the continent, and it will continue to do so unless opposed.

First Nations peoples have sometimes become caught in the struggle between Quebec and the pan-Canadian state. In our view, it is not in the interests of indigenous peoples to oppose the legitimate national aspirations of the Quebecois so long as their own national rights are also respected. Any successful bid by the Quebecois for their own state must accord the native peoples of Quebec the same full right of self-determination, up to and including the right to secede and/or to stay within the Canadian state. This right should also apply to aboriginal peoples who may wish to leave Confederation to be part of a future independent Quebec.
We support not just the right to self-determination of the Quebecois, but also the concrete political expression of this right which for over fifty years has been the demand for Quebec independence. This demand is supported by all the Quebec labour union federations and has deep roots in the Quebec working class and other social layers. Our support for independence is informed by a serious examination of Canadian history and the central role and weight of national oppression in that history. The national question remains the Achilles heel of the Canadian bourgeoisie presenting a direct challenge to the stability and authority of the federal state, which is the main guarantor and enforcer of its elite class interests.
Within Quebec we support a break with the bourgeois nationalist leaderships of the Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois, and the Logo RŽgionbuilding of a mass working class political party which can address all the problems affecting Quebec society from an independent working class perspective, and which is capable of leading a struggle for Quebecois national liberation. We believe that the emergence of Quebec Solidaire represents a potential step in that direction. We further believe that revolutionary socialists should participate in that party as an organized tendency to fight for an anti-capitalist program.
Inside the NDP, including through our participation in the NDP Socialist Caucus, we defend unequivocally the national rights of Quebec and First Nations peoples, and oppose the party leadership’s vacillation or outright collaboration with the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the Canadian state`s violation of these rights. NDP Leader Jack Layton’s equivocation on the Clarity Act (enacted in 2000), which gives Ottawa the power to determine the validity of any future referendum on Quebec independence, is a case in point.
Our support for Quebec independence is aimed at creating the best conditions for the class struggle in both Quebec and the Rest of Canada. In as much as independence for Quebec has not yet been realized, we favour an alliance between the working class organizations of Quebec and the ROC to install a workers’ government in Ottawa. The recent catapulting of the NDP into official opposition status, largely on the strength of its vote in Quebec, opens up some potential opportunities in that respect. The NDP does not have any significant roots in the Quebec working class. And, given the class collaborationist reflexes of its leadership and the party`s long record of English Canadian chauvinism, it will not defend Quebec should another crisis of national unity occur. But at the same time, the willingness of large numbers of Quebecois working people and youth to throw their support to the NDP reflects a recognition of the need for unity across the national divide against a mutual class enemy, as personified by the Harper Tories. Whether this rather generous offer is taken up, and to what extent, at the base of the NDP and the labour movement in the ROC remains to be seen. But it is, we argue, the duty of socialists, even with small forces, to try to influence this process in a positive direction, that is to strengthen cross-national mobilization against the next round of austerity, militarism, eco-degradation and repression which the Harper government is hoping to impose. Indispensable to this task is a clear perspective on the enduring reality of national oppression in the Canadian state and the need to combat it.
The National Question in classical Marxism
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declare: “the working men (sic) have no country”. Corrected for gender bias, this remains the clarion call to internationalism that is at the heart of the struggle to overthrow capitalism. Is nationalism simply then a tool through which the bourgeoisie ideologically disarms the workers and enlists their support for austerity, domestic repression and war? Should not socialists then stand in uncompromising opposition to nationalism?

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

It is worth probing further into the same passage from the Manifesto. Yes, say Marx and Engels: ” The (workers) have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.” This is an altogether richer and more dialectical understanding of the nation-class relationship, projected onto the concrete struggle between contending classes in specific states or nations.

Initially, the views of Marx and Engels on the national question were shaped by the bourgeois democratic revolution that swept through Europe in 1848. They welcomed the struggles for national unity and the independence of the German, Italian, Polish and Hungarian peoples. In contrast, the struggles of the smaller nations of eastern and southern Europe, such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Bulgarians,did not elicit their support because of the backwardness of these social formations and their alliance with the most reactionary power in Europe, Tsarist Russia.
After he took up residence in London and became acquainted with the Irish question, Marx took a different stance toward national oppression. Instead of Irish national liberation riding on the coattails of the English revolution, he came to see the colonization of Ireland as a block to the class consciousness of the English working class. So long as it acquiesced in the subjugation of Ireland, the English working class would never be able to wage an effective struggle against its own ruling class. Therefore, the working class of the oppressor nation must break with its bourgeoisie and support the struggle of the oppressed nation for self-determination, even if that means political separation.
The succeeding generation of European Marxists in the early 20th century engaged in a long debate on the national question. The most

Three of the Bolshevik leaders who founded the Soviet Union. Trotsky (left), Lenin (center) and Kamenev (right)
Three of the Bolshevik leaders who founded the Soviet Union. Trotsky (left), Lenin (center) and Kamenev (right)

advanced expression of this interchange remains, in our view, that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who championed the rights of oppressed nations not only in the pluri-national Russian Empire, but also in the colonial and semi-colonial world dominated by imperialism.

National self-determination, up to and including the right to secede, is a pre-requisite to the voluntary amalgamation of nations envisaged in a world socialist order. Against Rosa Luxemburg’s charge that unconditional defense of national self-determination subordinated the working class in an oppressed nation to its own bourgeoisie, Lenin argued as follows: “Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.”
Defense of national self-determination did not necessarily imply secession. According to Lenin, that would depend on “a thousand unpredictable factors”, and on the unfolding rhythm and needs of the class struggle in a given instance. What he insisted on is that the fight against injustice and for democratic (including national) rights is not secondary, but is rather an essential component of the class struggle, waged as it is politically on all fronts.
Our contention here is that national oppression is embedded in the Canadian federal state. With respect to Quebec, the demand for independence has deep historical roots and should occupy an important place in the strategic thinking of revolutionary socialists. Its realisation would strike a blow against the Canadian capitalist state at one of its weakest points. And it would encourage independent class politics in both Quebec and the Rest of Canada, increasing the scope for anti-capitalist struggle and revolutionary social transformation.
(Robbie Mahood is member of Socialist Action/Ligue pour L`Action Socialiste who has lived in Montreal for the past 18 years. He was a candidate for Quebec Solidaire for the Quebec National Assembly in 2009, and ran for the PDS-Party for Socialist Democracy in Montreal in 1998. Originally from Saskatchewan, Robbie is a pro-choice physician who helped to establish the Morgentaler Clinic in Winnipeg, Manitoba.)