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Colleen Levis: For a labor alternative in Montreal elections (1974)

November 29, 2016

Colleen Levis 1946-2016. Photo by Cyril McInnis 1973.

Introduction by John Riddell. Colleen Levis, a leader of the socialist movement in Canada and Quebec, died on October 14, 2016, at the age of 70. In her memory , I am republishing here an article she wrote in 1974, “Labor Alternative Needed in Montreal Civic Election.”

Born in Calgary in 1946, Colleen Sharon Levis attended the University of Toronto in the mid-1960s and became active in movements for women’s liberation, against the war in Vietnam, and for defense of the Cuban revolution. She joined the Young Socialists and later the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (LSA/LSO) and soon became a prominent figure in the socialist movement.

From about 1970 until 1987 Colleen lived in Montreal, where she quickly became proficient in French. She was an eloquent advocate of Quebec independence and the rights of French-speaking Québécois. In the mid-1970s she was the organizer of the LSA/LSO’s Quebec wing, helping to steer its course through the complex waters of Quebec’s nationalist and labour upsurge. In 1977 the LSA/LSO fused with three other socialist groups to form the Revolutionary Workers League; Colleen became a member of the RWL’s day-to-day pan-Canadian leadership body.

Colleen 1966

Colleen Levis 1966

During the 1980s, Colleen was among the first women pressing their way into jobs in non-traditional trades. She held many industrial jobs, becoming a proficient diesel mechanic. On 1984 she and four other women won a Human Rights Tribunal ruling against Canadian National Railway, citing its discrimination against the hiring of women. As a result of this tribunal, CN was ordered to establish an Affirmative Action Program in hiring.

Her family’s obituary continues: “In 1987 Colleen moved to Vancouver. After being poisoned by exposure to chemicals in the workplace, she withdrew from political activity. After a long battle with the Worker’s Compensation Board, she was retrained in computers. She worked her last years in Information Technologist and as teacher at British Columbia Institute of Technology.”

Afflicted with illness, Colleen returned recently to Toronto and the companionship of her family and close friends. A memorial meeting was held in Toronto on November 13.

*     *     *

The article by Colleen republished below engaged with the question of how the rise of social struggles in Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s could find expression in the political arena.

In 1968 a political party seeking sovereignty for Quebec was formed: the Parti Québécois (PQ). Under the leadership of René Lévesque, it won mass support in the 1970 Quebec elections. The PQ was widely viewed as a progressive alternative to other major parties and won significant backing from trade union leaders. Some of its adherents sought to organize a municipal party aligned with PQ politics.

Colleen was among the many Quebec socialists who rejected this approach, holding that the PQ was too closely tied to capitalist interests to effectively defend the interests of working people. She favored formation of a mass political party based on the trade unions – a “labor party.” This option found expression in Montreal in 1969 and 1970 through the growth of the FRAP (Front d’action politique), a coalition of union and community groups. FRAP was effectively destroyed by the mass arrests and intimidation carried out under the “War Measures Act” imposed by Pierre Trudeau in 1970. Colleen was among those subsequently sought to relaunch a labor/left municipal party along the lines of the FRAP.

Two years after Colleen’s article appeared, the PQ won the provincial elections and formed a government. The option of building a working-class party was sidelined for a time. Yet over time disillusionment with the PQ grew, and in 2006 a left party rooted among working people was formed, Québec Solidaire. Colleen’s basic viewpoint thus found vindication.

Colleen’s “Labor Alternative Needed in Montreal Civic Election” reflects her deep involvement in debates of the Quebec Left and her skill in formulating and explaining socialist policies. The article is reprinted, with minor editing, from the April 1, 1974, issue of Labor Challenge, which translated it from Libération.

For another article by Colleen on a related topic, see the following article from Labor Challenge, April 10, 1972:

What Strategy for a French Quebec

With thanks to Kim Levis, Dona Levis, Jan Levis, Margaret Manwaring, John Darling, and Richard Fidler, who helped assemble the materials presented here. For tributes to Colleen, see In Memory of Colleen Sharon Levis.

Labor Party Needed in Montreal Civic Election

The following article appeared in Labor Challenge on April 1, 1974. It is translated from the March-April 1974 issue of Libération, a French-language socialist monthly published in Montreal.

By Colleen Levis. Although the Montreal municipal elections are still eight months away, the municipal struggle to defeat Mayor Jean Drapeau and his Civic party, in power now for 15 years, is already the subject of much debate. While increasing numbers of Montrealers share a lively opposition to the Drapeau regime, there is by no means unanimity on the reasons for opposing him, nor the means to defeat him and what he represents.

Reflecting the debate now raging in the labor movement and the left on this question — either a labor party or a “multi-class alliance” with the Parti Quebecois — two articles appeared on March 8 and 9 in Le Jour, the daily newspaper reflecting the viewpoint of the PQ. The authors of the articles, Roch Denis and Louis Gill, are both members of the Professors Union of the Université du Québec, and active participants in efforts to build a municipal labor party.

Three main forces lie behind the organized opposition to Drapeau: the CRIM (Montreal Region Interunion Committee), composed of the Montreal trade union federations; the Parti Québécois regional bodies of Central and North Montreal; and a new organization, the MPU  (Progressive Urban Movement). The three have made under-the-table agreements to fuse their efforts on the level of district committees which are being launched this week. There will be “mini-conventions” in each of the 19 Montreal districts on April 6, to be followed by a “general convention” on April 26-28.

Gill and Denis reject the attempts by the trade union leadership to ally itself with the PQ in these elections. They propose that “all workers, unionized or not, members of the PQ or of other parties, must join together now in the RAM (Municipal Action Regroupment) which was set up on the initiative of the union movement. Their place is in an organization which is the sole product of the labor movement and which is under its control.” The Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière, in a leaflet distributed to meetings on the elections, also denounced the present dangerous trends of the trade union leadership which “go against the decisions taken by the membership almost one year ago.”

In May 1973 the convention of the Montreal Central Council of the CSN (Confederation of National Trade Unions) adopted a motion in favor of “the establishment of a united political organization of the workers of the three union federations through which non-unionized workers could he mobilized and organized.” The resolution, which was unanimously adopted, also demanded the holding of a convention within six months,

Subsequently, more or less the same positions were adopted by the Montreal Labor Council of the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labor) and the Montreal Teachers Alliance of the CEQ (Quebec Teachers Federation). But the trade union leadership, instead of organizing a labor party for the municipal elections, is collaborating with the PQ to form a “multi-class” party.

Why build a labor party?

The question of a labor party has been hotly debated in recent months in the labor movement. Motions for a labor party were barely defeated at the last FTQ convention. More recently, Laval LeBorgne, president of the CSN’s national federation of communications, included a proposal “that the CSN, as a union movement, dissociate itself from the PQ and launch the idea of the formatIon of a labor party” in his report to the convention held March 3 in Trois Rivières,

While many opponents of Drapeau criticize his Expo, firetrap subway, Olympic excesses, and his lack of measures to solve Montreal’s severe housing, transportation, and recreation problems, they fail to see that Drapeau merely represents the real powers who actually control Montreal, Behind all his pompous statements and arrogant lack of concern for the majority of Montrealers (who are workers) stands the small minority of exploiters who violently and undemocratically control not only the municipal government but government on all levels. This handful of big businessmen and slumlords defend what will bring them more profits, not what the workers, unemployed and students of Montreal need. To replace Drapeau without organizing a powerful and independent force of the working class is simply to replace him with a “mini-Drapeau.” As the LSO leaflet put it, “The title of the document by the CSN, ‘We can rely only on ourselves’ expresses perfectly the lesson of all the struggles of the working class. We can never have confidence in bourgeois forces, even those that are very ‘liberal, reformist and progressive.’ “

Role of union leadership

Rather than implementing and extending the decisions of the rank and file, the trade-union leadership has done everything it could to block the formation of a labor party. Rather than launching the campaign which was adopted by the ranks last May, Michel Chartrand of the CSN, Robert Chagnon of the CEQ and Marcel Perreault of the FTQ announced in the trade-union weekly Québec Presse Feb. 3 that the “unions do not want to control the movement against Drapeau.” Claiming that the moment was not yet “ripe” for the launching of any type of municipal political organization, the leaders of the three Montreal federations simply proposed holding “information sessions” for unionists.

The union leaders continued to stall, and did not even put any effort into their “information sessions”; it is clear that by their stalling, by failing to mobilize workers as workers, they were determined to leave the initiative to the PQ and other reform-minded bourgeois forces acting on the level of municipal districts.

This was confirmed by André Messier writing in the March 11 Le Jour. He reported that the position of the CRIM on the nature of the future municipal party “goes back to last November. A committee formed six months earlier had submitted a report favoring a purely union orientation. The members of CRIM (that is, the union brass — C.L.) came out nevertheless for a regroupment of the progressive forces, after several hours of debate.” The news of this decision, which violates the motions adopted by the May convention of the Montreal Central Council of the CSN was deliberately hidden from unionists until the PQ had its organization for the municipal elections well under way.

The PQ, on the other hand, has been very open about its intention to get involved in the municipal campaign. And the “progressive” forces supporting the PQ-style opposition even include former Mayor of Montreal Adhémar Raynault and other bourgeois who do not belong to the PQ.

Two roads: FRAP vs. MDS

Rather than upholding and extending the tradition of the Front d’Action Politique (which contested the 1970 Montreal municipal elections), at the time the embryo of a labor party, the trade union leadership labels the FRAP experience “unfortunate.” The FRAP clearly defined 11 aims in terms of defending and “winning power for” the workers of Montreal. The FRAP, shattered by the War Measures Act, was abandoned by the trade union leadership who increasingly felt pressured by the PQ.

Robert Chagnon explained to the first “information session” on Feb. 9 that the unions wanted to follow the “positive example of the Mouvement pour la Démocratisation Scolaire (MDS, Movement for Democratization of the Schools), which contested school board elections in June 1973, and not the “negative” example of the FRAP.

The MDS, unlike the FRAP, lacked a clear class basis, defining itself as a “citizens regroupment” and seeking support from all classes of society. No .doubt the “unfortunate experience” of the FRAP was precisely its working-class character.

As the LSO leaflet explains, “A municipal labor party would not be a party which subordinates the workers struggles against their bosses and the capitalist government, in order to further its uniquely ‘electoral preoccupations.’ It would instead be a party growing out of the unions, uniting all workers, organized or not ; it would fight for workers’ interests every day.”

A labor party would support demonstrations like the one against La Presse in October 1971, which Drapeau’s cops brutally attacked, causing the death of one person and injuring hundreds of others, while the PQ dissociated itself from the march. A labor party, armed with a program for class struggle, would fight to defend and deepen the struggles of the working class and the oppressed. It would support the struggles of students like those at the Montreal campus of the Université du Québec, or for democratic rights in high schools. It would support the demands of city blue-collar workers, and the struggle of United Aircraft, Shellcraft, COFI and other strikers. It would support and fight for establishing abortion clinics like Dr. Morgentaler’s, to allow women the right to safe legal abortions. And it would join the struggle for adequate child care facilities.

Program for the party

The draft platform adopted by the CRIM, entitled Une ville pour nous” (A city which is for us) is a less-developed and more-limited version of the FRAP program of 1970, entitled “Les salariés au pouvoir” (The workers in power). The new document represents a step backward, coming as it does after the FRAP experience. While the FRAP program was imbued with the idea that a labor party is necessary in order to apply its platform, the present CRIM draft does not mention this fundamental idea anywhere. Where the FRAP defined itself as an organization of the workers, the CRIM program only mentions workers in passing, Even the respective titles of the two programs show the retreat by CRIM from the acquisitions of FRAP in 1970.

The FRAP program was also more complete and more militant, outlining a program for women, students, the French language, against the anti-labor role of the police, in addition to supporting workers’ demands such as the right to strike, These questions are for the most part not even mentioned in “Une ville pour nous.”

In this light, It is not surprising that the trade-union leadership could announce on March 11 that the PQ is in agreement with the draft program,

For an assembly of CRIM

This is the most urgent demand, being advanced both by Gill and Denis in their article in Le Jour and by the LSO in its leaflet:

“The central task of such an assembly Is to reaffirm and develop the positions of the Montreal unions in favor of a municipal labor party. The conference should call a convention of all workers, unionized or not, PQers or not; together with representatives of the district groups and the left organizations.”

Since it seems likely that the “mini-conventions” will take place before opponents of a coalition with the PQ can reverse the direction of the union bureaucracy, all partisans of a labor party must also fight within the district committees, at the mini-conventions and in their unions for the formation of a labor party, and against a multi-class formation.

Unionists must fight in their unions to be elected delegates to the mini-conventions and the general convention called for April 26-28, if the present basis for this congress fails to be reversed. These delegates must be elected on a clear basis: to fight for a labor party and for the calling of a convention initiated by the unions, to which the unions can send their own delegates, in order to set up such a party.

All those who are committed to fight for the political independence of the working class and to reverse the course adopted by the union leadership must wage a united struggle in favor of a labor party in the present situation in Montreal. They must fight for the program which will defend workers’ interests.


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