Apr/May 2010

The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal

Michael Woodsworth


In September 1966, the militant Quebec separatists Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon, wanted by Canadian police for a spate of bombings, came out of hiding to issue a statement at United Nations headquarters in Manhattan. Quebecers were, they declared, an oppressed group whose struggles mirrored the decolonization efforts of subjected peoples worldwide. Calling for Quebec independence and the release of political prisoners, they vowed to stage a hunger strike. It was short-lived: New York police arrested the men the next day.

During the years of imprisonment that followed, Vallières wrote furiously, penning what would become the signal radical text of its time in Quebec: The White Niggers of America. Part memoir and part manifesto, the book took its cue from Malcolm X. Vallières argued that French-Canadian workers, like American blacks, had been exploited for centuries as cheap labor within an Anglo-American capitalist system. The time had come to unite and throw off their chains—by any means necessary.

Revolutionary delusion? Self-indulgent fantasy? Not entirely, argues Sean Mills in The Empire Within. Inequalities in 1960s Quebec were real and searing. "Although francophones comprised the vast majority of Quebec's population, they controlled only 20% of its economy," writes Mills. The average male anglophone earned 50 percent more than did his French-Canadian counterpart. Two centuries after Wolfe beat Montcalm in the Battle of Quebec, the conquest of French Canada by Britain struck many as a living legacy, inscribed in the geography of Montreal. Meanwhile, American companies wielded increasing clout.

Yet this was also an era of lightning-fast social and economic transformation, known in Quebec as the Quiet Revolution. Many began shunning the once-powerful Catholic Church, while nationalist artists and polemicists led a cultural revival. Most important, a group of young French-Canadian reformers took control of the provincial government and, stretching Canada's federal system to its limits, built an expansive welfare state while nurturing a fledgling French-Canadian entrepreneurial class.

To radicals like Vallières, this program of capitalist modernization was a false start. Instead, they sought inspiration from third-world decolonization theorists and Black Power prophets. From Frantz Fanon, they learned how the oppressed could overcome internalized feelings of inferiority; from Aimé Césaire, they adopted the concept of négritude and applied it to "colonized" Quebecers. What slowly emerged on the streets and in the cafés of Montreal, according to Mills, was a constellation of "oppositional movements" that together "placed questions of language, culture, and empire alongside those of social class, advocating a broad project of decolonization." Vallières's Front de Libération du Quebec was the most notorious of these groups, but feminists, blacks, and trade unions also adapted the colonial analogy. A parade of anti-imperialist icons—C. L. R. James, Stokely Carmichael, Salvador Allende—hit town; students joined the fun, including a few from Waspy McGill University.

The tumultuous events that followed will sound strangely familiar to readers south of the border: university occupations, clandestine bombings, street protests, battles over minorities' access to schools. Mills writes engagingly, and he sees past the English-French divisions that too often overshadow Montreal's vibrant diversity. Yet he never spells out what kind of alternative society his cast of street fighters, radical poets, and barroom philosophers intended to build. Perhaps they didn't know themselves. True, they put forth a critique that transcended ethnonationalism—no small feat in a city obsessed with language and identity. But their vision proved no match for the Quiet Revolution's state-building project, which has maintained strong support across Quebec's political spectrum for half a century.

Ultimately, Quebecers made unconvincing third-world revolutionaries. And they knew it. Mills explains that by the mid-'70s, many erstwhile radicals had made their peace with parliamentary democracy, joining the separatist and left-leaning Parti Québécois. Even Vallières admitted that Quebec belonged to the "privileged West." The Mohawk reservations on the outskirts of Montreal testified to who the real colonized people were.

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March 25, 2013
6:38 am

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