[Photo]: Vancouver Indian Centre president Debbie Mearns (second from right) walking with strike leader Christine Price. August 12, 1978.
This fascinating article originally appeared in Labour/Le Travail. Formatting and spelling has been edited for clarity before appearing on Peripheral Thought. For citations please refer to the article as:
Janet Mary Nicol. 1997. ‘”Unions Aren’t Native’; The Muckamuck Restaurant Labour Dispute Vancouver, B.C. (1978-1983),” Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 40 (Fall): 235-51.
Most photographs are from the Pacific Tribune, originally established by the Communist Party of Canada as the B.C. Workers’ News in 1935.
“IN THIS SOCIETY,” explained First Nations union organizer Ethel Gardner to a skeptical First Nations community, “being in a union is the only way we can guarantee that our rights as workers will be respected.” Ethel was an employee at the Muckamuck restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia when its First Nations workers decided to organize into an independent feminist union in 1978 and subsequently struck for a first contract against white American owners. The dispute allied First Nations people with predominantly white trade unionists and made an even wider community aware of their circumstances. The union picketed the restaurant for three years, discouraging customers from entering, while the owners kept the restaurant functioning with the use of strikebreakers, many of them from the First Nations community. When the owners closed their operation in 1981, the union ceased picketing and both parties waited a further two years for a legal ruling from the Labour Relations Board. Finally in 1983, the owners were ordered to pay remedies to the union, but sold the restaurant and pulled all their assets out of Canada, refusing to comply with the decision.
The Organizing Campaign
The Muckamuck Restaurant opened in 1971, and advertised “authentic” First Nations cuisine. The restaurant was located in a downtown Vancouver West End neighbourhood, at 1724 Davie Street. Three white American owners, Jane Erickson, Teresa Bjornson and Doug Chrismas also had investments in art galleries and other restaurants in California and British Columbia. The owners maintained an informal policy of hiring First Nations people as restaurant staff. At the time of the union drive an equal ratio of First Nations men and women were employed as restaurant workers. The managers however, were white. Eighteen out of 21 Muckamuck restaurant workers signed union cards with a local independent union, the Service, Office and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada (SORWUC) and were certified as a bargaining unit 21 February 1978. SORWUC, a feminist union active in the 1970s and early 1980s, formed with a primary goal to organize women in industries neglected by trade unions.
In an interview for this study, former Muckamuck employee and organizer Ethel Gardner described her role in the early stages of the union organizing campaign:
I was referred to an employment agency which recommended that I take a federal training program connected to the Muckamuck restaurant. I agreed and eventualiy was working in the cold kitchen making salads and drinks. A few incidents occurred which got the staff upset. The cook was charged for getting the soup burnt and I was fined for leaving the bannock out overnight. When the manager told me to serve the bannock to a customer, I refused because I had been fined for leaving it out. The manager agreed and 1 threw it out. Incidents such as these led a few of us to go to the Labour Standards Branch where we were told we needed a union in order to enforce our grievances. I went back to the employment agency and said I wanted to quit, that the employer was racist. The counsellor said, ‘Why don’t you join a union?’ She told me about SORWuCs organizing efforts at Jerry’s Cove and Bimini’s, I called SORWUC and met with two union reps. They talked about the union and suggested we talk to the unionized employees at Jerry’s Cove which we did.
Ethel said Muckamuck staff had tried to organize before with another union but were unsuccessful and the instigator had been fired. SORWUC was chosen because it had some success organizing in die restaurant industry; Jerry’s Cove and Bimi ni ‘ s, as mentioned, were two examples. When asked if there were First Nations groups the staff could have approached instead of SORWUC, Ethel said, “There just weren’t any out there.”
After the union certification, Muckamuck employee Christina Prince told the press that management had told workers they “should be happy” to have a job because of their race. Christina said the racial issue emerged when employees realized that the owners were getting rich off Native culture. Management responded, “If there has been any discrimination, it has been against the highly qualified whites who we’ve passed over to hire untrained Native people.”
Not only did First Nations people experience difficulty obtaining employment in the city, but when they were hired, often the jobs were in low-wage occupational ghettos. Notes taken by a SORWUC representative at an initial meeting with the Muckamuck workers show that most staff made between $3 and $4 an hour, averaging $60 a night with tips. (The BC minimum wage in 1978 was $3 an hour.) The head cook made $7. Notes on the high turnover and lack of training for staff also included this comment: “AH restaurants have a high turnover rate which is only proof of how much people need a union there and in other places. So some people are untrained. It’s not true for all and certainly implies a slur on Native people.”
The employer took advantage of government legislation and programs to save on labor costs. Workers under eighteen earned less than minimum wage and management made extensive use of the Canada Manpower Training Program, offering to “train” First Nations people to work in the restaurant and, in return, received 75 per cent of the trainee’s wages from the government.
As Ethel Gardner stated employees had approached the BC Labour Standards Branch with complaints of management practices. Although it is illegal, an employer in the restaurant industry will “fine” an employee for making a mistake (such as mishandling cash or food) and will deduct money from an employee’s pay cheque. Muckamuck workers were told that the Standards Branch had little power to enforce laws which forbid such employer practises. A local First Nations newspaper, The Indian Voice, published Ethel’s description of the situation:
Some of us went to the Department of Labour to have the law enforced. The Department of Labour would tell the employer to behave or to give the employees back their money, but there was nothing they could do to prevent any of the illegal acts from happening again, unless we had a union contract.
Ethel outlined the staffs grievances to the First Nations readership:
Breaks were few, if any. Heavy fines were given out for petty reasons, like not tying garbage bags, or forgetting to put tin foil over bannock. Staff meetings were held every week, and it was compulsory to go to these meetings. Employees were suspended two weeks at a time for not attending such meetings, even if it was their day off. At these meetings, employees were put down for every possible mistake that could have been made on the job, big or small, true or false. According to the owners, it seemed like the workers couldn’t do a thing right. Maybe it was because the workers were Indians? I doubt it.
Ethel stated that workers who complained were fired, bribed or harassed. Further, “We are also told that we must wear Native jewelry and if we do not we are badgered about not being proud of our culture. These extras are very expensive for us as we only make the minimum wage.” Scheduling, job security and fines were also major issues, Ethel claimed.
Ethel asked for the support of the First Nations community in the dispute and stated:
For too long the fact that Native workers in B.C. are badly treated has gone unnoticed. At the Muckamuck we are told by our management that we are slow, stunned, inexperienced and hard to train, rude, stupid and ungrateful for the beautiful place that they have built for us (the Indians) to work.
Connecting this situation with other First Nations issues, Ethel stated: “We are doing our part to add to the renewed struggle by Native people to gain the rights and respect that have been denied to us since Captain Cook landed here.”
The list of grievances goes on. According to an information leaflet distributed by SORWUC, employees sometimes received “non-sufficient funds” stamped on their pay cheques. The leaflet also stated: “Employees were proud of the restaurant, nonetheless because it promoted a good image of Native culture. They (the workers) only approached management and then SORWUC because working conditions were so poor that they could not feel proud of themselves.” In an interview with a California newspaper, SORWUC representative Muggs Sigurgeirson said: “The owner would tell the staff that she had 100 applicants from other Natives as a way of threatening staff. Workers could end up working twenty days straight. One worker refused to work the 21st day and had to wait 10 days to work again. She has children to support. Workers were told that whites would be hired if they were dissatisfied.”
A union leaflet contained further workers’ demands and reasons for organizing:
We want to have decent working conditions and to be treated with respect. Some of our grievances are: poor pay, no job security, no say in scheduling, short notice of changes in scheduled hours, illegal deductions for uniforms (T-shirts) and fired or intimidated into quitting.
Another leaflet indicated workers had political grievances as well: “None of the profits made from this sale of Native culture were put into the Native community.” Workers also wanted more input into the menu planning of the cuisine. Ethel Gardner stated in The Indian Voice:
It’s not so much they were white owners, it’s just they were giving the illusion … in their advertising it says ‘staffed and run by Native people.’ People really liked to believe it was owned by Natives—they think they’re contributing to the Native community and Native Indians, but they’re contributing to the pocketbooks of these three owners.
The Muckamuck restaurant employees organized to improve wages and working conditions but also organized as a reaction to their exploitation as First Nations people. While gender issues were discussed by First Nations women workers, it was racial issues which dominated the union agenda, SORWUC organizers recognized these layers of oppression because of their own experiences as women workers in occupational wage ghettos neglected by organized labour. And so out of this dispute came an alliance of white and First Nations workers as SORWUC organizers encouraged and supported Muckamuck employees to voice their demands for respect and autonomy.
What were the features of this situation which brought these groups together to challenge the status quo? As an independent local union, SORWUC had the autonomy and decision-making abilities lacking in larger unions. A larger union would likely have pulled out much earlier than SORWUC. Muckamuck staff chose a feminist, independent union, which suggests that First Nations culture is more readily linked to a small, “alternate” union than to a large, mainstream one. The structure of larger unions could have been alienating and counterproductive to organizing First Nations workers.
Furthermore, SORWUC was committed to class, race and gender struggles. Attempts by visible minority and women’s groups to set up their own caucuses within mainstream unions or to conduct separate organizing have provided some important initiatives in the struggle for workplace equity. However, an independent movement of women workers, even a temporary one, may drive these developments forward more forcefully, a contribution SORWUC can claim to have made during its short existence.
It was also important that the white working class and First Nations groups supported this strike. SORWUC activists had experience and expertise in trade union practices and were able to share this with the First Nations workers. They were able to access the resources of mainstream unions, which was crucial in providing financial and moral support. The endorsement of First Nations groups was also important and though there were conflicts, the dispute also provided an opportunity for the strikers to discuss the benefits of unions with First Nations people.
Certification and Negotiations
The Labour Relations Board (LRB) certified SORWUC as a legal bargaining agent on 20 March 1978 and on 3 April the union served notice to bargain with the employer. A Muckamuck employee summarized events in the Vancouver Sun: “The primary union organizer was fired the day that management was notified of the application for certification. Since then six more of us have been fired or intimidated into quitting. All seven are union members, most quite active.” The union launched charges of unfair labour practices on behalf of these workers on 21 and 23 February, and on 29 March.
The sequence of events following certification are noted in the SORWUC log book. The log book was used to make daily entries of union activities for potential evidence in legal dealings and was especially important during new organizing campaigns, contract negotiations and picketing. The book was available for union staff, officers and members to make records. An excerpt documented the workers’ treatment by the employer after the union application proceedings:
21 February —application for certification Cay fired
23 February —Ethel fired
21 March—Rag suspended
28 March— Rev fired 2
9 March—Lauretta harassed into quitting
The log book described the first steps in contract negotiations from 17 April to the rapid breakdown of relations between the union and management by 20 May:
17 April—first bargaining session (to negotiate a contract)
2 May—second bargaining session
10 May—first date of hearing (of LRB, re: complaints on firings)
12 May—second date of hearing
17 May—third date of hearing
20 May—first date of leafletting (SORWUC information picket) —owner tries to bribe Marge and Christina (Muckamuck employees)
21 May—second date of leafletting
23 May—management walks out (of contract talks) —illegal picketing charge (against the union) —management puts out own leaflet
The union had organized an information picket, handing out leaflets to customers in front of the restaurant on 20 and 21 May as a means of applying pressure against management. Business dropped dramatically during the picketing. A LRB official contacted a SORWUC representative and made an informal request that the union cease leafletting until the board decided on management’s illegal picketing charge. SORWUC declined the request. Muckamuck employee Christina Prince described the LRB’s unfair actions in deciding to hear management’s complaint before the union’s:
It took us two and a half months to get in front of the LRB with our unfair labour practice suits. Yet when this leafletting started, they took us in front of the board within 24 hours. The management got an informal hearing. They called it illegal picketing. And since it was hindering business, the LRB had to automatically fall on management’s side. That’s what we were told. So we thought ‘forget it, we’ll get these people back to their jobs another way, at the negotiating table.’
Management retaliated further by distributing the first of a series of leaflets defending their actions and attacking the union. The dispute was described in the Vancouver Sun as one which “pits Indian workers against white managers.
In The Indian Voice, Ethel Gardner described the frustrations at the bargaining sessions with management in April and May:
Management generally came late, left early, complained about how long the contract was and generally treated us and our union rep with contempt. For example, they refused outright our suggestions that we bargain in the Indian Centre because it was ‘not devoid of colour.’ These were the words of their lawyer, Bill MacDonald.
Management held a final meeting with staff before relations deteriorated completely. The records from a LRB hearing describe management’s interference, in contravention of the labour code, with the union campaign:
At a meeting of the employees in April or May, shortly before the strike commenced, all of the owners —Erickson, Bjornson and Chrismas—were present and Chrismas made a number of statements concerning SORWUC, the restaurant and its future. According to one of the employees present, Sandra Eatman, the gist of these remarks was that the restaurant provided considerable assistance to Native people, that the employees should work hard to make the restaurant prosper, that the employees could thereby earn much more money, and that the employees did not need a trade union. There were some further statements made by one of the owners to the effect that the restaurant had been opened for Native people, that die Native people should be grateful and that SORWUC would destroy the restaurant.
Management tried another tactic to undermine SORWUC as the bargaining agent for the staff. The owners contacted Russell Means, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), to talk to the workers. Means met with the Muckamuck staff at the Indian Centre in Vancouver in late May. SORWUC representatives were not allowed to attend. Means suggested the workers buy out management and take over the restaurant, but it seemed impossible to get the money to do this.
Management contacted the Hotel, Restaurant and Bartenders Union (HRBU), Local 40 and, believing they would be a more “reasonable” union in negotiations, suggested they raid SORWUC. A raid did not occur, however, and the international unions, such as the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) and its leader Jack Munro, supported SORWUC’s efforts.
Muckamuck workers took a strike vote. A majority voted in favour of a strike and on 1 June began picketing in front of the restaurant. Christina Prince stated to the media: “We’ll be out for as long as it takes to get some serious bargaining done.” She called the management proposals at the initial bargaining sessions “unacceptable and unjust.”
The employer maintained an adamant opposition to the union and hinted at using strikebreakers early in the strike. On 7 June management stated they were prepared to sell their business rather than have a union in the restaurant. Management told the Vancouver Sun that seven workers were prepared to cross the picket line.
The employer also used racial issues to divide workers from each other and the union. SORWUC representative Ulryke Weissgerber said in an interview for this study:
Management promoted the idea that the workers were selling out in terms of their traditional culture by joining a white union. But I think the workers felt an alternative union was more in line with their traditional culture. I don’t think a big union would have held out as long as we did either. There was a huge sign in the restaurant window stating the workers were in a ‘white union.’ The strikers were really angry about this. We discussed things to do and went to Harry Rankin (a Vancouver lawyer [and member of the Communist Party of Canada]) who offered free legal advice. Many strategies were discussed.
A First Nations organization could have made a difference in maintaining unity. Sandra Eatmon, a Muckamuck employee, said in a recent interview that the workers did not have very many options in terms of choosing a union which would represent their interests as First Nations workers. She said, “I admire the dedication of SORWUC members but after the first year of picketing, most of the Muckamuck staff had left the picket line and white people were picketing while Native people were crossing the line and working inside.” She suggests that if a First Nations group had done the organizing, First Nations people may have stayed on the picket line longer.
But Ethel Gardner believes many First Nations people did not have a union consciousness:
The Native population by and large is not a working population. There is about 90 per cent unemployment. Even getting a job is difficult, let alone a union job. Native people don’t have much experience with unions. There is a lot of anti-union sentiment. Even the Native community didn’t support the strike to the extent they could have. People say “unions aren’t Native.” There’s no union consciousness. The staff of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) came down to the Muckamuck picket line but that was due to George Manuel, the head of UBCIC at the time. The United Native Nations sat on the fence. They said Natives were working inside the restaurant and picketing outside so they weren’t going to take a stand. Bill Wilson was head at the time.
Support from the First Nations community was crucial to the strikers. The UBCIC expressed their support for the Muckamuck strikers in a public statement: “Problems being experienced here by our people are the same problems we have been experiencing all over B.C. for 100 years.” And farther, “The owners of the Muckamuck exploit our resources—Indian work, Indian culture, Indian foods— yet refuse to treat our people fairly.” Management responded: “It was with a sense of respect, not a desire to exploit that we put together a restaurant which most business people advised us against.”
The employer’s anger at the First Nations community was also expressed in a copy of a letter sent to the UBCIC and publicly displayed in the restaurant window. It read in part:
We, however, no longer want to be directly involved with Native culture in British Columbia to the degree of commitment required in the past by Muckamuck. We had tried on many levels to achieve a positive statement and seemed to be progressing well until recently when the labor dispute first arose. The amount of energy required to pull the now shattered situation back together is too much if possible at all, the financial situation to us simply does not warrant it and the desire no longer exists.
Workers picketed a closed restaurant for the First six months of the strike. They received $50 a week in strike pay. Voluntary picketers, members of SORWUC, other trade unionists and supporters, joined the picket line. Shifts were maintained from 4 pm to 10 pm seven days a week.
Ethel Gardner kept the First Nations community informed of the strike and wrote in the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs News:
Being able to bargain collectively with Muckamuck management, we can negotiate a just and equitable contract so that in the future Indian people who choose to work there will be treated with dignity and respect. In this society, being in a union is the only way we can guarantee that our rights as workers will be respected.
The city newspapers’ labour reporters maintained regular news coverage of the strike. One Vancouver Sun business writer, Eleanor Boyle, spoke out in favour of the owners. She accused First Nations workers of “using their Indian-ness to make money, exploiting their own culture if you like.” She suggested SORWUC was out looking for a cause and that management “should get a little credit for ensuring 90 per cent of its staff was Native Indian. It should also be spared from crucifixion for hundreds of years of Canadian neglect of Native people.”
In October, management re-opened the upstairs lounge and in November they re-opened the restaurant, employing a few former staff and hiring new workers, many of them First Nations people. The lounge was renamed the “Chilcotin Bar Seven” and had a “cowboy” theme. A Vancouver Sun headline read: “Cowboys Lasso Indians on Davie Street.”41 Strikers viewed these incidents as insensitive to First Nations culture and the union spoke out publicly against these actions.
While most customers did not cross the picket line and business was minimal, die strike took an ugly turn with the emergence of verbal and physical abuse between strikebreaking employees and strikers. The police were frequently called and numerous assault charges were launched in the courts during the ensuing months. Generally these assaults involved strikebreakers taunting, kicking and hitting picketers. In late November, counter-picketing by die strikebreaking staff brought more abuse—physical and verbal—on the street. Counter-pickets were strikebreaking staff, many of them Native, who came out on to the street and held signs critical of the union and supportive of management. For passersby, it was confusing “street theatre.”
A union picketer described the scene in a SORWUC newsletter:
They [management] seemed to particularly delight in pitting the Native staff against the picketers. For several weekends in a row now, the Native scabs [not the Caucasians] have been coming out to picket with strikers. They carry signs like—Muckamuck Open, We Support Muckamuck, etc. To passersby it looks like our line is bigger. One such passerby tried to give one of these counter-pickets a donation to the strike fund and she [the counter-picket] scuttled back inside!
As the strike progressed, fewer original Muckamuck staff showed up to picket. Many had other jobs and some felt a need to maintain a low profile. To keep their current jobs, they did not want to be seen picketing. SORWUC members, other trade unionists and supporters became essential picketers. Most were white and the core picketers, reflective of SORWUC membership, were female. As legal proceedings against the management dragged on, and picketing persisted into the second year, SORWUC members spent a lot of time clarifying the confusing appearances which emerged from the strike as many First Nations people crossed a white picket line to work inside. Picketers were motivated by their determination to establish unions, and by the knowledge that the majority of original strikers supported their efforts, attended the three separate decertification hearings over the duration of the dispute and were prepared to return to work. Some First Nations people chose to join the strikebreakers for a number of reasons, including the confusion created by divisions within their community regarding the dispute, a lack of familiarity with unions and contempt encouraged by the employer for the “white” union.
Entries in the log book by white strikers (unintentionally presenting racial stereotypes of First Nations people) described the picket line atmosphere:
October 12, 1978 — 3:00 — entry by Heather: … former waiter came by to check it out. Had been picketing first two months. Now has job. Got into a hassle with one of the Indian cooks who crossed the line. She said she wasn’t going on welfare and at least they paid her —she doesn’t care about anyone else—only herself. (She’s a young, slim Indian woman). 4:45 — Older Indian man (medium height-lean) went in, greeted by owner (?) in red cowboy shirt (full beard) who smiled and poured him coffee.
The employer hired Ben Paul, a First Nations employee of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs and his wife Evelyn, to assist the strikebreaking staff in composing anti-union leaflets and various labour relations complaints and applications for decertification. SORWUC attempted to charge the employer with hiring a “professional strikebreaker” (in contravention of the labour code) but the LRB ruled that Paul was not legally defined as a “professional.”
The strikebreakers, with employer encouragement, used the legal process in an attempt to stall and subvert organizing by applying on three separate occasions for decertification. All three applications were rejected by the Labour Relations Board because the union was able to prove that a majority of the original staff were still members of SORWUC. These proceedings had the potential to wear down the union as some of the original staff moved out of the city or province and were not always easily available to testify for the union.
The first of three applications for decertification to the LRB was made January 1979, seven months after the original employees had joined SORWUC. SORWUC was able to prove that only one striker crossed the picket line to work inside. At the second hearing on 25 August 1979 the LRB stated, “… in every lengthy strike there will be some employees who do not picket but remain interested and willing to return to work when a settlement is reached.” By the third hearing 14 May 1980, the strikebreakers applied as a new bargaining unit, the Northwestern Hospitality Employees Association. Five of the eighteen original strikers were working inside the restaurant. The remainder had other jobs and one was picketing regularly. Still, SORWUC was able to present testimony from a majority of original staffers that they supported the union and were prepared to return to work when the dispute ended.
Another legal tactic used by management was their application for an injunction in the Be Supreme Court on 1 June 1979 against SORWUC picketing in front of the restaurant. Justice Patricia Proudfoot agreed to ban picketing and then after a union appeal on 8 June ruled that only six pickets per shift were allowed. Muggs Sigurgeirson, speaking for SORWUC, told the press: “We don’t consider it a victory because the number of pickets has been limited. But we’re certainly ecstatic at being back on the street where strikers should be.” SORWUC appealed the limit but the court turned down the appeal. The reason given for the decision was that the picketers were “harassing” customers and employees.
Management distributed and posted leaflets in the west end community. The LRB described and commented on these activities:
The single most disturbing theme throughout the material produced by the (strikebreaking) staff is the persistent accusation that SORWUC is a racist organization or, at least, that SORWUCs position in this dispute amounts to racial discrimination against Native Indians. This accusation is asserted baldly in some of the material. For example, one leaflet distributed during the summer of 1979 is entitled “Stop Racial Prejudice” and its concluding words are as follows: “This issue is no longer a labour dispute. It has been escalated into arguments over the right to strike. Do not destroy job opportunities for Native People! Ninety per cent of British Columbia’s Native People are unemployed. Help our economy and stop inflation. Support the Native workers at the Muckamuck. Bring a halt to racial discrimination. Support Muckamuck traditional Indian food.”
While the LRB condemned these actions, the board did not provide remedies requested by the union which included a public apology in The Native Voice and Westender newspapers. SORWUC’s newsletter contains a description of the First Nations community’s support:
We have recent letters of support from the Vancouver Indian Centre and the United Native Nations. In April of this year when management put a sign in the window saying the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs supported the strikebreakers, the UBCIC lawyer threatened to sue and the sign was promptly removed. Wayne Clarke, the administrator of the Vancouver Indian Centre has walked the picket line along with other people from the centre. In a recent letter to SORWUC, Debbie Mearns (President of the Indian Centre) told the strikers she “admired their dedication to this complex issue.”
Muckamuck strikers solicited support from the First Nations community through fundraising, conference speeches and articles in First Nations newspapers. SORWUC activists also embarked on major fundraising activities within the trade union and political left community. Financial donations for strikers accumulated into thousands of dollars by the end of the dispute.
The strikebreakers faced working conditions similar to those of the original staff, with the added pressure of working behind a picket line and serving very few customers each night. Turnover among them was high. They were paid $3 to $5 an hour. The media reported on 19 December 1979 that the strikebreakers were laid off over Christmas with non-sufficient funds marked on their pay cheques at the bank.
As the dispute wore on the union declared the strike a “civil rights issue” for First Nations people. A leaflet by the union stated: “In their actions and leaflets they (management) make it plain that they do not believe Native workers should have the right to strike.”
On two occasions during the strike when the owners tried to meet with SORWUC, the strikebreakers attempted to stop them. One vocal First Nations strikebreaker, Florence Differ, told the local media, “If management negotiates with SORWUC, we’ll walk out. I think we had a dirty deal pulled on us again. The Indians are done in again.” Manager Sussy Selbst defended the owners’ actions: “We just want to talk to the union. It’s been 17 months— we had seven customers last night. But the staff turned on us and screamed at us and called us turncoats. I was almost in tears myself.”
Again on 25 April 1980 management made moves to contact the union and strikebreakers threatened to quit. The session was cancelled because the owners allegedly feared picketing by strikebreakers outside the negotiating meeting place. By this time, the restaurant was in operation Friday and Saturday nights only. Soon after, the restaurant shut down all operations.
Finally on 25 April 1981, the LRB made a ruling on the various applications by SORWUC. Their main finding was that the Muckamuck management had not bargained in good faith. By October 1981 the owners had no assets in BC. On 1 March 1983 the LRB finally applied remedies to their previous ruling, having waited until they heard an application for certification by the strikebreakers as a new association. The LRB ruled that management owed the union $10,000 in compensation. SORWUC has never been able to collect this money, as the employer moved back to the United States. New owners set up a grocery store on the main floor of the property. Malcolm McSporrum, a local architect and supporter of First Nations issues* viewed the downstairs of the property and discovered that the setting and equipment of the restaurant remained. He contacted some former Muckamuck strikers and suggested they could be part owners in a new restaurant he would help finance. The Quilicum, a restaurant serving First Nations cuisine was reopened and a few First Nations people (including a former Muckamuck striker) have majority shares.
Many First Nations people have believed that “unions aren’t Native” partially because of the neglect by organized labour to campaign on their behalf. Consequently their working conditions have been exploitive on an economic and racial basis. But First Nations workers at the Muckamuck restaurant were able to form an alliance with the members of SORWUC to challenge their unjust status. SORWUC activists* ideological motivations, expertise, and links to the mainstream labour movement were key motivators to the workers’ efforts to resist the cultural and economic status quo.
The state’s institutions, however, failed First Nations workers as they were unable to protect workers from discriminatory and illegal employer practices. In this sense, as the strikers observed, the dispute became a “civil rights” issue for First Nations people. Although the federal employment centre attempted to address First Nations employment issues by setting up a program with local businesses, when told that the Muckamuck employer was discriminatory, the agency was only able to suggest informally that workers join a union. Similarly, the Labour Standards Branch admitted to being ineffectual in enforcing sanctions against illegal activities of employers such as fining employees for mistakes on the job, and again informally suggested workers join a union.
The LRB moved too slowly and provided remedies they were unable to enforce. The board’s decision to hear management’s illegal picketing complaint before the union’s charges of staff firings, and the delay in rendering a decision on the employer’s refusal to bargain in good faith undermined the union’s ability to be effective. The court’s decision to ban, then limit picketing, also hindered the workers’ efforts to establish a union. Furthermore police tended to view picketers as “troublemakers” so that picketers were more likely to be charged than protected in assault incidents.
The employer was not tied to the local community and institutions to the same extent as the union, so its attempts to seek legitimacy eventually failed. Their corporate values nonetheless were insufficiently challenged by the state as the long list of their illegal and unethical practices demonstrates. The fact that foreign owners can sell their business and move south without adhering to legal remedies indicates the global scope of workers’ struggle for justice.
The analysis of the role of the union can be extended further by examining the contradictions and conflicts First Nations workers experienced within SORWUC. Although SORWUC was ideologically committed to racial issues, the leaders and activists of SORWUC were female, mostly white and functioned within an adversarial and hierarchial trade union structure and culture. First Nations peoples’ ways of dealing with conflict, negotiation and decision-making were not introduced into the process. This imposition of values and culture on the First Nations workers could explain in part the eventual departures of strikers from the picket line. First Nations workers spoke on the specific strike situation in public forums, but did not speak on behalf of SORWUC as a union. Nor did First Nations workers take an activist position within SORWUC or other trade unions.
Further research by First Nations people could provide insights into how their community felt about this dispute and about trade unions in general. What were the repercussions of this strike within their community? How did the women strikers view the relationship between race and gender? Did the aspect of a visibly divided leadership among the First Nations organizations and among First Nations restaurant workers create long term problems, negative feelings about trade unions and distrust of the white community?
The closure of the restaurant and the loss of jobs for First Nations strikers does not suggest a victory for the workers. And while the LRB ruled in favour of the union, the monetary remedies were not rewarded to the strikers. Muckamuck workers, however, gained a sense of dignity and respect because they stood up for their rights. Restaurant employers elsewhere in the city may have improved their practices in light of the publicity and support for this dispute. The wider community had been made aware of First Nations, class and trade union issues. The First Nations and trade union communities found an opportunity to develop a bridge which can be crossed in the future.
Two of the original strikers spoke positively of their experience, Sandra Eatmon said she gained a respect for trade unions. “I learned about unions and workers’ rights,” Sandra said. “I thought it was the right thing at the time. We deserved better treatment.” Overall Ethel Gardner believes the dispute was a success. She said, “Looking back now, I see how we took it upon ourselves as a group of Native workers to make a statement that we weren’t going to be run in that way. So I think it was a success. We learned a lot, gained a lot and it was empowering.”
Dr. Ricardo Duchesne is a tenured professor in the Department of Social Science at the University of New Brunswick, on its Saint John campus. Duchesne’s belief system is based on a belief in the uniqueness of “western civilization” and the inherent superiority of “European” and white culture in relation to others. Duchesne, proceeding from this position, has attacked “multiculturalism”, “mass immigration”, and, most famously, was involved in a spat with a Vancouver city Councillorafter Duchesne described Vancouver as being transformed from a “serene, community-oriented, British city” into “a loud, congested Asian city (still attractive only because of the architectural and institutional legacy of past White generations).”
While there are numerous covert and overt white supremacists within Canadian academia, I have chosen to single out Ricardo Duchesne in this article for three reasons:
1) He is attached to the same institution as I am (though in different capacities, I am a student and he is a tenured professor).
2) He has chosen to act politically on his beliefs, founding an organization called the Council of European Canadians, which exists to “defend the interests of European Canadians,” which apparently has members across Canada.
3) Duchesne’s ideas represent an interesting example of how white supremacy operates in Canada and North America more broadly. That is, in a settler-colonial society which has come into being through the domination and genocide of indigenous peoples.
I hold no illusions that this piece will convince Duchense to abandon his disgusting views, in my experience such people will only renounce their colonial mythologies when directly and aggressively pummeled into renouncement (and even then, very rarely), and I am not in a position to do that as of now. What I do hope is that this will help the reader understand and deconstruct the logic of Eurocentric, white supremacist views by narrowing in on a particular case. I especially hope some fellow UNB students, especially on the Saint John campus, will be aware of the paucity of Duchesne’s worldview.
Duchesne has an advantage over those who might criticize his views from a liberal standpoint in that his work is steeped in political economy (at one time his thesis supervisor was Marxist historian Georges Rude). Liberals often assume that racists are unintelligent or ignorant (often creating classist stereotypes of rednecks and country bumpkins to serve as projections of their own racism), but Duchesne is far from ignorant, however wrong he might be. His philosophy is an eclectic fusion of both right-wing Hegelianism and banal ethnocentrism with interesting appropriations from Marxism and Dependency Theory (in a grossly bastardized form, of course). In an ironic way, Duchesne demonstrates the effectiveness of historical materialism as a method, employing it selectively to bolster his ideas of European superiority and give them an air of objectivity. In order for there to be a “left” response to such claims, we cannot cede the territory of objective political economy and retreat to postmodern relativism. As such, it is my goal here to begin to criticize Duchesne’s philosophy and epistemology with historical and material facts.
I should note that Duchesne is an immigrant from Puerto Rico. This presents some challenges to the approach of Liberal identity politics, which tends to attribute perspectives to the sum of people’s identities. By this logic, it might be assumed that Duchesne would default to anti-racism because of his experience as a non-European immigrant, yet this is clearly not the case. I will not speculate on why Duchesne holds the views he does, but I will attempt to disprove them.
Faustian Civilization, the underlying myth
In order to criticize though, it is first necessary to understand. Duchesne believes in a “Faustian impulse” at the heart of everything western. The abstract, and historically quite arbitrary, concept of “western civilization” is united by this “prime-symbol” of expansionism, of “pure and limitless space” (Spengler, as quoted in Duchesne, 2012). In this way, Duchesne unifies historically divergent and often antagonistic cultures – Indo-Europeans, Francs, Vikings, Slavs, Spaniards, and Brits – into “Europeans”. Not only does this flatten historical differences between these peoples (Slavs historically did not get along with Vikings or Francs, who did not get along with each other), the qualifier for “Faustian impulse” seems quite ahistorical itself.
What constitutes the Faustian impulse? According to Duchesne, it is the Indo-European legacy of a collective, rather than despotic, elite who garnered respect from victory in various forms of mobile warfare. This rather vague generalization apparently constitutes the expansionist spirit which unites Vikings and Romans, who not only warred with each other, but had vastly different socioeconomic realities. Rome was a land empire managed with a centralized military force, while the Vikings were a loose, often divided coalition, focused mainly on raiding their neighbours and not on permanent conquest.
Duchesne’s “evidence” for this Faustian expansionism is hilariously scant. For example, Duchesne claims in both his essay “the Faustian impulse and European exploration” (2012) and his book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (2011), he claims that all Europeans inherited the Indo-European knack for map-making and cartographic expedition. Duchesne argues that because there are only 15 non-European explorers out of 274 recorded explorers, the Europeans simply must have been more driven to explore! Again, I cannot emphasize enough how hilariously elementary this “evidence” is.
Duchesne of course produces more “evidence” for his argument but it is based on the above underlying assumption. He praises early Greek cartography while lambasting Indian and Chinese civilization for being “disinterested” in exploration (this argument does not address the existence of the Silk Road or the potential for merchants to act as explorers). To my knowledge, India and China are the only non-European civilizations which Duchesne contrasts with “Western” Civilization. This betrays a selection bias which is wholly racist in its presentation of non-European civilizations as complacent and unmoving. Duchesne might be surprised to learn that other, non-European, civilizations were indeed very interested in exploration and cartography. For example, the Muslim Caliphates were aware of Australia several centuries before the Europeans, and the Pacific Islander indigenous peoples have extensive records of the Pacific Ocean.
Historical Whiteness and White myth-making
All that Duchesne says about “Western” Civilization and “Europeans” sounds hilarious when properly examined because his work projects a collective identity – the European identity – far into the past when, in fact, the idea of Europe is a recent one. There is no unified notion of “Europe” before 1492. There is no Europe and there is certainly no concept of a unified “white race” before the advent of capitalism and capitalist-imperialism. The unity of “Europeans” did not come into being out of a shared “spirit”, but out of the economic realities of the capitalist mode of production.
This also explains why the racial category of “white” is constantly in flux, and indeed reveals further gaps in Duchesne’s Faustian grand narrative of Europe. Slavs, Italians, and the Irish, while “European” geographically speaking, have historically had a contentious relationship with “whiteness”. In fact, the Irish and Italians were never considered whites until midway through the twentieth century (see Ignatiev, 1995), while Slavs continue to occupy a contentious position within whiteness, in many ways now defined by American imperialism’s attitude towards Russia and its neighbors.
Duchesne also neglects the question of non-white European peoples, especially the Roma and the Saami (indigenous people of northern Scandinavia). Are these peoples part of the “Faustian impulse”? Oddly enough, the Roma are the only people who can trace their genetic and cultural ancestry directly back to Indo-European migrants and yet they seem rather disinterested in pursuing their Faustian impulses and more concerned with surviving the state-sanctioned racismdirected at them by white Europeans.
If Duchesne’s ahistorical conflation of Europe, whiteness, and the Faustian impulse is false in Europe, it is even more so in the colonies! Take Canada, for instance, Duchesne’s chosen home. Duchesne imagines that Canada is a product of the union of the French and British nations in a historic project and destiny. This romanticism of settler-colonialism is a gross simplification of the actual process of settlement. Most British settlers were not plucky explorers or devout missionaries of the Judeo-Christian worldview, but rather surplus populations that the crown felt did not belong in the capital; orphans (or “boat children”), Irish rabble-rousers, prostitutes, and other proverbial human waste picked off the streets of London and deported. The French for their part had no real settlement program until competition with England over the fur trade encouraged them to establish Quebec and Acadia, again populated with deported surplus populations, especially from the French countryside.
Of course, Duchesne might explain away this population management aspect of colonization as some sort of path to redemption for these dumped populations, as many settler-colonial hagiographies do. However, the persistence of class-based eugenics and social cleansing of the poor and homeless in Canada and the United States well into contemporary times shows that settler-colonial societies have always sought the dispossession and exclusion of designated surplus populations rather than their redemption.
There is one point in Duchesne’s argument that is correct: that the process of settlement created new nationalities out of these populations. It is true that Quebecois, Acadians, Anglo-Canadians, and Anglo-Americans are all national identities distinct to North America and produced by settler-colonialism. But this produces a problem for Duchesne’s epistemology – if these nations are distinctly North American are they still European? Duchesne assumes that they are because they are white nations (because remember, the assumption is that European = White).
Speaking of surplus populations, Duchesne’s mythology most significantly ignores the plight of indigenous peoples in “European” Canada. In a disgusting video on the Council of European Canadians’ website produced by Red Ice Creations (a noted “alt-right” media group which has also promoted Holocaust Denial), white supremacists respond to the supposedly “anti-white” phrase “go back to Europe” by alleging that the territories of the United States and Canada were, basically, won fair and square in some sort of epic war of hegemony. Such a claim would be hilarious if not for the harm it causes to our collective understanding of reality.
What Duchesne wants to ignore, and what we Canadians are taught to ignore as we are compelled to celebrate this July 1st, is that this land was not claimed by some heroic feat of the Indo-European spirit, but stolen through a series of cheap tricks, broken promises, and mass slaughter of innocents, and it is this series of criminal, hypocritical activities which the collective identity of “white” or “European” rests upon. This country’s history is not a story of European warrior-princes carving out “pure and limitless space”, but of gangsters, soiling the earth in blood in search of the next fix of saleable commodities. Europe was not born out of a “Faustian impulse”, but a genocidal impulse.
Indigenous societies and in defense of their title
Duchesne, and I would speculate most white supremacists, subconsciously know this. They know that whiteness is a fragile identity which they must cling to precariously at the expense of others. They know that what unites German, British, Welsh, Irish, French, Basque, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian-descended North American whites is not centuries-old ethnic consciousness but a manufactured identity which only exists in the context of genocidal capitalism. Duchesne in fact explicitly warns against whites adopting the “shame” of acknowledging historical (and I would add ongoing) genocide in North America, arguing that this would unravel the cohesion of the European identity.
This is compatible with historical accuracy in Duchesne’s worldview because, in typical Eurocentric fashion, he dismisses Indigenous civilizations as “tribes” and ignores their achievements. In a recent talk, Duchesne defended the use of the term “Aboriginals” over “First Nations” because indigenous peoples did not constitute nations on three grounds (1) there was a lack of state-formation in Indigenous societies, (2) the indigenous population was relatively small, (3) they lacked cartographic or exploratory impulses (again with the “Faustian impulse”!).
This is a reproduction of terra nullius (“no one’s land”)ideology, the idea that the space we now call the Americas was “empty” of civilization and thus free to claim by settlers. There are, of course, numerous examples that prove that this is not the case. Not just the mighty Maya and Aztec states to the south, but numerous “Canadian” indigenous states besides; in Duchesne and mine’s own home province, the Mi’kmaq and the Wulastoq/Maliseet possessed a binational state in the form of the Wabanaki Confederacy. We know this because there is explicit recognition of the Wabanaki state as such in the Peace and Friendship Treaties signed with the British, an inter-state treaty agreement.
A state I am more familiar with (and there is significantly more research on), the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy was territorially significant, comprising much of central-eastern North America, and a centralized state with a monopoly on force, i.e. a state in the Weberian sense. Again, this fact was recognized by the European powers. The Articles of Agreement and Peace signed September 24th and 25th, 1664, between the Iroquois and the British, Articles of Treaty of Peace proposed by Six Ambassadors from the Iroquois to the French signed in 1665, and Article 15 of the 1713 Treaty of Urecht all recognize this.
While the exact pre-colonial population of North America is (and likely always will be) up for debate, recent scholarship seriously contests Duchesne and other academics’ claims that the indigenous population of North America was only a few thousand. Research for Stannard’s work American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (1992), places pre-Columbus North American populations in the tens of millions. It would be a strange occurrence indeed if only a few thousand of these tens of millions lived in the bountiful forests, plains, and mountains of what is now called Canada. Indeed, it would defy everything we know about how populations choose to inhabit space. The current indigenous depopulation is a product of genocide, not a reflection of the “normal” population levels of Indigenous nations.
Finally, while I do not think it is particularly important to establish non-European civilizations as sufficiently “Faustian” to constitute nations, I do have a rejoinder to the implicit assumption of indigenous peoples as primitive and tribal due to their supposed lack of map-making. The work of M.G. Lewis (1998) on native map-making and “charte” art post-1540 shows that many indigenous societies, while not constructing formal maps in the Eurasian fashion, did possess records of places and spatial relations which they found easily transferable to cartography, implying an extensive knowledge of place and explorations into the territory of indigenous neighbors.
Frantz Fanon wrote in Wretched of the Earth (2008) that “Europe is literally a creation of the Third World,” and I cannot think of a discourse where this becomes more apparent then in the deconstruction of white supremacist ideologies. Everything that makes the various white and European nations white and European exists only because of imperialism and colonization, it exists only because of the exploitation and appropriation of resources from other lands and nations, it exists only because of genocide of non-Europeans.
Today, July 1st, marks the inauguration of “Canada” under the British North America Act, which explicitly defines Canada as an instrument of British imperialism and settler expansion. If settlers (or “Euro-Canadians” as Duchesne calls them) are to have a sustainable future, they must work to actively reject “Europe” and whiteness as defining characteristics, and seek collective reconciliation with indigenous people. At the absolute minimum, Canada must become a multinational state in both policy and practice which recognizes the unconditional right to self-determination for Indigenous people.
Duchesne might see the “demographic threat” to white Canadians as a tragedy, but the real tragedy is the demographic threat that the lie of whiteness has posed to indigenous people for these last 150 years. It is high time Duchesne and all Europeanists are thoroughly rejected as having anything good to say about Canada and its future and time the Indigenists take center stage in showing us the way forward.
Note: A previous version of this piece described Dr. Duchesne’s affiliation as the Department of Sociology. A colleague of mine pointed out that this was incorrect, and leading some readers to believe that Duchesne’s department was connected to the Department of Sociology at the UNB Fredericton campus. In the interest of accuracy and preventing confusion, the piece has been edited to read “Department of Social Science” at UNB Saint John, which is his correct affiliation.
“Even if my master kills me, I shall not go to the mine.” So go the lyrics of a popular song in the Pacific lowlands. They serve as a reminder of black resistance during slavery times in this region. By withdrawing their bodies – essential tools of capital accumulation in the alluvial gold mines – from the production process, the enslaved hit out at the source of their oppression. Relatively little is known – and even less documented – of these embodied experiences of resistance in the gold mines. Why is that so?
Resistance formed part of the slavery system from the beginning. As Norman Whitten and Arlene Torres (1998) put it, “Wherever slavery existed, self-liberation began.” In fact, the Pacific lowlands can be regarded as a territory of resistance, dating back to the early stages of colonization which was confronted with bitter and long-lasting indigenous resistance. Alonso Valencia (1991) regards the Spanish attempt at conquest as a failure, considering that for nearly two hundred years the indigenous populations were never conquered. The first conflicts took place in Uraba on the northwestern Caribbean Coast in 1510, and Valencai registers major resistance as late as 1687 without the Spanish Crown able to establish central, colonial control over the pacific lowlands. The lowlands consequently became known as “war frontier” (frontera de guerra), with indigenous resistance proving a major obstacle to the exploitation of the region’s gold resources. West (1957) observes, “Although Spanish mining acitivty in the Choco began on the upper Tamana in the 1570s, Indian hostility prevented intensive placering and the importation of many Negroes for more than a century.”
Indigenous groups in the southern part of the Pacific lowlands became known as indios de guerra, or “warring Indians”, for the ferocity with which they attacked the conquistadores so that Spanish settlements were mostly restricted to the Andean axis of Quito (in today’s Ecuador), Popayan, and Cali. Rebellions in the gold mines too were quite common. Mateo MIna (1975, AKA Michael Taussig) documents one such in Zaragoza, Antioquia, in 1598, which involved four thousand enslaved laborers. in another incident, on January 15, 1684, Citaries indios massacred miners and Spanish missionaries in the town of Negua (in today’s Choco Department). This incident spread like a fire and gripped the whole region, as towns and churches were destroyed (FUNCOP 1996). The Choco rebellion forced Spanish miners and enslaved laborers to retreat into the highlands, thus preventing the exploitation of gold placers for four years (West 1957). According to Valencia (1991) it is only from 1690 onward that we can talk of authentic conquest, and even then resistance remained a daily practice for both indigenous and Afro-descendant populations.
Resistance took on a variety of forms, including escapes, rebellions, killings, and suicides (Friedemann, 1998). Abortion and infanticide were frequent forms of female resistance, as enslaved mothers denied the slave owner control over their children, who would have been appropriated as labor (Spicker 1996). However, many acts of resistance either are not documented or are misrepresented in history. The reasons for such omissions are quite obvious. According to Sabas Casaman (1997), an Afro-descendant elderly political leader in the North Caucra region, “Colombia’s history has not been written…for a very simple reason. Because history is always written by the winners; the losers, we have no part in it, as long as we have this condition of losers.” Remembering a verse passed on in the oral tradition, Casaman reflects on the impossibility of meaningful speech in the context of oppression. Here he refers to the slave owner Julio Arboleda, who was renowned for his cruelty toward the enslaved (briefly discussed in the interlude):
Aqui aunque mas se habla
no habla sino quien pueda
el dueno de la propiedad
senor Don Julio Arboleda
(Here, no matter what you say,
only speaks who can,
the owner of this property,
Mr. Julio Arboleda)
Historical documents of black resistance, if they exist at all, are often plagued with a racist vocabulary. Black rebellions are not represented as liberating processes by historical subjects, but as criminal acts that betray the enslaved people’s lack of gratitude toward their masters, who saw themselves as having brought Christian redemption to ignorant pagans. According to Arocha (1999), these are “documents in which the Spanish never cease to be heroes while the blacks are rarely anything but cowards and traitors.”
This unequal power relationship is also the heart of the extraordinary Afrocentric novel Chango el Gran Putas, written by the Afro-Colombian novelist, ethnographer, and intellectual Manuel Zapata Olivella (2010). In this unrivalled literary masterpiece – still to be fully acknowledged in literary history as such for its sheer mesmerizing narrative power and sweeping vision – in a section dedicated to the rebellion of the enslaved on Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century, the author addresses the relation between dominant history and international oblivion: “For the Wolf’s forgetful scribes the history of the Republic of Haiti will always be the fanatic and hate-crazed blacks’ massacre of their white brothers, never the slave owners’ genocide against a defenseless people” (the “Wolf” being a metaphor for the white man in Zapata’s account).
It is important to document the myriad historical experiences of rebellion for a number of reasons. First, such documentation challenges dominant versions of history by ascribing agency to the libres that is often missing in the accounts of the “Wolf’s forgetful scribes.” Second, and most important is today’s organizing processes of the social movement of black communities in Colombia, such a focus on agency allows for empowering connections to be made to historical resistances form today’s perspective. The pacific lowlands, once considered a territory of indigenous resistance against the colonizers of the Spanish Crown and of black resistance against slavery, is now seen by PCN [Process of Negro Communities] activists as a territory of Afro-Colombian resistance against dominant development models fueled by the logic of displacement-inducing modernity.
This post originally appeared on The Left Chapter, the blog of Michael Laxer leader of the Social Caucus in the NDP. While not in agreement with all of Laxer’s politics, I greatly enjoy the variety of content on his blog. Contributions from all leftist perspectives are welcome and can be sent to email@example.com.
Leonard Hutchinson was a Canadian artist whose incredible artistic social realist takes on life and struggle during the Great Depression have, sadly, largely slipped into relative obscurity.
Hutchinson was born in Manchester, England in 1896 and emigrated to Canada in 1913 eventually moving to Hamilton after the First World War. Hutchinson died in 1980, but it was just prior to the Depression that he mastered a technique of creating art that the prints of which would then be made from wood blocks. The idea was to make his art more affordable and broadly available.
Hutchinson’s art is searing, powerful and evocative of this era of mass poverty, social dislocation and working class resistance. It strikingly conveys the time and place and is anchored among the workers of Hamilton and area.
One of the few retrospective looks at Hutchinson to have been put into print was done by the Canadian Liberation Movement in 1975 as part of its “Toward a People’s Art” series of books. The CLM was a far left nationalist group that saw Canada as little more than a US colony and that fought for the creation of a working class anti-imperialist movement.
The book they published “Leonard Hutchinson, People’s Artist: Ten Years of Struggle 1930 to 1940”, though long out-of-print, is well worth tracking down for its full page reproductions.
Today we look at a selection of some of these remarkable pieces.
“Debt… is a cleverly managed reconquering of Africa.” – Thomas Sankara
In the 1980s, on the tail-end of growing south-south unity and economic development, the world was plunged into an international debt crisis which threatened the sustainability of the capitalist world-system. The political decisions enacted to adjust the global economy ushered in neo-liberalism and globalization as we know them today. Thus, it is generally accepted debt was of central importance to the advent of neoliberalism. However, with the crises of debts reaching a seemingly terminal stage in various sections of the Global North and South every few years, it is clear that debt also constitutes a key element in the maintenance of neoliberalism and globalization as well. We can also understand the advent of globalization-via-debt crises as a response to the limits of the post-World War Development Project, in that the Development Project’s benefits to the Global South was not sustainable under capitalism and that it facilitated the instabilities which would create the conditions for Globalization.
The project of neo-liberalism was ultimately a political one, relying on the extension of debt relations as a form of global governance imposed on the global south. This is captured in the phrase “debt regime” – the restructuring of debt by the IMF allowed western financiers to establish new economic and social “regimes” throughout the Global South based on the convictions of neoliberalism and free market practices.
Poverty Governance = Imperialism
Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are thoroughly undemocratic, unrepresentative and unaccountable, just as they maintain an ideological affiliation to free market policy, unresponsive and thus resistant to change. The IMF functions like a corporation, with votes being allotted to countries based on “quotas” – determined by both the country’s economic size and the financial contributions of the country to IMF programs. Thus, the decision-making power of the IMF inevitably tends to favor already-developed Global North countries (McMichael, 2016), who accumulated their wealth initially through colonization.
This must be considered when discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of globalization/neoliberalism. While Globalization is generally associated with increasing interconnectivity and interdependency (and this is at least nominally true), Globalization is more accurately the consolidation of international neoliberalism. Rather than being a foundation of innovation, as its pundits often claim, neoliberal policy is about the maintenance of a fragile economic system, where imperialist powers come together under this aegis, “globalization”, to ensure their own economic security, an arrangement preempted by Karl Kautsky under the auspices of “super-imperialism”. While I do not accept all of the implications of a theory of super-imperialism (and there are certainly rivalries within the imperialist bloc), there is no denying the increasing integration of different imperialisms, for example the US-EU-Japan triad or the US-Canada-UK New Victorian network.
In practice, this ruling through a debt regime has meant the direct assault on the sovereignty and self-determination of colonized peoples. We have noted the undemocratic structure of the IMF and the history of inequality which facilitates its current structure. These unequal, authoritative powers were used as an unprecedented infiltration of the internal politics and economies of the Global South, with debt crises as the catalyst. Countries like Mexico, dependent on loans from banks based in the Global North to facilitate the development project, were ready to default on their loans, prompting a quick solution from the IMF before large blocs of defaulters could undermine the capitalist world-economy. The IMF instituted a program where existing loans would be extended, and new loans provided directly by the IMF to pay off these debts. However, this repayment plan was conditional; subject countries would have to agree to submit to a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) which involved a swift privatization of numerous essential development and social programs. This greatly weakened the power of the postcolonial state to act as an anti-imperialist force and opened key markets to western domination (McMichael, 2016).
To extend these debt regimes, the United States and most other powers quickly abandoned the gold standard and adopted a fiat currency. This integrated the extension of credit into the US economy, and forced the relaxation of financial regulations creating the demand for increasing ‘offshore’ investments and market control in the Global South (McMichael, 2016).
The Earthquake Moves North
For their part, workers in the first world were submerged into the process of Globalization. During the post-World War “Development Project” period, workers in the Global North occupied a relatively privileged position in terms of security and reciprocity within capitalist production. However, the post-1980’s move away from industrial Fordism and towards a Global Division of Labor, as well as the need for new methods of financing increasingly complex debt schemes, led to a collapse of the Fordist social contract and the (admittedly inconsistent) implementation of neoliberalism in the Global North.
While directly taxing American, Canadian, or European workers for international projects would have generated outrage, policymakers instead made workers in the Global North and Global South subsidize arrangements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through limited supplies of jobs and depressed wages, indirectly supporting the growth of transnational imperial capital and pitting workers in the Global North against more “competitive”, low-wage workers in the Global South (Workman, 2011). One way this was done was thorough the devaluing the US dollar, which was key to the initial repression of wages and increasing the US dollar’s liquidity and allowing it to remain an almost universal equivalent (Gill and Law, 1988).
Because this two-pronged, lucrative opportunity for profit-making; the depression of wages for the domestic working class and the increasingly dispossessed Global South, there is little motivation to repair the increasing indebtedness this whole process bequeaths. In fact, what we witness is the normalization of debt crises as early as the late 90’s (Strange 1998), with similar decisions being made during crises of the late 2000’s (McMichael, 2016). With the exception of some resistance from both the left and right, what we see is an expansion of deficits and the subsidizing of privatization as capitalists demand more and more kickback for volatile schemes that threaten the security of workers and keep the colonized nations of the world in a global prison-house of finance.
The relentless drive for solvency and profitability has undermined sovereignty of the modern state and has led to increasing instability. The pursuit of more and more profit maximization by transnational, imperialist capitalist class has even undermined the stability of capitalism itself (Workman, 2011). What we call Globalization is more accurately Americanization and neoliberal imperialism.
 McMichael, P. Development and Social Change (6th ed.). Sage Publishing, 2016.
Our understanding of global interactions – economic, political, social, and cultural – are still deeply shaped by the often misunderstood period of economic restructuring between 1945 and 1970. Many questions that plague our modern world – why the US continues to expand militarily, why Haiti is in such dire straits, etc. – can be partially explained by the developments of this period. This piece endeavors to begin an outline and investigation of these developments.
The period from 1945 to 1970 is sometimes called the era of the Bretton-Woods system, but more recently has been referred to as the “Development Project”. This is the terminology used in McMichael’s work Development and Social Change, where the development of a world economy is described as progressing in three distinct stages; European Colonization, the Development Project, and Globalization. The phrase “Development Project” is apt as it refers to the global focus on the industrialization of newly-independent colonies; industrialization is often understood as development. To this day various international agencies classify countries as “developed” and “developing” (McMichael, 2016).
While each of these stages represent distinct historical developments in global politics and economy, several continuities persist. Indeed, the post-World War “development project” would not have existed without European (and later American and Canadian) imperialism becoming the primary actor in the maintenance of the modern world-system. Likewise, neither would Globalization have become the defining paradigm without the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system as the guarantor of the “Development Project” while still building upon its major institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
The wording of “world-system” is important here. A world-system is a political and economic framework which imposes itself as totalizing and universal. Capitalism, and what we call capitalist development, is the first such complete world-system in human history. Its origins lie in colonialism, which both allowed the spread of European capitalism to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and the exploitation of these continents to further the consolidation of capitalism and capitalist profit-making (O’Brien and Williams “Forging a World Economy”, 2007; McMichael, 2016).
Thus, understanding that the economic eras of capitalism proceed from each other, it can be inferred that the inequalities entrenched under colonization persisted throughout the development model period. In fact, the development model period can be understood as a new era of social and economic imperialism, colonization being the first. Development model period imperialism represented a shift, rather than a transformation, of the colonial project.
Therefore, while the Development Project succeeded in preserving the capitalist world-system, it was a failed to provide adequate restitution and improvement for the peoples of the ‘developing’ world.
Pax Imperialism and the Dollar Dictatorship
The imperialist countries’ shift from colonization to ‘development’ can be understood as a reaction to three distinct processes threatening the capitalist-world system, (1) the wave of decolonization and nationalism sweeping the Europe’s colonies, (2) the weakening of the European powers by the world wars, and (3) the subsequent emergence of a socialist state (the Soviet Union) as a world power. In response to these developments, the United States replaced Great Britain as the “center” of this new orientation in the capitalist world-system and financial domination replaced traditional colonialism as the method by which “Center” countries dominated colonized “peripheral” countries.
As much as the Development Project transformed the capitalist world-system away from the colonial model, it also continued colonial policy in two key ways. First, the currency of the leading imperialist power functioned as the stabilizer and equivalent for all exchanges within the world-system. During the Victorian era, the British Pound-Sterling was the universal equivalent in almost all exchanges (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica” 2007). Under the Bretton-Woods System, the U.S. dollar was made equivalent to gold and thus functioned in the same way as the Pound (Cohen, 2001).
It should be noted that at the time of independence for most former colonies, Europe had extracted vast amounts of wealth which it was not subsequently obliged to repay their now-independent colonies (McMichael, 2016).
So while the Development Project transformed the newly-independent states of the colonized world with an influx of industrial hardware and organization, industrial projects took place unilaterally, under the dictates of U.S. economic security and geopolitical interests. The control of the United States in this arrangement cannot be understated. In effect, Pax Americana replaced Pax Britanica, the period of almost absolute British dominance. This control of the Development Project was so complete that through the Bretton-Woods system, the U.S. congress could use fiscal policy, inflating or deflating the dollar, to influence the outcomes of trades the United States otherwise played no part in (Cohen, 2001; McMichael, 2016). Like how British supremacy created competition between European imperialisms leading up to World War I (O’Brien and Williams “Pax Britanica”, 2007), the United States’ dominance also led to dissent from Japan and Europe who lamented the rigidity of the dollar-pegged system (Cohen, 2001).
Cold War Containment
Another factor in these contradictions was location. Both Japan and the European powers bordered socialist states; China and the Eastern Bloc countries respectively. In a strategic compromise, U.S. policymakers allowed developmental models to improve other imperialist states’ position, to the point of destabilizing of the internal U.S. economy (Cohen, 2001). Hence why West Germany was the main beneficiary of the Marshal plan as part of staving off the “Soviet wave” the U.S feared would sweep Europe. The major successes of the Development Project – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong – were also strategically located in East Asia (McMichael, 2016) to contain the socialist revolutions in places like China and Vietnam, while opening a proverbial ‘eastern front’ against the USSR.
While the Development Project was framed as an effort based on the nation-state, self-sufficiency in the area of agriculture was completely denied to emerging nation-states. Troubled by the enthusiastic and rapid communization of agriculture in China, development agencies sought to reduce the power of peasants to self-organize in India and countries with large agriculture potential through specialization in crops produced for European and North American consumption (McMichael, 2016). While U.S farmers were encouraged to grow staples like wheat and grains, India was roped into growing commodities for western consumption, making India and other countries in similar arrangements dependent on western markets for basic sustenance. India was also the poster-child of the “green revolution” in agribusiness, which created a market for excess chemical weapons the United States was looking to reprocess (they became fertilizers). This made India responsible for the immense costs of externalities created by U.S. war activity, including ecological destruction and massive rural decline (McMichael, 2016).
Both these examples from India are demonstrative of wider processes of economic and ecological “Unequal Exchange” which perpetuated the colonial reorganization of the world. It may be easy to explain the unevenness of the world economy and the dependency of the ‘developing’ world on the ‘developed’ as simply the vestiges of colonialism. However, this would ignore the active role which the United States played in perpetuating these uneven arrangements through the Bretton-Woods system, with the consent of the other imperialist countries (and when Bretton-Woods failed to foster favourable arrangements, NATO was always on standby). Thus the problems of the development project were precisely because the objectives of the most powerful actors were the preservation of the capitalist, imperialist world-system.
The Next Phase
Understanding the deeply imperialist elements of the Development Project is essential to understanding what comes next, Globalization. Just as Britain spread ‘civilization’ across the world, facilitating the global colonial supply chain, so too did the United States spread ‘development’ through the IMF and World Bank, leading to our now deeply Americanized period of Globalization; the similarities are stark (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica”, 2007). If we are to address the contradictions of globalization, we must understand the Development Project’s impacts in shaping the globalized world into one of dependency and renewed imperialism.
Cohen, B. “Bretton-Woods System” Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. Ed. RJ Barry Jones. Routledge, 2001.
McMichael, P. Development and Social Change (6th ed.). Sage Publishing, 2016.
O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “Forging a World Economy, 1400-1800.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 43-76. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.
O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “The Industrial Revolution, Pax Britanica, and Imperialism.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 77-105. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.