Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thoughts on Two Consecutive Liberal Majorities in Ontario

Despite the title of the post, I am not intending to comment directly on yesterday's triumph by Dalton McGuinty's Liberals -- a victory I expected all along in a race I followed only peripherally, though the dubious political judgment of John Tory made it less of a contest than expected.

No, I am intending to talk a little bit about the last time the Liberals won two consecutive majority governments in this province, which happened in 1937 when the leader of the party and the province was Mitch Hepburn. I am not doing this to try and claim that there is anything at all directly similar in the historical circumstances between seven decades ago and today. Rather, I am providing a historical illustration that is meant to kind of meant as a poke at the more progressive folks that reside under the shade of the big Liberal tent, and an illustration of what sorts of things can happen when liberalism is posed as the answer to the social problems that more progeressive Liberals claim to care about.

I don't remember exactly which year Hepburn won his first majority government, but it was at some point in the early 1930s. A very blue Tory, R.B. Bennett, was Prime Minister in Ottawa. The Depression was in full effect, Communists were reputed to be hiding under every bed, and upstanding business magnates did their best to make sure that federal tax money was not wasted on poor people like those class traitors were doing south of the border under FDR's New Deal. But there were also populist stirrings, and one the slogans from Hepburn's first election victory was one that would make left-liberals hearts go pitter-pat: "I swing to the left, where some Grits fear to tread."

Mr. Hepburn, however, was good buddies with a number of important gentlemen who owned significant mining interests in Northern Ontario. One of these, whose name I forget, also at some point owned...hmmm, I forget whether it had changed to the Globe & Mail by this point, or if it was still just the Globe then. Anyway, you get which paper I mean. As his years running things in Queen's Park lengthened, good ol' Mitch got closer and closer to this gang of bluebloods.

One of the things that particularly chilled the blood and filled the nightmares of owners of capital in Ontario was the prospect of rowdy workers acting up along the lines of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the United States. Most existing unions at the time in Canada were craft unions, not industrial unions, and they were quite passive and conservative -- separate Communist unions did do some scattered militant things in Canada in the early '30s, but nothing that was really sustained. But the CIO had a record in the States of being militant, of organizing the unorganized, and of winning serious concessions from the most powerful corporations in the world. Partly this was because of changes in labour law that had been made under the New Deal (which were not really replicated in Canada until near the end of World War II) but partly it was because of enthusiastic grassroots organizing, in part by Communist Party USA organizers. However, though CPers did do a lot of important stuff to build the CIO in the United States, it was never a Communist organization. This did not stop capitalists in Ontario from tarring all trade union activity, particularly that along the lines of industrial unionism, with anti-Communist slurs, of course.

In 1937 -- and I don't remember how this was timed with respect to Hepburn's reelection -- the first big victory by forces that identified with the CIO happened in Canada, in the car plants of Oshawa. This was really a homegrown victory by Canadian workers who self-organized and then linked up to the CIO but did not receive much in the way of material support from their sisters and brothers south of the border. It was workers standing up for themselves in the face of brutal exploitation. If memory serves the federal Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King weren't so bad, but Hepburn was completely and viciously anti-union during the strike, despite his earlier claim to "swing to the left", and in line with his cosy relationship with mine owners who didn't want to have to deal with unionized miners if industrial unionism were to pick up momentum in Ontario. At one point he authorized the provincial police to hire special officers to send in to Oshawa to keep the peace (read: intimidate strikers) which were officially known as Hepburn's Hussars, but which were calls the Sons of Mitches by the workers in Oshawa.

Anyway, at some point -- again, I'm doing this from memory, so I don't remember if this was during the course of the strike or just after -- Hepburn decided to up the ante. Now, remember, this was an era in which open fascists ruled Italy and Germany and were in the process of taking over Spain. In Canada, Bill Aberhart's Social Credit government in Alberta and Maurice Duplessis' Union Nationale government in Quebec both displayed some fairly fascistic tendencies, though the worst of Aberhart's efforts were disallowed by Ottawa while Duplessis' were permitted because the federal Liberals depended on votes in Quebec. (An interesting side note relevant to the point of this post is that the thuggish Union Nationale government came to power in part because a group of progressive, nationalist, dissident Liberals broke away from their party to join with the Quebec Conservatives to form the new party -- whatever populist sentiments they began with were swallowed whole.)

Back to Hepburn: He decided he wanted to get in on the action. He actually proposed to the leader of the Ontario Conservative party that they join together to form a unity government in the province with the aim of trashing some civil liberties, cracking some Commie heads, and saving Ontario from the imminent revolution. Though he offered his Conservative counterpart the premiership in this new arrangement, and though some prominent Conservative caucus members were all for it, the Tory leader ended up declining.

Like I said, I'm not trying to say that Dalton is some kind of crypto-fascist. I'm trying to say that he is a liberal. And all liberalism needs to turn from supposedly fair exploitation grounded in rules that appear neutral but are stacked in favour of those who already have power into more direct predation is to turn some group into an Other. Some groups -- particularly indigenous and other racialized groups -- have always been liberalism's Others, and the predation they face today through the workings of relations of white supremacy in the context of liberal-democratic capitalism's global functioning today amply demonstrates that. And some, like the (mostly white) industrial working class in Ontario, is only Othered under particular circumstances. I'm not saying I wanted the Tories to win, but I think it is important to keep in mind that this is part of the tradition that you are cheering on as you slap each other on the back because of your good work in getting McGuinty reelected.


Scott said...

A note on sourcing: I probably pulled details in this post from a bunch of different places, but as I wrote it I realized that the single biggest source was stuff by Canadian labour historian Irving Abella that I read years ago.

thwap said...

nice way to approach the subject Scott.

Scott said...