Saturday, April 23, 2016

Democracy vs Confederation: Médéric Lanctôt and Les Rouges

The first Canadian red scare came in the 1860s as part of the project to push through Confederation. The Quebec Tories, led by George-Étienne Cartier and allied to John A. Macdonald's Upper Canadian Tories, were strong political allies with the Catholic Church. They waged a war on Les Rouges, a Montreal-centred political movement which carried on the radical democratic and republican politics of the 1837-38 rebellions and 1848 revolutions.

As Confederation was cobbled together by elites from each province against widespread popular opposition in the Maritimes and Quebec, the Conservative Party of Cartier and Macdonald used parliament, the pulpit, and the papers to defeat this increasingly agitational threat in Quebec. Lies, slander, religion, and organized intimidation were directed against the democratic republican movement based out of Montreal's Institut Canadien.

Red Workers
Les Rouges had been around for a while but the attacks from the right were heating up because some people in the movement were beginning to organize workers and advocate collectivist economic ideas and independence from Britain and its colonies. The movement was beginning to flex its muscles, organizing mass rallies in their thousands at Montreal's Champs de Mars. In March 1867, some 5,000 workers rallied. In June, another rally pushing ten thousand was organized - five years before the equally large rally in Toronto which ushered in the legalization of unions.

Ultimately, the movement was broken in the events surrounding the September 1867 federal election race. Using their newspapers and the pulpit, the Tories and Church published and circulated lies about the corruption of the new movement's leader, Médéric Lanctôt, a popular Montreal city councillor elected against one of Cartier's men, Alexis Dubord. Lanctôt was also challenging George-Étienne Cartier himself for the riding of Montreal East.

Lanctôt was further denounced as a Fenian amidst the overblown Fenian Scare. In the middle of the election campaign, an Anglo Tory judge ruled that Lanctôt's municipal election be annulled because he lacked, as Dubord alleged, the property qualifications to run.

Lanctôt was the son of an exiled rebellion leader, and founder of the thousands-strong Grande Association de protection des ouvriers du Canada (Grand Association of Canadian Workingmen). The organization aimed to improve the lot of workers, to fight for jobs and stop economic migration to the United States for work. Lanctôt and his allies had also established a network of food and consumer cooperatives and credit unions in Montreal as part of their economic vision for national and class independence.

When the election rolled around, Cartier eeked out a 300 vote victory against Lanctôt, winning 54 to 46 percent. Cartier's narrow victory was surrounded by allegations of corruption and vote-rigging, a common practice at the time, but the allegations were never investigated.

Defeat and dispersal
In the wake of the election, Les Rouges was broken as a political force in Montreal. By 1871, the Institut Canadien, ceased operations as a political society, its major publications having been banned by the Catholic Church in 1868 following the electoral defeat.

Anti-Confederation efforts in Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were contained, and political organizations dispersed. A number of people in these movements broke with their democratic ideals to join the loosely-federated Liberal Party whose major leader and owner of the highly influential Globe, George Brown, had pushed through an unelected senate in the Confederation conferences as a check on democracy itself.

The federal Liberals began to build an opposition to the Tories by winning over defeated anti-Confederationists and provincial rights advocates in the Maritimes and Quebec, and would eventually form government in 1874 after Macdonald himself was implicated in the Pacific Scandal which exposed the corruption inherent in the project of Confederation. Among these new Liberals was Wilfrid Laurier, who had been vice-president of the Institut Canadien in the mid-1860s and had established a law firm in that period with Lanctôt. Laurier had in fact represented Lanctôt in the court case regarding his 1866 municipal election.

As Laurier established himself as a prominent lawyer in the late 1860s, Lanctôt left Canada for a self-imposed exile in the United States having lost credibility in 1868 by promoting American annexation of Quebec in the form of a free federation independent of British control.He returned to Montreal in 1871 and tried unsuccessfully to relaunch his labour-backed political career. The Institut Canadien was closed and Les Rouges had been fractured and broken as a political force. With little organizational support to draw upon, he was pummelled in the 1871 Quebec election in the Montreal East riding. It is worth noting that he did win support from the illegal and pathbreaking shoemakers union, the Knights of St Crispin, which had been loudly denounced by the Church.

Capital and labour
A year later, Lanctôt published a treatise on capital and labour aimed at a working-class readership, influenced by the "harmony of interests" ideas of Horace Greeley (also promoted in the 1860s by Isaac Buchanan, a Hamilton politician and merchant who launced Canada's first labour newspaper in 1864).

The treatise called upon Canadian workers to join the global movement for the emancipation of the working classes to defeat poverty, and social inequality. While not actually promoting the abolition of the capitalist class, he nevertheless called for laws that forced capitalists to share profits and use labour-saving machinery to enrich all through a just distribution of wealth. Such laws were required because capitalists had no interest but profit and could not be trusted to care for the working-class because the rise of capitalism had already caused great suffering among the mass of workers. Lastly, capital tended towards monopoly through competition, with big capital squeezing out little capital, impoverishing all but the biggest capitalists. Only through a system whereby wealth was shared collectively could this be stopped.

Later in 1872, Lanctôt got his revenge on Cartier. While not running against Cartier, he nevertheless played a role in organizing Cartier's defeat in the 1872 Montreal East race. After that, he moved to Hull where he again advocated for his ideas, gaining some political influence in municipal politics by having been appointed the town's lawyer. But once he re-emerged in Hull and began publishing a new local paper advocating his politics, the same conservative forces crushed him, forcing him out of his new office. Exhausted, defeated and isolated, Lanctôt retired to a farm where he died in July 1877 at age 39.

Recovering our history
While Laurier is now regarded as a great prime minister, and often ranked by historians and journalists as the greatest ever, Lanctôt is largely unknown. What you will come across is a description of a lunatic, a zealot, and a dangerous, selfish demagogue. By discrediting Lanctôt as a bizarre fringe figure and burying his role in the political movements surrounding the construction and consolidation of Confederation, the more important story of how Confederation was a project of class and nation has been buried as well. Along with Lanctôt, the history of the Institut Canadien, of Les Rouges, of Montreal's republican workers' movement, and the bubbling socialistic ideas of democratic workers' control of the economy, have all been forgotten.

Our movements today for economic transformation, for decolonization, for an overthrow of capitalism, for a democratic socialist society, have a longer, richer history that we truly appreciate. We have a complex history that strikes at the core of Confederation itself all the way back to the 1860s - and earlier. Things were never "just like that" back in the day. There was always opposition, always a political project that fought back against class and state power, against Anglophone dominance, and colonialism. But these movements were defeated at the time and their histories were buried. These defeated political projects had an alternative vision of society that was beginning to look towards mass democracy, towards political independence, towards challenging the capitalist system.

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