C-51 and the history of Canada’s repression of labour organizing

By Daniel Tseghay, RankandFile.ca Writer / Organizer.

Sometimes it’s worth reflecting on the struggles faced by earlier generations of labour activists when piecing together an understanding of where we’re at today. “Arm yourselves with sticks and clubs, give blow for blow. Fight like hell,” remarked Allan Campbell, a member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Association (NUWA), during a Vancouver street meeting in 1930. “We all know that there is plenty of food in Vancouver. If we cannot get it, we will take it.” Campbell’s statement still has meaning for unions and workers across Canada. We can also learn from the type of organized opposition and forms of state repression labour confronted in the past.

The unemployed workers movement of the 1930s was part of a broader labour movement including British Columbian loggers and longshoreman. And both set of workers, employed or not, were led, to one extent or another, by the Communist Party of Canada. Their direct challenge to the political system motivated the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to re-establish their surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations. The RCMP, importantly, was founded in 1918 with instructions to spy on Canadians, especially labour organizations and left-leaning groups. The following year, the Winnipeg General strike shaped the police force further.

By the early 1930s, a growing army of unemployed throughout Canada caused the RCMP to ramp up surveillance of this movement. Undercover agents infiltrated the Vancouver branches of the Canadian Labour Defense League and the Single Unemployed Protective Association, and kept tabs on the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League. These activities helped prevent solidarity strikes between longshoremen and sawmill workers opposing the austerity measures of their employers. Ultimately, the goal was to isolate and remove leaders of movements opposed to the status quo.Unknown

“Other government bodies, like the federal Department of Immigration, became more active too…in ‘shovelling out the mutinous’” write the authors of Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada From the Fenians to Fortress America. “Fear of the ‘Red Menace’ breathed new life into old laws,” the book reads, “notably section 98 of the Criminal Code and sections 40 and 41 of the Immigration Act, which together defined who was an ‘undesirable’ Canadian.” At the time, the government recognized that the growing ranks of discontent workers were escalating their agitation against bosses and the capitalist system itself. Parallels with today’s struggles are clear.

Indigenous nations and Muslims are targeted by government surveillance and repression. Recently, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) alleged that there’s illegal surveillance of citizens and community groups opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. Right now, as the Unist’ot’en Camp defends the Wet’suwet’en lands in British Columbia from that pipeline, the RCMP using the powers of surveillance bolstered by Bill C-51 are threatening mass arrest.

In 2000, Mohammad Mahjoub was arrested, subject to a security certificate, a precursor to Bill C-51. This legislation allows the government to detain and deport people with or without legal status, using secret evidence, and without having to issue a warrant, so long as they are deemed a threat to national security. In the years that followed, Mahjoub undertook numerous hunger strikes. One, in 2005, lasted 76 days. He lost 110 pounds and had to be hospitalized. Another the next year lasted 93 days. He was transferred to the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, known as “Guantanamo North”, and put under house arrest. He was subsequently sent back to detention, at his request, because of the effect surveillance had on his family during his house arrest. Once again he then returned again to house to live alone.

These current struggles against surveillance and state repression are rooted in Canada’s history of attacks on the labour movement.

“Historically, we know that the people who’ve been at the knife’s edge of this the most are labour unions and political dissidents, and political dissidents tend to group within labour unions,” said Paul Finch, Treasurer of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), in an interview with RankandFile.ca. “This is important to labour unions because the history of the creation of Canadian Security Intelligence Service [CSIS] is rooted in a history of the RCMP, which used to hold these powers, abusing those powers…Political parties and unions have been subjected to unlawful surveillance by the RCMP intelligence which had all the powers of a police force but was an appended arm of an intelligence services which created a kind of secret police force.”

CSIS’ separation of the powers of policing from the powers of intelligence services means we’re seeing the rise of mass warrantless surveillance, according to Finch. The effect this has, and will increasingly have, on various communities – particularly indigenous and Muslims – and the labour movement inspired Finch and the BCGEU, along with Leadnow, to organize some of the largest rallies opposing Bill C-51, which gives federal agencies greater powers of surveillance, earlier this year. The BCGEU’s role, according to Finch, was to provide framework for grassroots organizers throughout the country.

“We recognized that there’s a massive amount of opposition to C-51 but it wasn’t coordinated or organized, and we realized that no one was doing the coordinating or organizing so we put together a nation-wide coalition to not just organize the rally but also organize the campaign,” said Finch.

“Labour unions are essentially exercising democratic franchise collectively to enforce rights for employees,” said Finch. Today, with the security and surveillance state gaining legal support, affecting Muslims and Indigenous people alike, Canada’s history of secret policing targeting the labour movement needs far more attention today than ever. In that early history, we find foreshadows of the present.

Fortunately, there are signs, even in this country’s history, that these seemingly separate struggles can be connected. The Industrial Workers of the World actively organized migrant workers in Vancouver during the early 20th century. Despite its limitations in doing so (the union didn’t reach out to Indigenous labourers, for the most part), it provided a model during the free speech fights – a period of heightened surveillance. The history of surveillance and security might be persisting on these lands, but so are the tools and practices resisting them.


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