s Faded Red s
The rise and Fall oF radicalism at McGill
The 1960s and 1970s are widely known as decades of extreme change, but few places in North America saw such a dramatic pivot in their social, economic, and political construct as Quebec. A time of radicalism, this period was characterized by new ideas flowing into the province from all directions. Such changes inspired left-leaning ideologies that created huge divisions within society—as well as at McGill, which featured a relatively strong Communist and Marxist presence on campus. Students with Communist ideologies would run for student government positions, several Marxist and radical groups existed on campus that would consistently write in The McGill Daily, and respected Marxist thinkers would speak at McGill at large-scale events. While the causes of such change across the province were far-reaching and have led to dramatic impacts that can still be felt today, the presence of such radicalism has all but disappeared.
The 1960s were marked by events that caused massive social movements that pushed the world toward the left of the spectrum.
“There was enormous prosperity in the mid-1960s, and there was this lingering sense that maybe this isn’t quite enough—maybe we should be using all of this prosperity to reform society,” explained McGill University’s official historian, Peter McNally.
Events such as the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the anti-nuclear movement all had a profound impact on how people behaved and addressed societal issues. New ideologies on the far left were also seen as a key component to curing the problems of society.
At the same time, Quebec was undergoing its own era of radical transformation. The first wave of change in Quebec was sparked by the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s, which led to a rapid social shift defined by the decline in power of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the increased influence of secularization and role of the government in society.
With the new shift of power and innovation in Quebec came the idea of nationalism. The new slogan of the Quebecois became “Maîtres chez nous,” or “Masters of one’s own house.” As a unique minority group within Canada, French Canadians wanted the ability to take control of their own lives without the interference of a federal government that did not have its best interests at heart. They saw Anglophones—particularly those in Quebec—as the source of a major class divide within the province, a concept based on the ideas of Karl Marx.
“Marx said that there was a divide between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and we have this divide,” explained Dr. Jean-Philippe Warren, sociology professor and Research Chair on the Study of Quebec at Concordia University. “But it superimposes itself to another divide, between the French and the English. The English control the economy and the French are all working class people.”
The standard of living for French Canadians in comparison to Anglophones in Quebec was very low. In Montreal, it was extremely difficult for French Canadians to even attend university.
“Education was really bad in Quebec for French speakers,” Warren said. “There was only one university in Montreal, [the Université de Montreal], to cater to the needs of the Francophone population, and there were two, if not three, English institutions.”
The Quebecois perceived this as the elitist and privileged Anglophones of Quebec holding them back from their right to higher education. McGill, as an Anglophone university, was seen as the focal point of this debate.
This tension cumulated into the McGill Français movement in 1969, where over 10,000 Quebecois leftists—including nationalists, unionists, and students—protested in favour of McGill becoming a French university for the francophone working class.
“People [and students] on the left said, ‘We want to criticize McGill because its too elitist,’ and nationalist leaders said, ‘It’s a bastion of British xenophobia against French culture,’ so the nationalists, the students, and the leftists were all in agreement that something should be done about McGill,” Warren explained.
McGill, however, was also seeing a major change at this time with its own forms of growing radical and leftist groups.
“McGill grew enormously in the 1960s,” McNally said. “It was hiring a lot of new faculty, many of them were Americans, and some of them came with radical left-wing views.”
Many of these new faculty members were young, and brought forth new—and often times contentious— ideological views. Within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, these professors studied left-wing theories, including Marxism. The political situation in the United States, for the most part, contributed to the massive influx of left-leaning intellectuals joining the McGill faculty.
“At McGill, the driving forces of Marxism came from American professors, who were mostly draft dodgers, and they were [a] powerful and potent element [that] brought this American activism to the rather mild and weak Canadian scene,” explained retired professor Joseph Schmidt from the Faculty of Arts.
In addition, many universities in the U.S. cracked down on professors with left-leaning ideologies, preventing them from teaching their personal ideologies.
“At Harvard, for example, it was officially a university policy that a member of the Communist party could not be a member of the faculty, and McGill didn’t have a rule like that,” explained Professor John Hellman of the Department of History and Classical Studies, who arrived at McGill in 1969. “When I got here, it became very clear that people who were uncomfortable [about] their political views [in the U.S.] or considered Marxists were much more comfortable [in Montreal.]”
As a result of this influx, high-level officials in the Canadian government started noticing the issue of radicalism on Canadian campuses.
“[Former head of the RCMP Security and Intelligence squad] W.H. Kelly, speaking to a Canadian Club luncheon, said that dozens of foreign professors and students who preach political extremism, and any foreigner who enters Canada to support separatism, should be told to leave the country,” reported the McGill Daily in 1969.
Despite these sentiments, professors were not necessarily interested in preaching the ideals of Marxism. Rather, they were studying it as a science and using it to understand the societal problems of the time.
Brian Young, a professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies who retired in 2009, used Marxism to understand the historical roots of Anglo-Francophone relations in Quebec. Young wrote an entire book observing how the class struggle could be observed through the construction of the Mont-Royal cemetery.
However, the leftist and Marxist views of some of the members of the faculty created strong divisions amongst the departments, resulting in animosity and often times bitter confrontation, particularly in the departments of sociology and economics.
“In both departments, you had what you could [consider] conservative forces and leftists,” Schmidt explained. “The split in the sociology department and especially in the economics department very soon turned personal, and became a kind of academic infighting that had nothing to do with the wider context.”
In some cases, other faculty members and the administration even bullied individuals into leaving McGill, according a McGill Daily article in 1969. Political science professor Pauline Vaillancourt had the renewal of her contract rejected due to her supposed radical ideas. One professor at her alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, even called her and her husband “bomb-throwing Maoists.”
“On the basis of an investigation of the political ideas of Mrs. Vaillancourt […] a telegram was sent to Mrs. Vaillancourt around Aug. 1 telling her that her one-year appointment was now being reconsidered,” explained the Daily article. “It was felt that Marlene Dixon in sociology and Vaillancourt in [political science] were too many radicals for beleaguered McGill to take.”
Radical left-leaning ideologies were not just coming from faculty members. Marxism was considered fashionable amongst the youth, and more often advocated by the student population.
“It was in the air,” McNally explained. “People would go on marches [and] flaunt causes [....] How many were actually left-wing, and how many [were] in it for the excitement, I’m not sure. But it was primarily a phenomenon in the Faculty of Arts.”
The McGill Daily, the primary student publication at the time, played a major role as an outlet for students to convey their beliefs and rally the student population around the issues taking place.
“At that time the Daily was powerful,” McNally said. “The Daily would send out ‘We’re going to occupy the sociology floor,’ and you would get hundreds of students to show up.”
The Daily frequently reported on the actions of the many radical groups on campus, in addition to covering the constant succession of protests for various causes taking place at McGill. The Daily even went as far as publishing articles promoting radical alternatives and proposals for how departments should run their curriculum, advocating for extreme actions against the student society and the McGill administration.
With their headlines, The Daily captured the general student discontent that was taking place across campus and within classrooms.
“Violence ends lecture,” “Econ profs do not trust any student judgments,” and “A program for McGill: Demands presented to Senate by the Radical Students’ Alliance,” reads some of their many headlines reporting upheaval.
As a result of this student radicalism, occupying and disrupting classes became a common occurrence, and students who did not agree with the ideologies being discussed in classes would take significant measures to prevent professors from completing their lectures. At times, occupations and protests became violent, with police having to be called in on several occasions.
“Students would interrupt,” Hellman explained. “I remember [some of them] vividly. There was a guy that would sit up in the front row, […] a tough guy [dressed] like Che Guevara. I would be talking about 19th century France […] and he would get up and he would say, ‘Professor, for heaven’s sakes, I mean, this is a story about class struggle, about the poor against the rich, what are you going off on a tangent again for?’”
While it may have appeared that the leftist and Marxist movements taking place in Quebec and at McGill were unified under one common cause, their agendas were widely diverse, and were often influenced by completely different events and issues.
“At that time, Montreal was a witch’s cauldron [with] lots of forces of social unrest surfacing, that in many cases, had no connection with each other,” Schmidt explained.
Many of the leftist and Marxist roots at McGill derived from national and international movements, while in Quebec, the left grew primarily out of the rise of French-Canadian nationalism.
“So why was Marxism so weak in Quebec, then so strong in Quebec?” Warren said. “It has to do […] with a sudden surge of self, a society that lost […] its French Canadian identity and [was] looking for another one, probably [in] every direction, including counter-culture, the new age, [and] charismatic religious groups.”
Warren argues that because of the expanded strength of the government and the new presence of unions in the provinces, people felt that as a collective, they had to revolutionize society to best suit the majority.
“The problem with Marxism [today] is that no one believes that it can be a solution to society’s problems,” Warren said.
Indeed, the radicalism that was once so prominent began to diminish in the 1970s. The passionate advance of the Quiet Revolution had subsided, and French-Anglo tensions were slowly becoming addressed, particularly with regards to university education. In the U.S., the unifying movements of civil rights and Vietnam had ended, and with them, the rebelliousness of the youth generation. With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the leftist powers of the world had become obsolete. The far-left and Marxist concepts were no longer seen as viable to create a successful and prosperous society.
Today, these factions have more or less disappeared from society and from McGill. Many of the professors who were once considered radical have retired, and conflict within departments based on ideologies no longer exists. And while students today continue to protest and advocate for issues, as exemplified with the Maple Spring protest in 2012, the intensity and radicalism is nowhere near the extent that it once was.