Quebec’s History on the Move

Moving Exhibition Comes to Concordia Exposing the Social Struggles and Movements of the Province

Photo courtesy of Chloe Gendre
Photo courtesy of Chloe Gendre

For two weeks, the atrium of Concordia’s downtown library will be home to “Quebec on the Move,” an exhibit exploring various social movements in relation to Quebec’s English-speaking communities from 1960 to today.

One of the exhibit’s aims is to allow the next generation of activists to learn from the success stories and struggles of older community organizers involved in fields as diverse as immigrant rights, organized labour and equality for the deaf community.

“It really came from observing a lack of information on the recent history of social movements and community organizing in the English-speaking communities of Quebec,” said Chloe Gendre, the exhibit’s project manager.

“The idea was really to bring together a group of people who are part of the English-speaking community and find out more about those social movements that are more English-based.”

The exhibit, which will be on display from March 4 to 18, was organized by the Centre for Community Organizations, a non-profit that supports English-language, bilingual and ethnocultural community groups in the province by helping them in their organizational development and providing leadership training.

The centrepiece of the exhibit is a 20-minute video composed of excerpts from interviews with 11 contemporary community organizers. There will also be a timeline showing the broader social movements across the country and the province, as well as boards displaying advice for those looking to become more involved in the community sector.

The full-length interviews with each of the community organizers featured in the 20-minute film will soon be made available online, Gendre added.

John Bradley, one of the people interviewed for the exhibit, worked as a developer of social housing for over 25 years, beginning in the 1980s with the Milton Park project, a housing cooperative network that restored and renovated several Victorian homes just east of McGill University, saving them from destruction.

After the Montreal Citizens’ Movement came to power in the 1986 municipal election, Bradley worked in a para-municipal agency developing other social housing projects. More recently, he was a community organizer at the Pointe-Saint-Charles Community Clinic.

Bradley told The Link there’s a democratic deficit in today’s public institutions, with citizens having little control over such things as the urban environment, housing or healthcare. “If we do not have a profound, democratic shift, […] then we’re in for a very bad time,” he said.

According to him, the Pointe-Saint-Charles Community Clinic is the province’s only “citizen-run, democratically organized” healthcare provider. The non-profit clinic, which has agreements with the province’s health ministry allowing it to deliver services as if it were a CLSC, has annual general assemblies and a board of directors elected by the clinic’s users.

Bradley said the secret to organizing a successful social movement is to avoid “professionalizing” it. Instead, a movement must retain close ties to the community it is looking to help.

“In the past, […] you would have university students and others coming to working-class communities and sort of intervening in some sense. I think there were some failures there,” he said.

“The approach has to be much more on the basis of what’s called ‘radical popular education’ […] where it becomes a co-educative process.”

That means community organizers and educators must learn from the community’s residents and vice versa, he said.

“Sometimes, schooling will de-skill you. This is not an argument against education, but I think education has to be rethought so that it becomes a cooperative, democratic enterprise,” he added.

William Dere was also interviewed as part of the project. He was a key figure in the two decades-long struggle demanding an apology and compensation for the federal government’s discriminatory laws and policies targeting Chinese immigrants, which were in place until the 1960s.

Beginning in 1885, the Canadian government charged every Chinese immigrant a fee to enter the country, known as a head tax. In 1923, that tax was replaced by a ban on Chinese immigration, resulting in many Chinese Canadians being separated from their families.

The immigration ban was lifted in 1947, although it wasn’t until 1967 that Canada liberalized its immigration policies and gave all applicants for immigration an equal opportunity for admission into the country, regardless of ethnicity.

The redress movement seeking an apology for the head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act began back in the days of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government.

Dere served as the co-chair of the Chinese Canadian National Council’s national redress committee and chairman of the Montreal redress committee.

As part of their campaign, organizers found some of those who had paid the head tax in order to immigrate. In all, between 350 and 400 families in Montreal were registered, Dere said.

Mobilizing around the issue meant starting a dialogue about a topic few people in the Chinese-Canadian community spoke about, he explained.

“My father and my grandfather both paid the head tax, but they didn’t talk about it because they considered this to be a very shameful and humiliating period in their lives,” Dere said.

Gaining little traction with the country’s politicians, a class-action lawsuit was launched against the government, seeking compensation for those who had paid the head tax, their spouses or descendants. The court case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against compensation on the grounds that the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms cannot be applied retroactively, Dere said.

He added that the movement also tried to “internationalize” the issue by bringing the history of the Chinese head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act to the attention of the UN rapporteur on racism and racial discrimination.

Eventually, the redress movement did succeed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology and compensation for the discriminatory policies in 2006, not long after assuming office.

Dere told The Link that the “Quebec on the Move” exhibit will show visitors that there are a wide variety of social struggles and movements in the province.

“It’s not just the nationalist struggle or the federalist struggle, because these struggles are going on in the dominant society, but minorities have their own struggles too,” he said. “We cannot wait for the dominant society to sort out its own problems, because we have our problems that we need the larger society to address as well.”

Dere said all community organizers and activists looking to jumpstart a social movement must begin by educating themselves about the issues and being proud of who they are.

“That’s the first step, being proud of your own history, proud of your own existence and that you belong in this province, despite the fact that you may be seen as an outsider or not part of the mainstream,” he said.

A meet-and-greet on Thursday at 5 p.m. in the atrium will allow those visiting the exhibit to meet some of the community organizers and activists who were interviewed.

“I think that it will really add to the exhibit, to be able to interact with people who are involved and participated in the project,” Gendre said.

Concordia is the second stop on the travelling exhibit’s journey. It was displayed in February at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke and will head to Quebec City after Montreal.

Quebec on the Move // Atrium, McConnell Library Building (1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.) // March 4 to March 18 // Vernissage, March 5 at 5 p.m.