When the clergy supported the strikers at the time of Duplessis

When the clergy supported the strikers at the time of Duplessis


The Asbestos strike, which lasted from February to July 1949 – 74 years ago this month – constitutes an important labor dispute in our history. It pits some 5,000 mining workers from the city of Asbestos against mining companies supported by Maurice Duplessis. Several important figures play a role in it.

Maurice Duplessis in 1947.


The conflict begins at Johns-Manville. The Confederation of Catholic Workers of Canada (CTCC), the ancestor of the CSN, wants an increase of 15 cents per hour. 

It also demands more consultation from the union and especially wants to obtain the withholding of dues at source, the famous Rand formula. 

The company does not want to know anything. A conciliator is appointed, but ends up throwing in the towel.

Before calling the strike, the union must submit to arbitration. 

The workers, however, have lost confidence in this process, which is often very long and tinged with bias towards employers. 

On February 14, 1949, 2,000 Johns-Manville employees launched an illegal strike, which quickly spread to some 3,000 other mining workers.

The asbestos mine at the time of the conflict.

Riot Control

The reply is not long in coming. The unions lose their certification and the mining companies are authorized to hire strikebreakers. 

The strikers, on the other hand, have no intention of allowing the picket lines to be crossed.&nbsp ;

All this takes place while the company obtains an injunction and calls the provincial police.

Very quickly, the situation degenerates. 

The police intervene during the Asbestos strike.

The miners attacked the scabs and the police intervened against the strikers. 

May 5 was one of the high points of the conflict. The picketers, led by the famous trade unionist Jean Marchand, blocked the entrance to the city to strikebreakers. They also attack police officers. 

Jean Marchand, center, during the strike.

Duplessis does not allow himself to be imposed. He retaliated by sending 200 reinforcements. 

On May 6, the riot law was read aloud by the police and a pitched battle ensued. 

The provincial police had been mobilized by Duplessis.

There are more than a hundred arrests. Several strikers are brutalized by the police.

Trudeau's convertible Jaguar

A young lawyer named Jean Drapeau took up the defense of the imprisoned workers. 

At the same time, an intellectual little known to the public, Pierre Trudeau, took up the cause of the workers. 

He went to Asbestos in particular in his convertible white Jaguar, which did not fail to attract attention! 

Later, he will publish with others a book on the strike.

Part of the clergy is behind the workers, like a good part of the population. This support is embodied by the Bishop of Montreal, Joseph Charbonneau. Among other things, collections were organized to support the strikers. 

Bishop Joseph Charbonneau in 1940.

All this created divisions within the clergy and, in January 1950, Rome mute Charbonneau to Victoria on the west coast.  

The conflict ends with a relative victory for the employers. This does indeed grant a raise of 15 cents an hour to the strikers, but they lose on everything else. 

Charbonneau and the chef

A few years later, author John Thomas McDonough wrote a play inspired by the strike called Charbonneau and the Chief. < /p>

Directed by Paul Hébert, it was presented in the 1970s and then returned to theaters in the mid-1980s. 

To have seen it at that time (at the age of 16 and flanked by my first date!), I can tell you that Jean Duceppe embodied Duplessis in a masterful way.

The events described s However, they are far from reality. 

The Unionist leader is presented as someone so influential that with his contacts in Rome he managed to transfer Monsignor Charbonneau to British Columbia. 

Some 250 000 people will see this piece.  p;

This success testifies to the fascination that Maurice Duplessis still holds over us.