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Saturday April 17, 2010

Fiery Quebec union leader fought for social justice

Politically engaged nationalist retained his sense of indignation until the day he died

Special to The Globe and Mail

MONTREAL -- It was a prison warden, not Michel Chartrand's lawyer, who successfully obtained an early release for the labour leader after one of his many incarcerations.

Word had gotten back to the warden that he could have a situation on his hands if he didn't act quickly. Chartrand, the inmate, had begun to help organize the prison guards. It seems they were unhappy with their working conditions and welcomed the union organizer's advice.

Chartrand had a knack for organizing, persuading entire industry sectors in the 1950s to unionize, but his philosophy was that the rights they were fighting for could also benefit non-union individuals and actually better society.

Chartrand, who died on April 12 in Montreal, was an impassioned speaker who almost single-handedly transformed Quebec unions into more political animals. He helped put social justice issues on the table by convincing leaders that their responsibilities went beyond wage negotiations.

As president of the then 75,000-member Montreal council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions from 1968 to 1978, his leadership was seen as radical.

Forging common fronts between previously single-issue trade unions, he gave the Quebec labour sector a stronger voice in the province.

Having ostracized the right, the common front's evermore left-wing membership was taking up causes close to Chartand's heart: unemployment insurance, pay equity, co-op businesses, credit unions, Quebec sovereignty and workplace safety, as well as international workers' rights and other causes, including Chilean democracy and Palestinian rights.

He had a gift for rallying people; there were many protests and public meetings that were amplified by Chartrand polemics. If his speeches were dishes, they would have been stuffed with indignation, cooked with a good deal of humour and peppered with swear words.

"He was the first superstar of the union movement," said one of his biographers, Paul Labonne.

Just as he pressed for unions to become more politically engaged, the labour leader pushed himself to break the mould of union organizer and began working in organized politics, putting his name out, often as a fringe candidate, the last time in 1998 at the age of 81, in then-premier Lucien Bouchard's riding. Despite his commitment to sovereignty, he loathed the Parti Québécois for what he saw as its centrist policies.

While he was certainly a populist, his convictions sometimes took him to the more odious side of politics, such as when he supported the FLQ manifesto.

When the War Measures Act was enacted during the 1970 October Crisis, he was put in detention for four months for sedition after supporting the demands of the Quebec terrorists and saying publicly that he thought then-mayor Jean Drapeau should have been the person kidnapped. The charges were eventually dropped.

While he never regretted his remarks in support of the group that killed Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte during that time, according to his daughter Suzanne Chartrand, he did think they went too far. "He said no death was justified."

His political anger has been imitated by comics and mocked by opponents who knew that one could always count on a good tirade blowing in from his direction. His story, and that of his politically engaged wife, Simonne Monet-Chartrand, has been told in many forms by those who knew how well-liked and respected he was by the populace, and who saw in him an uncompromising advocate.

Joseph Michel Raphaël Chartrand was born Dec. 20, 1916, in Outremont, a well-heeled enclave of Montreal. Despite the address and having a father working as a civil servant, the 13th of 14 children witnessed his parents, Louis and Hélène, having to be very frugal. The family was also religious and, at the age of 3, Michel announced to his parents: "I want to be a monk."

That early wish came true and in 1933, having tired of the classical colleges, where he had excelled, he joined the Trappist monks of Oka, Quebec, and became Brother Marcellin, living in almost complete silence. The life was difficult physically, working in the fields and making cider, feeding pigs and tending to fruit trees. While there, he developed a hiatus hernia that bothered him his whole life. "That's the reason why I can't keep anything inside," he would quip.

But the life was also spiritually fulfilling and he found himself thinking more profoundly about the love of his family, his sense of nationalism and his sense of purpose. He had to leave after two years, his hernia preventing him from fulfilling his duties.

A year later, he would learn about political injustice first-hand after his father was fired by the provincial liquor board. He had blown the whistle on internal corruption, and in the middle of the Depression, he was let go from his job of 44 years. His father hid the fact from his family for three months, until he was discovered in the park one day by one of his daughters.

Chartrand père et fils then established a printing business, with Michel becoming a typographer. He enjoyed the life and through a Catholic workers' association began to get involved in debates on workers' rights and social justice.

In 1938, he became a member of the Action libérale nationale, a reform-minded group, and was involved in provincial political organizing. Four years later, he married Simonne Monet, a judge's daughter who was a pacifist and an early feminist, and with whom he became involved in many political causes, one of the first ones being the anti-conscription protests of 1944.

According to his friend, Gérald Larose, a former president of the CNTU, it was 1949, where his political awakening came. The Quebec asbestos workers' strike attracted many supporters of the pickets, who were striking against the largely American owners.

The autocratic premier of the time, Maurice Duplessis and Catholic bishops supported the owners; the priests and Catholic activists supported the pickets.

"That really marked him," said Larose, who said Chartrand saw collusion between the state, the Americans and the church, as well as the police and the judges.

It was during that strike that he was also introduced to workplace safety, an issue that he would commit himself to during and after his years in the CNTU, seeing evidence of mesothelioma, a rare cancer, and other diseases associated with asbestos mining.

In the 1950s, he was a founding member of the Confederation of Catholic Workers and could be found on the picket lines of several key strikes. He ran for office in the 1956 provincial election and then joined Tommy Douglas's Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, running in both the 1957 and 58 federal elections and losing both times.

He appreciated the social issues the CCF upheld and became president of their Quebec chapter and later a founding member of the NDP's Quebec wing. In 1963, he split from them on the issue of independence and started the Quebec Socialist Party.

He and Simonne walked with Martin Luther King in Washington and protested for nuclear disarmament.

Suzanne Chartrand says her father taught her to "always think of your brothers and sisters before you think about yourself." She remembers when she was 10, a neighbouring family lost their home in a fire. The Chartrands didn't know the family well but she remembers them housing two or three of the children until the family was back on their feet.

Suzanne is one of seven children he leaves. He was predeceased by one daughter, Marie-Andrée, who was murdered in 1971, and Simonne, who died in 1993.

Although he came off as a fiery type, he had a love for fine wine, classical music, poetry and art. He even acted in a 1970 movie, Deux femmes en or, playing, funnily enough, a judge.

His death brought testimonials from union leaders, politicians, and artists, and comments from dozens of everyday people.

Former premier Bernard Landry said in a statement. "If Quebec seems to resemble Europe more than North America, in the way that resources seems to be more equally distributed, and if the number of unionized jobs seem higher than elsewhere, we can thank people like Michel Chartrand."

Chartrand's final years were spent with many visitors but less activism. Nevertheless, there was still a lot of indignation. He complained about the current Charest budget two weeks before his death from cancer.

This past week his body was laid out, not surprisingly, at a co-operative funeral home. A funeral mass will take place today in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil.

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