- Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada by Ian Milligan
While the historiography of the US New Left is rich and varied enough to have already gone through several waves of revision, scholarship on the Canadian New Left has been sparse. With the notable exception of studies of Québécois nationalism and the Quiet Revolution, relatively little has been written about the panoply of movements that erupted and flamed out across English and French Canada over the course of the 1960s and early 1970s. To the extent that such scholarship exists, it has focused largely on the student-led and “new social movement” aspects of the New Left. Here the dominant narrative has been one of “children of privilege” rejecting the values of their parents and the class-based “Old Left” to found movements based on identities and lifestyles.
Fortunately, a new generation of scholarship has developed in recent years to challenge the “children of privilege” narrative. Contributions from Sean Mills, Bryan Palmer, Joan Sangster, Peter McInnis, Benjamin Isitt, two significant edited volumes, and several dissertations have begun to paint a much more nuanced – and interesting – picture of the “long 1960s.” While recognizing the “newness” of the Canadian New Left, this new scholarship has highlighted both its global dimensions, as well as its links with a decidedly older Left, particularly that based in the labour movement. Although these links were complex and often fraught with conflict, they were an essential part of creating the Canadian New Left.
To this developing body of New Left scholarship we can welcome the addition of Ian Milligan’s Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada. Milligan’s book aims to “demonstrate the salience of labour and how this significantly affected the direction of radical and not-so-radical political and cultural movements through the long sixties.” (11) While campus revolts must be part of any telling of the New Left’s story, and are certainly featured in Rebel Youth, Milligan’s focus extends far beyond the universities. He argues that understanding what was happening in the workplace was central to understanding the New Left.
The first two chapters of Rebel Youth outline the contours of this broader perspective on youth revolt in the 1960s. We encounter not only the well-known campus radicals, but the young Inco miners in Sudbury gathered at the mine cages, banging their lunch pails in defense of their customary right to have lunch before their shift. We meet the anti-authoritarian, pot-smoking “long-hairs” working the lines at Inglis and Chrysler. They shared with their college-bound contemporaries a common youth culture, characterized by “personal freedom, individual expression, and democracy above all else,” which did not mix well [End Page 213] with the authoritarian structures of the university and workplace alike. (22) But Milligan is careful to note that within this shared culture, there were important differences along race, gender, and class lines. These differences created divisions that would prove difficult to overcome as the movements of the 1960s developed.
The next two chapters focus on youth revolt in the workplace, and how the campus-based left understood and responded to this revolt. Imbued with the anti-authoritarianism of the period, young workers chafed at basic workplace indignities and arbitrary rules that their seniors accepted, such as miners having to heat their lunch using electric wiring from the underground lighting system. (43) They also often rebelled against their official union leadership, engaging in unsanctioned wildcat strikes in the late 1960s on an unprecedented scale. This revolt spilled over into internal union politics, leading to leadership challenges and injecting new militancy into unions in auto, steel, and mining. While some union leaders resisted calls for change others, like United Auto Workers Canadian Director Dennis McDermott, sought to engage younger workers.
Meanwhile, campus New Leftists sought to make sense of this workplace revolt. Many had embraced the idea, popularized by intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse, that...