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  • « Nous protégeons l'infortune »: Les origines populaires de l'économie sociale au Québec
  • Geoffrey Ewen
« Nous protégeons l'infortune »: Les origines populaires de l'économie sociale au Québec. Martin Petitclerc. Montreal: VLB éditeur, 2007. Pp. 278. $27.95

This book examines mutual benefit societies in Quebec, primarily among French Canadians, from the 1850s to the 1920s. A topic familiar to those interested in working-class practices in the United States and Britain, it has until now drawn relatively little sustained attention in Quebec. This is not an institutional study but an attempt to understand how these organizations fostered a culture of solidarity and resistance to the dominant liberalism of the day.

Mutual benefit societies provided working-class men with a strategy to cope with some of the social consequences of industrialization. By paying initiation and monthly fees, members received a range of benefits. Most paid funeral expenses and provided a lump sum or pension to surviving wives or children, and some offered income in the case of unemployment, sickness, or old age. This was an alternative to the condescending and humiliating private charity offered by the churches and the middle class. Petitclerc agrees with other scholars that they acted as fictional families. In an age when many urban workers were rural-urban migrants or immigrants with few relatives near at hand, they supplied material assistance and a social network such as extended family had supposedly offered in the past.

Petitclerc discusses the values that characterized pure mutualism in the nineteenth century. As class-conscious organizations often organized on craft or occupational lines, many were jealous of their [End Page 175] autonomy and, at least initially, restricted membership to wage earners or craftsmen. These were egalitarian non-profit organizations. Dues and benefits were set at equal amounts for each member, regardless of age. They cherished participatory democracy. Debates at monthly meetings initiated workers into the democratic process. Involvement in the administrative work of the society was mandatory. Solidarity was promoted by obliging members to try to find work for those who were unemployed. They visited the sick, to ensure that claims were legitimate to be sure, but also to offer moral support. Discipline was maintained by fines levelled against those who missed a meeting or the funerals of fellow members.

The author argues that there was a sharp distinction between the practices that characterized these societies in the nineteenth century, compared to those that were adopted after 1900. In the early twentieth century many centralized their administration and depended on fulltime paid administrators rather than rank-and-file participation. They adopted new actuarial practices developed by private insurance companies that were promoted on the grounds that they would ensure a sounder financial base than older pay-as-you-go practices: This included graduated dues based on age and unequal benefit payments. These organizations focused more on life insurance and tended to avoid sickness benefits. The result was that many lost much of their original democratic and egalitarian character, and so they did less to strengthen the bonds of solidarity.

Much of this characterized the movement elsewhere in North America, but two aspects distinguished it in Quebec. First, the Catholic Church was suspicious of secular organizations that included non-Catholics and recalcitrant Catholics. The author provides an excellent discussion of the tensions between one large society, the Union Saint-Joseph, and the archbishop of Montreal who demanded rule changes, an exclusively Catholic membership, and the appointment of chaplains who could attend and address their assemblies. Second, the Quebec government waited until 1899 to provide for a corporate legal identity that would facilitate the functioning of these organizations and their ability to use the courts. This was decades after similar legislation was passed in other North American jurisdictions such as Ontario and more than a century after it was in place in Britain.

The issue of how widespread these societies were among wage earners is important to any assessment of their influence. Unfortunately there are no hard figures on membership in the nineteenth century. Thirty to forty societies were established in the [End Page 176] 1860s, and Petitclerc gives the impression that there was sustained growth (see...


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