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Michel Mill, 1944-1996

Michel Mill, a leading member for many years of the Trotskyist movement in Canada and Quebec, died of a heart attack on October 6, 1996. The following message, slightly revised for publication here, was written for delivery at memorial meetings held shortly afterward in Montreal and Toronto.

As a personal memoir, it was not an attempt to evaluate the entirety of Michel’s political activities or literary contributions. One notable contribution, not mentioned in the memoir, was the role Michel played as a key leader of the massive upsurge and occupation movement in Quebec’s junior colleges, the CEGEPs, in the fall of 1968. In recognition of his organizing skills, Michel was selected by his student colleagues as the chief marshall of some major street demonstrations by the striking students in Montreal. At the time he was a student at the University of Montreal.

In an interview with Alain Bernatchez shortly before his death, Michel joked about the unexpected impact his activities at the time had on some individuals:

      "There is one person who, despite himself, was an extraordinary recruiter for the Fourth International in Quebec. It is Claude Charrron [later House Leader of the Parti québécois when it formed the government in the National Assembly]. He was then the vice-president of the UGEQ [the Quebec students union]. At the big demonstration that ended the October ’68 student strike, in front of 10,000 students at the University of Montreal sports centre, he denounced the Trotskyists who were coming from all directions and trying to ‘overradicalize’ the movement.

      "In fact, there was only one Trotskyist [Michel]. But Charron identified as Trotskyist everything that was to the left of the UGEQ leadership. Claude Charron’s comments marked the beginning of the Francization of the Trotskyist organization in Quebec. We had a youth organization, the Ligue des jeunes socialistes. In November ’68... there was a by-election in Bagot riding, a rural area, and I ran as a candidate. It was more a political than an electoral operation. This by-election, in the wake of the October events, helped to consolidate ourselves and reach a broader audience."

In that by-election, Mill ran as an LJS candidate against the newly-appointed Minister of Education in the Union Nationale government, Jean-Guy Cardinal. The LJS campaign attracted considerable attention in the mass media in both Bagot and Montreal.

Richard Fidler,
August 2004

Remembering Michel Mill

by Richard Fidler

I first met Michel Mill in 1962, in Toronto, while working as a carman’s helper at the West Toronto maintenance shops of the CPR. Sitting in what I thought was an empty boxcar, beyond the foreman’s gaze, I was stealing a few minutes of company time to glance at the latest volume in Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, The Prophet Unarmed. Suddenly I was interrupted by a voice from the shadows at the far end of the car: "Reading Deutscher? He’s not bad, for someone who opposed the founding of the Fourth International and believed in the self-reform of the Soviet bureaucracy."

Mike Mill (for that was how we first knew him in the movement) was soon "a hot contact", as we used to say, and it was not long before he had joined the Young Socialists and the League for Socialist Action. He was, like me, a student working on the railroad as a summer job. However, both his father and an uncle had been long-time workers in the CPR shops and, more importantly, members of the Canadian Trotskyist movement in the 1930s and early ’40s, latterly as members of a group associated with B.J. Field, a former leader in the American Left Opposition whose supporters had split from the Canadian Trotskyist movement during the Great Depression. Even before he encountered our tiny group in the ’60s, Mike had read rather widely in the literature of the Marxist movement, and was remarkably well informed about our international antecedents.

Two years later, in 1964, Mike moved to Montreal to join me and a few other comrades in helping to start a branch of our organization. We rented a house on Guilbault street, in the Milton-Park area, established a book room on the first floor, and Mike and I took up lodgings in the basement apartment during that first year.

These were the early years of the so-called Quiet Revolution, and it was a heady experience to plunge into the activities and debates within the left and revolutionary nationalist circles that were already burgeoning on the campuses and beginning to make headway among some layers of working class youth. Michel (as he now became) was in the thick of it.

Michel already had a fair knowledge of French, having spent a few summers working in the Roberval area at Lac Saint-Jean. He soon became impressively fluent in the language through voracious reading of newspapers and reviews such as Parti pris, Révolution québécoise and Socialisme québécois, and the French-language press of the Fourth International, and above all by immersing himself in the political life of his adopted nation. Michel was an active member from the beginning of the Mouvement de libération populaire, initiated by the supporters of Parti pris; a leading activist in the Comités des chômeurs; and of course a founder of the Ligue socialiste ouvrière, a predecessor of the Groupe marxiste révolutionnaire and still later Combat socialiste and Gauche socialiste.

In all of these activities and debates, Michel participated as an avowed adherent of the Fourth International, and he introduced a good many activists to the writings and ideas of revolutionary Marxism.

Some in the left were surprised at the relatively professional appearance of our tiny group’s publications, and Michel was always ready to impart his ample technical skills to others in a non-sectarian spirit—sometimes with unexpected results. I remember him in 1964 carefully instructing Pierre Vallières on how to produce justified two-column copy on a Gestetner stencil; and I still treasure my copy of the 1966 underground classic, "Qu’est-ce que le FLQ?", a 100-page brochure, neatly typewritten in cleanly-justified columns, signed "Mathieu Hébert", the pseudonym of Pierre Vallières.

Michel was a frequent contributor to Lutte Ouvrière, the mimeographed bi-monthly publication of the LSO during the mid-1960s. His thoughtful, well-argued contributions were always addressed to the radicalizing young nationalists, and aimed at winning them to an internationalist class-struggle perspective in the struggle for a socialist society. One of his most effective pieces, in an early issue of LO, was on the immigrant question. Michel noted the growing weight of the immigrant population in the Quebec working class and argued forcefully that those fighting for national liberation needed to pay special attention to incorporating this reality into their program as they developed a multiracial, secular, anticapitalist perspective.

I think it is fair to say that Michel was the first in our small group of mainly néo-Québécois in the mid-1960s to grasp and insist on the sovereigntist dynamic in Quebec’s nationalist upsurge, and above all to understand how central this understanding had to be to the work of the revolutionary Marxists. He argued strongly that the Quebec supporters of the Fourth International had to "go beyond" an abstract defence of the right to self-determination and actively promote Quebec independence—as Michel put it (in an analogy to James Connolly’s views on Ireland) to fight for a "workers’ republic of Quebec". He first developed his views at length in a 64-page typewritten tome, "The Reconquest of Quebec," published internally in 1966 in the LSO/LSA.

Michel’s argument was directed in part against articles and resolutions I had drafted that, while supporting the right of self-determination for Quebec as an oppressed nation, still failed to advocate Quebec sovereignty or independence (although by 1970 our organization as a whole, in both Quebec and English Canada, was in favour of an "independent and socialist Quebec").

This is not the place for a balance sheet on that early debate. The international Marxist movement at that point had little experience with or analysis of the phenomenon of a militant nationalist upsurge in a largely proletarian nation within an advanced capitalist social formation. We were groping in largely uncharted territory, attempting to apply some rather abstract theory and principles developed primarily in the quite different conditions of late 19th and early 20th century eastern and central Europe, to the situation of 1960s Quebec, even prior to the founding of the Parti québécois.

Nevertheless, I think an objective assessment, if such can be made, would have to conclude in the light of subsequent history that Michel’s analysis, whatever its faults, was correct in its central message: that Quebec was evolving and would continue to evolve as a nationally distinct social formation within the Canadian state and the broader North American context, and that the implications of this national shape to its social or class struggles had to inform every aspect of the thought and work of the left wing, both within and outside Quebec. A purely formal "democratic" position in support of self-determination was not enough.

To the best of my knowledge, Michel had worked through the fundamental elements of his position by the late 1960s, although over the following quarter century he elaborated on many particular aspects and deepened his analysis. One example was the aboriginal question; his articles in Inprecor, International Viewpoint and Option Paix during the Oka crisis in the early 1990s were in my opinion among the most perceptive commentary on a troubling episode that exposed a sharp class division within the Quebec sovereigntist movement.

An incidental, albeit important, thesis first advanced by Michel in the mid-1960s was that because the class struggle in Quebec was unfolding within a national envelope, the Quebec supporters of the Fourth International had to organize within a distinct Quebec section of the FI. Unfortunately (although understandably, perhaps, given its practical implications) this view became a central bone of contention within the Canadian Trotskyist movement, a majority of which was unwilling to accept the underlying premises that Quebec would necessarily become an independent state and that an independentist perspective necessitated a formally autonomous revolutionary party in Quebec within the framework of the existing Canadian state.

For a variety of reasons that cannot be detailed here, the debate in the movement on the theoretical nature and implications of the Quebec national question as a whole tended to be eclipsed by an increasing focus on this particular issue of party structure, and within the LSA/LSO leadership Michel and his supporters were increasingly marginalized. Polemical and factional excess came to characterize both sides, but I think it is only fair to say that the primary responsibility for the acrimonious and uncomradely tone of the debate, especially in its initial stages, lay with the majority, and (I deeply regret this) in the first place some of my own written and unwritten contributions.

The increasing factionalization within the section (which was of course fed in part by many other developments on both the Canadian and international levels) culminated in the early 1970s with the departure of Michel with a major component of our fledgling Quebec forces to found the GMR. Only following the recombination of the Canadian Trotskyist movement in the 1977 fusion did the substantive debate on the national question resume, although in a quite different context enriched by the experience of, among other things, the existence of a PQ government.

Notwithstanding the passion of our debates over certain unique features of the Quebec question, all participants understood the importance of solidarity and joint work between revolutionists in Quebec and English Canada. Michel was no exception.

In fact, his entire adult life, in a sense, can be seen as a compelling individual demonstration of the proposition that workers in English Canada could overcome the prevailing chauvinist pressures and express active solidarity with the Québécois in a common struggle against oppression and exploitation.

In his later years, Michel worked professionally, I believe, as an interpreter and translator. My last image of him was in the winter of 1995, at the Outaouais hearings of the Quebec commissions on sovereignty, where Michel was employed as an English-French interpreter. But in a sense, his whole life was spent interpreting in the broadest sense—as an interlocutor across the national divide. Born and raised in a working class suburb of Toronto, spending most of his life in Quebec, he was an insistent advocate throughout his politically conscious life of the need for united action by working people in both nations against their common enemy, the bourgeois state and its governments in Ottawa and Quebec City.

Writing on the eve of last year’s referendum (and, as it happens, barely a year before his own untimely death), Michel expressed succinctly his profound understanding of the relation between the national and class "questions", and his optimism about the road ahead. In a brief but moving introduction to our late comrade François Moreau’s posthumously published book, Le Québec, une nation opprimée, Michel wrote these prescient words:

      "... une défaite au prochain référendum ne signifierait nullement la disparition de la question nationale québécoise. Pour cela, il faudrait mettre fin à l’oppression nationale. Tant qu’il y aura de l’exploitation et de l’oppression, il y aura de la résistance.... Marx a dit, il y a longtemps, que l’histoire de l’humanité est l’histoire de la lutte des classes. La lutte contre l’oppression nationale fait partie de cette lutte des classes. La nation québécoise restera un os en travers de la gorge de l’État canadien quoi qu’il arrive....

      "Quelques soient les résultats du référendum, la tâche fondamentale reste la même: créer un mouvement de masse au Québec qui ne fera plus de fausse distinction entre la libération nationale, la lutte pour le socialisme et la démocratie."

      "... a defeat in the forthcoming referendum would not result in the disappearance of the Quebec national question. That would require an end to national oppression. As long as there are exploitation and oppression, there will be resistance.... Marx said, long ago, that the history of humanity is the history of class struggle. The struggle against national oppression is part of this class struggle. The Quebec nation will continue to stick in the craw of the Canadian state no matter what happens....

      "Whatever the results of the referendum, the fundamental task remains the same: to create a mass movement in Quebec that will no longer make a false distinction between national liberation, the struggle for socialism and democracy."

Richard Fidler
Ottawa, November 8, 1996

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