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Review

Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada

By Ian Milligan

November 20, 2014

Review By Ron Verzuh

With Rebel Youth, Ian Milligan hearkens back to the political youth movements that went to the barricades, the conferences, and the picket lines in the 1960s, and in the process historicizes the events and people that evoke strong memories of an era that brought many changes to society and to the labour movement.

He situates those events in a unique context. This is no visitation to the counterculture 1960s or the hippie summer of love, but rather an exploration of some of the ideological clashes that occurred during that turbulent period, particularly between labour youth and New Left youth.

Milligan returns us to the sometimes-violent strikes of the 1960s where youth supported demands for childcare, improved workplace safety, pay equity, and other issues. We relive the Peterborough Examiner strike, the Dare Cookie strike in Kitchener, Ont., the Texpack strike in Brantford, Ont., the fish workers strike in Canso, NS, and the Artistic Woodworkers strike in Toronto. All are examples of how the attempt at a worker-student alliance manifested itself.

Milligan also describes some of the key confrontations during what he calls the mid-1960s “wildcat wave” (45). The irony of that wave, he writes, is that “just as young workers were rising up against managers and industrial legality in record numbers, their New Leftist counterparts were writing them off as ineffective agents of social change” (64).

The “agents” debate resurfaces elsewhere as Milligan examines campus unrest led by the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA), “Canada’s pre-eminent New Left formation” (72), the Canadian Union of Students (CUS), and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the United States. Milligan quotes youth leaders like Martin Loney, Sharon Yandle, John Conway, Jim Harding, John Cleveland, Dorothy Wigmore and others who spoke out at rallies for peace, women’s rights, civil rights, an end to the Vietnam War, and the need for a war on poverty.

In his analysis of the struggle to build a fighting coalition of workers and youth in Canada, Milligan acknowledges that it failed badly at times. In at least one instance, “the gulf between the leadership of the labour movement and of the student movement was simply too profound,” he notes  (99). But he also acknowledges the value of the New Left thinking on campuses that fostered a “dynamic movement out into the community in an attempt to foster meaningful change” (120).

His review of what was happening from the mid-1960s into the early 1970s has filled in some gaps, tied together seemingly disparate events, and signaled that something was happening there but we were not exactly sure, to paraphrase a Buffalo Springfield youth anthem from 1967. Of course, there are differences of opinion as to what did happen. Many of the participants who helped make that history are still alive and politically active, as Milligan points out. Some have gone on to play more traditional political roles. Some have continued to support social justice movements while others long ago abandoned their youthful dalliance with changing the world. All will have conflicting memories of the militant past that Milligan has so carefully constructed.

Perhaps this book will encourage some to revisit their pasts in search of some useful lessons for today. Those who became historians have a special role to play. “The decade was obviously about more than just middle-class students and New Leftists rebelling against alienation and liberalism,” Milligan writes. “To establish the period’s true significance,” we also need to show “how it touched youth of all classes as well as interacted with previous social movements such as labour” (183).

Rebel Youth gives us some hope that the lessons learned from the struggles that marked the youth movement of the 1960s have not been lost. “We must learn from the past and heed the ironic missed opportunities of this generation,” Milligan argues, “especially as contemporary activists and politicians come to grips with a new narrative to understand our circumstances” (182).

Shortly after I read Rebel Youth, I watched Pride, the British feature film about a group of gays and lesbians who decided to support the striking mine workers in the 1980s in defiance of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s declaration of war against unions. It immediately reminded me of Milligan’s account of the attempts of Canadian youth to support workers in their struggles. The film was an uplifting experience that suggested that such coalitions of very different groups are possible, effective, and desirable, if at times painful. So it is with Rebel Youth.

Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada
Ian Milligan
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014. 252 pp. $32.95 paper