Manitoba History: Book Review: Ian Milligan, Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada

by James Naylor
Brandon University

Number 79, Fall 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Ian Milligan, Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014, 241 pages. ISBN 9780774826884, $32.95 (paperback)

I regularly begin the university course I teach on the 1960s with a quiz in order to assess what current students know about the decade, as well as to prompt a discussion about the ways in which the “sixties” have been remembered and reconstructed. The results are always both surprising and predictable. Students have a broad range of social, cultural, and political interests and relate to the era in any number of ways. Very rarely, though, do they identify the 1960s with specifically working-class militancy or radicalism, at least in relation to North America. In fact, the opposite is the case. One of the enduring images of the 1960s is “hard hats” shouting down student protestors, or lining up behind Richard Nixon or George Wallace to defend a range of conservative values. In an era that began to criticize stereotypes in the media, the image of the clownish working-class bigot, Archie Bunker, seemed to escape barely scathed.

Workers seemed to have lost the anger and the critical capacities they had exhibited after World War I or during the Great Depression. That, indeed, was the conclusion of many of the main thinkers of the new, rebellious, generation. Most famously, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills dismissed the American working class as a potential agent of social change, arguing that the mantel had passed to a new generation of radical intellectuals. The German philosopher Herbert Marcuse seemed to agree, suggesting that modern workers had been bought off by modern capitalism. The new agents of change were students who were protesting the American imperial assault on Vietnam, or were allying themselves with African Americans and fighting segregation in the US South. On college campuses across the continent, a student-based New Left read Wright and Marcuse and felt their own power, as they mobilized by the thousands to fight injustice and consider how to make systemic change in the social order. Labour, it seemed, were more of a hindrance than a help in all of this.

In Rebel Youth, Ian Milligan paints a far different—and more complex—picture. At the dawn of the 1960s, universities still remained the preserve of a small, elite portion of the North American population; most young people headed directly into the workforce. Milligan points out, though, that this was a new and different generation of workers. Although their experiences in working-class neighbourhoods and in schools where they were streamed into “technical” courses were different from the upper-middle-class that fed colleges and universities, they too were part of the baby boom generation and, in many ways, more central to the booming youth culture of the 1950s. They danced to Elvis, found autonomy in the automobile, and bristled at the authoritarianism of the broader society. This, Milligan, argues, was part of the explanation for the specifically young working-class explosion of the mid-1960s in Canada that manifested itself in an unprecedented wave of unofficial “wildcat” strikes. Workers, mostly young, were willing to accept neither arbitrary authority nor the slow and bureaucratized system of settling disputes that had been put in place since the Second World War. In an era of low unemployment and growing expectations, young workers had little to lose by gambling their jobs in risky confrontations with their employers.

This is a fascinating story, although we are already generally aware of its broad outlines due to recent contributions by Peter McInnis and Bryan Palmer. [1] This wave of workplace rebellion quickly died out, and Milligan turns his focus to the campus-based New Left. This is a little bit frustrating, because we are left with the largely unanswered question of the impact of this new generation of workers on the internal life of individual unions. But the stories are connected. The New Left thought hard about allies: who could they work with who had an interest in changing society, and the capacity to do so? If workers had been incorporated into the existing social order by higher wages, it was clear that not everyone had been welcomed to the party of mass consumerism. African-Americans’ struggles for social and economic justice had galvanized America, and here in Canada there were others—the poor, and particularly Indigenous people—who benefitted little from modern capitalism. In programs such as the Kingston Community Project in Ontario and the Neestow Partnership Project in Saskatchewan, New Leftists attempted to forge exactly such connections.

The challenges were twofold: social and cultural barriers were hard to overcome, and poverty and oppression did not necessarily lead to the kinds of political conclusions and alliances that New Leftists had hoped. Increasingly, successful alliances developed with already existing social movements, such as the National Farmers’ Union and labour unions in Saskatchewan, and with portions of the organized labour movement who worked with radicals under siege at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Such experiences, as well as a painful process of reconsidering the balance sheet of a longer history of radical struggles, increasingly led the New Left to rethink and rework Marxist understandings of capitalism. They looked increasingly to building alliances with labour.

This was no easy task, but there were considerable opportunities for interaction. Even after the wave of wildcats subsided, Canadian workplaces were far from serene. With historically high rates of union membership, workers sought to secure for themselves the full benefits of economic prosperity, along with respect and justice on the job. It was often a tough battle. So, for instance, when Roy Thomson’s media empire bought the Peterborough Examiner, cut wages and job security, and responded to a strike by bringing in strikebreakers, students responded in droves, becoming crucial to maintaining the picket line at the small workplace. There, and at other southern Ontario workplaces such as Texpack and Dare Cookies where low wages and difficult working conditions spoke to the shallowness of the post-war boom, a broad array of students and Leftists responded by organizing large and effective strike support efforts. Their participation helped cast attention on local and often isolated struggles. Strikes such as these, where particularly vulnerable workers faced large corporations armed with considerable resources, were difficult to win; but, besides providing material support for workers, they provided considerable experience for a much broader radical Left.

Valuable links were forged across the left and with some union activists, but such events were too episodic, in most cases, to result in ongoing alliances. One interesting exception was the broad support for the Canso fishers’ strike in the Maritimes which led to the creation of the East Coast Socialist Movement. Milligan presents this as an example of a successful left formation that grew out of a strike, and which was deeply involved in a range of issues of concern to working-class Easterners. The most dramatic episode he relates is the Artistic Woodwork Strike of 1973. This strike, at a small manufacturing firm in a remote corner of suburban Toronto, became a major campaign against the abuse of immigrant workers. Supporters, often hundreds from “various parts of the broader New Left milieu” (p.156), flocked to the picket line every day, to be met with police violence and mass arrests. As a result, an isolated struggle became front page news and the subject of intense debate in the city and the province. New Left radicals had connected with real struggles of working people in a manner that both advanced their cause and opened debates about the continued oppressiveness and exploitation of modern industrial capitalism.

Milligan succeeds in demonstrating the centrality of labour and labour issues during the 1960s. Doing so begs the question of why this has been disregarded. To some extent it might be the case because it is a specifically Canadian story. Although there were important labour developments in the US, the Canadian labour movement appears to have been particularly explosive. An element of this story, as Milligan explains, is the emergence of left-wing nationalism, as many Canadian unions bristled under the domination of their American-based leadership. “Breakaway” Canadian unions seem to have been particularly open to working with New Leftists. There is a parallel story told by Meg Luxton of the ways in which women’s trade union activism in Canada were much more central to the construction of the modern feminist movement in this country compared to south of the border. [2]

Like the best scholarship, Milligan’s study opens more questions. The “1960s” that he studies stretched from 1964 to 1973, using Artistic Woodwork as the denouement. However, as he noted, the “New Left” (always a vague category) had become much more like the old left with its focus on the transformative capacities of the working class. What happened to them? In the 1970s, many of them got jobs, often in industrial settings, and sought to turn the workplace and unions into the focus of their activity, sometimes with important effects. Although Milligan sought earnestly to make this a truly national (or at least English-Canadian) story, it is unevenly told. Despite having interviewed several Manitoban activists for this study, we learn little about developments in this province. Manitoba’s “Artistic Woodwork” (minus the violence, but with the large scale police presence and arrests) occurred later—in 1976 and 1977. But the broader story is well told. Both workplace and campus conflicts created a broad, interconnected, but uneven radicalization. Rebel Youth is an important contribution to exploring and understanding its dynamics and outcomes.


1. Peter McInnis, “Hothead Troubles: 1960s-Era Wild Cat Strike Culture in Canada,” in Lara Campbell, Dominique Clément, and Gregory S. Kealey, eds., Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012, pp. 155–170, and Bryan D. Palmer, Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, pp. 211-241.

2. Meg Luxton, “Feminism as a Class Act: Working-Class Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Canada,” Labour/Le Travail 48, Fall 2001, pp. 63-88.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 24 July 2020