Canadian Labour Education: Is Neutral Rhetoric More Effective?
March 11, 2021
A comparison between the film Defying the Law by Marta Neilsen Hastings and the article “Canadian Unions: From Repression and Resistance to the Right to Strike’’ by Maas and Le Blanc shows how perspective can influence what the viewer or reader perceives as fundamental concerning Canadian Labour history. This paper will briefly outline the key arguments and storytelling angles within the two works, hypothesize on the intended response by both audiences and explain how or why they differ.
In her film, Hastings tells the story of the 1946 Stelco Strike through the use of personal accounts of the actions surrounding the strike. She forcefully sets the stage by introducing the setting of the film, Hamilton Ontario, as the home of Canada’s growing Industrial empire. The assertion is then made that Hamilton was “built not on steel, but on the men who made steel.” This narrative storytelling style is compelling to a viewer and makes a concerted effort to paint the strikers in the best light possible, right from the start. Often in unbiased media, the viewer, or reader, will be presented with both sides of the story right from the outset to not make a specific or intentional political statement. Hastings takes no such precautions, making Stelco into the villain from the outset. Narratively this is accomplished by describing the poor working conditions and how workers were discriminated against based on race, nationality, or simply based on the daily disposition of the foremen. Hastings intelligibly and deliberately designates one party the underdog and the other, an oppressor, making it very clear that the remainder of the film would feature a strong bias in favour of the labour movement.
In contrast, Maas and Le Blanc’s article tells the story of the Canadian Labour movement with a progressive bend while generally utilizing more neutral language. The vocal cheerleading is less visceral in this piece, and that appears to be intentional. Maas and Le Blanc craft their thesis with neutrality in mind. “One thing is quite clear in the development of Canadian labour law: the legal protections afforded to unions ebbed and flowed with economic, social, and political changes.” The authors of this article could have considered whether these “ebbs and flows” have been generally positive or generally negative, and they chose not to. Contextually, systems and collectives have a more opaque moral disposition than individual actors do. Therefore, in the minds of two lawyers, the decision to defend the questionable is not their decision to make.
These two separate analyses expect differing levels of understanding from the viewer. Hastings’ narrative choices presuppose the viewer has either no predisposition either way or a positive disposition towards the labour movement in general. Whereas, in Maas and Le Blanc, the authors assume some existing knowledge or bias and thoughtfully toes the line between progressivism and neutrality. It is not the case that one work is subjectively better than the other; it is merely that they both serve very different roles. Hastings presents to entertain and cheerlead while Maas and Le Blanc simply intend to inform.
Defying the Law was produced in 1997 on a grant from the National Film Board of Canada. Their mandate is to “…create, produce, and distribute distinctive and original audiovisual works that reflect the diverse realities and perspectives of Canadians, and to share these works with the people of Canada and the rest of the world.” The NFB’s stated goal is to present these important stories with their “realities and perspectives’’ intact. This mandate is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the clear and inherent bias in the film and to whom the film’s intended audience was. The NFB in 1996, when this film would have been approved for production, was under the direct supervision of then Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, who was a self-proclaimed leftist from Hamilton, Ontario. Whether the film’s funding was explicitly given because it shone a bright light on Hamilton or because it was a genuinely important Canadian story is impossible to know. What is known, however, is where this film was presented. According to The Journal of the Canadian School Library Association, the film was shown and recommended to students, grade 9 and up, both in Canada and around the world, in 1998. Understanding the level of familiarity the intended audience has on the topic can assist in further analysis of the film mentioned above. In the case of Defying the Law, we can now carefully assume that the director intended to entertain and persuade based on presupposed familiarity levels an average high-schooler presents.
The duo who wrote the article posted to LawNow.org has a directive to educate and inform the general public on how the law relates to everyday life. It is important to note that there does not appear to be a claimed or assumed political bias directly presented on the website. This fact helps us analyze who Maas and Le Blanc’s assumed audience was. As two law students wrote this article, it is unclear as to the level of sophistication LawNow.org usually draws in, but the target audience is likely other students or the general public. With a target audience like Maas and Le Blanc have, they must be unbiased in order to effectively inform and educate without scaring or offending their readers.
Hastings defends the history of the Canadian Labour movement in the way activists would. She is bold, clear and entertaining, but most importantly, she presents a persuasive narrative intended to win younger and outside viewers to her side. Maas and Le Blanc understand that their primary goal is to inform and educate. This understanding comes from their shared background in law and their inclusion on an educational platform such as LawNow.org. The authors never explicitly take the workers’ side or shine communism in a favourable light. Why? That is not the purpose of their article. Both of these creative works have merit and should continue to be used in Canadian Labour education. The ultimate question this leaves the viewer of both of these works is; Which is more likely to perform the purpose the creator has assigned? In the opinion of the author of this paper, “Canadian Unions: From Repression and Resistance to the Right to Strike,” by Paul Maas & Owen Le Blanc makes a more persuasive argument from the perspective of a viewer already supporting the labour movement.
Budd, Barbara, Marta Nielsen Hastings, David Wesley, Michael Allder, and Richard Nielsen. Defying the Law Montreal: National Film Board of Canada, 1997.
Canadian Encyclopedia. “Sheila Maureen Copps.” Sheila Maureen Copps | The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sheila-maureen-copps.
Carefoot, Lillian, ed. “SLIC 06–99 Sources.” The Journal of the Canadian School Library Association, 1999, 19, no. 3 (1999): 24. https://doi.org/http://journal.canadianschoollibraries.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/SLiCv19n3.pdf.
Maas, Paul and Owen Le Blanc. “Canadian Unions: From Repression and Resistance to the Right to Strike.” 3 May 2016. LawNow Magazine.
National Film Board. “Government of Canada.” Canada.ca. / Gouvernement du Canada, February 24, 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/national-film-board/corporate/about/mandate-values.html.