Sam Walsh, 1917-2008
This article was translated by Richard Fidler from the original
author is leader of the Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ), a recognized
collective within Québec solidaire.
For a different view of Sam Walsh’s approach to the Quebec
national question, in 1972, see
Sam Walsh was also the brother of Bill Walsh (1910-2004), a former
activist in the Canadian CP and long-time trade-union leader and union
consultant, and the subject of a fine biography by Cy Gonick: A Very
Red Life: The Story of Bill Walsh (St. John’s: Canadian Committee on
Labour History, 2001).
Samuel J. Walsh, long-time leader of
Quebec Communist Party, dies at 91
by André Parizeau
Samuel J. Walsh, leader of the Quebec Communist Party (PCQ) from 1962
to 1990, died on March 18 at the age of 91. Although he is much less
known than many other individuals who shaped the history of the Quebec
Communist Party, such as Norman Bethune, Fred Rose, Henri Gagnon, Léa
Roback, etc., we owe an equal debt to Samuel J. Walsh.
In more than one respect, he was a pioneer. It was thanks to him that
the PCQ achieved full autonomy from the Communist Party of Canada (CPC)
pertaining to all matters in relation to Quebec politics.
That in itself was a real achievement since the CPC, with which the
PCQ was then associated, was always characterized by a strong tendency
toward centralization in terms of its internal life — even if the CPC
was the first pan-Canadian party to recognize the right of
self-determination for the Quebec nation. This achievement was all the
greater in that consciousness on the Quebec question was still very
underdeveloped in the rest of English Canada at that time. After all,
that was more than 40 years ago.
We should note in passing that the PCQ is no longer linked in any way
with the CPC as a result of a series of conflicts that ultimately ended,
in the middle of this decade, with a major crisis in the course of which
the CPC leadership made a complete mockery of that much talked-about
autonomy for which Walsh had fought so strongly.
Samuel J. Walsh was also one of those primarily responsible for the
fact that the PCQ ultimately threw its support to the YES campaign in
the very first referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1980. That was not an
easy thing to do, judging by the testimony of those who lived through
the debates preceding that decision. It was at the same time the first
major test of compliance with the principles of autonomy that the PCQ
had recently obtained for itself.
In English Canada, the CPC was inclined to oppose the idea of
supporting the YES. Its argument — one frequently used in the years
afterwards — was that the proposed sovereignty of Quebec would undermine
the unity of the workers across Canada and that this would ultimately
undermine as well the struggle for socialism both in Quebec and
elsewhere in the country.
Complicating things with the fact that the then Canadian prime
minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was seen by the Soviet big brother as
a leader who was more openly receptive to the principles of
international détente and therefore less inclined to engage in
escalation of the Cold War.
Walsh, for his part, was categorically opposed to the idea of
supporting the NO and thought as well that the annulment slogan
(advanced by most of the Maoist organizations at that time) was not
Walsh, and the PCQ under his leadership, were also at the heart of a
very important debate in the late 60s and early 70s. It involved the
issue of whether or not all the left-wing political forces in Quebec
should be united so as to create a new mass party. This proposal was
based on two observations.
On the one hand, the dispersion and sectarianism of the various
left-wing forces, a situation that characterized many of those forces at
the time, was leading nowhere. On the other hand, and as a consequence
of the ferment then existing within the trade unions, there was at the
same time a very clear openness within these organizations to themselves
making the leap into the political arena. In the CSN, there was talk of
the need to open a second front, while in the FTQ they were talking
openly of the opportunity to create a workers party instead of focusing
on support to the Parti québécois.
Once again, Walsh was a precursor. The PCQ’s (and Walsh’s) idea of a
“federated mass party of the workers” was never to be achieved. No doubt
the conditions to achieve such unity had not yet been assembled. Many
people, especially in the unions, ultimately decided instead to join the
Parti québécois. It must be said that in the early 70s the PQ had the
wind in its sails and had not yet been tested. On the far left, most
militants tended instead to steer clear of the PQ project, calling it
opportunistic and a dead-end solution.
Another major reason why the PCQ proposal could not succeed lay in
the fact that the party insisted on making the official support of the
unions an essential condition to its realization although the unions
were not really ready — and are still not — to associate formally and
organically in a political party. This raised the barrier too high.
Forty years later, when the left unity process is now going very
well, especially with the presence of Québec solidaire, we can only pay
homage all those such as Samuel J. Walsh who fought against all odds and
in often difficult circumstances, but always to the best of their
capabilities, to make such a project a reality.
Samuel J. Walsh was born of Jewish parents in 1916 in Montréal. For
some years he had no longer been politically active owing to major
health problems. Those who participated in the 13th
convention of the PCQ in 1999, which in some ways marked a renaissance
for us, will remember his presence; although already in shaky health, he
gladly accepted our invitation to participate in a short homage in his
His journey is and shall remain like that taken by thousands of other
militants, men and women whose lives, and their own desire to become
involved and to fight for change, remain intimately linked to our own
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