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Reg McQuaid: From missionary to socialist

February 22, 2023
Reginald McQuaid talked to Socialist Worker about his journey from Roman Catholic missionary to advocate for sugar workers to joining a socialist organization.
I got to thinking this over and I began to consider myself as a socialist and as a church person because I started out my life as a fundamentalist Roman Catholic in a small village in P.E.I in 1935.
I was kind of a fundamentalist member of my church and believed everything I was told and did everything I was supposed to and it led me to the priesthood. I was ordained a priest in 1959 and remained so until 1976.
So, church and religion were a part of my life right up until I got involved in the sugar work.
I want to touch on a few aspects in that period that conditioned my mind to be open to the situation of the workers and to the need to help them in building their organizations.
The first thing I want to say is that my father was a railway worker, he did track maintenance. He was a member of the International Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way employees (now part of the Teamsters). That was my first contact with trade unions. He used to receive a magazine monthly and I read it quite carefully. So, I had some idea about trade unions.
Then I got involved while I was studying as a student doing my undergrad, every summer I had a job, it was always low skill manual labour. A couple of summers I worked on the railway, then a sawmill and various construction jobs. So, I think my mind was conditioned to understand the situation of workers and of the need to improve their livelihood.
So, when I was ordained in 1959, in Rome, on my invitation, I referred to the first message of Jesus when he began his public life. He said, ‘ I have been sent to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim liberation to the captives.” And I thought that it reflected what was in my mind.
I was also aware that after three years of Jesus trying to implement this in various ways he was assassinated by the Romans and by their collaborators in Palestine. 
Missionary work, workers struggles and Marxism
I had a good model in Jesus and I wanted to be a missionary. The idea of a missionary at that time, in 1960, was what some would call pie-in-the-sky religion. That you told the people about Jesus, got them to believe in him and there was a lot of talk about saviors and redemption from sin. And, I suppose that was the concept that I went with as a missionary. I went to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, a very densely populated country located at the delta of the Ganges River where it flows into the Bay of Bengal. That was where I started my missionary career.
The religious situation of the people did not make very much of an impression on me, but the material poverty of the people is what really struck me. From that time on I became gradually more interested in what could be done for the people to improve their material circumstances. 
I was over there for a total of 12 years, and I came back in 1972. I used to say that I was a missionary for 12 years, but I never converted anybody except myself.
My mind changed when I was over there. I became aware of Mahatma Ghandi. He was killed in 1960. He had been trying to get the Hindus not to kill the Muslims at the partition of India of Pakistan and India, and a right-wing Hindu killed him for that. 
I was there in 1961-62. At that time there were still quite a few people there who were directly involved with Ghandi and I made it a point to seek them out and to learn what their approach was to the material conditions of the people. I even had occasion to meet Ghandi’s grandson, Rajmohan. So, that was something that got my mind turning. 
Then I met a British monk named, Bede Griffiths, quite an extraordinary person by any standard, like Thomas Merton in the US, and became great friends. He opened up my mind to another way of looking at the world.
This was the time of the Cold War. There was a significant Communist Party in India involved in trade union work, like railroads But, the movement was split between Russia and China. In the Cold War, India was Ideologically favouring Russia. Pakistan was an instrument of the US and in Eastern India there was a lot of sympathy for China and influence within the Communist Party.
So, I was exposed to Marxism on the ground, but also aware that there were divisions which kind of prevented them from having a larger role in India. 
There are 20 states in India largely divided along linguistic lines, with an entire population close to one billion. There were two states that elected communist governments, West Bengal and Kerala. Kerala is the state with the highest population of Christians, 20%, mostly Syrian Christians after apostle Thomas. There was a high percentage of educated people and a significant Communist Party presence.
Another turning point in my life was when we were in India, we didn’t have a lot of access to news from the west, but we got Time magazine every week. I called it the weekly bible. We would read avidly to see what was going on in the world and how to interpret it.
In 1966 there was an election in Kerala, the Communist party was in opposition. I was in Kerala during the election period. Time Magazine had a correspondent in Bombay (Mumbai). Their prediction was very dire if the communists get in in Kerala, it will be the end of freedom, really talking it up. I was there and the election went like any other in any other place. Voting day came, there was a result and we went on with our lives. 
But when I saw the Time magazine description about what had happened, I couldn’t believe that we were talking about the same place. It was awful, it was terrible that the Communists got in. I half expected there would be soldiers with machine guns on every corner telling us what to do. But, life went on as it normally did. So I thought if Time magazine can be so off base about what happened here in Kerala, what about Vietnam? Am I to believe what they are saying about Vietnam or other parts of the world?
So it kind of turned my mind around, that what people were led to believe about Marxism was largely determined by the capitalist media. For me, the most important thing about Marxism is the position toward private property and sharing the earth’s resources. But, if you were to judge by the media, Communists were first of all atheists, so the worst thing you could possibly imagine. That they didn’t regard human rights, but they wouldn’t mention that they were distributing the property of the rich. They didn’t want us to think of that!
During my time in India, when I came face to face with the lives of the people and their concerns, my mind moved away from traditional religious concerns. The question was how these people could be brought to an acceptable standard of living?
Part of the answer was in the UN conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The first conference was in 1964. It may have been in Geneva; I know that Che Guevara was a Cuban delegate there. What the conference came up with was a program to make the terms of trade more equal, more fair. Poor countries, producers of raw material, got low prices. Industrialized countries produced manufactured goods and the poor countries had to pay through the nose for them. 
There were three international trade agreements: sugar, cocoa and coffee. In the case of sugar which I became very much involved in, the idea was to have a price band, then the amount of sugar coming onto the market had to be within that band. The concept was good and UNCTAD held a second conference in India 1968. 
Return to Canada and church advocacy for workers: GATT-fly
But by 1972 I felt I had to resign my life as a foreign missionary, because it was not what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. So, I came back to Canada. It so happened the third UNTD conference was held in 1972 in Chile, when Allende was President. A number of Canadian church people were down there, and they had the same concept I had. Even though I didn’t think that Time magazine was the weekly bible, I still read what they wrote. I saw that what was going on, what they were proposing about the UNTD conference in Chile was not at all about the idea of transferring wealth from the wealthy nations to the poor. 
So, I wrote a letter to Time magazine, which they published. There was an organization in Ottawa called Canadian Council for International Cooperation. They saw my name and got my address somehow and sent me their newsletter.  I saw in their newsletter that Canadian churches were setting up a project to address Canada’s participation in trade agreements, such as the international sugar agreement. The Canadian sugar industry was dominated by a British company, Tate and Lyle, which at that time was the biggest sugar company in the world. 
Canada instead of trying to take a position which would respect the aims of transfer of wealth to the poorer countries, were blocking any progress. So this was a major concern to people in the Canadian churches, which is why they wanted to set up a project called GATT-FLY for GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), a play on gadfly.
GATT-FLY advertised that they wanted a staff person and I applied, because I thought that this is exactly where my mind is at. They had a candidate, but they welcomed volunteers.
I should mention about the 1960’s because things changed in many parts of the world. People’s minds opened up and this was also true of the Catholic church. The pope, John XXIII, was very unconventional. He took office in 1958 and he could see that the church was out of sync with the rest of the world. He called the Second Vatican council. Two things that came out from it: the preferential option for the poor, the church and all its activities should put a preference on doing things to improve the material circumstances of people. The second thing: the idea of liberation theology. If theology meant anything it was to liberate the people who were oppressed and exploited. 
So, this is what the church in Canada in the early 1970s was concerned about. There were young staff people that were ready to put their money where their mouth was. That’s how GATT-FLY got started. Five churches: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Anglican and United pooled their resources and started up this project. 
Starting in 1973 when GATT- FLY had its first general meeting I went to Toronto as a volunteer.
One of the things they were concerned about and wanted to address is that there was an international sugar conference happening in October of 1973 and they wanted the church's position known and put forward to the government. 
So, I was asked to research the Canadian sugar industry and its position in the world and to draw up a report that could be the basis of the church's position at the international sugar conference.
It so happened, I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but when I think back when I studied in Rome, I studied mostly theology and the bible and so forth. But my teachers were Jesuits - I went to a Jesuit university. And anyone who knows anything about Jesuits knows that they consider themselves a bit more thorough than the average priests. When I think of the Jesuits, I think of the Berrigans, Dan and Phil, who were outstanding spokespersons for the Catholic church in that period. 
One of the courses I took at university was called methodology and it didn’t make an impression on my mind at the time. But whenever I started to do research, I found that I had a method in which to approach research. So, I made fairly rapid progress and I got into the subject deeply. 
I should mention that my first resource was the business library at U of T. I was able to get solid information on sugar companies and industries around the world. And one of the main sources that everybody was quoting was a German publication, F.O Licht, which had been publishing on the sugar industry for over 100 years since the 19th century.
This was the main source everyone was quoting, and I got myself a subscription to the newsletter. From that time, 1973 to 1998, I had that resource that was invaluable.
When I went to Ottawa to talk to the government people at Industry, Trade and Commerce they were minimally interested in taking a different approach because they had been accustomed for decades to following whatever the Canadian sugar industry, controlled by Tate and Lyle, told them they should do.
So, they were not terribly eager to hear what I had to say. But, they did tell me that if you want to talk about sugar, there is a man who knows a lot more about sugar than we do. They introduced me to a man, Liaqat Ali, who was originally from India and when he heard that I had been in India, he was immediately sympathetic to what I was trying to do. It turned out that before coming to Canada, he had been chief economist of the international sugar organization in London. He knew things inside and out and I had access to him for 25 years.
So, with resources like that, we built a really strong case. But, as it turned out at the international sugar conference, the Canadian delegation did exactly what we did not want them to do. They blocked progress in support of the mother company Tate and Lyle. The five churches who had been sponsoring this work through GATT-FLY were irate. 
It was at this point that someone said, well, the companies are not interested in our analysis, and neither is the Canadian government. But the workers will be interested!
I bring up here the connection between the church and the workers in a number of countries at that time, and I’m thinking particularly of Brazil. There was a bishop, Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a legend in his own time. He was totally on side with the workers. There was also a bishop in El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was assassinated because of his support for people fighting government oppression. And in the Philippines where there was a bishop, Antonio Fortich, who was 100 % on the side of the workers. The Philippines was a major sugar exporter.
So, the church was present among the workers. I should mention also there was something in Toronto, The Scarborough Foreign Mission, A Catholic missionary organization, they had missionaries working in Latin America: Dominican Republic, Peru, and Brazil. These were sugar producing countries and they found themselves working among the sugar workers. 
So, in GATT-FLY we said, we are going to go to the workers and bring our analysis and have our resources at their disposal. We weren’t working from zero, there were some people on the ground who put us in the right direction.
International Commission for Coordination of Solidarity Among Sugar Workers (ICCSASW)  
At this point, the international trade union situation was still in the Cold War. The International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) headquartered in Brussels, was the instrument of US foreign policy and the status quo. They tried to organize the sugar workers to get short term gains but, in such a way that would not challenge the status quo. Not a lot of Marxists among them, but I think everybody in the trade union movement was in some way influenced by the analysis of Marxism.
Another organization operating in Latin America, a Christian democratic organization, the Confederation of Latin America Trade Unions, similar to the ICFTU, but they focused on ‘Christian’ democracy, and they did not challenge the status quo. And, a third organization was a Moscow based trade union movement.
So, they were all present in Latin America and were, in a way, competing trade union structures which was a source of division and limited their effectiveness. This was not lost on a number of trade unionists in those countries. There was a tension between the organizations and the unions. As long as the union was allowed to set its own priorities and pursue its own goals, that was okay. But, if someone in Moscow, the US or Brussels said ‘you’ve got to do this’, they didn’t like it.
As a result, there were, in a number of countries, independent trade unions that did not answer to any of the three trade union bodies but pursued their own agenda, right up to forming government in some of the smaller countries. 
These were the ones who welcomed the analysis that we brought to them and they welcomed any solidarity and support we could give. And these were the ones that were the founding unions of what we called ICCSASW, International Commission for Coordination of Solidarity Among Sugar Workers.  
We made contact with these unions and visited them. In 1977, we had the first International Sugar Workers Conference in Trinidad with the support of the unions there, and we had support from other countries and regions. Our hope was to set up an organization which would organize support. We did not succeed at that time. Some of the unions were a little nervous about setting up something that might be seen as challenging the existing trade union federations.
We carried on for four more years and planned to have an international conference in the Dominican Republic but the government there began denying visas to workers from other countries, so we had to cancel it.
Two years later we decided to have the conference in Toronto to avoid the problem of visas. So, it was at this conference in Toronto in 1983 that we set up ICCSASW. We had 15 or 16 countries from the region. We set it up with a ten-member steering committee and a four-member executive who would meet as needed. 
I was named Executive Secretary. I was the guy who did the work! We had an office in Toronto. The support of the Canadian churches was significant because not only did they provide us with contacts but with resources, they financed the project. This allowed us to have a staff, to travel, to organize meetings and so on.
The idea was to have a conference every 4 years. The next conference was 1987 in the Dominican Republic (the government had changed by then). In my mind this was the high point of the existence of ICCSASW because we had over 20 countries represented, and a representative from Moscow and Beijing.
We had people from all of the different political currents, so we felt that we had made some progress. The unions in the industrialized world, Canada, the US, England, and France gave us substantial support. They came to our conferences, and they were loyal to the end. It gave us some credibility because we could bring together workers from the industrialized countries and from non-industrial countries.
Also, there was a significant non-governmental presence in those countries, I am thinking particularly of CUSO, Canadian University Service Overseas. They were supportive. There were other groups that had been working there for years. They were invaluable in helping us get to the grassroots of the union movement.
Concerning the Canadian trade unions involved at that time (in ICCSASW),it was the Teamsters at Redpath Sugar in Toronto, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) at Lantic Sugar in Montreal and St John. On the West coast there was the Retail Wholesale Union, to the best of my recollection. Concerning the Solidarity or Humanities fund it was the Steelworkers. Trade unions in the US, England and France were also involved and supportive.
Going forward from 1987, all together during its 15 years ICCSASW was involved in 4 conferences and 20 regional seminars in various countries. That was a significant part of our work and how we maintained our network.
We had a management committee in Canada composed of representatives of the funding churches. Our major core funding from the Canadian churches backing us from beginning to end. Then we had a coordinating committee of ten union representatives that met annually and to plan the program, a key contribution.
When I consider my own role, Executive Secretary, I had a role in bringing those committees together and helping them function. But I was not a trade unionist myself. I was a researcher who happened to be at the right place at the right time.
A major component of what ICCSASW did was the information that we were able to provide to unions about the sugar industry. I remember on occasion that in negotiations, the unions felt that they knew the industry better than the companies they were negotiating with. That confidence helped to get a favourable outcome. 
I would also like to mention that we had something called a Sugar Workers Industry Education Library (SWERL). That reflects the fact that our research dated back to 1973 and we were hard at it until 1993, twenty years later. We were using up-to-date resources but we didn’t throw away what we had accumulated over the years. We called it our Documentation Centre. 
We had a program where we had unions send us representatives to work with us for up to 4 months in Toronto. They helped with the program, especially reflecting their home countries. It also gave them an occasion to study and assess the accumulated resources.
I can remember specifically four countries that sent representatives. But one that stands out in my mind was from Brazil. We worked closely in the state of Pernambuco in Northeast Brazil, a major sugar producing state. They sent their lawyer who negotiated the wage level of the seasonal workers. Sugar is a seasonal crop. There were several hundred thousand workers who relied on the sugar industry for their employment. This man, while in Toronto, studied our information on the Brazil sugar industry and was able to access the publication of the Brazil sugar industry and he found that in 1989, the sugar growers received a bonus of three percent because of the high sugar content of the crop that year.
When he was involved in the negotiations to determine wages, the sugar growers presented their case, and he pointed out to the arbitrator that the growers were receiving a three percent bonus. The workers deserved the same, so they got a 9% wage increase instead of 6%.
I calculate it would have meant $10-15 million to the workers that season. When I look back at the budget of ICCSASW over the 15 years of its existence it was $2.6 million. So, here in one case ICCSASW was instrumental in workers getting $10-15 million more. It seems to me that was fair value for the investment of those churches who wished to raise the standard of living of workers in those developing countries.
So that is one case and there were other cases in which the information that we were able to provide was instrumental in strengthening the bargaining.
So that’s what I wanted to say about ICCSASW. How did it end? The churches agreed to provide core funding until the trade unions could take over core funding. But this did not happen. In 1998, we were left with a significant budget shortfall, and we had no choice but to wind up the project at that time.
Joining a socialist organization
I left and began work editing a newsletter on sugar based in the US. ICCSASW grew out of GATT-FLY then evolved into KAIROS. A church sponsored social justice project. It was an organic transition to become involved with them on a volunteer basis. 
I got involved in the Toronto West group and very often it was on the same issues that the socialists were involved in. We were kind of co-workers on various justice and peace issues, migrant workers.
So, I informally left the Roman Catholic church, I always kept a church connection. The sugar work was connected to church missionary work in sugar producing countries. The unions in those countries were not formally Marxist, but Marxist ideology was a strong base in the labour movement, reflecting the role of labour in production. 
So, I used to think and I’m still not sure. The Marxists then, as I understood them, didn’t formally see the church as an ally—'the opium of the people’. I totally agree that there is a certain type of church or religious expression which ends up supporting Donald Trump and the Far right and The National Rifle Association (NRA) and they are very often against abortions and against gays.
It is an extreme form of religion, but it calls itself Christian. That kind of Christianity it is a major problem for the forces of change. But I have found that there are other people who have come out of a Christian background, and I’m thinking particularly of Martin Luther King Jr, Dan Berrigan, Thomas Merton, Christians who were totally in sync with changing the system.
So, in my perception, socialism or barbarism as it were. Virtually all the crises, climate, and war that we are struggling with now can be traced directly to the capitalist economic system. On that level, I can say in our church work we always considered the Marxist and socialist as allies.
To this day I have maintained that. To go further along that, when ICCSASW finished, I came into contact with a few socialist groups that I was introduced to through friends. Then came the Iraq war in 2003. The US invaded Iraq and Canada was supposed to be a natural ally in this war. But there was a major movement in Canada to stay out of that war.
At that time our church office (Bathurst Street United) was in the Trinity St-Paul church building. Up to that point we didn’t pay attention to who our neighbors were. It so happened that on both sides of us were the offices of the International Socialists. Now Jesus said, Love your neighbours. But you can’t love them if you don’t know them. So, through this struggle against the war, we came to know that there were socialists in our building. We also had the Canadian Peace Alliance in our building.
I came to know, being out on the street in the struggle, with these groups that we were on the same path. So, I continued to be part of whatever was going on. And at one point they invited me to become a member, and I did. That was 10 or 12 years ago, and I have been a card carrying socialist since that time.
In the current issue of the Socialist Worker, it says the system has failed, do you want to introduce a new system? We have only to look around and we can see that it is failing, failing even more miserably than before. So, we have to replace it with something new. 
If I may quote one of my heroes, Martin Luther King Jr, I have a quote here in front of my computer which I look at every day. It says, “Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
And for his effort he was assassinated. That is where my mind is at the moment and the fruit of my experiences working for 20 twenty years in the sugar industry.
I joined the International Socialists but I continue to be a member of the Bathurst Street United Church, they are family. They are friends, regardless of what they believe. In my experience with socialism and the central role of the party, it doesn’t allow specific scope for friendship. 
There are certain things I value about the church that might enhance the socialist struggle as well. I am reminded of my colleague from Peru, he said, the left does not multiply, it divides.
It is disconcerting to see. I think there should be some way of a more united approach. 
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