LESPÉRANCE, ZOTIQUE, leather cutter and labour organizer; b. 22 Nov. 1865, son of Jacques Lespérance (Talon, dit Lespérance) and Angélique Brabant; m. 20 June 1899 Élizabeth Lamarche in Montreal, and they had four children; d. there 29 May 1929.
A leather cutter by trade, Zotique Lespérance worked in boot and shoe factories in Montreal. In the 1880s he was introduced to trade unionism through the Knights of Labor, an American organization that was becoming more solidly established in Quebec. In August 1894 Lespérance and several other cutters left their assembly of Knights to form an autonomous union of leather cutters. In January 1901 this union joined an American one, the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union (of which it formed Local 249), and Lespérance became its business agent. In charge of recruiting members and ensuring implementation of collective labour agreements, he had his work cut out for him in the metropolis, for there was intense rivalry with the national footwear unions, which in November established the Canadian Federation of Shoe Workers in order to unite all such workers of Canada. According to Lespérance, “The International [union] is superior because in it neither religion nor borders nor differences of race matter.” From 1905 he served as the business agent and organizer of the joint council of the Montreal shoeworkers’ unions that were affiliated with the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union. On 1 April 1905 he was also named a member of the general management of this union, an office he would hold for the rest of his life. The Montreal boot and shoe workers’ unions affiliated with it had about 300 members in 1907. This number increased appreciably with the disappearance of the Canadian Federation of Shoe Workers in 1911; it fluctuated between 1,200 and 1,500 from World War I to 1930.
Lespérance crossed swords with the Catholic clergy in 1912 during a lockout at Tebbutt Shoe and Leather Company Limited, a factory in Trois-Rivières. In October its owner, J. T. Tebbutt, dismissed all those who had just formed a union affiliated with the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union when they asked for a salary increase. He refused to meet with Lespérance, who had come to find common ground. Having tried unsuccessfully to recruit workers in Quebec City and in Montreal, Tebbutt looked to the local clergy to persuade the employees to return to work. The parish priest showed sympathy for the workers’ demands, but the bishop of Trois-Rivières, François-Xavier Cloutier, reacted very differently: he decided to set up Catholic trade unions “to tear [the] workers from the grip of the non-confessional unions.” The international union collapsed the following month. The bishop’s decision marked the beginning of the establishment of Catholic trade unionism in Trois-Rivières. This movement would spread to the footwear unions in Quebec City and Montreal a few years later [see Gaudiose Hébert]. Lespérance, who would be general organizer of the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union from at least 1918, undoubtedly had brushes with these unions. Like the other leaders of international unions of the time, he surely experienced how difficult it was to fight organizations backed by the Catholic clergy.
Also like a good many of these leaders, Lespérance was interested in the political dimension of trade unionism. Active within the Montreal Trades and Labor Council, which defended the rights of unionized workers in their dealings with municipal governments, he on several occasions between 1910 and 1916 served on the executive committee for the province of Quebec of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, a committee responsible for presenting the organization’s grievances to the provincial government. In addition, he held the office of delegate of the Montreal Trades and Labor Council to the Labour party in 1908, and the party’s general committee supported his candidacy for alderman of Longue-Pointe ward in 1914; he was, however, defeated. Of all the reforms called for by the international unions, the one Lespérance was particularly concerned about was that workers’ sons and daughters have better access to public education. He had been on the committee that had prepared the Labour party’s memorandum to the royal commission with respect to the Catholic schools of Montreal in 1909. In it the party proposed free schools, standardized textbooks, a single school board in Montreal, and the creation of a department of public instruction. On 29 May 1917 Lespérance was named a member of the new library commission that was charged with choosing books, journals, newspapers, and other materials to be held by the Civic Library.
A committed trade unionist throughout his life, Zotique Lespérance can be considered an important figure in the establishment of international trade unionism in Quebec at the outset of the 20th century. Upon his death, Le Monde ouvrier (Montréal), to which he had been a faithful contributor, stressed that he had toiled “all his life in the interest of the working class” and that his “sound and level-headed judgement” earned him “nothing but friends both in the ranks of labour and in the other spheres of society.”
ANQ-M, CE601-S15, 20 juin 1899. ...BCM-G, RBMS, Notre-Dame de Montréal, 20 mars 1902, 11 nov. 1903, 17 juin 1906; Sacré-Cœur de Jésus (Montréal), 22 juill. 1901, 28 sept. 1902; Sainte-Brigide (Montréal), 10 mai 1907; Saint-Louis-de-France (Montréal), 12 nov. 1903 (mfm). ...VM-DGDA, VM1, 29 mai 1917; VM6, Règlement 624. ...Le Monde ouvrier (Montréal), 1er juin 1929, 31 août 1935. ...La Patrie, 1er avril 1903, 6 août 1907, 4 juin 1909. ...Éric Leroux, “Les syndicats internationaux et la commission royale d'enquête sur l'éducation de 1909–1910,” RCHTQ [Regroupement des Chercheurs-Chercheuses en Hist. des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Québec], Bull. (Montréal), 23 (1977), no.1: 5–28. ...Jacques Rouillard, “Implantation et expansion de l’Union internationale des travailleurs en chaussures au Québec de 1900 à 1940,” RHAF, 36 (1982–83): 75–105; Les syndicats nationaux au Québec, de 1900 à 1930 (Québec, 1979), 56–65, 106–11, 191–93. ...Robert Tremblay, “Répertoire biographique du mouvement ouvrier québécois, 1880–1914” (rapport postdoctoral, Univ. du Québec à Montréal, 1995), 69–70.