Witnessing the Birth of the CCF
Skilling, H. Gordon, Canadian Dimension
It is more than 60 years since I attended the founding conference of the CCF in Regina in July 1933. It was an historic event in the history of Canadian politics, even though the eventual results did not bear out the high hopes entertained by the delegates. It was certainly a high-point in the life of a young student -- twenty one years old at the time -- who had already formed strong socialist convictions in three years at the University of Toronto. The convention and the new party which it created seemed to reflect the conditions of the times and to confirm my youthful idealism.
My belief in the needs for radical social change had already been formed by crucial events in my life: the World War in which a brother had perished at age 17, and the crash of 1929 and the world depression which followed, during which another brother, wounded in the same war, joined the ranks of the unemployed. My studies of political economy at the University contributed to my belief that socialism was the only escape from war and poverty. In the summer of 1932, at a conference of the Student Christian Movement in Muskoka I had participated in a seminar in which Professor Eric Havelock, drawing his inspiration from the words of Jesus, had expounded the need for a collectivist approach to correct the evils of the existing social and economic system. With other students, I had taken the lead in reorganizing the Fabius Club, hitherto a discussion club, as an avowedly socialist organization, dedicated to the establishment of a cooperative economy, with production primarily for use, not for profit. The club was designed to counteract the influence of the much more radical Student League of Canada, which at once issued in Marxist terms, a scathing denunciation of the Fabius Club.
In 1932, some professors at the U of T such as Frank Underhill, Harry Cassidy, Eric Havelock and Joe Parkinson, together with Frank Scott, Eugene Forsey and King Gordon from Montreal, had worked together to form the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR), which sought a new social order, a socialized economy to replace the capitalist system. They later outlined a detailed plan of action in the book, Social Planning for Canada. In the same year in Calgary, a meeting of Western farmers and labour groups had laid the foundations of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF.), and had called a convention for Regina in the following year to adopt a program for the party.
Having just lost a promising summer job as a bellboy at the Banff Springs Hotel, I resolved to spend the summer hitch-hiking across the continent and to attend the Regina meeting en route. In the company of a fellow student, Powell Smiley, we embarked on our bold trip, proceeding at first by the use of our thumb on the highway via Chicago to Winnipeg. From that city we jumped the freighters' travelling on the top of a box car in the company of about 100 other professional bums, as I called them, in the direction of Regina. At Broadview, a division point, where the train stopped for re-fuelling, a young mountie, hardly older than we were, and unarmed, waving a riding crop, requested us to disembark and to go to RCMP headquarters for questioning. He warned us all, and especially the two of us privately, not to continue by freight train, telling us that we would likely be detained for up to sixty days in Regina, and urged us to proceed on the highway.
Taking his advice, we arrived at the convention, a few hours late for its opening, and found that we were big news. The Regina Leader Post heralded our arrival with a front page banner headline, "Hiking CCF. Lad Bucks Police Net Convention Bound" (July 21, 1933) and published photographs of the two of us. The delegates welcomed me as the 'voice of Canadian youth', and insisted that I address a few words on the first day of the meeting. MJ Coldwell, Saskatchewan Farmer-Labour Party leader, offered to pitch a tent for us in his back yard and we spent the next few nights there. This gave us the opportunity to join the Coldwells and their guests, the Woodworths, at breakfast each morning, and what was even more exciting, to attend the nightly gatherings of leading delegates in the living room. Alas for the historical record, I took no notes and can recall nothing of those private post-mortems of the day's events. I was informed by the Danforth CCF. Club that I had been appointed one of their official delegates and that they were sending me $10 to help defray my expenses.
The next day I was officially registered as a delegate and was introduced by DM LeBourdais of Toronto to other delegates, including Agnes McPhail, of the United Farmers of Ontario, and Professors Frank Scott and King Gordon from Montreal. During the next three days, in the boiling heat of a prairie mid-summer, I listened to the sometimes stormy debates as the delegates drafted the official platform of the first nation-wide party of democratic socialism in Canada. The delegates, numbering 130, came from all regions except the Maritimes, and from all types of organizations, from the more moderate Farmers groups, such as the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) and the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO), and more radical Labour groups from BC and Ontario, together with the so-called CCF. Clubs, which were formed to include individuals who were not affiliated with other organizations. The Convention had before it a draft program of four thousand words, based in large part on the LSR program, but amended to satisfy agrarian spokesmen, and over eighty amendments submitted by branches. I still have in my possession the original ragged mimeographed draft manifesto, with my marginal notes of major amendments proposed from the floor and the yellowed copies of newspaper reports. The debate, point by point, on the draft and the amendments, was often vigorous and polemical, but eventually a program for a new Canada based on social justice for all was approved, with one vote cast against, by WC Goode, of the Ontario farmers' cooperative movement.
The Manifesto declared that its purpose was to found a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in which the guiding principle of production and distribution would be human needs, not profits. Although the term socialist was not explicitly used, the program proposed to establish a planned socialized, economic order, including the socialization of finance, the social ownership of industry, and a socialized health system. The Regina Leader Post commented that the program was not real socialism but merely a mixture of Socialism, Liberalism, Conservatism, public ownership, and state capitalism. In fact it was much more a compromise of Christian socialism, British Fabianism, Marxism and agrarian protest, in which the diverse tendencies had sunk their differences in a remarkable consensus. The document set forth, under fourteen points, a detailed plan for effecting a grandiose social change and the concrete steps which would be taken by a CCF government to "eradicate capitalism and put into operation the full program of socialized planning," as the final sentence proclaimed.
The dominant figure was the dignified and grey-bearded JS Woodsworth, a veteran in the labour movement and a member of parliament, since 1921, whose address produced a stormy ovation, and whose election as President was a foregone conclusion and was unopposed. In his speech he declared that, as a Canadian of several generations, he was profoundly influenced by American individualism, British traditions and Christian idealism: he wished to develop in Canada 'a distinctive type of Socialism', and not to follow slavishly the British or American or Russian model.
There were indeed sharp conflicts of view, reflecting regional, class and ideological viewpoints, and the diverse groups represented at the meeting. The fieriest discussion, which were of course, given maximum publicity in the press, turned on certain specific questions, notably whether violence was to be countenanced in the attainment of the ends outlined and whether socialization of the means of resources would be carried through with or without compensation. There were differences, too, as to whether the new movement should be considered a party and how its formation would affect the existing organization, notably the farm movements.
The radical labour representative from Toronto, William Moriarty, sought to amend the draft as to recognize that violence might be used if the ruling class opposed the will of the people. His idea was endorsed by EK Winch, a socialist, from BC but was rejected by others, such as William Irvine, of the United Farmers of Alberta, and by the fiery, white-haired L St. George Stubbs, former Manitoba Judge. The final text contained the passages: "We do not believe in change by violence;" "we seek to achieve our ends solely by constitutional methods." The Left Wing of the conference had suffered defeat.
On another point, that of compensation, the Left wing was partly successful. The Manifesto's proposal for the socialization of industry, introduced by the eloquent MJ Coldwell, former school principal, declared that "we do not propose any policy of outright confiscation." There was heated debate as some delegates spoke against compensation, including Angus MacInnis, and his wife, Grace, daughter of JS Woodsworth. Once again it was Moriarty who proposed the clause's deletion, arguing that some wealth was not always earned and natural resources were often legally stolen. Others replied that much property was equitably earned and should be fairly evaluated. The grey-haired and matronly Agnes McPhail, MPP, warned that elimination of compensation might lead the UFO to leave the Federation. The final text was somewhat ambiguous. While it recognized the need for compensation it asserted that the welfare of the community must take supremacy over the claims of private wealth. Should economic circumstances call for it, conscription of wealth, as in the case of war, would be justifiable. The tenure of the farmer upon his farm was expressly guaranteed.
On other issues there was vigorous discussion, but no fundamental disagreement, e.g. a labour code which would assure workers insurance against all social ills and freedom of association, the guarantee of freedom of speech and the repeal of Section 98 of the criminal code dealing with sedition (which had been used to imprison Tim Buck, the communist leader), the safeguard of the rights of minorities in race or religion, as presented by the lawyer, Professor Scott, and the abolition of the Senate, as a useless and reactionary body. A new addition was an emergency program, to deal urgently with the economic crisis, which would be introduced by the present government (we cannot let people starve by waiting until we are in power, said Angus MacInnes), or by a future CCF. government before it implemented its full plan of reconstruction. On the nature of the CCF the view prevalied that it was to be called a federation, not a party, and that the complete autonomy of the constituent organizations, as insisted upon by spokesmen for the UFA and the UFO should be respected.
After the close of the convention I continued on my transcontinental trip which in the end totalled some 9,000 miles of travel on highway and railroad. In many ways this journey confirmed my views of the need for drastic social change. In Chicago, on the first leg of my journey, I had visited the World's Fair, with its astonishing portrayal of the advances in science, industry and transportation during what was called a Century of Progress. It was ironic, however, I wrote at the time, that in the midst of a worldwide depression, the Fair had nothing to report on the failure of man's social and intellectual progress to keep pace with the material. Similarly, the World Grain Fair in Regina reported the enormous achievements of agriculture and the grain trade, but kept silent on the worldwide agrarian crisis.
As I travelled across the Prairies and through the Rockies, and then down the West Coast of North America and back through the agricultural and industrial heartlands of the USA, I was constantly reminded of the depression, both in industry and agriculture, and the poverty and social degradation which were their products. In Seattle I gazed in horror at the so-called Hooverville, the community of five hundred shacks for the homeless. On the freight trains I met the unemployed youth -- whom I unsympathetically called 'drifters' and 'hoboes', who did not seem to want work, but all of them were victims of an unjust and inefficient system. I mingled with them in the empty box cars or on the top, in the 'jungles' in the railway yards, in the sand boxes, flop houses and missions, and even once as a 'guest' in a jail, and more respectably, in the YMCA's of the big cities. Thousands of men (rarely a woman), most of them young, but some quite old, pan-handled their way back and forth across the continent in search of the elusive job. In the automobiles which picked me up on the highway and in the towns I passed through, I met with a cross section of the less deprived of Canadian and American society, with salesmen, grain farmers, factory workers, and fishermen and had a rare opportunity to hear their grievances and their ideas, often highly critical of the conditions in which they lived. Every mile seemed to confirm the ills of the society which Roosevelt, with his New Deal and the National Recovery Administration, and the CCF, with its goal of social reconstruction, were seeking to correct. All of this seemed in my mind to justify the more radical recipe proposed by the CCF's idea of a cooperative commonwealth, a planned society which would eliminate unemployment and social injustice. I even found time in my wanderings to read a bit of Karl Marx and to set forth my experiences and impressions in a series of articles on the 'The Gentlemen of the Road' which I tried, but without success to have published in the Toronto Daily Star.
Back at the University in the fall my first step was to help to organize a CCF club on the campus, and served as its president. One of our early speakers was JS Woodsworth himself and he was followed by other party luminaries, such as Frank Underhill, Graham Spry, and HH Hannoam of the UFO. The Club was affiliated with the Federation and endorsed and publicized the CCF program. A little newspaper, entitled rather modestly Change and selling for 2 cents, (small change, as one of my professors ridiculed it), published my report on the CCF. convention in its first number. In editorials in The Varsity, in debates in Hart House, and in a special debate at McGill, and in essays, articles and speeches.
I expounded the virtues of socialism and condemned the extreme and violent alternative of communism. The socialist program of the CCF seemed to offer a means of overcoming the evils of capitalism and to open up the possibilities of a better world.
The hopes which we entertained were all too soon clouded by a second world war and the victory of communism in Eastern Europe and Asia, and by the continuance of social distress and injustice in the democratic West. Labour and social democratic parties in power modified some of the worst of evils, but were in turn displaced by more conservative forces. In Canada the CCF, and its successor, the New Democratic Party, won power in four provinces and in the Yukon, but never in Canada as a whole. As provincial governments and as a national opposition, it exerted a strong progressive influence on the course of public policies, especially the establishment of old age pensions, medicare and other features of a welfare state, but it was also often discredited by policies of retrenchment. The delegates to the Regina conference would have had good reason for pride in what had been accomplished but would also have felt a tinge of disappointment in their failure fully to achieve their long-run aspirations.…
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Publication information: Article title: Witnessing the Birth of the CCF. Contributors: Skilling, H. Gordon - Author. Magazine title: Canadian Dimension. Volume: 29. Issue: 3 Publication date: June-July 1995. Page number: 14+. © 2009 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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