Witnessing the Birth of the CCF

By Skilling, H. Gordon | Canadian Dimension, June-July 1995 | Go to article overview

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. …

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