The Forkin Letters (1)

By Black, Errol | Manitoba History, October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Forkin Letters (1)


Black, Errol, Manitoba History


Historical working class, labour, and labour political organizations in Brandon, fashioned in response to the boundaries and subjugation of the city's liberal capitalist order, provide a remarkable and diverse testament to the rich variety of influences that mediated the experience of Brandon's workers. Records of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council, and Brandon chapters of the Socialist Party of Canada, the Dominion Labour Party, the Canadian Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party disclose rich seams of working class discourse and agency in the city. They also tell us about the agency of individual activists--men and women--in the city, some of whom went on to acquire national reputations for their work on behalf of working class Canadians. (2)

The Forkin family of Brandon made an unusual contribution to working class activism in Canada. Six children of the Forkin family became activists in the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) after its formation in 1921. Martin and Hannah Forkin and their six children (Joe, 1899; Stephen, 1901; Patrick, 1903; Stan, 1905; Ruth, 1909; and Tom, 1911) (3) immigrated to Canada and settled in Brandon in 1912. Martin found work as a boiler washer's helper on the Canadian Pacific Railway and they lived in a small house at 545 Douglas Street on the outskirts of the city's east end. They had another son, Frank, in 1913.

The character, values and ideas of the Forkins were shaped in the context of a closely-knit family living during turbulent times in a turbulent world. Among the critical events that affected them were World War I, the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland (their father Martin was born into peasant stock in 1870 subsequently migrated to Dublin and then England, where he met and married Hannah), and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. As well, they were profoundly influenced by the grinding poverty faced by working people in Brandon and conflict between labour and capital that culminated in 1919 in a general strike in Winnipeg and a sympathetic general strike in Brandon.

Throughout his adult life Pat Forkin suffered from the debilitating effects of tuberculosis. In 1924, Pat was sent to the Ninette Sanatorium, where he remained until 1929. Major surgery helped to mitigate the ravages of the disease, but it also left him in a weakened condition because of reduced lung capacity. But these circumstances did not prevent him from taking an active role in the activities of the Communist party and related organizations.

After his release from the Sanatorium, Pat threw himself into party work in Brandon. In 1930 and 1931, he was elected to the executive of the Brandon Unemployed Association. He became a key speaker at Association meetings and demonstrations and succeeded his brother Joe as Brandon and area correspondent for the CPC paper, The Worker. (4)

In 1932, Pat moved to Winnipeg where he became an executive member of the Unemployment Conference of Winnipeg. As it turned out, he did not have the stamina to undertake the work required of him as an organizer. However, his talent as a writer had been noticed and in short order he was invited to Toronto to work full-time for the Communist Party Worker. Health problems continued to plague him in Toronto, however, and in 1936, the Party decided to send him to the Soviet Union as Moscow correspondent for the now renamed Communist party newspaper--the Daily Clarion. Party leaders also believed that Pat would receive better treatment in the Soviet Union than he was getting in Canada. Phoebe Singer, a party activist from Montreal, who became Pat's wife, went with him to the Soviet Union.

The letters home from Pat and Phoebe while they lived in the Soviet Union provide a window into the warm, loving and open relationships that existed between Pat and Phoebe and Pat's parents and siblings. They also provide valuable insights into the problems they experienced while contending with their jobs and Pat's health problems. …

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