Stanley Brehaut Ryerson, 1911-1998

By Frank, David | Canadian Dimension, July-August 1998 | Go to article overview

Stanley Brehaut Ryerson, 1911-1998


Frank, David, Canadian Dimension


"If someone were to ask me if I had the strength to fight for the liberation of the wage workers, for the wiping - out of unemployment and mass starvation of the poor by the rich - I'd say I didn't know. I don't know.... All I'm sure of is that, if there's anything worthwhile in me, any 'guts' at all, I'll have to try..."

That was Stanley Brehaut Ryerson, writing to his mother and father from Paris in 1934. He was 23, completing graduate studies in literature at the Sorbonne. But instead of following a career as a traditional intellectual, for the next six decades, he devoted himself to a life of political engagement.

These were the worst years of the Great Depression, and Canadians were turning to the left. Unemployed workers were going up against the state; activists were defending democratic rights; labour militants were organizing unions; others were mobilizing against war and fascism. Ryerson immersed himself in this culture of struggle and solidarity by undertaking political work, first for the Young Communist League and then the Communist Party.

"Reserved, serious, with something always waiting to be done," wrote a newspaper reporter at the time. Ryerson still looked like a professor; he always would. For those who wanted to identify Marxism as an alien ideology, Ryerson confounded the stereotype. On his mother's side, his roots went back to New France in the 1600s. On his father's side, his great-grandfather was Egerton Ryerson, founder of the public-school system in nineteenth-century Upper Canada. As an agitator, educator and organizer in twentieth-century Canada, Stanley Ryerson had found his own place in history.

The years that followed have the complexity of lived experience and are not easily captured by general categories. There was the period of the united front in the 1930s and 1940s, when the party had its largest membership and influence; then there was the Cold War, with all its consequences of marginalization; and then the 1960s, when new opportunities presented themselves. Through all this, Ryerson functioned as an organic intellectual of the Canadian left, learning from his interaction with activists and intellectuals alike, in English and in French. In the internal party crisis of 1956-57, he defended the party's traditional positions; a dozen years later, in the crisis of 1968-69, he was a critic, and withdrew from the party in 1971. …

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