Thirty Years – 1922-1952
The Story of the Communist Movement in Canada
THREE MONTHS after MacDonald launched his party to propagate the theory of "American exceptionalism," his vaunted, "permanent prosperity" came to a sudden and cataclysmic end. Stock markets crashed -- first in New York, then around the capitalist world. Factories closed by the hundreds, the prices of raw materials collapsed Farmers, small-business and professional people, passed swiftly from illusions of affluence to utter despair. Overshadowing all the tragedies of the middle classes was the utter catastrophe that the crisis brought upon the working class.
The fact that the Workers' Unity League was founded three weeks after the great Wall Street crash was partly coincidence, but it illustrated the correspondence between the attitude of the party's new leadership and the trend of development. The W.U.L. was established to meet a need that had been developing for some considerable time -- the need for co-ordinating the efforts to build industrial unions in the "open-shop" industries, to develop the struggle for national unemployment insurance, to extend the campaign for independent working-class political action, for national and international trade union unity. By the time the national conference which founded the W.U.L. was held another need had become urgent: namely, the need to win immediate relief for the hundreds of thousands of families whose bread-winners were suddenly and hopelessly unemployed.
The program of the W.U.L. was as follows:
1. Organize the Unorganized Workers.
2. National Non-Contributory Unemployment Insurance. Work or Full Maintenance.
3. Unity of the Employed and Unemployed.
4. An Emergency Program of Home Construction.
5. Industrial Unionism.
6. Independent Working-Class Political Action.
7. Nationalization of Key Industries.
8. Trade Union Unity in One National Centre.
9. World Trade Union Unity.
10. Canadian Trade with the Soviet Union.
Immediately after its establishment the Workers' Unity League launched a great national campaign to organize the masses of unemployed workers and to unite the labor movement in support of its draft parliamentary bill for national unemployment insurance. Along with the battle for the elementary needs of the unemployed, campaigns to organize the unorganized workers were developed in a score of industries.
Federal general elections were held in August, 1930. The Liberals and Tories had a complete electoral monopoly. The Communist Party of Canada was the only other national party. The election campaigns of its candidates were beset by so much police persecution, open gang violence organized by the old party candidates and complete boycott by the capitalist press that the majority of Canadians were given the impression that our party was in some way or other illegal. The Liberals under Mackenzie King contented themselves with a routine, uninspired, defeatist campaign. Their leadership didn't want to win. The Tories, under their new leader, the militant reactionary, multi-millionaire R. B. Bennett, waged an aggressive and unscrupulous winning campaign. Bennett promised each section of the country what the majority of the voters there felt they needed most. To the workers of Central Canada he promised jobs; to the manufacturing and commercial interests, more trade with the Empire and increased protection of the home market. To the interests depending upon the export of natural products, particularly the farmers, he promised to "blast our way into the markets of the world."
The election marked a conscious turn of Canadian capitalists towards policies of increasingly open reaction, fascism and war. The Tory victory was a part of the turn being made by world imperialism at that time. The, extent to which R. B. Bennett actually believed the things he said is beyond the scope of this work. It is evident that he suffered from illusions concerning the vitality of capitalism and the possibility of solving its deepening inherent contradictions by traditional capitalist techniques. He believed uncritically in the eternity of the profit system. The real difference between him and the Liberals was that he apparently really believed in liberal economics, with the qualification that he did not conceal his opinion that the function of capitalist government was to serve monopoly capital.
His first act when fie became prime minister was to convene a special session of parliament. Its announced purpose was to deal with the emergency created by the crisis. His method of meeting the crisis was to increase the tariff against textiles and other consumer goods imported into Canada. He increased the cost of living for Canadian people despite falling world prices. That and other similar public actions were accompanied by the adoption of secret orders-in-council to protect the banks and insurance companies from the consequences of their attempts to make speculative profits out of the recent inflationary boom. The "emergency session" did not propose one measure to help the millions of workers, farmers, professional and smallbusiness people who were suffering actual want as a result of the crisis. Later his government dipped heavily into the public treasury to provide very large financial assistance to the Canadian Pacific Railway with which he had been intimately associated for many years.
There was no unemployment insurance in Canada at that time. The Communist Party alone had carried on a consistent all-sided struggle for national unemployment insurance. In spite of the repeated warnings uttered by the Communist Party that signs of an impending crisis were multiplying, and its demands upon the federal government for measures to protect the workers and farmers against its effects, no action had been taken. The Liberal government under Mackenzie King had evaded responsibility on the plea that it lacked constitutional authority. The Tory government under Bennett, which followed, concentrated its attention and energy upon enacting measures to protect the interests of big business at the expense of the working class. The municipalities, upon whom the immediate responsibility fell, were completely unable to cope with the problem created by needs of such magnitude.
Hundreds of farmers were being evicted from their farms. Working-class home-owners were losing their homes (in Toronto and the Yorks alone 12,000 eviction notices were issued during the year 1931). Small business men were losing their businesses. Tens of thousands of young men wandered back and forth across the country in a futile search for jobs or food. Their plight evoked the term "the lost generation."
Eventually the Bennett government did take action to deal with the problem represented by the tens of thousands of unemployed young men. It established "labor camps," operated by the Department of National Defence. Single men who applied for public relief were herded into those camps across the country and put to work building roads, clearing the bush, etc., at the wage of twenty cents per day. They became known as "Bennett's slave camps."
All the illusions about "permanent prosperity" were dissolved by the facts of life. The Trotskyites and the "American exceptionalists" merged their organizations and tried to secure support by attacking the Communist Party "from the 'left'." But the only coherent program of national action to meet the effects of the crisis was the one put forward by the Communist Party of Canada. It included carefully worked out proposals for federal, provincial and municipal cooperation in the launching of projects to provide jobs at trade union rates for 200,000 workers throughout the country. It proposed large-scale slum clearance and home building. It proposed reforestation of the eastern slopes of the Rockies, conservation of their waters and harnessing the Saskatchewan River to develop hydro-electric power and irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of Prairie farms. It proposed undertakings in every part of Canada for the improvement and enrichment of the country. It proposed feed and seed loans and moratoria to protect farmers from loss of their farms. It proposed moratoria to protect small home-owners and immediate relief for every Canadian family in need. The program envisaged an expenditure by the federal government of $400,000,000 through 1931 and 1932.
The party and the Workers' Unity League, supported by hundreds of local unions, farmers and other democratic organizations, developed a nation-wide campaign around this program. The Workers' Unity League, through the left-wing unions, mobilized the workers who were employed to support their unemployed fellow-workers who were being united for self-defence in the local councils of the National Unemployed Workers' Association. The W.U.L.'s inspired campaign and its defiance of Bennett's "Iron Heel" threat stirred the working people. It was the final factor which caused Sam Scarlett to renounce his lifelong advocacy of syndicalism. Sam joined our party in the midst of severe repression. He was a tower of strength in our movement for the rest of his life. During the same period, militant Prairie farmers, under the leadership of Walter Wiggins, J. M. Clarke, L. P. MacNamee and other members of the party, united their forces in the Farmers' Unity League. In addition to their desperate need for feed for their stock, food for their families, seed for sowing, they were rendered desperate by mass evictions and sheriffs' sales which then characterized the Prairie provinces.
To its slogan for the unemployed workers: "Work or Full Maintenance," the party added its call to the farmers: "Don't be Starved Out, Don't be Frozen Out, Don't be Sold Out -- Fight!" Along with the unemployed workers the farmers followed the party's advice. Vigilance committees were established in scores of townships. Sheriffs' sales were transformed into comedies by organized bidding on the part of the farmers in which no neighbor would bid against another, and the entire stock, furniture and equipment of a farm would be purchased by the neighbors for a total of twenty dollars or so, after which it would be given back to its original owner and the sheriff would be warned off the property.
The national campaign for the emergency program to meet the farm and unemployment crisis culminated in a delegation representing conferences held in every large industrial centre from coast to coast and four regional farm conferences. The delegation, headed by Tom McEwen, the general secretary of the Workers' Unity League, proceeded to Ottawa where it met R. B. Bennett and most of the members of his cabinet in July, 1931. The government rejected all the proposals of the delegation on the pretence that it was merely a group of "foreign agents." The prime minister personally threatened Tom McEwen with deportation.
Within less than a month of meetingt hat delegation, R. B. Bennett, in cooperation with the Tory provincial government of Ontario, resorted to the use of Section 98 against the Communist Party of Canada.