Thirty Years – 1922-1952
The Story of the Communist Movement in Canada
AS POINTED out in an earlier chapter, the crisis and the depression brought both victimization of the youth and increasing militancy on their part. The degradation imposed on young workers as a result of the crisis almost defies description. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics admitted in 1936, that there were 200,000 unemployed males in urban communities between the ages of 15 and 24. The tens of thousands of unemployed youth who were classified as transients were not included, neither were the unemployed rural youth. The number of unemployed females of the same age groups was at least equal to the males, so it is evident that there were around half a million unemployed young men and women between the ages of 15 and 24. The conditions forced upon them were spotlighted by the fact that, during 1934, 40,000 of them could find no refuge other than the Bennett slave camps at twenty cents per day. Relief allowances granted to single girls were slashed again and again until girls were forced into degrading occupations. As the Young Communist League pointed out in its seventh national convention, August, 1934, "A whole generation is growing up that has never had a chance to earn a living and has only unemployment, hunger and misery as its perspective."
The revolt of the youth against those conditions was expressed in increasing participation of young workers in the militant struggles of the unemployed councils, in the militant unions led by the W.U.L. and in extending youth protest action. The Y.C.L. became the mobilizing force for widening circles of young workers in strike actions. In Stratford, Flin Flon, Noranda, Sault Ste. Marie, Fraser Mills, B.C., Timmins, Cochrane, Montreal, Winnipeg, etc., youth was in the forefront of the struggle. Leaders of the youth movement were frequently arrested and imprisoned. Many of them won national recognition as strike leaders.
As the crisis gave way to the long "depression of a special kind,"(1) with no prospect of re-employment for hundreds of thousands of workers, ever wider circles of democratic people recognized the criminal character of the treatment being meted out to Canada's youth. "Save Our Youth" became the slogan of millions of Canadians. So powerful was the pressure of youth desire for action to meet the conditions created by the crisis that even the upper hierarchy of the Catholic church was eventually compelled, unwillingly, to acquiesce in the participation of Catholic youth organizations in the great Youth Congress. The youth were in revolt against Bennett's slave camps. "Abolish the Slave Camps" became the slogan of the labor movement. When the youth marched out of the camps all over British Columbia and assembled in Vancouver, thousands of working-class homes were opened to them. They were housed and fed, often by sharing the family's relief rations. At the call of the heroic women members of the Communist Party in Vancouver, five thousand working-class women came out to a special "Mother's Day" demonstration on behalf of the camp workers and to demand the closing of the camps.
Recognizing that only action on a national scale could move the Bennett government, the British Columbia Provincial Committee of the party, with the officers of the W.U.L. and the Camp Workers' Union decided to undertake a great march, under the leadership of Comrade Arthur (Slim) Evans, across the country to Ottawa. When they left Vancouver 800-strong the capitalist class and its press sneered. They didn't believe the boys would stand tip to the bitter hardships of such an undertaking. "Wait until they feel the nip of frost up in the mountains" wrote one hack, "and they'll be glad to get back to camp." But he was wrong. The trekkers crossed the interior of British Columbia, crossed the Rocky Mountains, crossed most of the Prairies. They reached Regina in the third week of June. They had covered a thousand miles, half of their journey, and their numbers had doubled. They were completely confident of their ability to reach Ottawa and that their numbers would double again during the remainder of their journey.
In all the larger centres along their route reinforcements were gathering and preparing to join the trek. In Winnipeg alone there were hundreds waiting to join. The feeling was growing all over the country that this great national protest would compel the Tory government to close the slave camps.
The trekkers' amazing demonstration of discipline, no less than the unprecedented support that they received from the citizenry in every town that they passed through, provided conclusive evidence that the slave camps had to go. The Bennett government stopped the trek by the bloody massacre at Regina on Dominion Day, 1935, but they could not undo, what the young camp workers' trek had accomplished. Bennett's slave camps were discredited. The camp workers had marched out of Vancouver under the slogan "Abolish the Slave Camps." Not another camp was opened after the Regina massacre and within a few months not one remained in operation anywhere in Canada.
A revolutionary youth movement was built among the farm youth in over 100 communities across the Prairies. Young farm youth such as Bill Repka, Bill Halina, Bill Kardash, Ivan Birchard and others, became mass leaders by virtue of the support given by the youth to the struggles of the Farmers' Unity League.
A students' movement sprang up, with organizations in six universities and in high schools in virtually every city from Montreal west. The "Pioneers" movement of children extended to a membership of more than 6,000, publishing its own magazine with a circulation of more than 4,000. The official organ of the Y.C.L. The Young Worker was transformed from a monthly into a weekly with a growing circulation.
At the ninth plenum of the party, November, 1935, Bill Kashtan, then secretary of the Y.C.L., projected a new conception of the role that the Y.C.L. should play. Reporting the gains made he emphasized the fact that, encouraging though they were, the gains lagged far behind the rising temper and the extending militancy of the Canadian youth. Reiterating that "the youth movement is the heart of the movement for social emancipation," Bill Kashtan called upon the party and the Y.C.L. to raise their sights and measure up to the needs of the youth. Advocating simultaneously a reorganization of the Y.C.L. along the lines of a more flexible educational youth organization, he charged it with the task of leading the masses of students, young workers and intellectuals, in an independent united front organization to defend the immediate interests of the youth. In the light of what was accomplished by the great Youth Congress movement, it is valuable now to quote the words in which Bill Kashtan projected the idea of it for the first time:
"In general, I think we can work along the lines of building up a federation of youth organizations, on a platform of struggle for the immediate economic and political needs of the youth, against war and fascism, for socialism. Essentially such a federation would unite all youth prepared to stand on a working-class program, to work for the transformation of society. Such a federation could draw into its ranks the youth organizations which already exist in the working-class movement, unemployed youth organizations, student organizations, sports clubs, the Y.C.L. and probably also the Cooperative Commonwealth Youth Movement."(2)
With the assistance of the Party the Y.C.L. approached youth organizations in all parts of the country with a view to united youth action. A joint youth council sprang up in Winnipeg and was followed by others in various parts of the country. On May 23-25, 1936, the National Youth Congress was founded at a national conference at Ottawa.
The reader needs but to cast his mind back to the conditions described a few pages earlier, which culminated in the great trek of the camp workers to Regina, and remember that preparations for that trek had already started when the Youth Congress was founded, to realize how intensely young Canadians felt the need for action to save their generation. It should not be assumed that only the revolutionary youth felt this need. The Youth Congress movement included in its ranks official representatives of the youth organizations of the United Church, the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church. Perhaps the best example of how political discussion was raging in non-labor youth organizations is to be seen in the type of resolution submitted to the foundation conference by the delegates from the Young Men's Bible Class of the Riverdale United Church in Toronto. The delegate who submitted the resolution explained that it had been discussed and amended by the membership of the Bible Class over a period of three months to ensure that it expressed their considered opinion. It was a document of nineteen paragraphs, entitled "Canadian Youth and World Peace." The first paragraph stated the general attitude of the members of the Bible Class in the following words:
"We are convinced that there can be no definite peace policy for Canada under the existing system that produces for profit, because we are convinced that the profit system is tied up with, and integrated with war, and that war is an inevitable result of the profit system."
The following paragraph of the resolution was a call to the youth to unite for action. It read:
"We are determined that we shall cooperate to the fullest extent possible with any group whatsoever at attempts to reorganize the existing order for peace, social justice, and economic equality, regardless of their political, social, religious or racial affiliation."(3)
The National Committee of the Communist Party greeted such expressions of the will to unity with gratification. The committee declared:
"We Communists welcome this statement sincerely. One of our tasks is to seek that possible common ground upon which we, as revolutionary materialists, can join with members of the church who see the evils of the present system and want a better life, in the struggle for peace and a new social order."(4)
To an increasing extent, the work of the Y.C.L. became that of furthering and enriching the united front activities of the Youth Congress movement and its local youth councils. The Y.C.L. played a leading role in the fight for the Youth Bill: prepared by the Youth Congress, submitted to the cabinet and made a subject of public discussion by committing members of parliament to support of it. As the menace of war became increasingly acute, the fight to mobilize the youth of Canada for peace took front rank along with the fight for the Youth Bill, economic protection of the youth and repeal of the Military Service Act. Along with the Communist Party, the Youth Congress movement became one of the fighters for a policy of national reconstruction. As its national secretary pointed out in his booklet, Canada's Youth Comes of Age:
"Four or five years ago, it could have been said with truth that youth, by and large, was apathetic. The force of the depression had not served at that time to stimulate youth to action. Young men and women still lived and acted in the pre-depression ways: enjoyed sports, dances, movies, etc.; and were not interested in 'serious' questions like economics, and social and political issues. As more and more left school or graduated from colleges and there was no work and no immediate prospect of security, youth began to waken up. There was a hardening that was healthy. Pessimism is giving way to calmer, more deliberate study of the situation and planning of action. Youth is becoming serious-minded as it faces more frankly and honestly the world in which it has to live, the world it has to change. Youth is realizing that its own future is at stake. Youth is assuming responsibility for decision and action. Quickly youth is training for citizenship and administration. Perspective is being regained. The certainty of our natural wealth and the calibre of our people are great encouragement for young Canadians; the pioneer past is remembered; the future is for us to build."(5)
(1) Stalin's characterization.
(2) Reports and Resolutions, Ninth Plenum C. P. of C., p. 98.
(3) Quoted in Report of Tenth Plenum, C. P. of C., 1936, p. 42.
(4) Report of Tenth Plenum, C. P. of C., 1936, pl; 16.
(5) Canada's Youth Comes of Age, Kenneth Woodsworth, p. 16.