It’s a good thing nobody’s paying me to write these. Otherwise, taking five years in between posts might make me feel a little bit guilty.
THE NEW VANGUARD
In the aftermath of the galvanizing effects of the Russian Revolution and the Winnipeg General Strike, the Socialist Party of Canada had become largely obsolete on the national level. Even setting aside the government scrutiny and repression that occurred as a result of the Party’s ardent opposition to Canadian involvement in World War I, the Party had fallen victim to the usual enemy of leftist organizations: Factionalism. As the old adage goes, the only people that anti-capitalists hate more than capitalists are anti-capitalists who adhere to the ideology of a different long-dead European philosopher than they do.
The withered corpse of the Socialist Party didn’t officially disband until 1925, but the writing was on the wall by 1921, by which time the more union and/or reform-oriented members of the party had splintered off to form various different Labour parties, and the more revolutionary members going off to join the shiny new far-left party on the block: the Communist Party of Canada (CPC).
Formed as a clandestine organization in a barn near the town of Guelph, Ontario, in 1921, the CPC was originally comprised of various activists and organizers who had previously been members of assorted leftist and unionist groups. The CPC’s legality alternated constantly for the first few years of its existence, mainly due to government legislation aimed at preventing any potential uprising or revolution. This led to the CPC going under the moniker of the “Workers’ Party of Canada” until 1924 when the legislation was allowed to expire and they assumed the title of “Communist Party” again.
During the 20’s, the CPC had picked up where the Socialist Party had left off in terms of being the foremost socialist organization in the country, organizing strikes and supporting various labour organizations. While they were never going to rival the Liberal, Conservative or Progressive parties when it came to federal elections, the communists pushed hard for local and provincial elections, with the first elected communist in North America, William Kolisnyk, being elected in Winnipeg during municipal elections in 1925. By that year, membership had expanded to 4,500 people, usually members of the working class, including many Finnish, Ukrainian, and Scandinavian immigrants.
Besides some purges of the Trotskyists (it’s always the Trotskyists who get purged), the CPC came out of some ABSOLUTELY VITAL internal squabbles relatively unscathed (at least compared to their predecessor) into the early 30’s, just in time for the Great Depression to inject new life into the Canadian radical movement by way of massive unemployment and the decimation of every industry not centred around folksy songs about hobos and/or trains.
While the Great Depression wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for any part of the country, Western Canada was especially devastated, with two-thirds of the population of the rural areas of the prairies surviving on some form of government relief. The collapse of wheat prices led to an exodus of rural inhabitants to bigger cities. The CPC remained active throughout the depression, continuing to organize strikes and protests against the ineffectiveness of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government. While the CPC was unlikely to ever pose a serious threat to Bennett, that didn’t stop the Prime Minister from cracking down on the supposed red menace, vowing to crush the communists under the “iron heel of ruthlessness.”
This Prime Ministerial Dick Measuring came to a head as a result of the 1935 On-to-Ottawa trek, in which 1,000 unemployed Western men left their work camps for Ottawa to protest their living conditions (Long story short: Unemployed men were placed in camps by the federal government and were assigned to build infrastructure projects for the wage of 20 cents a day). After a shouting match with Prime Minister Bennett in Ottawa, the Trekkers were promptly kicked out of the capital, culminating in a riot in Regina, Saskatchewan when the RCMP attacked protesting Trekkers on the way back to the work camps, resulting in dozens of injured protesters, including one fatality.
Among other things, the Trek and resulting Regina Riot helped lead to the downfall of Bennett’s government and re-installment of former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie’s Liberal government in the 1935 general election, by which time the worst of the Depression had passed. However, this election also brought two new parties into prominence, born out of Western dissatisfaction with the incompetence and elitism of both the Liberal and Conservative governments. One of these parties was the Social Credit Party, or “SoCreds.” The SoCreds believed in the appropriately named, annoyingly nebulous “Social Credit Theory,” which combined vague anti-capitalist rhetoric and monetary theories with a healthy injection of Evangelical Christian fundamentalism and a worrisome tendency for anti-Semitism. Surprisingly (or not, I suppose), this went over very well in Alberta, where the provincial Social Credit Party formed the government from 1935 to 1971.
However, as much as I’d like to, we will not be talking about the SoCreds today. Nor will we be talking about Alberta SoCred leader William “Bible Bill” Aberhart’s interesting choice of glasses.
No, next time, whenever that may be, we’ll be looking at the other Western populist party to emerge out of the Great Depression: The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.