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A Response to the Great Depression

by Pat Schulz

Left-wing Politics in East York

The fight between Williams and the Lovestoneites is indicative of some of the political changes that took place in the East York Workers during the decade. No doubt the vast majority of the members of the organization were Conservatives or Liberals when the depression began. Bert Hunt was a Conservative until 1926; Nell Binns recalls voting Conservative before her involvement in the East York Workers' Association. Since there was no CCF until July 1933 and the Communist Party was very weak, workers had no alternative but to support one of the old line parties or to abstain. A little light can be thrown on their political and cultural attitudes by a motion passed in 1931 which urged that only naturalized foreigners receive relief (of course British immigrants were not considered to be foreigners).[1] Arthur Williams, then reeve, moved a motion in 1936 at a ratepayers meeting that expressed "the desire to register our emphatic protest at even a thought of his majesty abdicating."[2]

The above motions notwithstanding, the group did become more radical over the decade, primarily because of their experiences. Enthusiasm for the status quo would be difficult to maintain under these circumstances. But their critique of the system was reinforced and socialist alternatives were proposed by the influx of various types of socialists into the organization. Bert Hunt describes that process:

And then gradually a lot of old socialists, that is of the 1907 -1911 period, started to attend the meetings of the East York Workers but inconspicuously, in the crowd. By this time the East York Workers had about 1,000 members and there were about 700 or 800 attending the meetings. But we gradually contacted these people and talked to them.

Hunt himself did not remain unaffected by the contact. He was a Conservative until 1926 and became a Labour Party supporter through his observance of the British General Strike. His experiences in the East York Workers and particularly his contact with Bill Moriarty, a former leader of the Canadian Communist Party who was expelled for supporting Lovestone, shaped Hunt's political ideas.[3] Bill Moriarty ran small classes in East York and according to Hunt "was teaching us the difference between barging in and breaking up an organization and working and coaxing the workers to the left."

Another small political group was the Social Democratic Party of America whose constitution forbade them to affiliate to any other political group. When the issue of the East York Workers joining the CCF arose they raised the problem but postponed their decision to a later meeting.[4] Their final decision was not reported in the press. But most of the East York Workers did not join small socialist groups; 500 of them voted to affiliate to the CCF in January 1933 some six months before the First National Convention in Regina.[5] Nell Binns played a role in that development.

We joined (the CCF) first as individuals. There was about half a dozen people from the East York Workers went down to the meeting place which was Hygieia Hall on Spadina, and we joined them. But it wasn't too long after before the whole group became an affiliated group.

There was little disagreement about the move, she claims: "That was easy everybody was that way inclined." That year 8,000 people attended a joint East York Workers Association CCF Dominion Day rally and picnic in Woodbine Park. One motion passed there, urged the Regina Convention of the CCF to call for the release of Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party, from prison.[6] Elizabeth Morton, a prominent member of the East York Workers was a delegate to that convention.[7] Their affiliation to the CCF was not token. A glowing report in the New Commonwealth, a CCF publication appeared on 1 December, 1934 headed "East York Workers Association A fighting organization of 1600 members that has been outstanding as the champion of the unemployed families." The CCF valued its connections with the East York Workers and other such groups. When the relief strike was on, they organized collections of food for the strikers and set up soup kitchens for the families.[8] Arthur Williams had close connections with the CCF and in 1943 won the Oshawa provincial seat for them. He also headed the provincial executive of the CCF when it went as a deputation to see Arthur Roebuck in 1934 regarding a dressmakers' strike.[9]

The 1934 Ontario election illustrated the support for the CCF both in the township and the riding of East York, which included as well, Markham, Scarborough, and parts of York Township and Toronto. Table VII gives the vote for both the riding and the township.[10] These results show that where voters rejected the two old parties they had gone decisively into the camp of the CCF. They also show that in the township more electors had made that break than in the more rural parts of the riding. The results also give some indication of the relative strength of the Communist Party, which was likely to be stronger in Scarborough where it had succeeded in electing J. Wilson to council and his wife to the Board of Education.[11]

TABLE VII: East York Provincial Election Results, 1934









G.S. Henry (Cons.)





T.H. Sanders (Lib.)





A.E. Smith (Comm)





J. Walker (Ind.)





H.C. Warner (Soc.)





A. Williams (CCF)





*The township votes are based on 47 out of 79 polling stations reporting.

In an analysis of the role of the Communist Party in the East York Workers' Association two distinctly different periods and approaches must be examined, because of a change in policy in 1935. In 1930 the Workers Unity League was founded under the leadership of the Communist Party; it planned to organize the unorganized and the unemployed in unions separate from the international unions.[12] During the early period, from 1930 to 1935, organizing the unemployed into the Workers Unity League was combined with attacks on unemployed organizations founded by other groups. An examination of the Communist Party paper The Worker illustrates this point. The issue of 25 July, 1931 carried an article entitled "The Council for Progressive Labor Action a new attempt to mislead the working class."

It was an attack on a conference on unemployment called by, "in the main ... AF of L craft unions, ACC of L (All-Canadian Congress of Labour) locals, Earlscourt Labor Party, etc. The NUWA (National Unemployed Workers Association) and the WUL (Workers Unity League) were not on the list..." The author concluded that the reason for their exclusion was that the new organization, in spite of its name, was not interested in action. The author described the document produced by this conference.

In dramatic tones the document laments the Canons of the Bennett Budget, quotes Sir Joseph Flavelle on wage cuts, decided that capitalism is the root of all evil, tips its hat to the USSR, discovers that Canada is also a capitalist country, declares the need of socialist Marxist education, and then proceeds to swipe a few planks from the timber of the W.U.L. programme.

The author of the article then examined the six planks in the platform of the group and attacked all of them. Non-contributory unemployment insurance was a poor imitation of the WUL position on this issue. "The six hour day-five day week places our contemporaries far ahead of the WUL on paper where it will unquestionably remain." The author questioned the methods by which the group would fight for the third plank, free speech and assembly, and characterizes anti-war demonstrations as "a subtle piece of pacifism." Working class study groups which examine Marxism apart from Leninism "can deliver the workers bound with illusions at the feet of capitalist exploitation." The final demand for a Dominion Wide Labor Party was attacked because it would create illusions for workers and further the parliamentary careers of men like Woodsworth. The article specifically charged that "At a recent meeting of the East York unemployed, the Fabian Lyons advised those present 'never to fight with the police as it never gets you anywhere' but to rely entirely on constitutional means via the ballot."

The first organizational meeting of the "East York Unemployed Workers Association" as it was originally called, was reported in The Worker under the heading "Beware social fascism." [13] The article charged that an attempt was made to keep the group from joining the National Unemployed Workers Association. Three weeks later The Worker headed an article "East York unemployed workers being misled" and quoted Jim Sutherton as saying that "Force will never get you anywhere," and ruling that no literature was to be distributed without the sanction of the committee a ruling aimed at The Worker which had been distributed. [14]

Bert Hunt recalls that the Communist Party attempted to set up another unemployed organization in East York.

Tom Ewan attempted to form a dual employment organization which met in the Don Hall. Several plasterers' labourers were attached to the (Communist) party and he influenced some of us to go to the meetings. The first meeting I went to I was a little surprised. First the demands were outrageous; it was plain to see they weren't interested in achieving anything for the unemployed. All they wanted to do was to destroy the East York Workers and Sutherton. Sutherton was downgraded, I left the meeting and I never went back.

When Arthur Williams ran for the CCF in the 1934 provincial election, the Communist Party ran one of their most respected and prominent members against him, A. E. Smith.

Once the Communist Party realized that the East York Workers was there to stay, its members in East York inevitably became involved in the organization. One member of the association who was interviewed for this paper, worked for A. E. Smith in the 1934 campaign. [15] Bert Hunt worked closely with Jerry Flannigan who was in the Communist Party and together they set up the Marxist study class at which Bill Moriarty lectured. Both men first heard him speak at a mass meeting held in Danforth Park School on the 50th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx and had been very impressed. [16]

Nell Binns also mentions groups within the E.Y.W.A. who were more radical and tried to influence the membership.

There was a sort of ginger group in the Workers at that time. It was a smallish group but they didn't get too much opposition, because at that time most everybody felt just a bit of a revolutionary and I think that it got to the point of desperation that something radical had to be done to better living conditions so I can never remember in the early years the little ginger group causing any disruption at all.

While the assorted socialists and communists in the group differed on many issues, they were able to agree on many more and were frequently able to influence the East York Workers as a whole to support them. Furthermore the leadership of the association was socialist and aided that process.

James Sutherton, the first president of the E.Y.W.A. is quoted as saying that only Russia was weathering the storm of the depression. [17] He also commented on the government's refusal of a $10 million order from Russia. "He didn't care where the orders came from whether it was a democracy or a dictatorship but Canada needed that trade."[18]

In 1931 the East York Workers sent six people to a meeting of the Canadian Defense League which was addressed by Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party, and at which a motion was passed urging the local M.P., R. H. McGregor, to introduce a bill in the House of Commons regarding free speech. [19] Williams sponsored motions calling for the release of Tim Buck from jail[20]  and the group registered support for the strike of Stratford chicken pluckers who were affiliated with the Workers Unity League. [21]

By the mid 1930's international Communist policy towards other working class groups had changed to meet the problems posed by the rise of fascism. [22] A corresponding change in attitude was adopted in Canada[23] and a leading member of the party correctly criticized the earlier policy.

What the Communist Party in 1932 failed to see sufficiently quickly was the need then, as now, for sharply differentiating between the 'Socialist' program drawn up by Mr. Woodsworth and a group of intellectuals with little experience in or knowledge of the throbbing labor movement, and the tremendous significance of the CCF as a mass movement embracing hundreds of thousands of supporters whose fundamental desires are for democracy and for Socialism. [24]

The new approach facilitated collaboration, and in 1936 the East York Workers obtained permission from the township council to hold a tag day for the men on trial for involvement in the Regina Riot.[25] This police riot was directed against the On To Ottawa trek of unemployed single men which had been organized by the Communist Party. The East York Workers also tried to obtain permission for a tag day for aid to Spain, again an issue closely tied to the Communist Party, but the council rejected the request because its members could not clarify the issues in the Spanish Civil War.[26]

The collaboration between CCF members and the Communist Party reached its peak in a united May Day parade in 1936. Twenty thousand marchers met throughout the city and marched to Maple Leaf Gardens for a mass rally at which the CCF was represented by Ben Spence and the CP by Tim Buck. The East York Workers contingent marched from a park at Coxwell and Sammon Avenues led by Arthur Williams who was then reeve.[27] The march was regarded as a great success by the participants but as a disaster by the leadership of the CCF. The New Commonwealth asked the CCFers to withdraw from the project just prior to it and threatened expulsion for those who participated.[28] A number of groups were expelled including the East York Workers Association, the Lakeview CCF, the Earlscourt CCF, and the New Dawn Co-operative Commonwealth Youth Movement,[29] although it is Sarah McKenzie's recollection that they were reinstated shortly afterwards.

Certainly the factionalism between the leaderships of the Communist Party and the CCF was not entirely engendered by the former. No doubt part of the hostility of the CCF leadership was due to the CP's attacks in the early 1930s but added to this was the CCF's own concern about winning support from an electorate that still voted Liberal and Conservative. Being tied to the Communist Party was certainly a liability in that electoral context. At CCF national conventions in 1933 and 1934 a policy of non-cooperation with the Communist Party and with Communist-controlled organizations was adopted. After the CCF Youth affiliated to the League Against War and Fascism and T. C. Douglas, leader of the youth group, addressed the League, the National Council of the CCF adopted a resolution which said CCF organizations could not enter into alliances with any other political party or group.[30] The CCF leadership was prepared to enforce those rulings; in 1934, for example, the whole Ontario section of the CCF was dissolved because of its supposed communist connections and a wholly new organization was set up.[31]

The repressive atmosphere which surrounded the Communist Party at this time contributed sharply both to the paranoia of the CCF leadership and to the sectarianism of the Communist Party. In 1931 the party was declared illegal and eight leaders were sentenced to imprisonment after a trial in Ontario courts under Section 98 of the Criminal Code.[32] An attempt was made on Tim Buck's life while he was in Kingston penitentiary. The prisoners were released in November 1934 after an enormous campaign but the imprisonment and the campaign of intimidation carried by the police made life very difficult for the Communist Party and anyone associated with it, although the party did manage to publish its paper until it was suppressed in November 1939. In East York the proprietor of the Don Hall lost his licence because he rented his premises to 300 Communist Party members for a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Paris Commune[33] and a subsequent meeting there of the Workers' Rights and Anti-Deportation Conference was supervised by a lineup of police at the back of the hall.[34]

In discussing the disagreements between the various political tendencies in the East York Workers' Association, Bert Hunt made the observation:

Sometimes we had the odd Donnybrook but usually the strength of the average local unemployed worker in the meeting managed to control it. They were isolated cases; the meetings were mostly harmonious.

The average member of the East York Workers' Association was able to rise above the disagreements of the leaders of the Communist Party and the CCF, to join together in struggles both directly relevant to their own particular problems in the township and those of other workers in other places. At the same time the broader perspective provided by the socialists in the organization was crucial to its maintenance in the face of the isolation, the grinding poverty and the real limitations of a municipally based organization.

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[1] The Toronto Daily Star, September 12, 1931.

[2] Ibid., December 4, 1936.

[3] Bert Hunt's comments on the expulsion of Moriarty from the Canadian Communist Party directly contradict a biographical sketch of him in Rodney's book, previously cited, which states, "He remained loyal to the party throughout the upheavals of 1928-1929." pg. 167.

[4] Toronto Daily Star and The Evening Telegram, March 22, 1933.

[5] Toronto Daily Star, January 11, 1933.

[6] Toronto Daily Star, July 3, 1933.

[7] The Evening Telegram, July 5, 1933.Toronto Daily Star, December 9, 1935.

[8] Toronto Daily Star, December 9, 1935

[9] New Commonwealth, August 11, 1934.

[10] R. Lewis. Centennial Edition of a  History of the Electoral Districts, Legislatures and Ministries of the  Province of Ontario,1867-1968. Toronto, The Queen's Printer, no date.

[11] Conversation with Hilda Murray, January 7, 1975.

[12] H. A. Logan. Trade Unions in Canada. Toronto, MacMillan Company of Canada, 1948. pgs. 340-342.

[13] The Worker, July 4, 1931.

[14] Ibid., July 25, 1931.

[15] Sarah McKenzie, op. cit.

[16] In March of 1933. Bert Hunt, op. cit.

[17] Toronto Daily Star, September 12, 1931.

[18] Mail and Empire, August 8, 1931.

[19] Evening Telegram, September 26, 1931.

[20] The Toronto Daily Star, July 3, 1933.

[21] Ibid., September 29, 1933.

[22] I. M. Abella. Nationalism, Communism  and Canadian Labour. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1973. pgs. 3-4.

[23] Towards a Canadian Peoples Front, Reports and Speeches of the Ninth Plenum of the Central Committee, Communist  Party of Canada, no publisher, November 1935.-

[24] L. Morris. The Story of Tim Buck's Party, 1922-1939. Toronto, New Era Publishers, no date, pgs. 25-26.

[25] The Toronto Daily Star, March 21, 1936.

[26] Ibid., September 16, 1936.

[27] The Clarion, May 2, 1936 and Sarah McKenzie, op. cit.

[28] The Clarion, May 2, 1936.

[29] The Mail and Empire, May 11, 1936.

[30] D. E. McHenry. The Third Force in  Canada. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1950. pg. 119.

[31] L. Zakuta. A Protest Movement Becalmed. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1964. Pg. 44 and G. L. Caplan, The Dilemma of Canadian Socialism. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1973. Chap. 4.

[32] Communism on Trial. (no author). Toronto, Communist Party of Canada, 1931. pgs: 3-4.

[33] The Toronto Daily Star, March 19, 1931.

[34] Ibid., October 29, 1931.

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