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The Left in Canada in World War II

This article is based on a talk presented by John Riddell and Ian Angus to the Socialist School in Toronto, October 9, 2004. It has also been serialized in Socialist Worker.

Part One: Canada in the War

Part Two: The Left Responds


The Left in Canada in World War II

by John Riddell and Ian Angus

This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, and also of another, less remembered event, the uprising by Canadian soldier-conscripts against being sent to Europe to join the fighting.

These two events symbolize the dual character of the Second World War in Canada: a war against Germany and a conflict within Canadian society.

What we call World War II encompassed many different wars, many of them progressive: the Soviet struggle against Nazi invasion, the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the colonial liberation struggle in China, India, and elsewhere. But Canada's war had little relationship to these progressive struggles and was not anti-fascist in character. It formed part of what Leon Trotsky termed a struggle of imperialist slaveholders for a new division of the globe. How did socialists in Canada respond to this conflict?

We have begun work on a history of the Trotskyist movement in Canada from 1928 to 1961, entitled Against the Stream. This is an initial sketch of the chapter on the Second World War.

Part One: Canada in the War

Many aspects of Canada in 1939 are unfamiliar to us today.

Canada was then part of the British Empire, was automatically part of Britain's wars, and was ruled by an Anglo-Saxon elite who looked with scorn on those not of British extraction.

Within North America, Canada was a bastion of reaction. In the 1930s there was no breakthrough here by unionism, no legislated labor code, no New Deal.

In 1939 Canada was still gripped by depression, with 23% of the work force unemployed.

Most working people dreaded war. In the prewar years, the CCF, predecessor of the NDP, responded with a pacifist stance: support to the League of Nations but opposition to Canada's entering an imperialist war.

In Quebec, there was massive opposition to a war in defense of the British Empire. Resentment was still fierce against Ottawa's imposition of conscription in World War One, which had led to massive demonstrations, pitched battles with police, and widespread acts of resistance across Quebec.

The Canadian government, headed by Mackenzie King, secured Parliament's adoption of a declaration of war on September 8, 1939, through a promise not to conscript men for overseas service.

Civil liberties were the war's first casualty. First the Trotskyists, then the pro-Stalin Communist Party were driven underground. Quebecois antiwar activists were hounded and arrested.

Even the CCF was not immune. When Charlie Millard, head of Canada's steelworkers and a prominent CCFer, spoke critically of the war, he was clapped in jail, and the next day the RCMP raided the Toronto offices of the CIO—the industrial union federation—carting off piles of union documents.

In mid-1940 the government imposed conscription for home defence, along with sweeping controls over the economy and labour power. It interned 110 leaders of the CP, along with German nationals, Quebecois nationalists, and—soon—Canadians of Japanese ancestry.

Coercive measures were also applied to the industrial work force. Young workers could not get a job unless they proved they had applied for and been refused by the armed forces. Industrial workers could not change jobs without the bosses' permission.

Conscription and the Zombies' Revolt

Canada's rulers wanted to build a massive military establishment, but there weren’t enough volunteers for overseas service. So in 1942 the King government held a referendum on a proposal to empower it—despite its promises—to send conscripts to fight overseas.

In Quebec a united front campaigned for a "no" vote arguing that the no-conscription pledge had been made to Quebec, so only Quebec could revoke it—in essence, asserting Quebec's right to self-determination.

Result: 72% of Quebec voters, and about 85% of Francophones voted no.

Elsewhere in Canada a significant minority, 20%, voted "no." The outcome was a defeat for King: he had his majority, but was now afraid to use it.

Government efforts now focused on coercing the home-defence conscripts, now derisively termed "Zombies," to volunteer for overseas service. Recruitment posters blanketed the country, war heroes lectured the conscripts, volunteers were incited to harass them; and recalcitrants were demoted and punished.

Yet most conscripts resisted. They resented the high command's hostility to working people, which was coloured by racism. One of their commanders, Brigadier W.H.S. Macklin, vilified the conscripts as "of non-British origin ... most of them come from farms. They are of deplorably low education... typical European peasants." [BP 206]

One general commented, "I hate the sight of French-Canadians." The minister of defense reportedly said that the army could not do anything with Quebeckers. "They can't speak English. Their fighting ability is questionable."

Over time, the Zombies' refusal took on an air of dogged heroism. They enjoyed support in the general population, where 50% of those in their 20s opposed conscription for overseas service.

In November 1944, King ordered that 16,000 conscripts be sent to Europe. In B.C., where most of them were stationed, there was a wave of demonstrations and mutinies. At a base in Terrace B.C., French- and English-speaking troops joined forces, armed themselves, took over the camp, and mounted guns to command the approaches. Popular slogans were "Down with conscription" and "Conscript money as well." One placard read, "We can end the war here at home." Another, "Zombies strike back."

These disturbances died down, but there were recurring bouts of rioting and sit-down strikes. Half the 16,000 went AWOL and only a fifth of the missing men were ever retrieved—a sure sign of strong community support.

The hunt for deserters proved hazardous. In Drummondville, Quebec, on 24 February, a 100-man raiding party was attacked by a mob, their vehicles overturned and smashed, while fighting lasted on the streets for three hours, and scores required hospital treatment.

Even after sending conscripts to Europe, opposition was so high that King had to promise not send them to fight in the Pacific unless they agreed. Result: when Canada's most powerful and prestigious warship, the HMCS Uganda, was ordered to move against Japan, the crew voted overwhelmingly to end their participation in the war and sailed back to a Canadian port.

Union Upsurge and the CCF

The struggles of the working class outside the army followed a similar course. The federal government, while rewarding capitalists with lucrative cost-plus contracts, froze workers’ wages, limited the right to strike, and used troops and police to break strikes.

Even this was not enough for the Canadian Manufacturers' Association, which in 1941 termed the CIO unions "foreign-dominated" and "Communist." They were "disrupting" the war effort, "holding up production," and fomenting unrest, the CMA said, calling on the government to outlaw industrial unions.

Yet strikes took place anyway, and forced government and bosses to back off. For example, in a major Hamilton factory, National Steel Car, workers struck in April 1941 to protest the firing of union organizers. The government was forced to take over the plant and hold a recognition vote, which the union won.

That summer, in Quebec, a wildcat strike by 10,000 smelter workers in Arvida led to a plant occupation. The Army was sent in. But the workers held firm, and after five days won a pay raise plus increased rights to use the French language in the plant.

Workers poured into the industrial unions, but many employers continued to deny them recognition. A 1943strike by miners in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, brought matters to a head. A militant 11-week strike for recognition, with wide public support, went down to defeat when the bosses absolutely refused to budge.

The defeat in Kirkland Lake helped move the labor insurgency into political action. The Canadian Congress of Labour, formed in 1940 after the CIO’s industrial unions were expelled from the Trades & Labour Congress, shifted in 1943 to outspoken opposition against the government. It endorsed the CCF, and within a year union locals with 50,000 members affiliated to the party.

The bosses now faced the prospect of a national CCF government closely linked to insurgent labor. In response, they launched a coordinated, well-financed, and near-hysterical campaign against the CCF, charging—to sum up a torrent of abuse—that it was a pro-Nazi, totalitarian, foreign- and Jewish-dominated conspiracy led by academic snobs.

Simultaneously, they moved to concede many of labor's immediate demands. In 1944, the King government finally provided a legal mechanism for union recognition, and enacted Family Allowances—the first major social benefit. More was promised after the war.

Part Two: The Left Responds

What we’ve tried to show so far is that, contrary to the usually presented picture of a country united for a common purpose, the class struggle did not take a holiday during World War II. A majority of Quebecois and a significant minority outside of Quebec opposed conscription. The industrial working class embarked on the biggest strike wave and organizing drive since 1919, a drive that extended into independent labour political action on a massive scale.

This situation posed huge opportunities and challenges for socialists in Canada.

At the end of the 1930s, two organizations dominated the Canadian left—the Communist Party, loyal to the Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union, and the CCF, a social democratic party that began as an agrarian movement in 1933. They were of similar size and influence in the labour movement.

There was also a third far smaller group, the Socialist Workers League, Canadian section of the Fourth International, usually labeled Trotskyist. It had set itself the goal of building a revolutionary party with a Leninist program in Canada—although given its very small numbers and resources, its immediate goal was to keep that program alive and relevant under extremely adverse conditions.


The CCF’s 1933 Regina Manifesto was very clear on war. It said:

"We stand resolutely against all participation in imperialist wars…. Canada must refuse to be entangled in any more wars fought to make the world safe for capitalism."

In 1937, CCF leader J.S. Woodsworth proposed a resolution in Parliament which declared that Canada would remain neutral in any war.

But for most of the CCF leadership, those fine words didn’t last a day past the beginning of a real war. In September 1939, the CCF national council voted 13-9 to support the government’s declaration of war. In the House of Commons, only one CCF M.P., party leader J.S. Woodsworth, spoke and voted against the war.

This was a major betrayal of CCF principles, and it’s very likely that a majority of the CCF’s membership would have opposed the war if they had been given a say.

Initially the CCF said Canada should give only economic support to Britain—it opposed sending Canadian troops to fight. Instead, it urged "conscription of wealth"—a vague phrase that was never filled with content. Soon, however, even that vague phrase was quickly watered down. As historian Leo Zakuta put it, the party’s policy went:

"From ‘conscription of wealth rather than manpower,’ to ‘no conscription of manpower without conscription of wealth,’ to, finally, ‘conscription of wealth as well as manpower." (A Protest Movement Becalmed, 60)

By the time of the 1942 Referendum, the CCF was giving all-out support to the war effort, including conscription. It strongly opposed the anti-conscription movement in Quebec.

However, in important ways the CCF upheld independent labour political action. It consistently ran candidates against the Liberals and Conservatives, despite intense pressure to do otherwise, coming from the Communist Party, which wanted it to ally with the Liberals, and from the Liberals, who wanted free rides for new Cabinet Ministers in by-elections.

In Ontario and B.C. many, perhaps most of its candidates were union activists and leaders.

Above all, the CCF-oriented leaders of Canadian Congress of Labour refused to join the old-line Trades & Labour Congress in a "No Strike" pledge, and led many militant strikes during the war years. In 1943, despite the war, more workers went on strike than in any year since 1919—and most of those strikes were led by CCF members.

The CCF’s support for independent labour political action, and for the right of workers to organize and fight, won it substantial support in the new industrial unions and among labour militants. That in turn won it growing electoral support—it received a plurality of the votes in B.C. in 1941, became the official opposition in Ontario in 1943, and formed the government in Saskatchewan in 1944.

On the other hand, the CCF’s support of the war was part of a steady move to the right. Although the Regina Manifesto remained official party policy until 1956, dumping the policy on war in 1939 was just part of a long-term trend away from even a reformist-vision of socialism, towards welfare capitalism.

The Communist Party

We would scarcely have expected the CCF to follow revolutionary policies, but the Communist Party of Canada was ostensibly Leninist. Nevertheless, its policies and actions during World War II bore little resemblance to the anti-war policies Lenin advocated in the previous World War.

Lenin condemned any support to the inter-imperialist war. Even after the Russian Revolution, when Russia was fighting German invasion, Lenin never suggested that revolutionaries in England and France should support their government’s war effort in order to protect the new Soviet government. Sadly, that’s what the Communist International—and of course its Canadian party—did between 1939 and 1945.

Until 1939, Stalin’s foreign policy aimed to build alliances between the democracies and the Soviet Union against German fascism and Japanese imperialism. As part of the effort to win the confidence of the "democratic capitalists," the parties of the Communist International favored suspending the class struggle in the capitalist democracies.

In February 1939, for example, Canadian Communist Party leader Tim Buck wrote:

"The first duty of our statesmanship today is to bring CAPITAL AND MANPOWER TOGETHER... Can this be done in Canada? I say: Yes... We communists will oppose any group that aims to overthrow our present system." [The Clarion, February 2, 1939]

In August 1939, Stalin suddenly changed direction. Having failed to win an alliance with Britain, he signed a treaty with Germany. Germany invaded Poland just days after the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed.

The change was so sudden that the Communist Party at first didn’t realize that it had happened. When Hitler’s armies invaded Poland, Tim Buck immediately sent a telegram to Mackenzie King urging "full support to the Polish people," and called on Canadians to oppose any compromise between Britain and Germany. [The Clarion, Sept 2 and 9, 1939]

But news of the new direction soon arrived and by mid-September, the CP was raising the slogan "Withdraw Canada from the Imperialist War!," proclaiming:

"The danger of fascism for the people of Canada comes not from the German imperialists, but from the Canadian capitalist class. Canadian capitalism, not German capitalism, is our main enemy." (Toronto Clarion, Jan. 20, 1941)

This stand led to the party being outlawed. Many of its leaders were imprisoned without trial, and others, including Tim Buck, fled to the United States.

The CP allied itself with the anti-conscription forces led by Quebec nationalists. When the mayor of Montreal was arrested for urging Quebecois to refuse to register for military service, a headline in the Communist Party newspaper read: "Mayor Houde’s Actions Foreshadow Mighty Anti-War Movement in Canada." (Toronto Clarion, September 26 1940)

But then the line reversed again. On June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party of Canada became the most pro-war party of all. Once again it campaigned to suspend the class struggle to support the war. As Tim Buck wrote in 1946:

"It was the Communists who first proposed labor-management cooperation during the war. It was the Communists who first proposed that labor should voluntarily adopt the no-strike pledge. It was the Communists who led the struggle to unite all sections of the labor movement in support of conscription." (National Affairs Monthly, March 1946)

The CP set up "Tim Buck Plebiscite Committees" to fight for a "yes" vote in the 1942 referendum. The CP’s press, which had hailed Montreal mayor Camillien Houde as an anti-war hero, now condemned him and the entire Quebec nationalist movement as fascist.

In 1943 the Communist party regained legal status by renaming itself the "Labor Progressive Party." The LPP’s founding program specifically advocated universal conscription and urged the labour movement to voluntarily abstain from strikes for the duration of the war.

Remember, this was 1943, the year in which there were more strikes than any time since 1919. Canadian workers were joining the new industrial unions by the tens of thousands, and striking in nearly unprecedented numbers to win better pay and working conditions—but the Communist Party was officially and vehemently opposed to all strikes. In its newspapers, on the shop floor, in union meetings and during actual strikes, the CP fought for a no-strike policy.

In electoral politics, the Communist Party advanced a program that was well to the right of the CCF—for example, it explicitly opposed the CCF’s call for socialism as sectarian and ultraleft!

More importantly, from June 1941 on, the CP consistently opposed independent labour political action, campaigning instead for an electoral alliance between labour and the Liberal Party. The main practical result of this was the defeat of CCF candidates in ridings where the Liberals used the LPP’s proposed alliance to split the labour vote.

In the most extreme case, in 1945, a member of the Communist party who ran against the CCF as a "UAW-Liberal-Labour" candidate was elected to the Ontario legislature and sat as a member of the Liberal Caucus.

The Trotskyists

The Trotskyist Socialist Workers League was tiny by any standard—it had fewer than 100 members in 1939.

Still, it did what it could to oppose the imperialist war. The day after war was declared, the SWL held a street corner meeting in Toronto, at Brunswick and Bloor, to denounce the war. At that meeting Frank Watson became the first person to be arrested imprisoned under the Defense of Canada Regulations—that repressive law was so new that copies weren’t available for the prosecutor to use during his trial!

The Socialist Workers League was illegal throughout the war. No printer would produce its newspaper or leaflets, and the publications of its U.S. co-thinkers in the Socialist Workers Party were stopped at the border. Many members dropped away—and many, especially those outside of major cities, lost contact, because even the mails weren’t safe.

Still the organization did whatever was possible to get its program out. It published some issues of a mimeographed magazine, and produced leaflets that it distributed by tossing them off tall building rooftops into lunch-time crowds, or by inserting them into Marxist books on the shelves of the public library. Trotskyists who were in the army smuggled pamphlets and newspapers across the border from Buffalo in their baggy uniform trousers.

They used whatever organizational means were available to them, In Prince Rupert, for example, Trotskyist leader Paddy Stanton organized a boxing club to provide a cover for labor militants to meet.

Most of the SWL’s members in Ontario and B.C. joined the CCF, and played a part both in the CCF itself and in the CCL unions. In British Columbia, in particular, Trotskyists led the left-wing opposition to the CP leadership of the International Woodworkers Union—shortly after the war, they were elected as leaders of the major local there.

When the anti-conscription movement exploded in Quebec in 1942, the Toronto branch sent one of its members to Montreal to make contact. Landon Ladd was not only well-received, he was invited to speak at a mass anti-conscription rally in Montreal on March 24. Andre Laurendeau, who later described the event in his book, La crise de la conscription, said the applause that greeted the his speech was "thunderous."

"He was certainly," Laurendeau wrote, "the only English-Canadian speaker in a League meeting ever to express, in English, an anti-conscription point of view."

Ladd’s experience helped educate the small Trotskyist movement about the potential of the Quebec nationalist movement, at a time when all the rest of the left was writing it off as at best backward, at worst fascist. That education helped ensure that the Trotskyists—again unlike all the rest of the left—responded positively when Quebec nationalism exploded again in the 1960s.

Ross Dowson, a machinist in his 20s who became the main leader of the Toronto branch early in the war, made two cross-country organizing tours, hitch-hiking from town to town to reunite the individuals and small groups that had become isolated by wartime restrictions and censorship. Remarkably, they were able to pull together an underground national conference in Montreal in 1944. That meeting decided to launch a public newspaper, Labor Challenge, in 1945—and that newspaper was the organizer that pulled together the SWL members from the thirties and wartime recruits into a new organization, the Revolutionary Workers Party.

The war ended on August 14, 1945. On August 20, the government tried to force Canadian soldiers to work in industrial jobs, but under army discipline and for army pay. In Oakville the soldiers carried out sit-down strikes, walkouts and other protests. These protests forced an end to the slave labour program within five days. A key leader of the protest, a private who had resigned a captain’s commission to stay with his comrades in the ranks, was Ross Dowson. He was discharged two months later and became National Secretary of the Revolutionary Workers Party.

In August 1945, the Trotskyist and Stalinist newspapers both ran large front-page headlines to mark the end of the war.

Labor Challenge: "THERE IS NO PEACE!"

Canadian Tribune: "A-BOMB KO’s JAPS!"

In just a few words, those headlines summed up the difference between the revolutionary policy and program of Trotskyism, and the conservatism social-patriotism of Stalinism.


The wave of wartime struggles enabled labor to achieve a breakthrough—Canada was no longer an anti-union bastion among capitalist powers. But the failure of the CCF and the Communist Party to provide leadership and a class struggle program during World War II had profound short and long-term consequences.

The Social Democrats and Stalinists didn’t just abstain from the anti-conscription movement—they opposed and condemned the movement and the Quebec nationalism that underlay it. They provided no alternative leadership to the right-wing nationalists, effectively handing Quebec over to Duplessis on a platter. They missed a major opportunity to build the left in Quebec, and socialism in Quebec remains weak to this day.

The underlying motivation for the Communist Party’s policy in the labour movement between 1941 and 1945 was the view that protecting the Soviet Union was the overriding task of the international working class—and that suspending the class struggle in countries allied with the USSR was the best way to achieve that. This policy of subordinating the Canadian class struggle to the needs of Stalinist diplomacy was a disaster.

The CP did make some short-term gains. It elected some MPs and MLAs, and it won some support in the conservative Trades & Labour Congress unions.

But at the same time it alienated the militants who were building the CCL, ensuring that it had few allies on the left when the anti-communist witch-hunts came after the war. Its anti-Quebec stance led to the split of most of its Québécois cadre; another left-wing split took place in B.C. Deprived of its wartime alliance with the Liberals, the isolated Communist Party quickly lost most of its influence in the unions in the postwar years.

The Trotskyists were far too few and too scattered to have a major impact, but they emerged from the war with a far stronger organization than they had at the beginning. They were well-respected in several major unions, and were playing leadership roles in the left-wing of the CCF and labour movement.

At the beginning of the war, the SWL’s main leaders were middle-class academics. Few of those survived the intense pro-war pressure—so by the end of the war the group’s entire membership and leadership was solidly rooted in the industrial working class and the new industrial unions.

Even more important, the Trotskyists preserved their revolutionary program, learned to explain and promote it in conditions of repression and illegality, and even evolved it through the experience in Quebec. They had laid a firm basis for the next wave of radicalization, which came in the 1960s.

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