[ Home ]  [ Canadian Bolsheviks ]  [ Documents Index ]  [ Reminiscences Index ] [ About ]

A Noble Cause Betrayed ... but Hope Lives On
Pages from a Political Life, by John Boyd

Chapter 1b

By freight train to Toronto

After I completed the course, I took a freight train to Toronto. This was in 1930 and there weren't very many unemployed traveling the freight trains as yet, so the railway police were quite active in trying to stop them from doing so. But there were a lot of chaps we used to call "hobos," drifters who had been "riding the rods" throughout the 1920s, who taught us younger fellows a lot about how to ride the freight cars, how to board them properly "on the run" cutside the railway yards, how to avoid the railway cops, and so on. For me, the trip was quite an adventure. I recall how on the first day, just as we were approaching Fort William, now Thunder Bay, I watched in horror as a young fellow, trying to catch a speeding train, slipped and fell and had his legs cut off at the thighs. It was a shocking experience. I made two more such trips in the next two years.

National youth secretary

When I got to Toronto, I didn't go back to visit my folks in Thorold. I decided to stay in Toronto and look for a job. I got one in a cap factory owned by Sam Harris, a party member, and I bunked (actually shared a bed) for a couple of months with Nick Oleniuk, an active Ukrainian party member. I was active briefly in the branch of the Youth Section of the ULFTA, in cultural activity and a gym class, and also joined a YCL branch. This was in the winter of 1930-31. Early in 1931, at the request of the ULFTA leadership, I went to Winnipeg to take over the editorship of the Ukrainian youth magazine Boiova molod (Militant Youth) and that summer, at the ULFTA convention in July, I was elected national secretary of the Youth Section.

It was at that convention, in 1931, that the, Party insisted that the ULFTA make a big turn in its policies and orientation, "a turn to the class struggle," as it was called, about which I'll have more to say later.

I was national secretary and editor for only two years. And thereby hangs another story. Early in 1933, it was decided that I should make a national tour, visiting most of the Youth Section branches so as to become more acquainted with the organization. So in mid-January of that year, just before my 20th birthday, I started the western part of my tour from Regina, then continued to Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and points beyond.

Incidentally, it was during my visit to the rural Saskatchewan community of Kleczkowski (its name has since changed) that I first met Bill Kardash, who was then an active member of the ULFTA Youth Section and of the Farmers' Unity League. He wasn't a Communist Party member yet, but he joined soon after and subsequently was sent to the Lenin School in Moscow. From there he went to Spain to join the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, where he lost a leg, and on his return to Canada became one of the Party leaders in Manitoba. Our paths didn't cross much after that first visit, except at Party conventions and central committee meetings.

It was on that tour, while visiting the city of Lethbridge in Alberta, that I met Gladys Kuchurian, the daughter of a Ukrainian coal miner and his wife, both of whom were active Communists. I fell in love with her, truly "at first sight," and promised to come back to see her. Miraculously, because of the way events subsequently developed, four months later I did go to Alberta and did see her and we got married.

Speaker at May Day demo

My tour of Western Canada ended at the end of April and immediately on my return to Winnipeg I was asked to be one of the speakers at that year's May Day demonstration. Some fifteen thousand people assembled in the city's Market Square. This was before loudspeakers came into being, so the speakers spoke from three separate trucks in different parts of the square. On the truck with me was Joe Forkin, the Communist alderman, who spoke on behalf of the Party; I spoke from the Young Communist League and Norman Penner from the Young Pioneers.

After May Day, I continued with the eastern part of my tour, starting in Kenora, through Fort William and Port Arthur, and winding up in Toronto and Montreal. In Montreal there was a Young Communist League convention at the time and there I learned that the Party and YCL leadership had decided, again without discussing it with me beforehand, that I should no longer be National Secretary of the Youth Section, and instead be the YCL organizer in Alberta. And this just after I had got to really know the Youth Section by putting in two years of work and making an extensive tour of its branches! So back I went to the ULFTA convention held that July, resigned my position as National Secretary of the Youth Section and proceeded to Alberta. Misha Korol was elected in my place. And this after the Party leaders had said they wanted him to work in the "Anglo-Saxon field."

Inspired by Communist idea

Q. When did your parents first hear about the Party after it was formed in 1921, when did you hear about it, and what was the attitude in your family to its formation?

My father joined right away, in Alberta. When he came to Ontario in 1923, he joined the local branch in Thorold. And I, as I said earlier, joined the Young Communist League in 1926 at the age of 13. To me, already at that age, the Communist International was the thing. I had great hopes for the Communist Party. It was only later that I began to see some of the Party's negative aspects, especially its rigidity and disallowance of dissent. I didn't see it because I thought that democratic centralism was okay. During those early years I was very enamoured of the movement, as was my father. It was all part of the euphoria of those days. At May Day demonstrations we carried banners with slogans that we thought would attract people to join. At the time, I didn't see how narrow and unrealistic many of those slogans were.

Move to "Bolshevization"

Q. I suppose if you took a historical reading of that period, it was sort of like the post-Trotsky "Bolshevization plan" that Stalin initiated in the Soviet Party. And Stewart Smith, after he came back from the Lenin School in the late 1920s, was one of the agents charged with instituting a Canadian version of it, was he not?

I have painful feelings about those changes. My first encounter with them was in 1931. As I told you earlier, when I came back from the ULFTA's six-month course in Winnipeg in 1930, I lived briefly with Nick Oleniuk, a very bright, understanding and compassionate man who had been a member of the illegal Communist Party in the part of Western Ukraine that was under Romanian rule and came to Canada after he was threatened with imprisonment for his activities. He had been a medical student but had to leave without graduating. He was also a very able actor and drama director in the Ukrainian Labour Temple in Toronto. Because he was politically very active, he joined the Communist Party soon after he came to Canada. Early in the 1930s, during the big debate in the Party as to whether Stalin or Trotsky was right, he and several other members of the ULFTA sided with Trotsky; the group included William Bosovich, a leading member of the ULFTA branch in Toronto. When the Party expelled Maurice Spector, the leader of the Trotskyist faction, the Ukrainian group that sided with him was expelled also.

A shocking action

Within days of their expulsion from the Party, at the direction of the party fraction, a meeting of the ULFTA branch was called and all the members who had been expelled from the Party were also expelled from the ULFTA. In retrospect, it was a horrible thing to, do but it's an example of how the Party operated. To me it was quite a shocker at the time. I was saddened by the fact that Oleniuk and the others, all brilliant and active people, were no longer in the organization. But I accepted it, believing that the Party leaders knew what was right. Oleniuk and I remained friends, however, even though our paths did not cross often. Years later, after my return from Czechoslovakia, we resumed a very warm and close friendship.

This was the time when there was a hardening of the Party line. It came on orders from Moscow and was immediately implemented in the Party branches, in the Party-led trade unions, in the ethnic organizations, and throughout the Party's policies. It was also at this time that the Party leaders began referring to the Social-Democrats as "social fascists," and the CCF became the "enemy."

I recall how in Calgary in 1933, at a big rally of the unemployed in the local arena, Harvey Murphy referred to the CCF leaders as the "Cocofeds." It was his way of mocking them. Instead of finding ways of cooperating with them and trying to win them over as allies in the fight against capitalism, there was a denigration of the CCF as "betrayers of the working class." I recall how it bothered me during election campaigns to hear CCF candidates — for example, A. A. Heaps, in Winnipeg — denounced in much the same way as the Tories and Liberals were. Although I accepted it as Party policy, I wasn't comfortable with it. I often inwardly squirmed when there were violent attacks on individuals like J. S. Woodsworth, M. J. Coldwell and T. C. Douglas. It was only in 1935, after the Seventh Congress of the Communist International, that a shift in tactics came about, which I welcomed.

Ethnic groups were Party's base

Q. What were the largest ethnic groups in the Party in the early 1930s?

Ironically, the ethnic composition of the Canadian Party's membership was, at the same time, both its strength and its weakness. Its strength was that from its very beginning it had an immediate base made up of Ukrainian, Finnish and Jewish immigrants, many of whom came to this country either as socialists or radicals. Most of the Ukrainians in the Party also belonged to the ULFTA, later the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians; the Finns belonged to the Finnish Organization of Canada, and the Jews to the Labour League, later the United Jewish People's Order. They were the base of the Party, in that order: the Ukrainians were the largest group, the Finns next, then the Jews. There was only a handful of Anglo-Saxons, most of them British immigrants, very few Canadian-born. Many of them were in the leadership, others were very active and dedicated rank-and-file members. The foreign-born provided the Party with both a financial and an organizational base: they donated generously and helped to collect funds, distributed leaflets, attended meetings and did numerous ordinary tasks.

Many of them were active builders of the steelworkers, autoworkers and other industrial unions. Because of language difficulties, few of them rose to leadership in these unions, but they were very active rank-and-filers. Peter Krawchuk, in his book, Our History: The Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Movement in Canada, 1907-1991, cites how in Windsor there was a branch of the ULFTA made up entirely of auto workers. But this wasn't duplicated anywhere else in the country. Most of them were eventually fired and blacklisted for their activity, some were deported, and the rest became unemployed. Many of these were active in the big unemployed movement that mushroomed in the 1930s.

But this was also the Party's weakness, because it began to rely on this base to the point where it wasn't giving enough attention to the native Canadians — I don't mean the Aboriginals, but the native-born Canadians of Anglo-Saxon descent and the French Canadians. This segment of the population was sadly neglected. The Party leaders often spoke of the need to work in what they called the "Anglo-Saxon" field — but it was never really an all-out effort; invariably they took the easier route and relied on the Ukrainians, Finns and Jews. It also gave a negative image of the Party to many Canadians.

I remember my close friend Bert Whyte — I'll mention later how he figured in my life — telling me how he felt when he first came to Toronto from British Columbia in the mid-1930s, after a stint in the so-called "relief camps" for single unemployed men. Apparently, while he was in those camps, some old-timer had "sown the seeds of socialism" in his mind. Inspired by his new-found purpose in life, he came to Toronto, hoping the Party could use his skills as a journalist (he had been a reporter on the Kingston-Whig Standard). Years later he told me: "My God, John, when I first came to Toronto and attended several Party meetings, I found that it was all Ukrainians, Finns and Jews, and a few Limeys. I almost said, `To hell with it!' but I was gripped with the idea of socialism." So he stayed and became very active.

In Party's image

Then the Party made the mistake around 1930 — again on orders from the Comintern — of making the ethnic organizations under its leadership very much like the Party, with much the same discipline. For example, if a member of the ULFTA (and in the early days of the AUUC) didn't come to meetings or wasn't very active, often somebody from the party fraction would go to that member and in a reprimanding tone ask: "How come you're not coming to meetings?" It was this kind of attitude and approach that eventually drove many people out of the ethnic organizations.

There is also the fact that a CCFer, or later an NDPer, couldn't really have belonged to the ULFTA and later the AUUC. Not because there was anything in the constitution preventing it. It's just that if he were to have, let us say, criticized the Soviet Union or condemned Stalin's policies, he would have been ostracized. And my father would probably have been among the first to ask for his expulsion. There was a very rigid pro-Soviet, pro-Communist atmosphere within theethnic organizations generated by the dedicated Party members in those organizations. It started around 1931 and by the end of that decade became almost an obsession.

Changed my name in 1933

Q. So did you indeed take the assignment of working toward building the Party among the Anglo-Saxons?

Yes, for a while, in 1933, when I was made organizer of the Young Communist League in Alberta. That is when I took on the name Boyd (I changed it legally in 1941). I did it at the suggestion of the Party leaders, as did many other active Ukrainian party members: John Vyviursky became John Weir, Tom Chopowick became Tom Chapman, Dan Chomitsky of Winnipeg became Dan Holmes and Joe Bilinsky of Sudbury became Joe Billings. His son is Greg Billings. When I became organizer of the Young Communist League in Alberta, it was supposed to be for Anglo-Saxon work. The irony is that the Party membership in Alberta was about 90 percent Ukrainian. (There were a few Finns around in Sylvan Lake). It was the same in Saskatchewan.

This was a time of big unemployed struggles in Alberta. Families fighting for "relief," or what we now call welfare. Big demonstrations and mass protest meetings. And some Anglo-Canadians did join the Party. There was the Rankin family, which was very active. There was John O'Sullivan, a delightful old-timer, who had been a socialist in Ireland. He helped to recruit some members. It was a tough battle. I recall one incident while I was YCL organizer in Calgary. There was this bright young man who was ticked off against the system, but was an ardent Catholic. I had many arguments and discussions with him and finally did convince him to join the YCL. But he didn't stay long. The image of the Party was not one that was exactly conducive to the Anglo-Saxons, to the native-born Canadians. At a YCL meeting of, let's say, ten members, seven would be children of Ukrainian party or ULFTA members and three would be of Anglo-Saxon origin. There was the feeling that it was a movement of foreigners, so it was an uphill battle all the way.

Difficult days

Q. How many hours a week would you say you put in on a job like that?

Not many. Advocating left-wing ideas was never easy in this country, so it wasn't a 40- or 50-hour a week job. And most of the time I didn't get paid. There was nothing to pay me with. I had just got married that summer. It was 1933. At first I left my wife at her home in Lethbridge, while I went to Calgary to do my job as an organizer. She subsequently joined me in Calgary so we could live together. Things were rough for us financially, so her father and mother helped us out for quite a while by sending us food (mainly vegetables and bread) from Lethbridge. At one point, however, it got so bad that my wife had to go and stay with her parents in Lethbridge, where she got a part-time job teaching a mandolin orchestra.

In Calgary, meanwhile, things got really rough. I recall one incident that might give you an idea of the conditions I had to work under. One day I was standing on the corner of 8th Avenue and Centre Street (that's like Queen and Yonge in Toronto) and perhaps because I hadn't had any breakfast and because the noon-day sun hit me, I fainted. Which caused a bit of a stir in the Party. At that time Harvey Murphy and John Stokaluk were both living quite well on union salaries. So some Party members said, "Hey, how come you guys are doing okay and here's the YCL organizer who doesn't have enough to eat?" After that things improved a lot. Money was found to pay me. I also became a bit bolder in asking for help.

I lose my shyness

Q. Where did that money come from? From Party funds? From the miners' union?

I believe Stokaluk and Murphy found the money. The Party certainly didn't have any.

Let me explain what I meant when I said I became a bit bolder in asking for help. I was on the shy side in my younger years, but after that episode I lost a lot of that shyness. I knew many Ukrainians in Calgary —families like the Chitrenkys, Wusyks, Skulskys, Kizemas and others — so I explained to them that I was getting only eight dollars a week, if and when that was available, and asked them if they could help by having me over for supper once in a while. They all gladly did.

I recall another odd experience. At one point that year the Party tried to organize a strike in the Burns meat-packing plant in Calgary, which turned into a real schemozzle. The Party had only three or four members working in the plant, so it decided to get all the unemployed Party members (as well as a few who were not in the Party) to help out: to distribute leaflets at the plant gate and beef up the picket line. The strike was called, but on the morning of the strike no leaflets and no picket line! What happened was that on the evening before the strike, all of us fellows who were going to participate gathered in a small hall. There was some drinking and shooting the breeze, then at bedtime all lay down on sleeping bags or blankets and set the alarm clock for 5:00 a.m. so that we could be at the plant gate for six. But something went wrong and the alarm clock didn't go off. We woke up at eight o'clock, far too late for the picket line, which was a painful lesson for all of us about responsibility.

While in Calgary as a yet. organizer, I also did some work with the Ukrainians in the cultural field: giving lectures, leading discussion groups and the like. I also traveled to Edmonton, Lethbridge and some of the rural centres.

[ Continued ... ]

[ Top ]  [ Table of Contents ]

Copyright South Branch Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
www.socialisthistory.ca  ▪