THE SAINTLY FAILURE WHO CHANGED CANADA
A MACLEAN'S FLASHBACK
J. S. Woodsworth devoted his life to “lost causes” like old age pensions, family allowances and pacifism. He broke with the church that ordained him a minister and lost control of the political party he founded. But no individual has had a greater influence on the way Canadians live
EARLY in 1950 a CBC Citizen’s Forum panel was asked to name the ten greatest Canadians of this century. Only two were chosen unanimously: Mackenzie
King and James Shaver Woodsworth.
They made an odd contrast. By any material standard Mackenzie King’s life was a triumphant success,
Woodsworth’s a failure.
A Methodist minister whose doubts of his own creed began even before he was ordained, Woodsworth left the church at forty-two to become, for a time, a day laborer. He founded a political movement, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which will soon be twenty years old and gives no sign of ever attaining power. Of all his ideals and convictions, pacificism was the one for which he made the greatest sacrifices; to that ideal he never converted his own party or even his own children. Why should this crusader for lost causes be ranked among the great men of his generation?
One Forum speaker gave an answer which the others accepted: “Woodsworth was a saint.” It’s a queer word to apply to a professional politician, but that is what he was.
That was the secret of his astonishing political power. Physically he was not impressive—he was a handsome figure with his neat white beard and fine features, but so small and frail as to give no hint of the strength he was able to summon. He was a competent experienced speaker but no orator, no rabble-rouser. Yet for more than twenty years, and for half of that time alone, this little man influenced parliament as no lone individual has done within living memory.
Woodsworth was the father of the welfare state in Canada—of what we have now, and of what we may have in store. He and one supporter, A. A. Heaps of Winnipeg, forced the Liberal Government into a firm undertaking to bring in old-age pensions in 1925. He spoke for family allowances fifteen years before they became a fact; for unemployment insurance nearly twenty years ahead; for national health insurance in the midtwenties. Things that are commonplace today were Utopian dreams when Woodsworth began to fight for them—more than Utopian, they were radical, dangerous, subversive.
Yet Woodsworth, even in those days, was seldom
attacked personally for the things he advocated. Even in those days he had proven, to friend and foe alike, his sincerity and his character.
He was a rising young pastor at one of Winnipeg’s more fashionable churches when in 1907 his misgivings about the Methodist creed impelled him to resign from the church. A special committee examined him on doctrine and gave him a clean bill of health: “We find there is nothing in Bro.
Woodsworth’s doctrinal beliefs or adhesion to our discipline to warrant his separation from the ministry.” So Woodsworth agreed to remain a clergyman, but he left his comfortable pastorate to open All People’s Mission in the slums.
Ten years later he was established in another career, that of practical social work. As director of a bureau of social research supported by all three prairie governments he was becoming known across Canada. He was in demand as a lecturer from Montreal to Vancouver; he basked in the approval of rich and poor alike.
The conscription issue came along. Woodsworth the Christian pacificist felt that he could not remain silent. He sent a letter to the Manitoba Free Press denouncing the new national service registration scheme of the Borden Government.
Immediately he lost not only his job but also his status and his friends. When he and his wife and six children (the youngest an infant in arms) left Winnipeg on a bitter January night in 1917 not a soul was at the station to see them off. A year later, after a short and stormy term at a mission station on the British Columbia coast, Woodsworth again offered his resignation from the Methodist Church; this time it was accepted with-
out comment. He went to work as a longshoreman on the Vancouver docks.
After that harsh experience it was easy, even exhilarating, for him to go to jail in the Winnipeg general strike of 1919. (He was charged with sedition for printing, among other things, a quotation from Isaiah: “Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, to turn aside the needy from judgment”). Woodsworth was rather disappointed when the charges against him were dropped —he was in jail only five days whereas other strike leaders were convicted and served terms in prison.
As a young pastor on probation in a Manitoba mission field he wrote in his diary: “I do not
pray to be an eloquent or popular preacher or a profound scholar, but Oh t hat God would use me as an instrument through which the Holy Spirit may speak to the people.”
Woodsworth never lost that sense of mission. In 1936, when the CCF decided to hire young David Lewis as its first (and for a long time its only) salaried official, founder Woodsworth was opposed to the idea. He liked Lewis, he knew there was plenty for a national secretary to do, but he disliked the thought of anyone working for the CCF for pay. “It, makes us too much like a political party,” he said. To J. S. Woodsworth t he CCF was never a party, it; was a national crusade.
Speaking of him today old associates and disciples often use the same words: “J. S. would
have gone to the stake for his principles without a moment’s hesitation.” It would not have occurred to him that any other course was open. And he expected the same strength of character in other people.
In his old Room 616 of the House of Commons, for twenty years the headquarters of the democratic Left in Canada, Woodsworth used to keep portraits of people he admired. On his desk was a bust of Savonarola, the monk who was burned for heresy in Renaissance Italy. On the wall, among others, was Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister of Britain. On the day in 1931 when MacDonald deserted the Labour Party to join Baldwin iiv a “national” government, Woodsworth took down his picture.
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then half way through her long career as Progressive MF3 for Southeast Grey, dropped into Room 616 that morning and noticed the change in the portrait gallery. “Oh, J. S., if you ever take my picture down it’ll break my heart,” she said.
Woodsworth twinkled at her: “Better watch your step, young lady.” It was said in fun, but she knew he meant it.
Rectitude came naturally to J. S. Woodsworth. His grandfather, a lay preacher, was a prosperous builder in Toronto until he endorsed a note for a friend. The friend defaulted. Graxidfather Woodsworth paid off every cent,
though it left him nearly bankrupt. As a result his three sons were unable to go to college, but J. S. Woodsworth’s father went into the ministry anyway. Young James was born in 1874 on the farm at Islington, Ont., where his mother Esther Shaver had grown up. He was still a small boy when his father moved to the western mission fields and settled the family in Brando»'.
His childhood recollections were of the old, still unopened west—field trips with his father by buckboard or horseback; the open table his mother kept for wayfarers, white and Indian; the hard, healthy, satisfying life of the prairie. He was the eldest of six; with his father away so much, young James took charge of the family.
He was a sterner disciplinarian than either his father or his mother. Fifty years later his own children observed with amusement their middle-aged aunts and uncles still in evident fear of James’ indignation.
For all his kindliness Woodsworth was always stern. As a student at Winnipeg’s Wesley College he didn’t smoke, dance, play cards or go to parties, and he had a very low opinion of those who did. In the mission field in 1896, the year he graduated from Wesley, the twenty - two - year - old preacher noted in his diary: “Had a
long talk today with a man of twentyfive or thirty. He knows he is not living as he ought. Tobacco is what keeps him from Christ.”
That aspect of Methodism survived in him when the creed itself had died. His children remember Sunday at home as a rather grimly devotional day. The young Woodsworths suffered also for Father’s own personal beliefs. His son Charles, now editor of the Ottawa Citizen, can still feel the humiliation of sitting alone in a Vancouver classroom while the other boys (whose parents were not pacifist) went out to cadet drill.
To the children he was Father, not Daddy. His wife called him James; some of the CCF “old guard” used to call him J. S. to his face, but to M. J. Coldwell, his successor in the leadership, he was never anything but Mr. Woodsworth. The only people who called him Jim were the friends he made as a laborer on the Vancouver waterfront.
His wife, whose fund of merriment is still unspent at seventy-seven, once remarked to a friend: “If James had
more sense of humor he’d never have amounted to anything. He could never see how funny he looked, one little man struggling against the whole world.”
But he never really did look funny (least of all to his wife, who shared all his troubles and trials without even a thought of complaint). Hearing about it forty-five years later you wonder why. You wonder that this rather officiously virtuous young man wasn’t written off as a prig.
He wasn’t, as a matter of fact. He
played football all through college (in s-pite of his small size he was a fast three-quarter at English rugby) and took an active part in college life. In his last year at Wesley he won the Senior Stick, a gold-headed cane which was a token of all-round excellence, the highest honor a student could win. Except for the brief period when his pacifism made him an outcast he was always popular.
One reason may have been his utter sincerity and his respect for sincerity in others. Woodsworth admired a man who fought for his principles, whether he personally agreed with the principles or not. One of his proud possessions, which hung on the living room wall in Winnipeg was the sword his grandfather Woodsworth had carried in the Rebellion of 1837.
Another endearing thing about Woodsworth: He always paid the full
price of his own beliefs. Unlike the average do-gooder, he had only one standard of conduct. To take one minor example: As CCF leader in the Thirties he did an exhausting amount of traveling, but he never took any other accommodation than a day coach or a tourist-class berth. This was a matter of embarrassment to other CCFers, who like their creature comforts as well as anyone else. Also they worried, with good reason, about the old man’s health. But Woodsworth used to say, “It’s poor people’s money we’re spending.”
Why Envy the Rich?
In the campaign of 1940, three months before the paralytic stroke that finally killed him. the party took stern measures. They bought him a first-class compartment for every journey, and put him on every train. Woodsworth made no protest. At the end of the campaign he handed the compartment tickets back to the CCF national office, all properly canceled, and told them to collect the refunds. He had given his chaperons the slip and traveled by day coach and tourist sleeper as usual.
The sincerity he inherited; the keen awareness of poverty and the passionate sympathy for the poor developed more slowly. In that mission-field diary of 1896 is one entry which would have sounded odd, coming from the Woodsworth Canada remembers: “Had quite a conversation with Hughes. He is the type of the comparatively uneducated class, narrow and bigoted and jealous of the upper classes. Still there is a good deal of truth in many of the complaints of such people. From their standpoint the wealthy seem to have little right to their riches: Tf I work
as hard as a lawyer I ought to have the same reward,’ is the principle. They forget or rather cannot comprehend the different abilities—the quality as well as quantity. When a man is struggling for a bare living and sees others living in luxury from profits made in business transactions with him, he is apt to think there is something wrong. Still, in my own case I am not envious of those wealthy business men I have met.”
He never did become envious on his own account but he soon lost his patronizing attitude toward the poor. The change began when he went to Oxford for a postgraduate year in 1899. He spent his vacations in settlement houses in the east end of London and saw at close range a kind and quantity of poverty for which the prairies had not prepared him. Memories of it dogged him when he came back as assistant minister to Grace Church, Winnipeg. He began to wonder if the church was doing enough to relieve human misery on this earth, and if not why not.
One of the things that bothered him was the funeral service for children. He ! told a friend years later: “1 couldn’t
go on saying these babies had been j taken by God’s will, when 1 knew what j had killed them was dirty milk.”
Another thing was the flood of: immigrants then pouring into the west j and the inhuman indifference that j greeted them. Doubts of the church as an institution, as well as doubts about dogma, underlay that letter of resignation from the ministry in 1907.
When the resignation was refused and the young pastor went to All People’s Mission these doubts were allayed for a time. He paid no more attention to creed. What he offered was practical help.
He married Lucy Staples, a fellowstudent during the year he spent in Victoria College, Toronto, and she was a pillar of strength to him for the rest ; of his life. She had more warmth than he and a greater sense of fun, but no smaller sense of duty. When he decided
to give up comfort and go to work among the poor she took it as a matter j of course.
At that lime they had two small children, whose earliest memories now j , are of those strenuous happy years in the Winnipeg slums. Mrs. Woodsj worth started a kindergarten which her own children attended along with those of the immigrant families. Woodsworth started classes in English— he spoke no other language himself, but he taught by demonstration. His daughter Grace, then a child of five or six, has a clear j memory of her father saying very slowly, to a shy and awkward foreigner:
“I get out of bed ... I put on my pants ... I put on my socks ... I put on my shoes ...”
Through the mission Woodsworth first came into contact with the labor movement. He was appointed delegate of the Ministerial Association to the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council and he began to contribute weekly essays by “Pastor Newbottle” to the local labor paper. They sounded increasingly “radical” as he learned more about workers’ problems. They also show a revival of his doubts about the church’s effectiveness as a force for reform, doubts by no means diminished by the anger he aroused among many of Winnipeg’s respectable parishioners.
That was one reason he left the mission in 1913 to head the Canadian Welfare League, and later the prairie Bureau of Social Service. It was this latter job which the governments abolished after Woodsworth’s anticonscription outburst in December 19 6.
Pacifism From the Pulpit
He spent only one more year as a minister then, at Gibson s Landing, a tiny hamlet twenty miles up the coast from Vancouver. His parish consisted of a handful of English-speaking families, but there was also a settlement j of Finns up the hill. They were foreigners and many of them were Communists. On both counts the older parishioners took a dark view of the new minister’s immediate attempts to include these lesser breeds in the congregation. Solid citizens also resented his active support of the local co¡ operative.
But the worst bone of contention, again, was his opposition to war. Use | of the pulpit as a recruiting agency ' had revolted Woodsworth for years. ! His attitude went back to the Boer | War, when he had been in England, ; but it became acute after 1914. He found himself at a recruiting meeting in St. James Methodist Church, Montreal, one evening in October 1915.
“Really, Lucy,” he wrote to his wife, “if I weren’t on principle opposed to spectacular methods, I would have got
up and denounced the whole performance as a perversion—a damnable perversion, if you like —of the teachings of Jesus and a profanation of the day and the house set apart for Divine Worship ... I felt like doing something desperate — forswearing church attendance, repudiating any connection with the church ... I walked the streets all night.”
Even at Gibson’s Landing he ran into the same kind of pressure. He refused to read war bulletins from the pulpit, he continued to preach in a pacifist strain, and he incurred the bitter enmity of several leading parishioners, notably a superpatriotic storekeeper. (Tt turned out later that this particular patriot was the chief supplier, in the last year of war, of a large camp of draft-dodgers just over the hill from Gibson’s Landing.)
Finally, in June 1918 Woodsworth sent a second letter of resignation from the Methodist clergy. By an odd irony the man who accepted it was Rev. A. E. Smith, then president of the Manitoba Conference of the Methodist Church but later a leading figure in the Canadian Communist Party.
Woodsworth went to Vancouver to look for work. His wife stayed on at Gibson’s Landing with the children; she had been a teacher before their marriage and she got a job teaching in the local school. (The same patriots tried hard to have her fired for her husband’s opinions but they failed.)
Woodsworth wasn’t a union member but Ernie Winch (now a CCI" member of the British Columbia Legislature and father of Harold Winch, the CCF" leader in B. C.) was secretary of the longshoremen’s union and he knew of Woodsworth’s support of the labor movement in Winnipeg. He gave the ex-minister a job. Woodsworth weighed a hundred and thirty pounds and had done no manual work since he left high school; he was hired at sixty-five cents an hour to unload raw rubber in hundred-and-fifty-pound boxes.
“For the first time in my life I’ve done a day’s work and earned a day’s wages,” he wrote to Lucy. “There’s no doubt about this being the way to get an insight into labor conditions. But think of you as the wife of a common laborer a casual laborer at that, a docker!”
That was the last time in Woodsworth’s life he ever expressed anything but pride in the status of a common laborer. (Lucy, of course, wrote back: “I am proud to be your wife and the mother of the children of a docker.”) He still wrote articles for labor and leftist papers; one of them was entitled, Come On In, The Water’s F"ine, and it describes the “strange thrill in being, for better or worse, ‘one of us’
one of the common people.” He sealed that union a year later by taking an active part in the Winnipeg general strike and going to jail for it.
For Woodsworth, as for all the strike leaders, being imprisoned by the Meighen Government was an open sesame to elected office. He ran for the Independent Labor Party in Winnipeg North Centre and was elected to parliament in 1921. Thereafter he was undefeated until his death twentyone years later.
Half of that time he was virtually alone. William Irvine, the only other Labor MP in 1921, facetiously drew Mr. Speaker’s attention to “a new group in parliament; the honorable member for Winnipeg North Centre is its leader, and I am the group.” They refused to join the Progressive Party which that year sent sixty-five embattled farmers to Ottawa—Woodsworth seems to have had a premonition the Liberals would gobble them up.
Even alone, though, he had an
astonishing influence. Probably no private member since Confederation has had as much influence on legislation. Woodsworth had a genius for exposing lip service and making the most of opportunity.
When he came to parliament the subject of old-age pensions had been discussed for ten years and had been in the Liberal Party platform for two years. Nothing was done about it until 1925 when the balance between the two old parties was so delicate that even a couple of backbenchers could upset it. Woodsworth and his Labor colleague A. A. Heaps sent identical letters to Prime Minister King and Opposition Leader Meighen, asking what they intended to do about pensions. King wrote back immediately, undertaking to bring in a pension law.
J. S. on Children’s Rights
One day in 1931, when Mackenzie King was telling parliament how the Liberals had brought in pensions, Prime Minister Bennett answered: “What would the hon. member for Winnipeg North Centre have said if, when the bill was introduced, he had listened to the speech he has listened to this afternoon? He was the man who forced this upon a reluctant (Liberal) administration.”
Woodsworth’s exploit in forcing the creation of an Ontario divorce court was even more spectacular, for this time no balance-of-power situation existed. Woodsworth was literally one man alone against a parliament half hostile and half indifferent, yet he won. His technique was part stubbornness, part mere application of parliamentary principles. Divorces then (as they still are for Quebec) were sent through the House of Commons in bales of private bills. They are examined by a Senate Committee, but they are not debated in either House.
Woodsworth stalled the whole machinery of the parliamentary divorce mill by asking a simple pertinent question on each bill: “ís there any provi-
sion for the children?” The sponsor of the bills didn’t know. On enquiry he often found there was not, in fact, any adequate provision for the children. By the time the Government gave in before Woodsworth’s one-man blockade a very large number of MBs had come to realize how silly the Canadian divorce system is.
Tn those two cases Woodsworth’s influence was obvious and decisive. No one can measure how much he did for other welfare legislation, he was so far ahead of his time. He was the only supporting speaker when, in 1929, a Quebec MP introduced a motion for family allowances. He argued for unemployment insurance constantly throughout the twenty-one years between its appearance as a plank in the Liberal platform and its enactment by a Liberal government. He began agitating in the ’Twenties for health insurance, which Canada hasn’t got even yet.
Indeed it could be argued that he was just as effective alone as when, after 1932, he led a political party.
The Co - operative Commonwealth Federation comes honestly by its cumbersome title. 11 was indeed a federation, born with much travail of the Canadian Labor Party and a group of provincial farm organizations. ’They had no trouble agreeing that J. S. Woodsworth should be their leader, but they did have trouble agreeing on almost everything else.
Woodsworth was more than the founder, he was the heart and soul of the new party. Never in his lifetime did the CCF attain political victory (he had been dead two years when
Tommy Douglas came to power in Saskatchewan) but he laid the groundwork for any success the party has had or will have.
Yet, by a final bitter irony, the most memorable of all his experiences with the CCF was another parting of the ways. Another war raised the old issue. Woodsworth had not changed his views. Even his own party did not share them. The CCF voted for the war, with some reservations and stipulations which were quickly voted down in parliament, but with a straight “yes” in the end. Woodsworth was uncompromisingly against it.
Hansard shows no recorded vote on the issue of declaring war, and many people think the decision was unanimous. It was not. By House rules at least five members must rise to demand a recorded vote before Mr. Speaker may grant it. Woodsworth stood up, but he stood alone.
His speech on the 8th of September was vigorous, even violent. He said ag.iin what he had been so bitterly attacked for saying: “1 have boys of
my own, and I hope they are not cowards, but if any one of those boys, not from cowardice but really through belief, is willing to take his stand on this matter and if necessary to face a concentration camp or a firing squad,
I shall be more proud of that boy than if he enlisted for the war.”
It was the kind of statement for which, in 1917 and 1918, he had been execrated and hounded out of employment. This time only a lone backbench Tory cried “Shame!”
This time the old man escaped any public ordeal. His opinions had been known for years, and his sincerity respected. If any Liberals had intended to heckle him when he rose to state them again, they were silenced by their own Prime Minister, W. L. Mackenzie King.
Speaking that afternoon, Mr. King had turned round to face his own followers as he said: “There are few
men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. 1 admire him in my heart because time and again he has had the courage to say what lay on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament.”
After that introduction Woodsworth got a quiet hearing from the House. But he wouldn’t have cared—his real ordeal was over by that time. He had tried to win his own party to his cause and had failed.
Until the last moment his lieutenants in the CCF thought they had worked out a compromise Woodsworth would accept. He had made no attempt to dominate the discussion, uttered no threats of resignation. But when the talk was all done and the party’s position defined he rose to say quietly: “This is how democracy should work —this is a party statement worked out by discussion. But I myself, I’m afraid, cannot accept it; I shall have to resign.”
They talked him out of that, but the effect was the same. He remained as a kind of leader emeritus, a “chairman of the board.” M. J. Cold well became party leader in everything but name. Woodsworth felt no resentment but he must have felt very much alone.
However, he was used to that. He d spend most of his life alone, as a man must who follows his conscience without ever drawing back or turning aside. He never let loneliness discourage him. He believed that he was right; he believed right would triumph in the end; therefore he could never feel defeat. ★