When 71-year-old Joseph Zuken retired last fall as a Winnipeg city councillor, he warned his colleagues that he had no intention of “fading away.” Zuken, a member of the Communist Party of Canada, had defended the city’s poor and working class for 42 years. During that time his supporters often praised him for being “the conscience of city hall.” True to his word, three months after stepping down because of fatigue and hypertension Zuken reappeared at city hall to lead a successful citizens’ protest against a council initiative to award itself a generous new pension plan. The proposal would have provided council members with the best benefits for municipally elected officials in Canada. But a humbled council voted in late February to reduce the planned benefits by 45 per cent. Declared Zuken: “I have never seen a civic issue that has aroused so much indignation and anger.”
Zuken has had a stormy but illustrious career. As a school trustee in the
1940s he fought successfully for better schools, free textbooks and higher teachers’ salaries. The fiery orator served as a city councillor from 1961 to 1983 and he made an unsuccessful bid for the mayor’s office in 1979. Political experts have said that Zuken could have become a judge or a provincial cabinet minister if he had severed his ties with the Communist Party. But Zuken dismisses those claims. He has always believed that he could best serve the people from city hall. Said Zuken: “I am firmly convinced that city politics is not bush league, but all too often you get bush-league politicians who think city hall is a matter of fixing potholes.”
The Ukrainian-born Zuken grew up surrounded by poverty, prejudice and class conflict in Winnipeg’s workingclass North End. During the 1930s he studied law at the University of Manitoba so that he could “help those who were defenceless and voiceless.” While there, he developed a keen interest in left-wing politics. Zuken says he has never been a dogmatic Communist— that civic issues and constituents always come before revolution. But he paid heavily for his party membership. When he was a school board trustee, the board never permitted him to attend a national education conference. During the McCarthy era in the early 1950s his law firm, Zuken and Associates, lost clients who feared RCMP investigations. And a small group of lawyers attempted unsuccessfully during that same period to have the Manitoba Bar Association disbar him because of his Communist affiliation.
Now, most Winnipeggers seem to consider Zuken to be an elder statesman. His wife of 45 years, Clara, 68, receives telephone calls from citizens who say that if Zuken stands for communism, then they too are Communists. But Zuken still has critics. Deputy Mayor James Ernst, for one, an 11-year veteran of civic politics, argues that Zuken’s new hero status is “unjustified.” Ernst said Zuken has a number of political enemies, but he conceded that “That does not mean they do not respect him.”
The Zukens still live in Winnipeg’s North End, in a modest, white bungalow. On weekdays Zuken rises at dawn and goes to his downtown law office on3 Portage Avenue. In the future he plans to write essays about what he considers to be Canada’s poor civil rights record. He also is helping to form a left-wing coalition for the next civic election in 1986. Retirement is now the last thing on his mind. Said Zuken, who is convinced that he has more influence outside city hall than he did as a member: “There is always unfinished work.”
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