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Tolerance and Canada's Communist Party : An Historical Perspective

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by Desmond Morton, Emeritus Professor
Department of History, McGill University 

Canada's Communist Party was born in a barn near Guelph, Ontario, after long, hectic meetings in May and June of 1921. Though the leaders haled mostly from the British Isles, the party's rank and file had mostly emigrated from the old Russian Empire as Finns, Poles, Ukrainians and as Jewish survivors of Cossack pogroms. Most had found a grudging pre-war refuge in Canada, and some had experienced the sublimely doctrinaire Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) a movement so ideological that most would-be members were expected to pass an examination in Marxist theory before admission.

Frustrated by the SPC, European socialist refugees had split in 1911 to form the Social Democratic Party of Canada (SDP). While the SPC insisted on waiting patiently for the dialectic to pursue its historic course, the SDP urged members to campaign for election, join unions, strike and organize against the imperialist and capitalist war of 1914-18. The Soviet triumph in 1917, warned the SPC, had not happened where Marx had predicted and was therefore a false revolution; SPDers, instead, rejoiced at Lenin's overthrow of the Czar and then of bourgeois liberalism, and gathered at Guelph to speed similar progress in Canada. Under the guidance of its neighbours, the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), the Canadian party discreetly separated its organization into an "A" party which would work in public and a "Z" Party which, distinctly, would not.

An apparatus of police spies swelled the ranks 
of the new Communist Party of Canada

Canadian authorities were not amused. Condemning the Empire's war effort had drawn the attention of Canada's two federal police forces, the Royal North-West Mounted Police in the West, and the Dominion Police in the East. To continue hunting sedition as defined by a newly-added Section 94 of the Criminal Code, both forces were united as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Soon, an apparatus of police spies, informers and investigators swelled the ranks of the new Communist Party of Canada (CPC). My old union boss, Freddy Dowling of the United Packinghouse Workers, once told me that he had considered joining the Communists but his father, experienced in the ways of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) warned him that, by comparison, the Commies were incompetent amateurs. Dowling senior had a point: when Ontario Tories finally cracked down on the CPC in 1931, party leaders were surprised to learn that one of their trusted colleagues was actually Sergeant Leopold of the RCMP. H e had not joined them in their jail cells.

Socialism, as political scientist John Wilson has reminded us, "comes from the good old Latin word for "friend". Communists, of course, believed that Socialism was only an ultimate goal, to be achieved through a dictatorship of the proletariat over all the means of production, distribution and exchange. Any arguments? No. None allowed. In the new Soviet Union, Vladymir Ilyich Lenin and, even more, his heir, Josef Stalin, created a brutal police state, "liquidating" dissenters and soon creating a vast gulag of concentration camps filled by victims of informers and jealous neighbours. Such powers were beyond the power of Canadian comrades, but the CPC was as ruthless as it could be in expelling anyone who differed with the frequently contradictory directives of the Communist International (COMINTERN) in Moscow or with Canada's own leadership in Toronto. A long succession of leaders were disowned and disgraced as soon as they differed with Canadian leaders and, even faster, if they questioned the supreme wisdom of the remote and fast-reversing COMINTERN. 

In 1956, for example, Canadian comrades naturally dismissed reports in the New York Times or Le Monde that Nikita Khruschev had revealed Stalin's brutal oppression to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Who would believe such bourgeois rubbish? But what could comrades believe when similar reports appeared in party organs like Italy's l'Humanita or France's l'Humanité . Patience was commanded. Comrades would learn the truth as soon as Canadian party leader Tim Buck, returned from Moscow. Back in Toronto, Buck denied everything. He had heard no such speech. (Incidentally, Buck was right. He and other foreign comrades had been sent to inspect a new tractor factory before Khrushchev rose to speak.) That was not Buck's sole response. Faced with critics, he summoned loyal comrades from Western Canada, denounced all who had dared to question him, and solemnly expelled them from the Party.

To leave the Communist Party as a disgraced renegade was a brutal punishment to men and women who had given their best years to the organization and whose entire circle of friends was bound up in its life. John Eleen had been the able young secretary of the Young Communist League. When he now looked for a job, either the RCMP or the CPC warned any prospective employer. With a wife and small children, Eleen was soon desperate. He was saved by crusty old Doug Hamilton, secretary-treasurer of the thoroughly old-fashioned Ontario Federation of Labour. Eleen spent the rest of his career as the OFL's research director, never forgetting the ordeal he and his family had once faced as reluctant "ex-communists". 

Except for a few years during the Second World War, when Stalin made himself Hitler's ally, and Communists around the world quit fighting Fascism and allied themselves with Nazism, Canada never banned the Communist Party. Ontario's brief experience of persecution had been a lesson. It was not hard to persuade a judge that Tim Buck and the CPC leadership had defied Section 94 of the Criminal Code and most had received long prison sentences. In 1932, a riot broke out at Kingston Penitentiary and, though Tim Buck was a passive spectator, a guard fired into his cell. Such was the public indignation that Buck was released. A welcoming crowd of 8,000 people met his train at Toronto's Union Station. When the Liberals returned to power in 1935, Ernest Lapointe kept his party's promise to repeal Section 94.

In 1945, a Soviet cypher clerk, Igor Gouzenko, helped launch the Cold War when he left his country's Ottawa embassy with evidence of a Communist-built spy ring that extended even in to Prime Minister Mackenzie King's office. Armed with special powers, RCMP rounded up a score of suspects. A Royal Commission conjured up evidence to convict them in a partially secret trial. Still, unlike the United States and even Australia, Cold War Canada never outlawed the Communists. It was urged to do so by Social Credit and by Colonel George Drew, former Ontario premier and Progressive Conservative leader after 1948. Experience from the 1930s helped persuade the Liberal government, and even the R.C.M.P, that suppression easily led to martyrdom. Long before Canadians enjoyed the protection of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, even before John Diefenbaker endowed Canada with a Bill of Rights Act, practical common sense and a little experience had persuaded most Canadians of the wisdom of tolerance.

Sadly, that kind of tolerance had little play inside the tiny, ambitious and ultimately futile Communist Party of Canada.

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