Canada’s Communists Played a Vital Role in the Workers’ Movement

It’s a century this week since the Communist Party of Canada was founded. Historians often dismiss the party’s importance for the Canadian labor movement — but early on, it helped organize workers against steep odds.

A Communist Party of Canada march in the 1970s. (Photo via Passage)

A century ago this week, left-wing activists founded the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) with a clear aim: to build a united working-class organization that was ready to fight and win. Historians have written at length about Canada’s 1919 labor revolt, but not so much about what its key participants did a few years later with the formation of the CPC. It’s a vital part of the history of the Canadian workers’ movement.

At best, historical accounts have treated the party’s foundation as a curious prelude to the establishment in 1932 of the social-democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). At worst, they have dismissed the party’s existence as a sinister Moscow plot that corrupted working-class communities before healthier elements in Canadian society rooted out its influence during the Cold War.

More recent work, based on newly unearthed documents, has shown that the party’s purpose and successes stemmed directly from the lessons of 1919. The party’s founders created it to fight for working-class interests in the present and prepare for the return of mass upheaval in the future.

The CPC’s influence was not the product of a conspiracy. The party’s working-class members won respect and authority because they were easily the most consistent, honest, and capable leaders that the labor movement had to offer. They faced down employers, the police, and the army, time and time again, fighting to strengthen the working class and bring about a socialist future.

War, Revolution, and Defeat

Up to the early 1910s, Canada’s left was divided between the Socialist Party (SPC), the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1914, out of a national population of roughly 8 million, Canada had just over 165,000 union members. However, union membership did not carry over into support for left parties and organizations. Although there were dynamic socialist leaders like Ginger Goodwin — who were instrumental to the era’s biggest strikes — the organized left remained a marginal force in the early Canadian labor movement.

After 1914, the combination of a wartime strike ban, anti-socialist raids, internment of activists, and killings by state forces further marginalized the Left. The right wing of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada (TLC) — a national labor organization similar to the US American Federation of Labor — supported Canadian involvement in World War I.

The war itself was a game changer. With Canadian fatalities numbering 61,000, entire union locals disappeared. The revolutionary temper of the times and the labor shortage caused by battlefield deaths sharpened the labor movement’s radical edge. Soldiers returned to encounter falling living standards and the Spanish flu pandemic. Canada’s rulers dragged its people into yet another war by giving military support to Alexander Kolchak’s far-right, anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia.

In December 1919, soldiers on their way to the Russian civil war mutinied in Victoria. The broad left regrouped in a bid to win the TLC over to a socialist program. But after the failure of these efforts, in March 1919, SPC activists like R. B. Russell and Joe Knight met with hundreds of workers at the Western Labor Conference to establish the One Big Union (OBU). The OBU represented a revolutionary split with the TLC.

In May 1919, the worker-organized Metal Trades Council sparked off the Winnipeg general strike. The city came to a standstill with both unionized and non-unionized workers taking part in the stoppage. Workers took over milk and bread carts “by authority of the strike committee.” There were 171 illegal mass meetings on the streets of Winnipeg. Labor revolts and general strikes soon spread to almost every industrial center in Canada.

In Toronto, there was a strike with an estimated 34,000 workers taking part, including the telegraphic workers, who were able to halt anti-strike news coverage. In Edmonton, thirty-six unions mobilized for the strike, representing electrical and railway workers, miners, clerks, painters, and more. Canada’s business class feared that the country might be on its way to revolution.

The OBU and socialist and syndicalist organizers played a key role in the labor unrest of 1919, but they lost their footing in the wake of its defeat. More conservative elements wrested back control of union organizing.

The Winnipeg general strike itself had partly foreshadowed this development. Of the fifteen members of the city’s strike committee, R. B. Russell was the only OBU representative. The majority of its leadership discouraged demonstrations and advised workers to remain passive in the face of violent strikebreaking. They made no clear effort to unite the strikes throughout Canada. In the end, the employers and the state crushed the revolt.

The Communist Party of Canada

Throughout 1919, branches of the SDP, the SPC, and smaller left-wing groups discussed affiliating with the newly launched Communist International. These parties organized a unity convention near Guelph, Ontario, between March and May 1920. It resulted in the birth of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC).

A 1947 pamphlet from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Delegates at the convention included the SPC’s William Moriarty and Jack Kavanagh, and Maurice Spector from the SDP. Long-serving CPC general secretary Tim Buck noted in his work Lenin and Canada that R. B. Russell attended a subsequent convention. Joe Knight was also a member of the CPC’s first Central Committee.

The party’s Manifesto, issued in December 1921, directly appealed to all SPC, SDP, and trade union members:

The trade union movement must be strengthened preparatory to the coming struggles. The universal campaign by the bosses for the open shop has not been abandoned. The [party] seeks to prevent this by strengthening the unions, by striving toward making them fighting organizations, by perfecting the available machinery, and by endeavouring to develop the feeling of militancy which will cause them to fight back when attacked by the wolves of capitalism.

In July 1921, Knight and Russell traveled to Moscow for the Comintern’s Third Congress. Speaking after Big Bill Haywood, Knight told the delegates:

A situation was created in which we were only one step away from taking power. Nothing was done in Winnipeg except by order of the strike committee. The strike committee was no less powerful than the state itself. Of course, Winnipeg is not all of Canada. But had the struggle in Winnipeg gripped all of Canada, it would certainly have led to the revolution.

Knight went on to say that the CPC needed to strengthen its base in working-class communities so that it would be ready for the next round:

We had a reactionary state against us, and the masses did not follow us. The strike had to be broken off after most of our people had been thrown in jail. We must work from within, participate in their struggles, win their trust, and then seek to be elected by them to the most important positions in the movement.

Organizing the Unorganized

According to Comintern minutes, the Communist Party of Canada had 4,810 members in 1922 — slightly fewer than the five thousand members of the Communist Party of Spain, which was based in a country with a population more than twice as large as Canada’s. In a bid to challenge the influence of Samuel Gompers and the labor establishment, the Third Congress urged the parties in the United States and Canada to set about winning a majority in every prominent union.

According to a party report from February 1923, the CPC placed members in sixteen labor councils. This covered “districts of coal miners,” Canada’s two big metal mining camps, and most major lumber centers. The party also had support among rail workers at sixty railway bodies. The report depicted the CPC’s membership as “a continuous thread of militant activity stretching from coast to coast.”

Early in the 1920s, the party experienced its first major test. Working with radical miner J. B. McLachlan in Cape Breton, the party assisted a struggle against wage cuts and scab labor. In the process, its members helped launch the local’s first all-out strike and stared down more than a thousand Canadian soldiers who were deployed to crush the union. In the end, the local signed a contract that guaranteed sixteen months without layoffs.

The CPC’s leading role in the struggle against wage cuts and speedups helped to increase its popularity and renown. In December 1926, the party elected North America’s first recorded communist to public office when William Kolisnyk, promising to fight anti-union policies introduced after 1919, was elected to Winnipeg’s city council.

In 1927, three thousand members of the Lumber Workers Industrial Union (LWIU) affiliated to the party. Following a series of militant strikes, the CPC and the LWIU would win over thousands more workers. Over the next decade, despite fluctuations, the party’s membership tripled to over fifteen thosuand.

Throughout the 1920s and the early ’30s, the party pushed for established unions to organize industrial workers. An early example was the Auto-workers Industrial Union, which, as Sam Gindin notes, came into being after a 1928 strike at the General Motors plant in Oshawa.

In the late 1920s, the party’s organizing work among Toronto needle trade workers led police to dub Spadina Avenue “Red Spadina.” In June 1928, communist organizer J. B. Salsberg helped lead a mass meeting of five thousand needle trade workers in Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena in a push to organize the unorganized. The successes in Montreal helped in the recruitment of fur workers in Winnipeg and Toronto. In January 1931, the party’s Toronto section of five hundred garment workers across ten shops led a militant strike against sweatshop conditions.

State repression was ever present. In the early 1930s, police raided the party’s headquarters and arrested labor organizer and party member Tom Hill under anti-socialist laws. After a series of strikes in Northern Ontario in 1929, organizers Viljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen disappeared. Their mutilated corpses were found the next year. The funeral parade in Port Arthur was the city’s largest ever, attracting nearly four thousand marchers.

The party underwent several splits in the early 1930s, which eventually prompted a mass exit from the very unions in which it had built a base. This exodus led to the formation of the Workers’ Unity League (WUL). The WUL’s membership peaked at around forty thousand. During its short life, it led significant strikes and organizing drives that involved steelworkers, miners, loggers, seamen, textile workers, and more.

The CPC disbanded the WUL in 1935, a year before the foundation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The new federation’s leadership relied on CPC members, like their US counterparts, to be the CIO’s best organizers. In Canada, the CIO started with a single organizer in Cape Breton. CIO efforts to organize GM Oshawa workers and Hamilton Steel workers often depended on communists like J. B. Salsberg and Harry Hunter as the first point of contact.

As historian Irving Abella writes:

Salsberg and other party stalwarts accelerated their efforts on behalf of the CIO. Within months, these men and a handful of others had organized hundreds of new workers and scores of new locals.

Everywhere, these communists aimed to broaden the struggle. They conducted mass meetings, leafleting, demonstrations, and eventually solidarity strikes. The CCF cofounder David Lewis once complained that, between 1937 and 1939, it was the Communist Party that managed to recruit newly unionized industrial workers, not his own party.

Undone by the Brass

Between 1943 and 1945, Canada experienced another unprecedented strike wave. By the end of World War II, the Canadian government suspected that roughly half the CIO’s organizers were communists. These experienced and expert organizers should have been well positioned to win the mass of workers to a fighting, socialist program.

However, after the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the party adopted a policy — “total unity for total war” — that required opposition to all strikes lest they disrupt war production. In the summer of 1945, with Germany defeated and Japan soon to fall, the CPC was still proposing a “Liberal-Labor Coalition Government” to serve the “common aims of the nation.”

After the war, the party used its base to support organizing drives in Windsor and elsewhere. An internal government report from the time noted that the party’s membership was around twenty thousand and suggested that it had the potential to grow substantially if circumstances proved favorable. But it soon found itself outmaneuvered.

David Lewis later admitted that the CCF only managed to gain its own labor base by allying with conservative elements in order to “wrest control from the communists wherever possible.” In 1940, the CCF orchestrated a merger of the CIO with the All-Canadian Congress of Labour to form the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL).

The CCL expelled entire unions and locals that had belonged to the CIO. Many more peeled off as CCF support increased along with the fortunes of the CCL. In 1943, the CCL passed a resolution to recognize the CCF as the “political arm of labour in Canada.”

As even their opponents admitted, the men and women who made up the Communist Party were among Canada’s most dedicated and capable working-class fighters. In this period of intense conflict within the Canadian labor movement, lives were destroyed, organizers were fired, and the movement as a whole suffered.

During the postwar boom, conservative union leaders could win improvements for their members with an approach based on compromise and conciliation. However, the last thirty years of stagnation and austerity have shown that this approach is completely exhausted. We can learn from the best traditions of the CPC’s fighting organizers — mass mobilization, organizing the unorganized, and maximum unity of all workers — in a time when militant struggle is the only way for labor to make real gains.