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Co-operative Commonwealth Federation
Canada's first socialist party emerges from the prairie Dust Bowl
The roots of Canada's social welfare system were planted when a new political party, the "Co-operative Commonwealth Federation" (CCF) emerged from the prairie dust during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
In 1932, James Shaver Woodsworth became the first leader the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF became the New Democratic Party in 1961. (National Archives of Canada, P05910t)
In 1932, James Shaver Woodsworth became the first leader the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF became the New Democratic Party in 1961. (National Archives of Canada, P05910t)

The year was 1932 and the Canadian west was one of the hardest hit areas in the worldwide economic crisis. Two-thirds of Saskatchewan families received relief after the Dust Bowl left prairie farmers with parched, dead fields.

In the mist of the catastrophic times, labour and socialist groups as well as political activists gathered in a Calgary legion hall on July 31, 1932 and formed the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.

The CCF became Canada's first socialist party. As its name suggested, its founders wanted a political party that promoted universal cooperation for the common good. Members believed capitalism led to inequality and greed and they wanted to make governments responsible for social and economic planning to even out the playing field.

The leader of the new party was James Shaver Woodsworth, an outspoken member of parliament. The social activist and former Methodist minister declared that unemployment wasn't the fault of the individual; it was the system that was to blame. He explained the Depression in a way that lifted the burden from the jobless and placed it on the government.

"A severe condemnation still rests upon indifference ... We have tried to provide for the poor. Yet, have we tried to alter the social conditions that lead to poverty?"
On July 31, 1932, labour and socialist groups gathered at a Calgary legion hall to form Canada's first socialist political party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Pictured here, the founding meeting of the CCF. (National Archives of Canada, C-029
On July 31, 1932, labour and socialist groups gathered at a Calgary legion hall to form Canada's first socialist political party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Pictured here, the founding meeting of the CCF. (National Archives of Canada, C-029313)

In 1933, hundreds of farmers, labourers, preachers, trade unionists, socialists and academics including Baptist Minister Tommy Douglas and Montreal lawyer/poet Frank Scott met in Regina to hammer out the goals and structure of the political movement.

The convention voted for universal pension, health and welfare insurance, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage and farm security. The party doctrine was a radical departure from free-market economics and it became known as the Regina Manifesto.

Frank Scott found the convention one of the most exhilarating times of his life.

"I shall not forget the denunciations of capitalism hour after hour and the raging thunderous applause afterwards."

For some Canadians, a socialist party was a terrifying idea. The mayor of Vancouver, Gerry McGeer, saw it as proof that Soviet Communism had entered Canada through the back door.

"If you elect those people, they'll take away your home, they'll take away your car, and burn down your churches. Furthermore, they'll nationalize your women"

In fact, the CCF was firmly against Communism and believed in achieving socialism through democratic elections rather than revolution.

In 1935, five CCF MPs were elected to Parliament including Tommy Douglas, who later became the first CCF Premier, elected in Saskatchewan in 1944.

The CCF became the New Democratic Party in 1961. Although the Party never held power nationally, its policies were adopted and implemented by federal governments over the years. Those CCF initiatives include unemployment insurance, family allowance, Medicare and universal old age pensions.


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