Ottawa clamps down when Canadians find hope in the Communist movement
During the Great Depression, the spread of communist ideas in Canada represented damnation to some Canadians and salvation to others.
|The Canadian government found communist supporters convenient scapegoats for rising social unrest during the Great Depression. Pictured here, police and unidentified men clash outside a communist meeting at Queen's Park, Toronto, 1932. (Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives)
Like many Canadian politicians at the time, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett feared a communist revolution on home soil.
"We know that throughout Canada this propaganda is being put forward by organizations from foreign lands that seek to destroy our institutions. And we ask that every man and woman put the iron heel of ruthlessness against a thing of that kind."
While Bennett denounced communism, he was cited as the chief cause of its rise in Canada.
Bill Knight was the mayor of Blairmore, Alberta, Canada's first communist-declared town.
"Red is a state of mind," explained Knight. "Back in 1929 there were no Reds. Things were prosperous, everyone was well fed. It is different today. You talk about Communists, the Communists in Canada were made by Bennett."
Indeed, the communist movement in Canada found more converts as Bennett failed to provide any concrete solutions to the overwhelming economic crisis. By 1933, a quarter of the workforce was unemployed and those who found jobs faced exploitation in the workplace. For many, communism was an alluring idea because it spoke of dignity and equality for the working class.
The 1930s became a heyday for the Communist Party of Canada, which was founded in 1921.
Many of the members of the Party were leaders in the trade unions and during the Depression successfully unionized a number of industries. Leaders also worked for the unemployed. Arthur "Slim" Evan organized a massive protest known as the "On To Ottawa Trek" in 1935. Thousands of single, unemployed men joined the protest demanding jobs from Ottawa. The Communist Party also recruited about 1,300 men to fight for the Communist-backed Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.
As communist activities increased, Bennett's fear rose. He also found its leaders and supporters a convenient scapegoat for growing social unrest.
In 1931, Bennett enforced Article 98 of the Criminal Code, which outlawed communist agitation, and required the accused to prove his innocence. Communist Party leader Tim Buck and seven others were convicted under the Code.
The play "Eight Men Out" was created to catalogue in an entertaining manner the injustices done to Buck and his colleagues. It was performed nightly at a Toronto theatre until police interrupted the show and shut it down.
Tim Buck spent over two years at Kingston Penitentiary. Released in 1934, he was welcomed at a rally at Maple Leaf Gardens that drew 17,000 people, more than any Leaf game had drawn. Eight thousand more were turned away.
Bennett tried other means to deal with the growing social unrest. Believing that immigrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe, had brought alien and dangerous ideas with them, Bennett's government expelled nearly 30,000 people.
Among those deported without the right of appeal were;
- Edward Reinkanen-born in Finland deported in 1931 after attending a demonstration.
- Sophie Sheinan born in Russia. Involved in illegal assembly. Deported November 1932.
- Hans Kist born in Germany. Married. Labour organizer. Deported in 1932. Died after being tortured in a Nazi concentration camp.
In Quebec, Premier Maurice Duplessis, like Bennett, seized onto the spectre of Communism as a scapegoat to distract Quebecers from the province's $31 million debt. He encouraged anti-Communist rallies that sometimes became violent and racist. In 1937, he passed the Padlock Law, which dictated that anyone who promoted Communism could have his home and/or office padlocked.
But by the end of the decade, Canadian politicians were turning their attention to another threat from across the sea. As Hitler began his march through Europe, the perceived threat of Communism at home took a back seat for a time.