The Cape Breton cartoonist with a secret life

A new exhibit is displaying a work of Josh Silburt, a cartoonist at the Sydney Post-Record between 1942 and 1947 who hid his communist sympathies until he was fired.

New exhibit displays work of Josh Silburt at Sydney Post-Record between 1942 and 1947

Josh Silburt's cartoons are part of a new exhibit at Cape Breton University Art Gallery. (Submitted by Cape Breton University)

During his career as an editorial cartoonist in Cape Breton in the 1940s, Josh Silburt often led an artistic double life.

He worked for the mainstream Sydney Post-Record, the predecessor to the Cape Breton Post, but was secretly a communist, yearning to reveal his true sympathies during a turbulent time of labour strife on the Island. 

"For a while he walked that line," his son, Allan Silburt, said Friday. 

Hundreds of Josh Silburt's cartoons between 1942 and 1947 are now on display in the Cape Breton University Art Gallery as part of a new exhibit that opened today and which is dedicated to his work. 

It looks at his cartooning during the Second World War and immediate post-war years, until he was fired after he chose to reveal his politics during a coal miners' strike.

Coal miners went on strike during Josh Silburt's time at the Sydney Post-Record. (Submitted by Cape Breton University)

Silburt, who died in 1991, grew up in Winnipeg where he attended art college under the leadership of Group of Seven member L.L. FitzGerald. 

He came of age during the Dirty '30s, and like many others of his generation was unemployed. He was sympathetic to the issues of the time, said his son, and developed communist leanings. He even tried to emigrate to the Soviet Union in 1939, but that attempt failed. 

While he drew for establishment newspapers, Allan Silburt said his father hid his left-wing sympathies as it was impossible to earn a living in cartooning with a "fringe political view." He did, however, publish in the communist press by changing his signature on his cartoons. 

Silburt was also Jewish, which was a problem for at least one employer. 

Back then, many job applications would ask the person's religion, Allan Silburt said. When his father was hired during the Second World War at the Hamilton Spectator, he was asked to fill one out. 

"He wrote down Jewish where it said religion, and then all of a sudden he was gone." 

So when he subsequently applied to the Sydney Post-Record, he put down Christian. Allan said his parents then posed as a mixed marriage because his mother refused to change her identity.

Josh Silburt's son said his father tried to make his cartoons appeal to the 'everyman.' (Submitted by Cape Breton University)

Catherine Arseneau, the director of cultural resources at CBU, said the exhibit's cartoons show how issues like mass unemployment and housing shortages played out in Cape Breton at the time. 

Thousands of servicemen returned from the war and were looking for work, she said. But the price of coal, a staple industry on Cape Breton, was being "decimated."

"So you have this struggle between the promise of now coming back to a free and prosperous country, yet that reality was years away for many," Arseneau said. 

Allan Silburt said it was during a coal miners' strike that his father decided he "couldn't toe the line anymore" at the Post-Record. A Canadian communist leader was in town, and he invited him for dinner.

"It became sort of obvious what his sympathies were. The next day he was fired." 

Josh Silburt later became disillusioned with communism as the movement fell apart with Stalinism in the Soviet Union. He became very apolitical, Allan Silburt said, and turned to painting. 

"He was not interested in politics whatsoever by the time I came along. That's the man that I knew — a landscape artist."

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton