Part Two: Slave camps and the On-to-Ottawa Trek

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In the second part of his study on the Great Depression, Alex Grant details the punitive policies enacted in Canada against the mass of the unemployed, who were herded into “slave camps”. This led to an inspiring communist-led mass walkout and march on-to-Ottawa. Also, this period led to the founding of new political formations like the CCF, forerunner of the NDP, Canada’s labour party.

Watch part 2 of our video series

The Crash in Canada

Canada faced almost as deep a crisis as the United States. Between 1929 and 1933 Gross National Expenditure slumped 42%. Average income plummeted to 50% below the poverty line. And unemployment shot up to 30%. 

Combined with the general capitalist crisis was a specific disaster in the Western provinces. Another accident, just like COVID, exacerbated the underlying weaknesses. A drought hit the prairies and decimated the agricultural economy. Again, a healthy and stable society could have managed such an accidental challenge, and invest in the application of science to agriculture and irrigation. But Canadian capitalism was neither healthy nor stable.

The drought on the prairies triggered swarms of millions of grasshoppers that would block out the sun and eat any vegetation that survived the lack of water. Cars would overheat because the insects would clog the radiators. The only plant that survived was a tumbleweed known as Russian Thistle, that provided almost no sustenance to livestock. Fertile soil would dry up and be blown away as huge clouds of dust that invaded houses and could not be cleaned off. 

Drought, hunger, and plagues of locusts contributed to what must have felt like a crisis of biblical proportions. 66% of the population of Saskatchewan were forced onto relief, and the province lost 90% of its income. There are stories of families only being able to send one child to school because they could only afford one dress for the children. Things were not much better in the east either. Unemployment in Ontario shot up from 2% to 36%.

“Not a five cent piece!”

The Liberals under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King were in power in 1929. Mackenzie King was the grandson of William Mackenzie, the revolutionary leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion, Canada’s abortive attempt at a bourgeois revolution in 1837. However, apart from his name, Mackenzie King had nothing in common with his firebrand of a grandfather. The Liberals downplayed and ignored the effects of the depression. King even said he wouldn’t give “a five cent piece” to Conservative led western provinces coping with unemployment. This led to the election of the Conservatives under R.B. Bennett in 1930.

While Bennett said he would do whatever is necessary to end the depression, both the Liberals and Conservatives were committed to balanced budgets, laissez-faire economics, and a refusal to give support to the unemployed. Both parties rejected New Deal Keynesianism. 

From an international perspective, Canada has rather an odd constitutional makeup. Canada is a true federation where the national (“federal”) government has relatively few powers. The federal government looks after foreign affairs, the military, and immigration, while the provinces and municipalities govern healthcare, education, roads, and welfare. 

The question of jurisdiction is a common trick of Canadian politicians trying to disenfranchise the working class. When faced with the just demands of workers an elected official will respond, “of course I am sympathetic to your plight, but you need to talk to another level of government.” But when faced with other jurisdictions the workers will get the same response until they get lost in a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic buck-passing.

One shocking statistic is that over the period of the Depression the federal government under both Liberals and Conservatives spent more money servicing the debt on the Canadian National Railway than it did on support for the unemployed.

In addition to passing the buck to the provinces, there was a massive ideological offensive demonizing the unemployed and blaming them for unemployment. These Victorian ideas continue to this day, trying to paint unemployed workers as “lazy” and “lacking moral fibre”. Such moralism completely fails to explain how in the space of a year or two the proportion of society lacking moral fibre can jump from 2% to 36%. Let us for a minute accept the dubious notion that this 36% represents the 36 laziest individuals in every 100. Let us also accept that with enough measures to kick them out of their indolent ways they can be promoted out of the bottom 36 and displace 36 previously employed individuals from their jobs. How many out of 100 are now unemployed? 

Bennett summed up the government’s punitive attitude in a response to a question in Vancouver, which had 8,000 on relief and more that 40,000 on the verge of bankruptcy:

“If you want to know who is responsible for all this debt, look at yourself in the mirror when you are shaving tomorrow. There are people who say let’s spend more money, well and good, but where is the money coming from? Where is the spirit of our pioneers who tilled our soil and worked in your forests? Did they go to the government whenever they wanted anything? They did not ask governments to be a wet nurse to every derelict”.

Social murder

These attitudes fostered from the ruling class had real material effects. Canadian historian Pierre Berton detailed the human side of the Great Depression in Canada. Many were forced into suicide rather than face the stigma of going on welfare. Berton tells the story of a young couple from Saskatchewan with a nine year old son. They ran a butcher shop in a small town that failed in the early 1930s. They moved to Vancouver to see if they could succeed there, but their business also failed within a few months. Now they were stuck in the cold hearted bureaucratic insanity of the Canadian constitution. Welfare was a municipal responsibility and they did not have the residency requirements to be given support in Vancouver. But they also did not have the funds to travel back to their home town in Saskatchewan. Eventually a charity gave them enough to buy a one-way ticket, but by then they were completely demoralized. 

Instead of coming home as failures they rented a car and gave their boy some comics to read in the back seat. They ran a tube from the exhaust and waited for the gas to do its work. But poverty saved the couple. They woke up in the morning after the car ran out of gas. But it was too late for their son. Distraught, they tried to beat and cut each other, but were too weak to finish the job. Eventually they were found and tried for murder. But the jury refused to convict. The boy’s death was declared “a direct result of the Depression”. 

It is easy to forget the human side behind the numbers of unemployed and those in poverty. Each number is a real set of people with real lives. Stalin once cynically commented that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic”. But he had a point. In fighting the system as a whole it is necessary not to forget the human effects of capitalism. Engels referred to this as “social murder” by the capitalist system. There are people who needlessly die because the general economic system throws them into poverty and unsanitary conditions, while others live in riches. But there are also others who die because of the callous policies of the ruling class – whether it be the victimization of the unemployed, underfunding old-folks homes, or reopening profit making before the pandemic is over. This unending violence of the capitalists is what we fight against and struggle to overcome.

Hobo life and slave camps

Millions in the US and Canada found themselves homeless. In every major town and city “hobo jungles” would pop up as those on the edge attempted some form of mutual aid. In the evening everyone would bring whatever they had managed to beg, borrow, or steal and throw it into a big pot. This “Mulligan stew” would then be shared out amongst the denizens of the jungle. If one looks to the major cities of today, one will see similar developments of homeless encampments facing down attacks from local authorities.

In order to escape the conditions of their hometown, many unemployed young men opted to “ride the rails” by jumping on a freight train and travelling the country. At its height in Canada, over 100,000 were engaged in this lifestyle. But the dangers were significant. A rider on the top of the car could get knocked off going through a tunnel. In winter riders froze to death in unheated cars. Those standing between carriages could get crushed due to unexpected braking. And sometimes people starved to death after being padlocked in by a transport cop. Despite all this, people still took to the rails. The possibility of a better life elsewhere was preferable to the guaranteed worse life where you were born. There might be better opportunities begging in a different town, or perhaps even some seasonal work picking fruit. 

But the Bennett government became increasingly paranoid about thousands and thousands of young men with nothing to do and nothing to lose. They saw them as posing a threat of revolution. General McNaughton, a supposed hero of Vimy Ridge during WW1, proposed an idea to the government. The military would set up work camps so that the threat of revolution could be quarantined outside the major cities and contained under armed surveillance.

Government propaganda presented the work camps as a great opportunity for youth to get out into the country and better themselves. The reality was somewhat different. While FDR’s New Deal work projects were far from idyllic, the workers were given $1 per day, had recreational opportunities, and were actually involved in productive endeavors. Conversely, the Canadian camps were imbued with a Calvinist punitive attitude. Conditions were cut to the bone with poor food and 88 men cramped in a hut with one toilet. The stench was unbelievable. Workers received 20 cents a day, which was insulting even by 1930s standards. Additionally, the work was demeaning, not much better than digging holes one day and filling them back in the next. The purpose of what had now become known as “slave camps” was to send the unemployed away and forget about them.

Technically, enrollment in McNaughton’s camps was voluntary. However, anybody leaving a camp was automatically blacklisted from work and ineligible for relief. That left no alternative other than begging, which was liable to get you jailed for vagrancy. Camp workers were effectively denied the right to vote by being directed to vote in their home constituency, which they were not allowed to attend. Free speech was also violated as any worker speaking up about the conditions, presenting a petition, or organizing their fellow workers in any way, was immediately expelled.

Ironically, the slave camps which were built in order to forestall revolution actually became a focal point of revolutionary struggle-as we shall see.

Crisis of leadership

The main organization of the working class in 1929 was the American Federation of Labor, which had affiliates in both the US and Canada. The AFL under its founding president Samuel Gompers was explicitly anti-socialist, and insisted on organizing only the more skilled workers on a “craft” basis. The union federation was even opposed to unemployment insurance, saying it would foster idleness and retard economic recovery! Instead they proposed racist anti-immigrant policies in order to maintain employment. They held this position into the 1930s until it became untenable due to mass pressure from below. 

After Gompers’ death in 1924 the AFL turned even further right, if that was possible. The new president William Green explicitly promoted class collaborationist cooperation with management against the limited forms of confrontation before. He said that the boss and the worker had a mutual self interest and workers should take voluntary pay cuts when profits were down. 

Thus at the start of the Great Depression the majority of workers were kept passive by the organizations that were supposed to defend their interests. We saw a similar development in 2009 after the last slump. Union bureaucrats opposed strikes and recommended two-tier pensions and other rollbacks supposedly to save jobs. But the jobs were not saved, such as at GM Oshawa. In the current pandemic we have witnessed near total paralysis of the official mass organizations in the face of the need to refuse unsafe work and secure personal protective equipment. 

Third Period Stalinism

As a mirror image to the betrayal of reformism was the ultra-leftism of the Stalinized Communist Parties. The Depression struck in the time of the “third period” stage of the Communist International. During this “third” period revolution was supposedly imminent, and all non-communists were therefore equivalent to fascists. Conservatives were conservative-fascist, Liberals were liberal-fascist, and Socialists were social-fascist! In practice this led to a total refusal to form united fronts with workers in social democratic parties and unions against actual fascists.

The third period was also combined with the “theory of the offensive”. Communist Parties were instructed to “seize the streets” and engage in direct battles with the state regardless of the balance of forces. This was tried in Toronto and many Communists were beaten up and arrested. When reformists offered solidarity to the beaten Communists they were rejected and told that they were responsible for the state violence!

Section 98 of the criminal code was used to effectively illegalize the Communist Party of Canada. This law was enacted after the 1919 Winnipeg general strike, and criminalized any association that “teaches, advocates, advises or defends the use of force” in order to make change. Penalties extended to up to 20 years in prison. This blatantly anti-democratic law was widely unpopular, and was so vague as to give police the arbitrary ability to victimize anybody they chose. But the ultra-left antics of the CP left it powerless to build a united front against this dictatorial policy.

People like to think of Canada as peaceful and progressive, but the reality is quite different. In 1931 Section 98 was used to arrest eight leaders of the Communist Party and sentence them to up to five years in prison. CP leader Tim Buck narrowly escaped assassination in Kingston jail when guards shot up his cell during a provoked riot. At a different occasion RB Bennett said that socialism and communism should be put under an, “iron heel of ruthlessness”. This earned him the moniker, “Iron Heel Bennett”.

Foreign born radicals were arrested in the middle of the night and sent by midnight train to the port of Halifax on the east coast. This is the same port where Trotsky was arrested in 1917 on his way to join the revolution. Without any due process, those who could not prove their citizenship were expelled to the country of their birth. We should not forget that large portions of the Canadian population were born abroad. This was an effective death sentence for jewish communists deported to Hitler’s Germany. Later in the 1930s, refugee ships of European jews were also turned away to their deaths.

To top off the ultra-left policies of the third period, the Comintern advocated splitting away from the AFL unions and forming pure “Red” unions. This directly contradicted Lenin’s advice in Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, where he explained that Communists must stay and fight to win a majority in unions with a reactionary leadership. Splitting away the “left” minority merely leaves the mass of the workers under the sway of the right wing bureaucracy with no organized opposition to the reformist betrayals. In this way an ultra-left policy of splitting away actually serves to strengthen the right wing.

In Canada, the CP set up the Workers Unity League (WUL) as a red union independent from the AFL. This was a mistake, and the WUL was engaged in a number of failed adventures in its founding period. Sectarianism left the WUL isolated, and defeats further demoralized the ranks of the AFL unions. However, it is important to delineate between the policies of the Stalinist leadership and the heroic actions of the Workers Unity League rank-and-file. For all their mistakes, they were the only people actually fighting. The AFL leadership refused to fight, and therefore many of the best working class fighters were naturally attracted to the WUL.

Relief Camp Workers’ Union

The military-run work camps were meant to stop revolution, but they actually had the opposite effect. Normally the unemployed are atomized and isolated, making them difficult for socialists to organize. The camps brought the unemployed together and gave them common grievances. This is a warning to right wing politicians attempting to set up reactionary policies like workfare, where the unemployed are forced to do menial tasks to receive support. If a job needs to be done then it should be done by hiring the unemployed as public sector workers at union rates and conditions. Alternatively, those on relief are given pointless and demeaning tasks that serve no purpose. Either way, workfare and work camps are not that much better than forced slave labour.

The WUL set up the Relief Camp Workers’ Union (RCWU) which attracted some capable working class fighters. One such militant was a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World, Arthur “Slim” Evans, who was regarded as a brilliant speaker and organizer, if a bit reckless. The RCWU set itself the task of organizing the camps and, in addition to addressing local grievances, they advanced the slogan “Work and Wages”, plus the need for unemployment insurance (which did not exist in the 1930s).

The depth of discontent, combined with the sacrifices of the organizers, led to rapid success for the RCWU. Every camp in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, was organized within the year 1934. This was no small task as any organizer who was discovered was immediately expelled and blacklisted. Sometimes they would be given a beating and abandoned far from civilization. When this happened, they merely chose a random name from the phone book and headed back into a different camp. The union produced a paper, the Relief camp worker, which was smuggled into the camps. Anybody found with it was also expelled, but it was still hugely popular. Hundreds of disturbances, riots, and strikes were recorded as the union gained influence.

Slim Evans and the RCWU leadership decided to organize a mass strike, a walkout of every camp. This commenced in April 1935 and 1,500 strikers converged on Vancouver by hitchhiking or riding the rails. This was a huge logistical feat as the workers had to be fed, housed, and cared for. It is a testament to the support from the wider working class that this was achieved. 

In Vancouver the strikers maintained discipline in order not to alienate the local population. They were split into different divisions and bunked in labour halls and sympathetic churches. Resources were pooled and members were given tickets exchangeable for a cheap meal at chinese restaurants. 

Regular demonstrations were held calling for work and wages, unemployment insurance, and an end to the slave camps. The support from the local working class was shown by one protest attracting 14,000 participants. The RCWU organized “snake marches” where participants would parade in twos drifting from one side of the street to the next until the road was blocked by a massive human “snake”. This helped keep the march mobile and easy to disperse in the event of police attack. A mothers’ council was formed that advocated for “our boys” and in one demonstration thousands of mothers circled the strikers in a massive heart-shaped crowd. 

The Liberal Vancouver council was stuck between the strikers and the Conservative government. They were eager to get rid of the mass of unemployed on their streets and appealed to the Bennett government for support. But Iron Heel Bennett refused to give anything to “Communists” and insisted that welfare was a municipal responsibility. 

The police held firm to the opinion that the strike was all due to “outside agitators” who were using the unemployed as a pretext to organize a general strike and declare soviet power. They were apparently totally unaware that thousands of non communist relief camp workers had joined the struggle, not to mention massive support from the broader working class who were appalled at the slave conditions and lack of support for the unemployed. Here we see that nothing in history really changes, after Trump declared the 2020 mass protests against police brutality the fault of “antifa” and outsiders.

On-to-Ottawa Trek

Supplies for the strikers were running low so they occupied the library at Main and Hastings, an architecturally significant building that still stands to this day. In exchange for a few days support from the city council they ceased the occupation. But after six weeks of constant struggle elements of tiredness were seeping in. 

Slim Evans put forward the idea of a march on Ottawa to press their case. This was apparently done without informing Tim Buck and the Communist leadership in Ontario. The CP executive opposed the Trek, but it was already underway before they could do anything about it. 

The Vancouver council was quite happy to get the camp workers out of their backyard and even got local police to slow down freight trains to help the 1,500 workers jump onboard. The Mothers’ council made thousands of sandwiches to help the boys on their way. Within a short while the Trek had crossed the Rocky mountains and reached Calgary. In the meantime Slim Evans was called back to Vancouver for a dressing down from the Communist Party executive committee. He came back a few days later after persuading the Stalinist leadership to let him return, but according to reports he “looked like a living skeleton”.

In Calgary the Trekkers were bolstered by an additional thousand strikers who had walked out of Alberta camps. The movement was building momentum and was able to feed itself from the support of local workers. They kept going and reached Regina, Saskatchewan on June 14th. 

The Bennett government began to become increasingly concerned about the growing movement. It could not be allowed to reach Winnipeg, the home of the 1919 general strike, and then on to Ontario. The Tories decided to try and tire out the movement and agreed to talks. But this was just a delaying tactic to halt the momentum of the RCWU. It took a few days for the leaders to get to Ottawa, at which time Bennett refused to bend to any of their demands for work and wages. Bennett insisted that the camps were voluntary and the workers should be grateful for the support. Not only that, but he called Evans an embezzler who in return called the Prime Minister a liar. It was a total waste of time.

The state used the time to build up its forces in Saskatchewan. The provincial government wanted the Trekkers to leave as soon as possible without incident, and was willing to use its police force to assist them on their way. But the federal government had other plans and stole the police away from the province, even though their paycheques were signed in Regina. Trains were blocked from heading east, and a provocation was prepared.

The Regina Police Riot

On July 1st, Dominion Day, now called Canada Day, the strikers organized a mass rally in Regina’s Exhibition grounds. Around 1,500 were present to hear speeches from the RCWU leadership, but this was mostly locals as the members were instead watching a baseball game. Police vans encircled the surrounding streets and waited for a time to attack. At the appointed hour, squads moved in to arrest the leadership under Section 98, while legions of cops laid into attendees with lead tipped batons and sawed off baseball bats. 

The “Regina Riot” lasted well into the following morning, and by the time it was over 5 people were shot, 39 cops were hospitalized, and 2 were dead. The On-to-Ottawa trek was defeated by state repression. However, the struggle wasn’t for nothing as the movement played a role in the defeat of “Iron Heel” Bennett in the October 1935 election. The incoming Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King were forced to repeal Section 98 and shut down the slave camps in 1936.

This was an inspiring movement that was sparked off by a small number of dedicated communist organizers. The Communist party of Canada only had about 1,300 members at the start of the 1930s, so it shows what can be achieved by a relatively small group with a spirit of sacrifice. The best elements of the working class were attracted to this movement. But they also made mistakes that we can learn from today. Some of their mistakes were of an ultra-left character, and some were opportunist.

As part of the Workers’ Unity League, the Relief Camp Workers’ Union saw itself as independent from the “social-fascist” AFL unions and did not demand that the AFL leadership support the struggle. This served to isolate the walkout and let the AFL bureaucracy off the hook from the obligation to support a popular mass movement. The massive support from the wider working class was kept passive and only allowed in organizations under Communist Party control. 

The RCWU should have actively worked to broaden the struggle to encompass employed and organized workers, rather than only giving the unemployed an active role. It was entirely possible to achieve such a linking up, as the very day after the Trekkers left Vancouver, the longshoremen began a bitter strike on the docks. In such a situation the issue of union rights for the employed, and decent work for the unemployed, could have united into a general strike with the correct leadership. 

But in addition to the sectarian policy towards the rest of the labour movement, the slogans of the RCWU were opportunist. “Work and wages”, and unemployment insurance (UI), are slogans that do not go beyond the capitalist status quo, as shown by the universal implementation of UI in the post-war period. Most importantly their slogans did not unite the unemployed with employed workers. 

Instead of work and wages, Trotsky proposed a sliding scale of wages and a sliding scale of hours.

“Against unemployment, “structural” as well as “conjunctural,” the time is ripe to advance along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours. Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other program for the present catastrophic period.”

Such transitional demands organically link together the workers and unemployed in order to broaden the struggle to the maximum degree possible. However, despite these weaknesses, the On-to-Ottawa Trek goes down as a seminal event in Canadian working class history that deserves to be remembered and studied by future generations of fighters.

New Parties: The CCF

Forces of nature, like volcanoes, are both a destructive and a creative force. The same is true for economic and social upheavals like the Great Depression. Political parties and movements are both created and destroyed in such contexts. 

The new formation that came out of the Depression with the most important legacy was the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The CCF went on to unite with the Canadian Labour Congress in 1961 to form the New Democratic Party, Canada’s labour party. It was not an accident that the CCF was founded on the prairies which were hit hardest by the crisis. In Calgary in 1932 they brought together agrarian populists, socialist intellectuals, left parliamentarians, trade unionists, supporters of the British Labour Party, and even some Marxists.

The founding manifesto of the CCF was adopted in Regina in 1933. It opened with the statement:

The CCF is a federation of organizations whose purpose is the establishment in Canada of a Co-operative Commonwealth in which the principle regulating production, distribution and exchange will be the supplying of human needs and not the making of profits.

“WE AIM TO REPLACE the present capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated, in which economic planning will supersede unregulated private enterprise and competition, and in which genuine democratic self-government, based upon economic equality will be possible. The present order is marked by glaring inequalities of wealth and opportunity, by chaotic waste and instability; and in an age of plenty it condemns the great mass of the people to poverty and insecurity. Power has become more and more concentrated into the hands of a small irresponsible minority of financiers and industrialists and to their predatory interests the majority are habitually sacrificed. When private profit is the main stimulus to economic effort, our society oscillates between periods of feverish prosperity in which the main benefits go to speculators and profiteers, and of catastrophic depression, in which the common man’s normal state of insecurity and hardship is accentuated. We believe that these evils can be removed only in a planned and socialized economy in which our natural resources and principal means of production and distribution are owned, controlled and operated by the people.”

However, these strident words were then tempered in the central portion of the Manifesto which expressed an inherent reformist contradiction: 

“The CCF aims at political power in order to put an end to this capitalist domination of our political life. It is a democratic movement, a federation of farmer, labour and socialist organizations, financed by its own members and seeking to achieve its ends solely by constitutional methods. [emphasis added]

But what if the capitalist courts, the capitalist law, the capitalist police, and the capitalist state, disallow ending capitalist domination, as they are guaranteed to do? We should not forget that as these lines were being written Section 98 was being used to crush the rights of socialists under an “iron heel of ruthlessness”, while jewish communists were being deported to Hitler’s death camps. 

A socialist who genuinely believes in the emancipation of the working class cannot submit to the rules written by the boss class, any more than the slave uprisings in ancient Rome could submit to the law that declared them property instead of people. The Manifesto eschewed “violence”, but what are we to do when faced by the violence of the state as seen in the Regina Police Riot, or today with the police murder of black people and suppression of protest? A genuine socialist organizes defence of the oppressed against state and fascist violence.

The Regina Manifesto contained many good reforms, such as the socialization of the banks. The Marxist wing of the party also fought for the inclusion of the following closing statement:

“Emergency measures, however, are of only temporary value, for the present depression is a sign of the mortal sickness of the whole capitalist system, and this sickness cannot be cured by the application of salves. These leave untouched the cancer which is eating at the heart of our society, namely, the economic system in which our natural resources and our principal means of production and distribution are owned, controlled and operated for the private profit of a small proportion of our population.
“No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.”

Such words make the Regina Manifesto an important point of reference for Canadian socialists, despite its constitutional confusions. It is definitely a hundred times better than the current NDP constitution that removed all references to social ownership and the implementation of socialism. The current NDP constitution also removed the possibility of winning the 2015 federal election.

The CCF achieved modest growth through the Depression, but most notably won the 1944 Saskatchewan election, allowing Tommy Douglas to implement universal healthcare. Eventually the example of “socialist” Saskatchewan led to the implementation of healthcare nationwide. For this, Tommy Douglas was voted the “Greatest Canadian” in 2004.

But in the main the reformist wing of the CCF dominated, and the modest reforms in the Manifesto were the only ones taken seriously, while the socialist appeals to eradicate capitalism were ignored by the party hierarchy. 

While being a significant development, the foundation of the CCF was actually an historical step backwards. The Communist Party of Canada, founded in 1921, was the first pan-Canadian workers’ party. All the best working class fighters flocked to the CP, which was the organizational culmination of the struggles around the 1919 Winnipeg general strike. If the CP had remained on a healthy basis, instead of degenerating into Stalinism, it could have become the dominant force during the Depression and helped provoke revolutionary upheavals. Only the crazy ultra-left policies of the third period isolated the CP and left room for the formation of the CCF.

New Parties: Social Credit

In addition to the CCF, other parties were formed and destroyed by the Depression. One such peculiar formation was that of “Social Credit”, which destroyed the cross-class agrarian party the United Farmers of Alberta.

Social Credit was an odd populist formation that came out of the western Canadian provinces. Their root came from a theory, tenuously related to a part of Marxist economic analysis. The social crediters observed that workers are not paid the full value of their labour. This is the Marxist concept of surplus value. Workers are not paid for the work that they do, they are instead paid for their ability to work. Workers are paid for their labour power, which is the value of the necessities of life, education of the worker, reproduction of the family, plus a moral social component that varies in each society. But the value of labour power, the hours of labour needed to reproduce the worker, is typically lower than the hours a worker works in a day. Such surplus labour is expropriated by the capitalist and is turned into profit.

Marxists resolve the contradiction of unpaid labour by expropriating the capitalist class and replacing production for profit with production for need. Social Credit on the other hand tried to put forward a series of weird and wonderful formulas by which the worker could be compensated. They railed against bankers and financiers who stole the labour of the workers, but they did nothing to replace private ownership which was the source of the unpaid labour. 

Social Credit theories suggested that workers could receive “social” credit from the government in order to make up for the lost labour. Some theories suggest various “in kind” gifts. Others had complex schemes to generate value out of nothing. But in the end, the Alberta Social Credit movement boiled it all down to a $25 monthly handout.

To go along with the magical monetary theories came an equally mesmerizing political leader. William “Bible Bill” Aberhart preached a combination of Baptist fundamentalism, and social credit ideology, on the newly popular mass media of radio. In the conditions of depression and drought, the idea of money from nothing gained a mass following of fervent converts. 

Such a mass populist formation, with both progressinve and reactionary features, has few modern precedents. Perhaps the closest analogy is the “Five Star” movement in Italy. The nearest analogy to Social Credit ideology is probably that of the supporters of “Modern Monetary Theory” who believe you can print money with no consequence to give reforms to workers. Such schemes end up as inflationary, and the workers lose the value of reforms to the expense of high prices. All of these movements ignore the question of who owns the means of production, which cannot be avoided. We also see how things labelled as “Modern” have in fact been tried and failed before.

The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) were a cross-class formation with both socialist and conservative wings. This mirrors the nature of farmers and peasants who are not a homogenous class. Agrarian labour extends all the way from landless farm labourers, to family farmers, to large landholders exploiting many farm hands. Forming government in 1921 they instituted some progressive reforms, such as the cooperative wheat pool, but later the conservative wing became dominant as they implemented cuts in services, staff and wages. This undermined their support amongst impoverished farming communities.

In 1935 the UFA was swept away by Social Credit in a landslide. The CCF’s equivocation could not fill the vacuum left by UFA. Instead, Bible Bill Aberhart’s populist mass movement surged forward. The UFA quickly split into its component parts. Eight of their federal MPs jumped ship to the CCF, while one other joined the Conservatives. 

In power, ephemeral Social Credit theories crashed against the solid rock of reality. Aberhart tried to take over the provincial banks but was overruled by the Lieutenant Governor who refused to sign the laws. Showing an authoritarian bent, he also tried to control critical liberal newspapers, which was found unconstitutional. Having no jurisdiction over banking, the Social Credit government resorted to producing “prosperity certificates”, a failed parallel currency that was labelled “funny money”. The Lieutenant Governor, provincial representative of the Queen of England, even threatened to dismiss the Alberta government, showing the anti-democratic nature of the British-Canadian colonial constitution. 

Aberhart died in 1944 and Social Credit dropped its monetary ideas to become a right wing bourgeois party. They ruled Alberta until 1971, before entering into decline and effective dissolution in the 1990s.

Other populist formations of a left and right variety also rose in the 1930s. On the far right was Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale government in Quebec. Duplessis enacted the “Padlock Law” which allowed the police to literally padlock closed any building being used to “propagate Communism” for up to a year, without option of a trial. To show the biased nature of bourgeois law, this blatantly unjust legislation was allowed to stand at the same time as Alberta Social Credit legislation was overturned. This was yet another lesson in bourgeois constitutionalism that the comrades leading the CCF did not learn.

Continued in part 3