Faith Johnston: The Communists, the CCF and the Popular Front
Seventh Annual Robert S. Kenny Prize Lecture, May, 2007
In the 1940 federal election a group of Communists in northern Saskatchewan succeeded in getting two of their candidates elected to Parliament. In that election, the Liberal government of Mackenzie King pleaded for unity to fight the war, and the two popular front candidates in Saskatchewan pleaded for unity to fight the Liberals. Nationally, the Liberals government won a landslide victory, but in Saskatchewan it was down four seats, and two of those seats went to popular front candidates in North Battleford and Saskatoon.
The candidate in Saskatoon, who was a Presbyterian minister called Walter Brown, and who wasn't himself a Communist, died shortly after his election. Dorise Nielsen, the candidate in North Battleford, went on to serve a full five years in Parliament. Those were very busy years of travelling the country on behalf of the Communist Party, of making notable speeches in the House on wheat policy and equal pay for women and a number of other issues. In addition to all this, she was in the midst of raising three children, and burdened with addressing the needs of a very large and poor constituency. Despite all the demands on her time, she played her various public roles with great panache. She was a dazzling, charismatic speaker, and no one who heard her speak ever forgot.
But it is not Nielsen's parliamentary career that interests me the most. It is the time before that, in the thirties, when she became a political activist in Saskatchewan, and went on to serve as campaign manager for the CCF in the 1938 provincial election, and then as candidate for the United Progressives in the 1940 federal election. I think that was the most interesting part of her life. The problem is - it's also the part of her life about which I know the least. How and when did she become involved in politics? Was she a Communist from the beginning, or did she join the CCF first and then change her mind? And if she changed her mind how, when and why did that happen?
None of these questions have easy or definitive answers. However, my guess, based on all the evidence I've been able to uncover, is that Nielsen first became active in the CCF, then changed her allegiance to the Communists during the period known as the popular front. This period began with an announcement by the Communist International in 1935 that the primary task for Communists must be building a united front of all progressive groups against fascism. The new popular front policy was a response to the situation in Europe where fascists had already taken over in Italy and Germany and were a growing force in France and Spain. But the policy, designed for Europe, had popular appeal among many Canadians who remembered the Great War only too well, and feared being dragged into another European conflict. In Canada the Communist-led League Against War and Fascism attracted thousands of supporters, and membership in the party itself tripled between 1934 and 1937, making it proportionately larger than either the CP of Great Britain or the CP of the United States.
In Saskatchewan, it is difficult to know if the Communist Party growth in the period was mainly a result of international or Canadian factors. According to my own interpretation of Comintern records, Communist membership in Saskatchewan more than doubled in 1936. I remember reading a cryptic letter in the CCF files, dated Nov. 5, 1936: "The secretary of the CCF Yorkton executive has bolted to the Communist organization and we expect that a lot of other CCF members have followed suit." Was this because of the Spanish civil war, I wondered, or because of some local squabble? Or could the essential legalization of the Communist Party (with the removal of a certain section of the criminal code) have been the cause? Whatever the case in Yorkton, the popular front period was a time of rapid growth in the party, and I believe it was likely in 1936 that Nielsen became one of the many Anglo-Saxon Canadians to join. However, unlike the secretary of the Yorkton CCF, she did not join the party openly. She remained a closed member until 1943.
Nielsen herself wrote very little about the 1930's and what she did write was sometimes deliberately vague, other times contradictory. Her children were too young at that time to know what was going on. And by the time I began my work, most of her colleagues involved in the Saskatchewan campaigns had died.
Nielsen's own writing consisted of an article she wrote for the Star Weekly in August, 1940, shortly after her election, and a series of letters she wrote to the Western Producer in 1937 and 1938. In the Star Weekly article she described her life for the previous twelve years, since her arrival from England as a teacher in 1927 and her marriage to a homesteader the same year. Although the account leaves much out, what is there probably describes her political journey truthfully in broad terms. I say this because the article would have been read by those who knew and supported her as well as by the opposition.
She begins by admitting that when she married a homesteader, she was "a stranger in a new land, and not very well acclimatized." She had come from London, and she felt terribly cut off from human contact on the farm, particularly after her first child was born in 1929. She says that she always looked forward to neighborhood gatherings, but was inevitably disappointed because the men formed one group and the women another, and all the women wanted to talk about was babies and cooking.
"At the end of two years of marriage I still was not used to the tremendous silences of the farm," she writes. "While my husband was out in the fields, I used to sit in that one bare room feeling those walls were crowding in on me, pressing down to smother me. My mind was suffocating. In that nightmare time I knew I had to find some interest quickly or lose what sanity was left me."
Her only solace at this point became books. She read everything she could find. Most of her books, she says, were borrowed from the Wheat Pool Library and came by mail. As the depression settled in she read more and more on "current problems and international affairs," and gradually began to understand "something of world trends and movements" and to realize that even Saskatchewan was "affected inevitably by these trends." You see what I mean about the vagueness of the language! But it sounds to me she was reading about the collapse of capitalism, and the rise of fascism and its threat to the world, and about the socialist alternative. Certainly by 1937 she was writing to the Western Producer about all of these so-called "trends." By that time she was recommending a number of books and pamphlets to her readers, some of them published by the League against War and Fascism, and others by popular Marxist writers.
There is no doubt in my mind that reading played a very important role in Nielsen's politicization. She had come to Canada an apolitical twenty-four year old, and ten years later she was leading study groups in which people turned to her for answers. In those ten years she had also given birth four times, and had mourned the death of her first son. There is no evidence that she ever attended a party school before 1946. For her political education, she had to rely on books and on the few people she met.
In the same Star Weekly article, Nielsen says she began political activity with the CCF in 1935, and went on speaking tours where she "began meeting people motivated by similar interests." Indeed the CCF files show that Nielsen and her husband Peter were among the few paid of up CCF members in their constituency from 1934 on. But there is another vague phrase - "people with similar interests." What does she mean? Well, two of those interests, it seems, were communism and the popular front.
In 1937 and 1938 Nielsen wrote a number of letters that appeared in the Western Producer almost monthly. Previously, she had written only one letter to the Producer, published in December 1935, under her own name, and in support of the CCF. In 1937 she began writing under a pseudonym, as did many others. In these letters her point of view is more clearly and precisely expressed that in the later Star Weekly article. In one of her early letters Nielsen urged women to clear the cobwebs from their minds and "study the USSR where over one sixth of the world's people are busy constructing a new society," while in Germany women were being excluded from higher education and relegated to the kitchen. In another she maintained that "the communists alone, because of their analysis of the cause, can supply us with the solution to our present difficulties. They are the real comrades and helpers of the destitute, proving by their actions their real love of humanity."
In yet another, she wrote: "May I ask why Mary Jane goes to Russia for pictures of starving children? What about Spain? What about every country governed by capitalists? . Why right here in northern Saskatchewan I could show you some starving children. Perhaps not hungry, but children who have lived through a very hard winter on the most unappetizing unvaried diet, who have suffered epidemics of infectious diseases one after the other, and whose little wasted forms certainly show it."
It would seem then, that by 1937, Nielsen's sympathies were entirely with the Communists. Still she maintained, in yet another letter, that she was still a CCF member who was bent on building a united front. "I'm still a church-goer and a member of the CCF," she wrote, "but I am willing to join hands with all those who mean business."
For me, the Western Producer letters provided clear evidence that by 1937 Nielsen had turned to Communism because it made sense to her both internationally and locally. It seemed that she was maintaining her CCF membership in order to help build a united front from within the CCF.
So far, no one in the CCF had cottoned to Nielsen's true sympathies, or if they had, they didn't view them as an obstacle. She was elected to the CCF Provincial Council for 1937 and 1938, and she seems to have had the respect of the provincial leader, George Williams right up until her election. In 1939, the local CCF executive, of which she was a member, was ordered disbanded because it supported a united front campaign. Nevertheless, just month before her election in 1940, Williams proposed that in return for her support for the CCF in Ottawa and in the next provincial election, he would declare his support for her election. He had had bad experience with other unity candidates he said, but he considered Nielsen a true socialist.
Other historians have noted that the popular front policy was supported by a number of CCF'ers, but was blocked at the top by the determination of Woodsworth and M.J. Coldwell who want no alliances with the Communists in any way. Support for a united front was strong at Saskatchewan CCF provincial conventions in both 1936 and 1937. The CCF had elected only five members in the 1934 provincial election, and in the federal election the following year, it had returned only two. Many CCF'ers were already looking to the next provincial election and hoping to form local coalitions with other progressives (including both the CP and Social Credit - more interested in SC actually) in order to defeat the Liberals.
I'm going to read you a few paragraphs from my book that describe the 1936 CCF convention in Regina:
In July 1936, on the eve of the CCF provincial convention, Tim Buck, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), spoke before a large audience in Regina Park.
"We must unite," he urged. "We must present a untied front, first to drive the liberals and Conservatives together, and then to drive them into the garbage can of history."
The day after Buck's speech in Regina Park, the united front issue was fought out on the floor of the CCF convention. The party's national leader, J.S. Woodsworth, wanted nothing to do with the communists. He viewed them as thoroughly unreliable and devious. One day they denounced the CCF and the next day they wanted to join them! "We cannot have Soviet methods here," he told the convention. "We cannot cooperate with the Communist Party which believes in dictatorship."
But the Saskatchewan branch of the CCF did not agree. Woodsworth was followed by delegate after delegate who pointed out that he did not understand the situation facing the province. Even the provincial leader, George Williams, stood against his leader. "Whether we like it or not," he said, "the people of this province are demanding unity. How can we ignore the demand of our members?"7 After years of drought and declining wheat prices, delegates were not content to build their organization slowly. They wanted their voices heard in Regina and in Ottawa, and they didn't want to wait. Uniting the left was the only way.
At the end of the debate, the delegates voted overwhelmingly (306 to 8) for a resolution requesting the provincial organization "to call upon all progressive organizations to unite on the immediate issues that are facing the people of Saskatchewan." Tim Buck had not gained the formal coalition with the CCF that he had sought, but he hadn't lost the battle, either. The convention vote showed how keen CCF members were on working alongside communists and the Social Credit, and, essentially, they had been given free reign to do so. (A similar resolution was passed by the provincial convention in 1937.)
From 1937 on there is documentary evidence that Dorise Nielsen and her close friend and political ally, Robert Paul, were working hard in their provincial constituency of Meadow Lake to build a local coalition of progressives under the CCF banner, and they believed they had full support from the leadership of the CCF. However, they ran into two major obstacles in the 1938 provincial election. First of all, the Social Credit Party refused to cooperate, and secondly, the provincial CCF vetoed their chosen candidate because he was a known Communist. The man's name was Wass Turple and he was very popular in the district. The kerfuffle over his nomination, played out in a series of letters in the CCF files, makes very interesting reading. George Williams, provincial CCF leader, wrote a courteous letter to Turple, asking him to resign from the Communist Party so that he could run for the CCF, but Turple refused. There was no way, he wrote, that he could shed his membership "as a snake sheds its skin . I can only conclude that you . fail to understand what the C. P. means to its adherents."
The openness of this exchange and of Turple's own loyalty to the C.P. seems to belie tales of clandestine fractions and "boring from within." The CCF, after all, began as a federation of labour and farm organizations. Turple told Williams that he would be happy to run on a CCF ticket against the Liberals, as long as the Tories didn't come in, and as long as he could remain a member of the Communist Party, too.
But what about Nielsen? Where did she really stand in 1938? I knew she believed in a united front, but so did most of her cohorts in the Saskatchewan CCF. Otherwise, for a long time, my only evidence that her sympathies lay with the Communists, were those letters to the Western Producer. Then, after working on the book for a year or so, I had a great piece of luck.
On my second trip to Saskatchewan, I drove north of Prince Albert to Emma Lake where Nielsen and her children had gone for two short summers holidays during the war. The next day I woke very early after spending an uncomfortable night camping, and set out for Spiritwood, where I planned to looked through several cemeteries with the help of Nielsen's old neighbour, Charlie Szasz. But I was too early that morning, so I sat over breakfast looking at my map of northern Saskatchewan, and I decided I would go to Canwood first. It was just a little out of my way, and it was the place where Nielsen had spent a week when she first came to Canada in 1927. Canwood was as far as the train could take her, and she waited there for someone to fetch her with a sleigh. I was rather desperate for photos and I thought perhaps the old hotel might still be standing.
Well, there was a building in Canwood that looked like an old hotel, but I wasn't sure, so I went into the cafe and approached a table of old fellows having their morning coffee. And that is how I met Willard Block. "I knew her," he told me. "I put up a hundred signs in her election campaign." Willard was 93 when I met him, and he wasn't a man to shilly-shally around. He told me about belonging to a study group run by Dorise Nielsen and Bob Paul. "Not many in the study group joined the Communist Party," he told me. And those that joined didn't want it generally known. But he certainly knew that Dorise was a CP member before her election, and so was he. It was important, he told me, to keep her membership secret on account of the Catholics. Several Catholic priests in the area supported the United Progressives - something they could not have done if Nielsen's membership had been known.
The study group Willard Block described to me consisted of seven or eight families who lived close enough to each other to come together on Wednesday evenings for over a year in 1937 and 1938. They called themselves a CCF study club, and their meetings were mentioned in the local weekly paper. The group formed a core of progressive people who managed to elect one of their members to the local school board and another as municipal reeve (Bill Polaski and Lee Wakefield, respectively) and, of course, another member the MP for North Battleford. The group, it seems was a true popular front group of Communists and democratic socialists, who came together for action as well as study. Many years later, Nielsen would mention that in her Saskatchewan days she had been part of "a little experiment in democracy" and say it was something "the Toronto bigwigs" could have learned from. I not sure if she was referring to her small but active group of local supporters, or to the United Progressive campaign which began in the fall of 1938.
After working for two years to unite the left under the CCF banner, Nielsen and Paul gave up that battle in the wake of the provincial election of 1938. The plan was to form a local coalition of Social Credit, Communists and CCF to fight the next federal election in the North Battleford federal constituency. (It was expected that the election would be called in 1939.) From what I could tell those who climbed on the United Progressive band wagon didn't really see much difference between the CP and the CCF, or even the Social Credit, for that matter, but they were tired of losing elections and they wanted results. When the United Progressives formed in the fall of 1938, their convention was attended by members of all three parties, including the Social Credit MP for the neighbouring constituency of the Battlefords.
For many United Progressive supporters like Willard Block, politics was a new and thoroughly engaging activity (no democratic deficit then). "In the early thirties," he told me, "I was so green I didn't even know what socialism meant." Later he believed that the CCF was watering it down, so he opted for the CP. Another United Progressive supporter I spoke to said she didn't know Nielsen was a Communist at the time but it really wouldn't have made any difference to her. "The label doesn't matter," she said. "It's what's in the bottle that counts."
What was in the bottle was a program of reform that resembled that of the CCF's, and leaders who were able to win the confidence of the majority. On the United Progressive platform, the first and most detailed plank concerned wheat prices and wheat marketing. Like the CCF, the UP also proposed a wide spectrum of social services from unemployment insurance to improved health services, and advocated "the socialization of those industries which are essential to a national planned economy." It endorsed the Social Credit's emphasis on gearing credit and currency to "people's needs," and supported a referendum should wartime conscription became necessary.
The naiveté of the hopes of these people is quite remarkable. Somehow they thought electing one representative to Parliament could make all the difference. One of Nielsen's supporters wrote her a year after her election, warning her to curb her defence of the Communist internees, or she herself would end up in an internment camp. "If we lose you we lose all," he wrote. "You are the one and only person who can put our program across."
Not everyone in the local CCF supported the UP campaign. There are several letters of protest in the CCF files, saying essentially, that the Communists were behind the campaign. Of course, this was true. But when the provincial CCF tried to find a straight CCF candidate to run in the federal election, they were stone-walled. Crowds came to meetings and shouted down George Williams himself. Two of his emissaries who travelled north investigate found themselves shunned and had to spend the night at the home of Wass Turple, the only person willing to offer them hospitality.
Thus it was, due to the popular front policy designed for Europe, the Communist Party of Canada harnessed the energy of a disaffected population in northern Saskatchewan, and elected its first MP to the House of Commons.