ONE MIGHT HAVE anticipated, with all the recent talk of conscience rights, that J.S. Woodsworth would soon enough become a hash tag. But not as the object of a slander. The man who once led the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was nothing if not conscience driven. His lifelong, principled commitments to the Social Gospel, socialism and pacifism were amply rewarded — both by the Methodist church and the nation which he dutifully served — with accusations of sedition, criminal charges, harassment and imprisonment. Whatever one’s politics, one could do worse than to emulate the spine of this man.
It might be a bit awkward and inconvenient for the current Prime Minister to reflect upon the character and fortunes of this Toronto-born Methodist preacher, whose prairie- and farmer-based grassroots agitation successfully disturbed the comfortable arrogance of Ottawa. When Woodsworth opposed Canada’s participation in World War II, he put himself in opposition not only of the ruling party but also of his CCF colleagues and the members of what is now commonly referred to as the political base. For this he earned the respect of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who detected in Woodsworth the stamp of an authentic, principle-based, no BS politician. In the Ottawa of King’s day, as in the Ottawa of my own, these folk sometimes seem as common as lemon trees.
It’s true that Woodsworth opposed intervention not only in the case of fascism and industrialized ethnic cleansing, but in all instances of European wars and indeed in all wars generally. Opposition to Canada’s war role in Europe had been a common enough view (not that this makes it any more defensible) in the first World War, and had an extraordinarily complex context. Quebec opposed what they saw as the “blood tax” extracted in defence of England and anglophone supremacy. On-again, off-again independence movements, such as occurred in the Maritimes, also fed into anti-war sentiment. The assumption of England, that once war was declared the commonwealth countries would fall into line as a matter of course, offended many firm supporters of the war, and substantiated the position of critics that England had become not only an imperial power but an imperious one as well.
Even if Woodsworth was wrong about the character and necessity of this fight — and I think he was — history has proved him right about the deeper rot of early 20th century capitalism. In the wars into which Woodsworth did involve himself, he achieved significant victories. Playing the now-familiar CCF-NDP role of kingmaker, Woodsworth compelled the grudging Liberals to enact an old age pension legislation. As a Methodist minister and as holdout federal Progressive party minister of the Ginger Group, he agitated for better wages and working conditions and for specific policy innovations like unemployment insurance. Today Canadians absorb these and many other similar facts of life, for which Woodsworth battled and for which he received precisely the sort of unwarranted slander delivered by Mr. Harper, in the bland and unreflecting manner that one absorbs the weather. And yet, Woodsworth saw himself as fighting another Hitler of a kind, “the great social and moral wrongs that inevitably lead to disaster.” In this war, too, there were sacrifices and casualties and hefty prices paid, and due acknowledgement of this should be rendered to the veterans.
The irony of Woodsworth’s efforts is that without meaning to he participated in the rescuing of a capitalist system he wished to overthrow — by peaceful, legislative means, not by violence. He furthermore invigorated the party system he hoped to abolish. In the first case, the mainstream parties soon enough realized they could steal bits of the CCF (and later the NDP) platform and press them into the service of an economic system whose credibility had fallen upon the inconvenience of two wars and a Depression. In both the United States and Canada, the post-war reforms which established the welfare state involved an essentially conservative effort to undermine the growing challenge of Marxism and social democracy. In the second case, Woodsworth’s idea of proportional representation and the rendering of federal cabinets as non-partisan committees of the whole, drawn from the general pool of the House of Commons, lost urgency as marginalized groups began to have a voice in Parliament. The introduction of the CCF-NDP to federal politics made Ottawa just tolerable enough for business to continue, along modified rather than radically altered lines. In other words, just the sort of arrangement most Canadians prefer.