Sunday, April 24, 2011

Crushing Mr. Communism

Tim Buck celebrated by a crowd
Things weren't going so great for R.B. Bennett. He'd become Prime Minister, but at the worst possible time: in 1930, just as the Great Depression was hitting its stride. And his policies were not working. He was crazy-rich, a die-hard Conservative, pro-big business and pro-big banks. He hated social programs, welfare and the whole idea of government intervention, so he stubbornly refused to implement the kind of massive government works projects that were going to save President Roosevelt south of the border. People were getting angry. They were looking for new alternatives. And for a growing number of people, that meant the Communist Party of Canada.

They were led by Tim Buck. "Mr. Communism" was an Englishman-turned-Torontonian, who lived a few blocks from Dundas and Dufferin, for decades the most famous and powerful Communist in the country. He'd become General Secretary of the party just a couple of years earlier thanks to his staunch support for the mass-murdering crazed lunatic of a Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But Buck wasn't exactly the imposing dictatorial type himself. He was a short, unassuming man. People tend to compare him to a shoe salesman. And the policies he proposed weren't the kind of revolutionary call to arms you might expect. He wanted a minimum wage. Unemployment insurance. A 7 hour work day.

But that was still too much as far as Prime Minster Bennett was concerned. When the Communists organized protests, he had the police break them up with beatings and arrests. In a speech in Toronto, he called on every Canadian to "put the iron heel of ruthlessness" to them. And in 1931, he went further still: a raid of Communist Party offices intended to "strike a death blow" to the organization. Eight party members, Buck included, were arrested under the Orwellian, anti-union "Section 98" of the Canadian Criminal Code. They were charged with sedition. Convicted. And sentenced to hard labour. Years before the McCarthy trials and blacklisting in the States, Canada was pioneering a new level of anti-democratic, Red Scare bullshit.

Tim Buck's mugshot, 1931
And the Conservatives still weren't done. A couple of years into Buck's sentence, a riot broke out at the prison in Kingston. In the confusion, Buck's guards seized their opportunity: they fired shots into his cell. One bullet whizzed past his neck. Another grazed his hair. Later, Bennett's Minister of Justice would admit the attack was deliberate and defend it, claiming the whole thing was just meant "to frighten him".

People were outraged. There were massive protests. A petition demanding Buck's release gathered nearly half a million signatures. There was even a play written about it — the police (surprise!) shut it down before it opened. Eventually, the pressure was too much. Bennett was forced to back down. And Buck was suddenly released.

Just a few hours later, when he arrived at Union Station, there was already a huge, cheering crowd waiting to meet him. They lifted him up onto their shoulders and paraded down Front Street chanting his name. Women fainted. Children cried. A few days later, when he spoke at Maple Leaf Gardens, twenty five thousand people showed up. Thousands were turned away at the door.

The battle wasn't over. There would be more protests, more beatings and arrests. When workers marched across Canada, from B.C. to Ottawa, they were met by the mounties in Regina; two protesters were killed. But Bennett was on his last legs. Another election loomed. And this time, he would be absolutely destroyed at the polls. The Conservatives lost nearly 100 seats and 20% of the popular vote. There wouldn't be another Conservative government in Canada for the next 25 years. And once Mackenzie King's Liberals were back in power, they repealed "Section 98", brought in a minimum wage, introduced unemployment insurance, and guaranteed a shorter workday. Bennett, meanwhile, gave up on Canada entirely. He left for England, where he would be appointed to the House of Lords and made a Viscount. He is the only Prime Minister in the history of our country to be buried on foreign soil.

For his part, Tim Buck would lead the Communist Party for another 30 years, but his popularity would come and go. Canadians were willing to stand up for his rights, but not so much to vote for him. The closest he came to getting elected was just a few years after his arrest — in an election for Toronto City Council. With the start of the Second World War, his party would find itself outlawed all over again. And then, when Stalin came in on our side, they were heroes again. And then, during the Cold War, they were hated again. Some years, party members were being arrested as spies. Others, Buck was appearing on stage with the Prime Minister and even Eaton's was preparing window displays in tribute to the glory of Joseph Stalin. But gradually, as Soviet crimes were made clear and the superpower eventually disintegrated, most of the party's support ebbed away. In the last couple of elections, it's been lower than ever, just over three thousand votes.


During the last election, I interviewed both the Communist Party of Canada and the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) for a series of profiles on our federal fringe parties over at the Little Red Umbrella. You can check them all out here.

You can learn more about Buck's triumphant return to Toronto after his imprisonment in this post from Kevin Plummer over at Torontoist. There are more articles about him here and here and here. And the CBC archives have a video about a speaking tour of Canada Buck did in the '60s here.

Eaton's window display during WWII

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