Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

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ach year I show the students in my Canadian film class Michel Brault’s remarkable 1974 film, Les ordres, a film all too few Canadians have seen. Les ordres dramatizes what it was like to be one of the 450 political prisoners jailed as a result of Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in October 1970. And each year, the students are incredulous. How can it be, they ask, that such a thing could happen in Canada? How could it have happened and they not know about it?

Of course, it’s not just the War Measures Act. Canadians, it sometimes seems, have the shortest memories of any people on earth. It allows us to feel superior to the Americans; we know about the awful things they did under McCarthyism. But how many of us know that sixty years ago this month, in November 1931, years before Joseph McCarthy appeared on the scene, Tim Buck, the former leader of the Communist Party of Canada, and seven of his colleagues, were jailed, not because of anything they’d done — only because of what they believed?

They were charged under a section of the Criminal Code (Section 98), which had been enacted during the First World War; it declared unlawful any association advocating the use of force to change society. As a result of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, Section 98 had been broadened to allow for the arrest of anyone suspected of seditious conspiracy. That, as F. R. Scott pointed out in the Canadian Forum, could mean almost anything. Seven of the eight Communists were sentenced to five years in Kingston penitentiary; the eighth got two years and was then deported.

Buck had become leader of the CPC in 1929 following a purge of its former leaders, who were having increasing difficulty accepting the Moscow line. Buck, on the other hand, had no problem following the party line. Nor did he ever, at least not publicly.

Had it not been for the Depression, the rift between the right and the left wings of the CPC might have split the party. But by the summer of 1929, police surveillance and harassment of Communists was giving way to public beatings — in Queen’s Park in Toronto in the summer of 1929, for example. By 1931, much had changed. More and more Canadians were beginning to listen to what Communists — and anyone else with radical ideas — were saying. Something had to be done to help the millions who were suffering. The CPC offered a simple program: the establishment of non-contributory state run unemployment insurance; a seven hour work day; and a national minimum wage of $25 a week. Petitions in support of these proposals were widely circulated. Communist publications lashed out at R.B. Bennett, the Prime Minister: “Bennett is my shepherd,” read one.“I shall do nothing but want./ He maketh me to lie hungrily in hard, cold, unpleasant places./ He leadeth me forth to beg in the streets, to look for jobs that are not, to listen to optimistic statements that feedeth me not./ He restoreth my doubt in the blessings of capitalism.”

In June 1931, five members of Montreal’s CPC were sentenced to a year of hard labour following their conviction on a charge of sedition. They were guilty of having urged 300 unemployed workers to organize and demand that the authorities relieve their hardship. The meeting was broken up by 150 police.

Two months later, on August 11, 1931, the Communist Party’s offices in Toronto were raided; Buck and seven colleagues were arrested. Although Buck and the CPC had been operating in the open for years, they were now seen as a threat that needed to be suppressed.

The trial took place in November 1931. The crown’s chief witness was John Leopold, a five foot tall RCMP officer, who’d been an undercover member of the CPC from 1921 to 1928, when he’d been expelled. Leopold testified that the Communists planned the overthrow of the existing order through the use of force and that the Communist International, centred in Moscow, had given the CPC $3,000 to help it get started.

Buck argued that there had never been any violence as a result of the activities of the CPC. Whatever violence there had been had been instigated by the authorities. In a closing three-hour speech in his defense he said, “When we are charged with teaching or advocating force or violence, we point out that if the workers are learning anything about ‘force or violence’ these days, they are not learning from us. We do not consider it necessary to teach or advocate the use of ‘force or violence.’ We do not believe that governments, systems of society, or states are overthrown by a conspiracy — but rather by undeniable forces.”

Tim Buck, Too, continued > 


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