Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

TIM BUCK, TOO (continued)

The Communists were found guilty as charged. Before sentencing them, the judge asked Buck if there was anything he wanted to say. Buck responded simply, sounding as if the world he believed in was just around the corner: “Your Lordship, I have done what I have done because of my convictions, and for nothing else ... . I have been tried and found guilty in this court. I hope you will not think it bravado if I say that I will not be found wanting by the organizations and the workers that I have tried to represent. I will try to take whatever sentence you give me in the same spirit I have tried to do the work I have done.”

In October 1932, just months after their arrival, a major prison riot broke out at Kingston Penitentiary. During the riot, an attempt was made on Buck’s life by two guards who fired eight shots into his locked cell. The authorities denied that anyone had attempted to murder Buck and blamed him and the other Communists in Kingston for having fomented the riot.

The attempt on Buck’s life and the events that preceded it became the basis of a godawful propaganda play, Eight Men Speak, written by a committee. It had its first — and only — performance at Toronto’s Standard Theatre on December 4, 1933. The play was closed not by its producers, The Toronto Progressive Arts Club, but by the police. They threatened to cancel the theatre’s licence if it were performed again. In Winnipeg, a theatre licence was revoked in order to prevent the play’s being presented there.

Eight Men Speak argued that the Communists in Kingston were political prisoners not criminals, that the government was not only murdering workers at places like Estevan Saskatchewan but that it had attempted to murder Buck. Eight Men Speak is entirely lacking in subtlety. For instance, a guard accused of shooting at Buck is defended by a legal firm called Capitalism, Capitalism, Capitalism and Exploitation. But when the police banned Eight Men Speak, declaring that it was “distasteful,” it wasn’t the play’s literary merit they had in mind. The Communists were clearly getting under the skin of the establishment.

A month later, in January 1934, the Progressive Arts Club organized a meeting to protest the closing of the play. The main speaker was the Rev. A. E. Smith, a man who’d abandoned the pulpit following the Winnipeg General Strike to work on the left. He was now a member of the CPC. Smith described how a delegation he’d led had brought a petition signed by 459,000 Canadians to R.B. Bennett in Ottawa in November 1933. They’d called on the government to repeal Section 98 (under which the Communists had been convicted) and to investigate the attempted shooting of Buck. According to Smith, Bennett, “frenzied with rage,” had thrown them out of his office. That’s when they decided to organize the production of Eight Men Speak. Smith went on to describe the banning of the play and the attempt that had been made on Buck’s life. Two weeks later, A.E. Smith was charged with sedition, accused of intentionally “spreading discontent, hatred and distrust of the government.” Police quoted Smith as saying that Bennett had personally ordered Buck’s shooting.

At another rally, this time in a packed Massey Hall, Smith asked why politicians like Mitch Hepburn, a Liberal and Premier of Ontario, weren’t also being charged with sedition. Hadn’t Hepburn also sought “to create disaffection” against R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government through some of his public statements? I am charged,” declared Smith, “because Bennett is in an unstable position.” Public sympathy for Smith was mounting. When his lawyer was given only two weeks to prepare his case after asking for two months, even the ultra conservative Toronto Telegram questioned the fairness of what was happening. Smith was given a further boost when E. J. McMurray, who’d been Solicitor General in Mackenzie King’s government, offered to take on the case.

McMurray demanded that Tim Buck be brought from Kingston as a witness at Smith’s trial. That would help determine if there had been “an error in the administration of justice,” an error Smith had been attempting to redress. To everyone’s surprise, McMurray’s request was granted. The trial gained still more publicity when Leo Gallagher joined the defence team. Gallagher was a lawyer who had gained an international reputation by defending the Communist who had been accused by the Nazis of starting the Reichstag fire.

The trial of A.E. Smith began in March 1934. Buck appeared in court long enough to state that he had been shot at. His statement was disallowed but there’s little doubt that it affected the proceedings. Defence witnesses contradicted police reports of what had been said at the rally. The defence then proceeded to demonstrate that even professional stenographers couldn’t produce the kind of verbatim transcript of Smith’s remarks that the police had offered the court as evidence. In closing, McMurray argued that Smith had been the victim of a political trial; he compared the process to the Spanish Inquisition.

Tim Buck, Too, continued > 


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