Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

TIM BUCK, TOO (continued)

The jury found Smith not guilty. An editorial in the Toronto Herald reflected the views of many observers: “The rev. gentleman is no friend of ours — not even an acquaintance, and he seems to harbour a lot of views on life and its problems which we entirely disagree with ... . But we are glad the jury squelched the proposal to send him to jail for venturing to air his opinions. If we are going to send every man to the pen who holds views contrary to our own or who ventures to severely criticize the government in power, we will have to build bigger and better jails to hold them all.”

Shortly thereafter, an embarrassed Hugh Guthrie, Minister of Justice, admitted in the House of Commons that shots had in fact been fired into Buck’s cell — but just “to frighten him.” Within months, the seven remaining Communists (the one had by then been deported) were released. They’d served barely half their terms. The last to be freed, in November 1934, was Tim Buck.

Thus began his one brief, heady period as a popular hero. The train bringing him from Kingston was greeted at Union Station in Toronto by 7,000 men and women who, according to the Toronto Star , “wept, cheered and sang as he was carried in triumph through the crowd.” A few days later, Buck addressed a crowd of 17,000 at Maple Leaf Gardens; 8,000 others were turned away. He began a cross-country speaking tour. Newspaper photographs show him standing on cars, speaking to the curious and enthusiastic crowds that had come to greet his train.

Buck had been jailed because of his political beliefs. An attempt had been made to kill him while in prison. What he’d been saying about the need for radical reform in the face of the Depression was being borne out. Protest parties were springing up everywhere — the CCF, the Social Credit, the Union Nationale, the Reconstruction Party. Within months of his release, the Conservatives had been defeated; R. B. Bennett fled the country. Mackenzie King’s Liberals repealed Section 98 and eventually brought in unemployment insurance.

People’s momentary sympathy for Buck and the Communists didn’t translate into votes. Their sympathy, I suspect, had far more to do with a sense of fair play. The only time Buck himself came close to being elected to office was a 1939 bid for election as a city controller in Toronto. His endorsement of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact several months later changed things forever. His days as a popular figure were over.

One of the many ironies of this story is that another famous Red, “Red” Ryan, formerly one of Canada’s most wanted men, was serving a life sentence at Kingston when the eight Communists arrived there. Ryan had been working for some time at impressing prison authorities with how much he’d changed since he’d been returned to Kingston in 1923. He’d become altar boy to Wilfred Kingsley, the Roman Catholic prison chaplain, a priest at the appropriately named Church of the Good Thief. When the prison riot broke out, Ryan helped to quell it, denounced the Communists for fomenting it, and asked to be paroled. (A 1938 Royal Commission into Canada’s penal system officially exonerated Buck. Yes, he’d participated in prison demonstrations. But he had not fomented the riot; he’d urged the men not to riot.)

In the summer of 1935, Ryan was released. Even R. B. Bennett had visited Kingston to see for himself the remarkable transformation that had taken place in the former criminal. Ryan produced a series of articles for the Toronto Star on the theme: Crime doesn’t pay. His articles had an anti-Communist, pro-capitalist, subtext. Tom McEwen, one of the eight who were jailed, writes in his autobiography, The Forge Glows Red , that when he and Buck ran into Ryan in Toronto shortly after his release, he asked them to “forgive him for all this newspaper ‘bull.’ ‘You boys know how it is,’” he reportedly told them. Then, good free enterpriser that he was, Ryan went back to what he was best at — robbing banks. The embarrassed authorities discovered that almost a year later when Ryan was killed in a shoot-out at a hold-up in Sarnia.

Much of my generation, born at the end of the Depression, regarded Buck as a comic figure. I wrote a skit in high school in the 1950s about “Tim Buck, Too,” making fun of his kneejerk acceptance of Moscow’s line on everything from Molotov-Ribbentrop in 1939 to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Like my Canadian film students on the subject of October 1970, I was unaware of what had happened in Canada twenty years before. All of us knew, of course, what Joe McCarthy had done in the U.S., but we were oblivious to the fact that Canada had been the first English-speaking country in the world to declare its Communist Party an unlawful organization and to jail its leaders.

The Canadian Forum, December 1991

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