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J. S. Woodsworth and the CCF's tribute to democracy

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James Shaver Woodsworth, Methodist minister and politician. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-55449.

Stephen Harper has celebrated the first anniversary of his majority by reminding Canadians of the moral tone he offers his country.

A week ago, Mr. Harper announced Canada would examine "all options" as the 2014 deadline for pulling our troops out of Afghanistan approached. Since Parliament had voted unanimously for that deadline and for no other options, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked the Prime Minister when Canadian troops would actually be brought home.

Instead of responding to a reasonable question, Mr. Harper chose to play what an Ottawa Citizen reporter called "the Hitler card" (also handy in describing the menace of tax increases on the rich, as we saw last week). "Unlike the NDP," the Prime Minister stated, "we are not going to ideologically have a position regardless of circumstances. The leader of the NDP, in 1939, did not even want to support war against Hitler."

This was a rather brazen gambit from the ideologue who, as opposition leader in 2003, vociferously demanded the Chrétien government back George Bush's war against Iraq. The Prime Minister's strange tactic also brought back memories of him smearing Jack Layton for advocating negotiations with the Taliban, a position soon adopted almost everywhere. "Taliban Jack" was low enough. Hitler takes us to new depths.

The next day, two more MPs, both a low-profile Conservative backbencher and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, parroted the new party line almost word for word. This Foreign Affairs Minister simply won't grasp that his responsibilities demand he be above the fray, not in the middle of it. "The NDP do not support sending troops abroad for anything," Mr. Baird stated. "Let us look at what the former leader of the NDP-CCF said. 'I would ask whether we are to risk the lives of our Canadian sons to prevent the actions of Hitler.' It was the former leader of the NDP-CCF, J.S. Woodsworth, who said that."

So few words, so much distortion. I try to conjure up the process by which the Prime Minster's Office decided on this scurrilous attack. Did some zealous young Conservative researcher just happen upon that 1939 vote? How did the Harper communications team decide this shabby riposte would resonate 74 years after the event to which it refers? Who in the world -- or who even among the precious Conservative base -- would have a clue what it might mean? Who knows? Whatever the thinking, it was deliberately chosen to be the government attack of the day.

The real story happens to be one of the most moving and dramatic in Canadian history, a tribute to our democracy and to the House of Commons as it once was. Just for the record, for those who'd rather not invent their reality, Mr. Baird's claim that "the NDP do not support sending troops abroad for anything" is completely false, as even the most cursory check of the record shows. The CCF, the NDP's predecessor, in fact supported Canada's declaration of war against Nazi Germany in 1939, and when a volunteer army controversially gave way to conscription, the CCF supported that as well.

The back-story is a fascinating if, until now, largely forgotten slice of Canadiana. J.S. Woodsworth was a Methodist minister who was elected as an independent member of Parliament from Winnipeg in 1921, having been active on labour's side in the historic 1919 Winnipeg general strike. Despite his obvious idealism -- his biographer, Kenneth McNaught, called him A Prophet in Politics -- he was determined to make a tangible difference, and in 1926 agreed to sustain Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's minority government in return for the introduction of old-age pensions. Mr. Woodsworth thereby set the foundations for this country's welfare state -- a monumental contribution to a better Canada.

When the socialist CCF party/movement was formed in 1933, in the heart of the Great Depression, Mr. Woodsworth became leader. Soon economic issues in Canada were being overtaken by the looming prospect of war in Europe. For his entire life Mr. Woodsworth had been a Christian socialist pacifist who believed all wars were the immoral product of capitalism and that war only begat misery and more war. Given the two wars he had himself lived through -- the Boer War and the First World War -- these were not unreasonable propositions. But as the march to war against fascism grew ever more inexorable, Mr. Woodsworth and his party slowly but steadily moved apart.

Hitler had to be defeated, and to this end pacifism had no contribution to make. After long, anguished debates, the leader failed to bring either the CCF's national council or his caucus with him. In September of 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war against Germany. Mackenzie King summoned the House of Commons to follow suit on behalf of Canada. In a riveting parliamentary moment, the CCF allowed its leader -- ill, failing, demoralized -- to present his lonely call for Canadian neutrality. But it was his heir-apparent and by then de facto CCF leader M. J. Coldwell who offered the party's official and, with but one exception, unanimous support for the prime minister's motion of war.

Repeating that war settles nothing, Mr. Woodsworth declared: "I rejoice that it is possible to say these things in a Canadian Parliament under British institutions. It would not be possible in Germany, I recognize that ... and I want to maintain the very essence of our British institutions of real liberty. I believe that the only way to do it is by an appeal to the moral forces which are still resident among our people, and not by another resort to brute force."

He alone rose to record his opposition to the declaration of war.

In the words of Tommy Douglas's biographers Thomas and Ian McLeod: "This event is considered by many to be one of the finest moments in the history of the Canadian Parliament. Even as every other member of the House of Commons voted to declare war, Mr. Woodsworth was recognized for his courageous ethical stand and his commitment to his principles."

Through two decades as independent MP and then as leader of the small CCF parliamentary rump, no one challenged the King government more profoundly than J. S. Woodsworth, constantly seeking the better angels of Mackenzie King's nature. In the end, addressing his own historic motion for war, the prime minister said:

"There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament."

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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