Praxis Corporation was an anti-poverty research institute based in Toronto in the 1960s and 1970s. Journalist Paul Weinberg first wrote about Praxis in an article for The Monitor, a magazine published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The article grew into a book, When Poverty Mattered: Then and Now, about Praxis’s activities and right-wing resistance to it. Meg Borthwick recently sat down with Weinberg to discuss the book and the anti-poverty movement today.
Meg Borthwick: When did it occur to you that there was a book in this story?
Paul Weinberg: Actually this was a long time ago. It was a 10-year project. This is a curious story about Toronto in the 1960s and I became maybe obsessed about it.
The issue of poverty regained ascendance in the mid-’60s in Canada, when Lester B. Pearson was prime minister. There were lots of jobs and Canada’s economy was still enjoying the postwar boom. Why did poverty gain political traction at a time when Canada was prosperous?
I think poverty was a bit of a shock to people at that time. It all began in the U.S. with Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. There were gross racial inequalities in the cities and poverty in rural areas among white Americans. The Pearson government was undertaking an expansion of the welfare state. During the 1965 election there was talk of a war on poverty in Canada. It was all part of a political strategy.
You mention that the Pearson government was the architect of Canada’s first comprehensive social safety net but Pearson’s successor, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who certainly sounded more progressive, at least while campaigning, was relatively indifferent to issues of poverty. Why do you suppose that is?
You have to look at the beginning of the Just Society, which was concerned with criminal code reform. Issues like abortion were just beginning to be tackled, and also homosexuality, birth control, you know all these things about the state and the bedrooms of the nation. Trudeau was less inclined to think about poverty.
The Praxis Corporation was conceived right around the time of Trudeau’s election. How did they come together and what did they see as their mandate?
The founders were two professors at the University of Toronto. Stephen Clarkson, he was actually married to Adrienne Clarkson at the time. It was a rather tumultuous marriage and they later broke up. He was kind of on the left but also the Liberal party. The other was Abraham Rotstein, also on the left and he wrote for the Canadian Forum.
So the two of them thought there was something wrong with political debate in Canada, on the level of intellectual engagement. Rotstein was also concerned about poverty and the lack of debate or even research going on in universities … They wanted to shake things up and Praxis was designed to shake things up.
The RCMP Security Service — the precursor to CSIS — started spying on Praxis around 1969. What was it about a small, relatively new research institute that put them on their radar?
I think that the Security Service were kind of obsessed with the left and communism. And they saw the U of T as the centre of this kind of activity. The Security Service was watching it closely. I have a memo that talks about it, that these professors were in a position to influence government policy, that they were close to the Eastern Bloc. So there’s an element of paranoia here.
Judging by some of the internal memos and reports you accessed, the Security Service didn’t, by and large, have a very nuanced understanding of what Praxis was and what their goals were.
That’s right. Praxis was a small organization but they had great ambitions. But they scaled back on their ambitions and focused on their poverty project and the workers’ control project. Stephen Clarkson had a lot of ideas of what to do, but he was also politically ambitious.
So the Security Service was basically hampered by a Cold-War mentality and not just recruiting from the less talented end of the gene pool?
Yes that’s right, a Cold-War mentality. There were two blocs — communism and the free world. There was no nuance where you could reject both of them, you could be a social democrat or whatever. Canada was a little more liberal then. Even the Conservative party was more of a Red Tory party in those days. We think of those days as being conservative, but Canada was more liberal than the U.S.
[Praxis] was a small organization but it managed to get a lot of contracts with the federal government and it built up relationships with anti-poverty groups very quickly. The federal government, particularly health and welfare, found Praxis’ expertise really valuable. [They] actually gave Praxis money to organize a national poor people’s conference. So Praxis’ reputation grew very quickly largely because of the academics involved. It became known as an interesting place to do research on poverty.
So did the Security Service start spying on people in government because they were funding Praxis?
I think they were looking at Leonard Shifrin who was head of the National Welfare Council. He was running for the Liberals and he was very excited by what was going on in the United States. He was a big name, newspapers would interview him on the state of poverty in Canada. I think the RCMP was very concerned about him. I have a memo where they wanted to besmirch his reputation after the Poor People’s Conference. Something about the spending of money, a small thing but nothing came of it. He kind of distanced himself from the Liberal party after that.
Praxis had offices in a house on Huron Street, just north of the University of Toronto campus. In 1970 they were broken into, files were stolen and their building set on fire. Who were the players behind that and was anyone ever held accountable?
Most of the suspicion was on the Edmund Burke Society. There are people who believe that the RCMP did the break in and the fire but most people agree that it was the Edmund Burke Society, a motley group of extreme right-wingers who were pro-Vietnam war…They became much more extreme, were anti-immigrant and eventually developed into the much more violent Western Guard. There were two or three who were involved in the break-in and I interviewed a former member of the Edmund Burke Society who is retired now. He was a former city hall employee and he identified one of the burglars.
I spoke to the journalist Peter Worthington and he said the police just weren’t interested in following up on the burglary. And the burglars provided the RCMP with some valuable information on the new left and Praxis was viewed as a source of information on these potential subversives. Either the RCMP organized the break-in or the Edmund Burkers were freelancers who handed over information from Praxis. That’s a bit of a debate. They handed over files to the RCMP who hung onto stolen property for six years without telling anyone they had it.
I spoke to one award-winning journalist who is absolutely convinced that it was the RCMP. The Burkers were too small and erratic — there were some really crazy people in it. The RCMP vehemently deny any involvement in the break in, but who knows? We can’t be sure, but certainly a blind eye was turned to the case and there was no willingness to solve it.
In what ways does poverty matter less now than it did in the 1960s and 1970s? The economy is much less stable now, so much of the work out there is precarious and low wage.
Poverty is so much worse, there is more homelessness. Homelessness was not much discussed in the 1960s and early ’70s. There was a lack of shelters for women fleeing domestic abuse. It was a much different situation. There was a group, Put Food in the Budget, a group of women on social assistance, but they shut down, I think they got burnt out. The federal government has crowed about reducing the poverty rate because of the child tax benefit but the issue of poverty wasn’t raised during the  election. Anti-poverty groups are much more fragmented.
You can’t really say there is a movement today. There definitely was in the 1960s and 1970s. There were about 200 groups that identified as working on poverty issues across the country, according to an internal government report. I don’t there are that many now.
Meg Borthwick has been a journalist in broadcast, print and online media for more than 30 years. She moderates rabble’s political discussion forum, babble. You can read an excerpt from When Poverty Mattered here.
Author image: Jeff Hayward. Background image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Editor’s note March 27, 2020: An earlier version of this article misspelled Abraham Rotstein’s last name. It is Rotstein, not Rothstein. The earlier version also stated that Weinberg first wrote about Praxis for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The article has been updated to add that Weinberg first wrote about Praxis for The Monitor, a magazine run by the CCPA.