James S. Woodsworth — Conscience of Canada

 

The search for peace, equality and social justice was a lifetime effort of James S. Woodsworth (1874-1942), a Methodist minister, social worker, politician.

While observing the grim results of industrial capitalism in Canada and Britain, Woodsworth concluded that his church’s stress upon personal salvation was wrong. At the All People’s Mission in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he worked with immigrant slum dwellers 1904-13, when he wrote extensively on expounding the ‘social gospel’ - a creedless movement calling for the establishment of the Kingdom of God ‘here and now’.

By 1914, he became a supporter of the trade-union collective bargaining and an ardent democratic socialist. He was also a principled pacifist who identified capitalism/imperialism as a factor in promoting war. He was fired from a government social-research position in 1917 for openly opposing conscription.

In 1918 he resigned the ministry in protest against church support of the war. He left the church in opposition to the war, saying ‘I thought as a Christian minister, I was a messenger of the Prince of Peace.’ To support his young family, he joined the longshoremen’s union and worked for a year on the Vancouver docks.

Woodsworth returned to Winnipeg and with zeal organized the Manitoba Independent Party (ILP) where he succeeded in being elected to the House of Commons in 1921 for Winnipeg North Centre, with the slogan ‘Human Needs before Property Rights’. He held this position until his death in 1942.

When the Depression struck, he joined with various labour and socialist groups to found a new party. At Regina in 1933, the new party adopted a democratic socialist manifesto and chose Woodsworth as its leader under the banner of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

Rejecting violent revolution, in the House of Commons, Woodsworth mastered the rules of parliamentary debate and used the public platform of the need for socialism, free speech and pacifism. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he forced the Commons to debate Canada’s military and foreign policy. He led a long assault on military estimates, cadet training, war memorials, and the militia owed much to his understanding of Hobbesian analysis of imperialism and capitalism.

At each session of parliament, Woodsworth called for the replacement of capitalism’s competitive profit motive with public and cooperative ownership of the means of production and distribution. In 1927, Woodsworth was able to persuade the Liberal government to enact an old age pension plan, the cornerstone of Canada’s social security system.

In his focus on the war-peace issue, Woodsworth concluded that capitalism, in league with militarism and imperialism, caused war. His eloquent final statement in parliament was his opposition to Canada joining World War II. In a speech to Parliament, he said in September 1939:

‘I have sons of my own, and I hope they are not cowards. But if any of these boys, not through cowardice but through belief, is willing to take his stand on this matter and if necessary to face a concentration camp or a firing squad, I shall be more proud of that boy than if he had enlisted for the war.’

In response, PM Mackenzie King 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 time again he 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.”

 

By: Koozma J. Tarasoff, anthropologist, ethnographer, historian, writer and peace activist. (kjtarasoff@gmail.com)

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